Bass-baritone Joel Allison: I love to really offer to the audience everything that I possibly can

A soloist since childhood, Joel Allison debut was at the age of twelve years old, as the treble soloist in Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings Symphony. Today this promising Canadian singer of the new generation has been praised for the “beautiful, rich, ringing tone“ (Ludwig Van Toronto) of his bass-baritone voice. J. Allison is working as a recitalist, soloing with all of the prominent Canadian orchestras and as an opera singer, with a repertoire of such roles as “Basilio” in Il Barbiere di Siviglia; “Scahunard” in La Boheme; “Leporello” in Don Giovanni and “Zaretsky” in Eugene Onegin. He was praised for his operatic repertoire performance as having “a beautiful instrument precise in its intonation and articulation, serene and aristocratic”(Natasha Gauthier). Musicologist Ona Jarmalavičiūtė had conducted an interview with Joel Allison about his career path, daily rituals and the situation of opera in his home country Canada.

I wanted to ask you about your Canadian upbringing. Could you describe how the music scene in Canada has formed you?

I was really lucky, I grew up near Ottawa, the capital city; they have many wonderful teachers and a really wonderful history of teaching music very well. I started piano lessons when I was seven and when I was ten years old I joined the Men and Boy’s choir of Christ Church Cathedral Ottawa. That   very traditional British choral training provided me with the foundation of my singing technique and gave me great sight-reading skills

I also had phenomenal private teachers as well who really developed my technique. I also studied the violin and wanted to become a Violinist, not a singer. I was assistant concertmaster in the Ottawa Youth Orchestra and in the end minored in violin during my undergraduate degree at the University of Ottawa.

Ottawa is kind of famous for developing young musicians. The list of famous singers that are working now in Europe and around the world is impressive and there are a lot of instrumentalists that work around North America in various orchestras etc…. So there is a strong music community in Ottawa. A lot of people leave Ottawa because there is not as much work there. There are two orchestras and some chamber music going on, but only so many jobs. Another wonderful thing is that Ottawa has now 2 summer chamber music festivals and it really shaped my knowledge of music. When I was a kid there was only the Ottawa Chamber Music Festival, I would go in the summer to spend the entire days at the festival. I bought a pass and I would go to four or five concerts a day. There was a breakfast/morning performance, the noon performance, the afternoon performance, and evening performance and sometimes there would be a late night performance at 11 pm. I just was able to hear so much music and learn by watching the artists. Those are my training influences from Ottawa.

With regards to the music scene in Canada, it is very diverse I would say. In major city centers –  Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, and Vancouver – there is a lot of things going on at different levels from youth and community productions and concerts to the professional orchestras. Lots of choirs and singing throughout different communities, and then in Toronto and Montreal, there is a very strong opera scene as well.

In Ottawa, there is a really wonderful community of theater at all levels. There are also some small groups that do operas and then the University of Ottawa which does a couple productions every year.

Ottawa has a phenomenal choir community. There are about 100 choirs at various different levels throughout the Ottawa Valley. They have phenomenal choirs and there is every type of choir from youth choirs and community choirs to professional choirs and everything in between. It is quite astounding.

In Toronto, it is a strong community and a lot of events that are going on there. This is the city where I am based now. The opera company does six fully staged opera productions a year, generally with seven or eight performances per production. I know that in Europe that seems like not that many productions, but that is all Toronto really can sustain in a year for the big opera house. They do very well, ninety percent of their shows are filled, so it’s good. But it takes a lot of effort to get that many people there. Funding is a bit of a struggle. Mostly wonderful private donors are making all of it happen. I hear things about the ‘Staats opera Wien’ where they have 99 percent of their house sold every night and there are what – six shows per week? So institutions in Europe are making a lot more opera then we do  in Canada.  So that is the big company in Toronto and we have also a couple of smaller companies that do various different form of opera. We have Opera Atelier which performs primarily baroque and french opera with ballet, but only do 2 productions per year. There is another company called “Against the Grain” and they do a lot of contemporary adaptations of classical operas and then also some new modern operas and makes commissions for contemporary composers. Also, there is a very special scene in Toronto that we call indie operas – the independent opera companies. It’s small and a really phenomenal way for the young singers that are recently out of school to build up experience and it gives also a lot for young directors. Interesting new work is being done there and I would say we have at least ten such companies in Toronto with various different performance venues.

