Last-minute understudies save Lunenburg, N.S., opera workshop

This year's Lunenburg Academy of Music Performance Rossini workshop was nearly cancelled after its star director had to drop out because of an injury. At the last moment, a top mezzo soprano and a piano and vocal coach stepped in to save the renowned program.

Lunenburg Academy of Music Performance's 3-week Rossini workshop nearly cancelled after director's injury

The Lunenburg Academy of Music Performance is housed at the former Lunenburg Academy school. (Robert Short/CBC)

A renowned opera workshop in Lunenburg, N.S., is going off without a hitch thanks to last-minute understudies who were able to step in when the star director had to step out because of an injury.

"I was very, very close to cancelling the academy this year, which would have made me very unhappy," said Burt Wathen, artistic director of the Lunenburg Academy of Music Performace (LAMP).

Select singers from around the world go to the LAMP to take part in its annual Rossini Opera Academy, an intense program that dives into the music of Gioachino Rossini — an Italian composer known for works like The Barber of Seville and William Tell.

'My heart dropped'

The program, now in its fifth year, concludes with a concert performance of L'italiana in Algeri.Eleven singers from across Canada, the U.S., France, Mexico, Russia and China are enrolled this year.

This year, mezzo soprano Daniela Barcellona was supposed to be the star director. But due to an injury, both she and her husband, Alessandro Vitiello, had to drop out. Vitiello, an acclaimed pianist, was also slated to be a faculty member for the program.

Barcellona and Vitiello dropped out one week before the program was to begin.

"I was sweating, I'll tell you," said Wathen. "When I got that first email, my heart dropped ... but I got to work and solved the problem." 

A look at the singers with their vocal coaches taken during a Saturday afternoon rehearsal break. Guest vocal coaches Michele D’Elia (left) and Richard Barker are in the foreground. (Submitted by the Lunenburg Academy of Music Performance)

This year marks the 150 year anniversary of Rossini's death — which Wathen said is a big deal in Europe where every major opera house is celebrating the composer.

"The world is celebrating that anniversary and it would have pained me if we would have had to cancel," he said.

Replacements found

Wathen got on the phone and by Labour Day, found a replacement for Barcellona. 

Sonia Ganassi is a top mezzo soprano who is very familiar with Rossini's works having played the lead in La Cenerentola — Rossini's opera based on Cinderella. She will lead the program and perform at the gala concert scheduled for Sept. 15.

Richard Baker, a pianist and vocal coach, replaced Vitiello. After getting a call from Wathen, he was in Nova Scotia within 36 hours. Baker had been in Bologna, Italy.

"I had a 40-year career in the music business and I've made a lot of friends, a lot of great contacts. And LAMP is very quickly making a name for itself around the world and people want to come here," Wathen said.

"They want to come and study and they want to come and teach. It's a fantastic environment we've created here ... tomorrow in fact we're going sailing and this is very special for them."