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Competing for the Canadian Opera Company

Alumna Charlotte Burrage performs at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts (all photos by Chris Hutcheson, courtesy the Canadian Opera Company)

U of T's Andrew Haji and Charlotte Burrage took top prizes at the Canadian Opera Company’s Second Annual Ensemble Studio Competition recently at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.

Master's student Haji, a tenor, won the second prize and alumna Burrage, a mezzo-soprano, placed third. The top honour went to bass-baritone Gordon Bintner of Regina. 

"For the past couple of years the Opera Division [at U of T] has performed a noon hour concert [at the Four Seasons] to showcase the things we were working on that year. I suppose this gave me somewhat of a home field advantage—not everyone involved in the COC competition had had the opportunity to perform in that space before," says Haji. "It's a very interesting space with some unique acoustic considerations—and those considerations change considerably once you add in an audience."

Haji (pictured at right) received a $3,000 cheque while Burrage took home $1,500 but the real prize may be yet to come. 

"All 10 finalists are considered for a position in next year's COC Ensemble Studio," Haji says. "The COC Ensemble Studio is a unique and rewarding opportunity. Having the chance to work with world-class teachers, coaches, and directors at the COC and to perform on the main stage at the Four Seasons Centre—arguably the finest opera house in Canada—is a very exciting prospect."

Haji, who received his bachelor's degree in music performance from U of T's Faculty of Music is now working on his master’s degree in opera as a student of Darryl Edwards.

"What initially attracted me to the school, as an undergrad, was a teacher—Darryl Edwards," Haji says. "The U of T Faculty of Music is blessed to have some of the finest voice teachers in Canada, and young singers need to seriously consider their choice of teacher when selecting a university."

Over the past year, Haji portrayed Tamino in Accademia Europea dell’Opera’s The Magic Flute and in January he starred as Toronto mayor Rob Ford in the Opera Division’s one-time-only production of Rob Ford, the Opera. He has also played Ferrando in Così fan tutte and Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni with U of T. Most recently, he performed Nemorino in the Opera Division’s production of L’elisir d’amore.

"I've been lucky to have been involved in a number of exciting operas in the Faculty of Music's MacMillan Theatre, both in my undergrad and my graduate studies," says Haji. "Arguably the most memorable was Rob Ford, the Opera.

"This opera, with libretto written by our very own Michael Patrick Albano, took the city by storm. We had newspapers and TV stations pounding down the doors, and when showtime came around we filled every single seat of the theatre, and even had people standing outside watching the show on TV monitors. It was a brilliant concept which I think managed to bring opera to a whole new audience. People who wouldn't normally go to the opera came out to see this show because it was relevant, and funny. It was an absolute blast to perform, and I continue to hold out the hope that we will remount the show one of these days."

Burrage also studied voice performance with Edwards at the Faculty of Music, where she received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees and performed in the Opera Division’s productions of Cosi fan tutte, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Die Fledermaus and The Marriage of Figaro.

Although the chance to study with Edwards originally attracted Haji to U of T, he found many more reasons to stay.

"I also have a great deal of respect for the work done at the U of T Opera Division. Michael Patrick Albano and Sandra Horst—the two people in charge of the Opera Division—are phenomenal," Haji says."The staff in MacMillan Theatre produce the most stunning sets and the production values of the shows performed here are very high.

"We have excellent coaches, world-class guest clinicians who lead master classes and private coachings, and numerous performance opportunities, both in and out of the big theatre. You'd be hard pressed to find as comprehensive and as fulfilling a program anywhere else in Canada."

Haji and Burrage were among 10 finalists selected from 146 singers across Canada in preliminary auditions held in Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal and New York. Each finalist performed two arias with piano accompaniment in front of a sold-out audience in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre at the Four Seasons Centre, and an adjudication panel composed of COC General Director Alexander Neef, COC Artistic Administrator Roberto Mauro, COC Music Administrator Sandra Gavinchuk, Head of the COC Ensemble Studio Liz Upchurch, and Canadian soprano, singing teacher and Ensemble Studio alumna Wendy Nielsen.

The COC Ensemble Studio is Canada's premier training program for young opera professionals. It provides advanced instruction, hands-on experience, and the practical career development skills necessary to succeed as a self-employed artist in a highly competitive international environment. Among the Ensemble’s current members are U of T alumni and recent Opera Division graduates Christopher Enns and Claire de Sevigne.