In Montreal, they also have a big opera company and they do seven-six productions a year as well. Now they are starting to make some shorter chamber operas in other venues and this is a part of their yearly program as well. This gives for the younger musicians other opportunities to perform. In Vancouver, their opera company does three or four productions a year.

Vancouver has a couple of really good early music ensembles, some choirs, the wonderful Vancouver symphony orchestra, and a lot of wonderful teachers, but there are not as many performance opportunities for students.

In the middle of Canada, the prairies, you have Saskatoon, Regina, Edmonton, Calgary, and Winnipeg as the major cities for the prairies. They all have symphony orchestras and some also have opera companies. Edmonton and Calgary each do three opera productions a year, Saskatoon does one opera production, and Winnipeg has two opera companies. Manitoba Opera does 2 productions a season, and  the Manitoba Underground Opera company does around 4 smaller productions every year. 

When you go to Europe or Austria, do you see any differences between musical cultures?

I would say that the biggest difference is that here the traditional classical music is a part of everyday life – especially in Salzburg. Everyone here knows and appreciates music. For example, I and my colleges had dinner here and people were noticing that we were singers in the Salzburg Festspiele. If you are anywhere in Toronto, the odds of that happening are close to none. So that is a big difference. Canada has a very big sports culture, so more funding from the government goes towards sports over music and the arts in Canada.  It is harder for Canadian arts organizations to get peope to come to live performances in a Netflix age. The prices for tickets are reasonable and affordable though. Especially for young people – all the orchestras and opera companies for example have done a great job with student pricing and under thirty pricing, etc. But it is expensive to live in those large cities. So a lot of people spend a lot of their income just on day to day expenses. They don’t have that much money to go and see a live performance.

Your voice is your main tool in work. Do you have any routines to nourish it?

Generally, I don’t have that many routines.  Staying hydrated is a big thing for me, on my flight over to Salzburg, I used a Humidiflyer mask which helps prevent one from getting dehydrated and also helps prevent breathing in the germ filled air in the airplane. So when I first got to Salzburg, all I did was drink lots of water to stay hydrated. I get a fair amount of allergies in the summer no matter where I am and so I tried to fix it as naturally as I can, I don’t like using medications. I use a Navage Nasal care machine to clean my sinuses and to prevent post-nasal drip. Post-nasal drip can really cause a lot of vocal problems for me. To acclimatize to a new environment I always look for local organic natural honey that helps me to adjust. I found one in the market here in Salzburg. It was very nice and it helped my body to be more acclimatized and minimized my allergies. Being here for two months, your body needs to adjust to the environment quickly so that you don’t get sick or lose too much sleep.

When I am healthy, I try to stay hydrated and I do my best to get eight hours of sleep or more. I know, it is not always possible, but that is really the big thing for me, honestly.

I also wanted to ask about the baritone voice and the repertoire of it. What roles can a bass-baritone take?

It really depends. For baritone singers, there is a sort of music material. Overgeneralizing there are three types – a baritone with a higher tone voice, the bass-baritone and then the bass. For me, being a young bass-baritone, it is hard to find the right fitting roles. There are all sorts of roles that fit me very well and there are are some roles which I can sing, but are not necessarily the right choice for a young  bass-baritone. One of the traps that I have to avoid, is only singing the older male roles. It is really easy to get those roles, having a low voice. And there are not so many basses, so, if you have right notes or color of a bass-baritone, quite often you will get that typecasting of singing the old man.

My favorite roles to sing, right now are Figaro from the “Le Nozze di Figaro“, Leporello from the “Don Giovanni”. And being a bass-baritone, it gives you a better chance to play the bad guys as well, which I have a lot of fun with. I haven’t done much from that repertoire, but I want to do more. I really want to perform the role of  Nick Shadow from “The Rake’s Progress” by I. Stravinsky and then I would love to do the four villains from the “Les Contes d’Hoffmann”. But for now I am trying to perform the roles from Mozart and the Handel operas. In my training, I did a lot of early – Baroque and Renaissance music. That is something I feel like not every singer gets a chance to do when they are training. I really love singing that music and I hope I continue to perform early music throughout my career.

Do you get to choose your repertoire?

I only really get to choose my audition repertoire. I’ve finished my masters in voice and I am doing a young artist program in Canada in the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble Studio, and now I am here in Salzburg singing in the Young Singer’s Project. So really what happens is that you are told what you are going to sing in the festival and then you look at the music and say – can I actually sing this and not hurt myself? If the answer is yes, then you sing it. If the answer is no, then you have a talk with them and explain your voice’s limitations. But in general, at the young artist programs – they have been looking at you during your studies and they have a pretty good idea of what you can sing, so then it is a balance of whether they are pushing you vocally into slightly harder repertoire, or are you are singing something that is comfortable in your voice.  There are tons of small roles in these big operas where they might be not the perfect fit, but because it is short and it is a good range, it is totally singable and very good training!

What is the work process to find and to build the character in an opera?

It really depends on the character. Whether it is a new or a classic opera, because in classic operas the character has been done a million times over so then you are figuring out what did Puccini wrote and how am I going to interpret that. When it is a world premiere I have a bit more freedom, I come in knowing everything about what it means and what was written. I have an idea and I’ll offer that and talk about it with the director and composer. Then I really let the director manage the rest of it. Everything really depends on the production. For some directors, it might be their first time doing this opera and it might be their twentieth time. This might be a production that they’ve built ten years ago and have been touring the world with it. In that situation, the director knows that piece so intimately and I just make sure to know my lines and how my character works in the story he will tell me the rest.

How did you envision the profession of an opera singer when you were younger and what were the expectations?

Good question. When I was young, I really hated opera. I even told my family – I will never sing opera. I loved the choral repertoire and I loved oratorio and didn’t really want to do anything else singing wise. But after my orchestra rehearsals on Saturday mornings, I would always go back to my parents car and go home. And in the car, they would always be playing the classical music station CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) on the radio and every Saturday afternoon the CBC would have the Met broadcast. I must have been about fourteen when Tosca was playing one day and as we came in a car, it was Te Deum. I didn’t know what the opera was, but I heard the chorus and was blown away. It was a very very good recording. That same year my orchestra went to Budapest and Vienna and we saw Turandot at the Wien VolksOper and that got me more into opera. When I was fifteen, I was singing now in the bass section of the St. Matthew’s Men and Boy’s choir. We did a big anniversary concert and they had a bunch of famous singers come to perform with us. One of them was Gerald Finley. When I heard him sing, I thought to myself: “So is this what an opera singer suppose to sound like”. When I was sixteen, I applied to the Ontario youth choir and I did their summer program with them. After the summer program, the vice president of the choir, who was also the opera director at the University of Ottawa, invited me to be in chorus for her production of Carmen, but a couple weeks into rehearsals two of her baritones dropped out of production and I got to then sing the role of Dancairo in Carmen. So then the professor started giving me the voice lessons. That was a lot of fun. I started working on opera singing.

You mentioned that you have also played the violin in your youth. How did the transition from that to opera go?

I took a year off between high-school and university because I couldn’t decide. Between these two things, I auditioned for both singing and violin – and I got into both in various places. In the end, I chose Ottawa university, because I was able to stay with teachers that I liked and knew. My main studies were voice, but I was also able to do minor in violin. So for the first three years of my undergraduate studies, I was in the orchestra and doing chamber music as a violinist. In my masters, I was playing less violin, but I got to do a scene from the opera “Les contes d’Hoffmann”. I was sing the role of  Doctor Miracle when he becomes the devil and is getting the ghost to sing. There is this one part that says “the devil plays the violin”. The director knew I played the violin so I learned that part and played during my opera performance.

You also work with ensembles and perform as a concerting soloist. How do you see and evaluate this part of your career?

I do a lot of concert repertoire and that comes from my time in Ottawa because when I was younger I sang in a lot of choirs and had my first solo performances stepping out from the choir to do little solos. I really enjoy that repertoire. The thing about the opera is, that you do one show for two months and that is really the only thing that you are working on during that time. I love the concert repertoire because it gives me more time, more freedom and I just get to perform more. Also, you are not gone as long – it’s never really more than a week – so that’s nice. At most, you have four performances, but generally two or three.  You do three days of rehearsals and couple performances and you are back home with your family.

While working in an ensemble do you have any interpretation work to do?

It really depends on the conductor. Some conductors have their idea and you just do it how the conductor wants it. Other conductors are collaborating. Also, it depends on the size of the ensemble. I did a lot of chamber music when I was a bit younger. I got to work with some really great string ensembles. There was no conductor, it was pure chamber music, the process was very collaborative. Also, I have done a world premiere of a chamber music piece and the composer was very open and said “this is what I have written, I want the notes and the rhythms to be as I wrote them, but I really want you guys to discover the interpretation of the poetry. And it is up to you bring it to life”. It was a lot of fun. I really enjoy those sort of collaborations. My role as an artist is to listen to what your other colleagues are saying and I also study the full score, comparing the parts of the singer with other musical lines in the score. This way I find a lot of new insights about the piece and my role in it. It works in the chamber music and it also happens with Bach. He has left us so much to deal with. Those are two places where I find that collaboration really happens with many other moving parts, rich musical material and not so many performers. You come with your ideas, you talk about them with others and they talks to you.

Do you ever think about what’s your impact on the listener?

For me, I am always trying to be as honest as I can as I performer. Generally, I find that the composer and the librettist wrote the piece it in such a way that it can be impactful to the audiences by itself. All you as a performer have to do is to really clear with how you interpreting what they wrote. My favorite thing to be told after a performance,  is that they could understand every word and they could understand the atmosphere I was creating with it or the story I was telling. For me, that means I did my job well. It feels great when the audience loves your voice, but generally, people are drawn more to the story and they might realize the beauty of the certain line or something about the character.

Is this your first time at the Salzburger Festspiele festival?

I was here when I was nineteen. I performed in “Zauberflöte” and I spent a month in this city. Now it is nice to feel like I am coming back to a familiar place. But it does feel completely different this time being here and singing in the Salzburger Festspiele.

What was your impression from the first time?

The first time I was here, I was like “oh my goodness”. Everything was so exciting. Then I was musically or operatically a child. And now I feel like I a teenager or a young adult – I am a little less starstruck, I have already seen all the big halls and everything. It is a really really beautiful city. Rehearsals are at a really high level. You are constantly around so many artist working really professionally.  There is so much joy and desire to do the best you can in this an environment. You really offer to the audience everything that you possibly can. That is really exciting to work at that level, where opera means so much to everyone – everything is heightened.

What are you excited about this year?

Well it is always fun to do a brand new piece and to work with a composer and Adrian Kelly. With this piece I feel like the composer sees himself in the role I am singing. That’s a lot of pressure to bring a performance when you realize that the role you are singing is a reflection of the person who wrote it. To really try to do that to the best of your ability, that’s really exciting. Also then you are able to see all these operas that are going on with so many wonderful singers, which is an incredible opportunity. Also, I have never seen Wiener Philharmonic Orchestra live. To see them play opera is going to be great. You know, I grew up listening to their recordings and, since I have always been an orchestral nerd, I knew all the big conductors and I would compare how each of them performed the same pieces through the time. So to hear them live is also very exciting. And I really hope to catch up in a couple of concerts as well, because it is a phenomenal concert program that is happening here.

I am hoping from this experience to have met a lot of people here in Europe and to develop some contacts here. Then to be able to come back for an audition for agents and houses and to be able to get work here down the road.

After the festival, I am going back to Canada and doing my final year in the Ensemble Studio at the Canadian Opera Company. There are a lot of small roles and concerts this year, I am doing a couple more debuts, more auditions. I just got an agent in Canada. She is working really hard for me to get more work once I am done at the Canadian Opera Company. I have various different parts of my family living throughout Canada and I don’t get to see them very often. So it would be great to be able to go do concerts in different parts of Canada and then to be able to meet my family.

The ultimate goal for me is to have an international career. I would love to sing around the world, I love traveling. Finally, I would love to be able take my wife with on concert tours and just be tourists for a few days together.

Thank you for the conversation!

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