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This is a story about how classical and pop can — and sometimes need to — live side by side.
Our young hero is 25-year-old Mississauga-born tenor Michael Ciufo, premiering a new solo show at the Living Arts Centre on Friday night.
The plot features a student of opera being thrown into the professional arms of Broadway great Richard Jay-Alexander to give himself a flying leap at a career.
The once upon a time is right now, unfolding in real time. And an early peek behind the scenes suggests that this could turn into a fascinating journey.
There are more wannabes in the singing world than there are seats at the Princess of Wales Theatre. Any male singer younger than 30 is very much a work in progress. And pop-operatic terrain is carpeted with the shiny suits of greedy promoters and their over-eager protégés. So this journey needs to be taken with caution.
I would normally have given Ciufo, an alumnus of the Royal Conservatory of Music’s Glenn Gould Professional School, a couple more years to mature. But Ciufo’s manager, Faye Perkins — director of the Glenn Gould estate and someone whose musical taste I trust — insisted I check him out.
I listened to Momento, Ciufo’s recent album, which features a mix of Italian art song and pop, and thought it pretty decent. So I politely took up an invitation to see the singer in rehearsal for his new show today.
Sitting in the cabaret space at the Lower Ossington Theatre, I was blown away in minutes. I immediately cancelled my plans for tomorrow night and invited myself to his show at the Living Arts Centre.
With detailed coaching by Jay-Alexander, pacing about the room, alternately shouting at Ciufo and his band and stopping them to provide detailed instructions about a note, a breath, a vowel, a turn of musical phrase, this looks like it could be fine concert by an important young talent with a popular touch.
It was fascinating to be reminded how much planning, preparation and rehearsal go into making a song sound natural, and how much premeditation goes into something an audience perceives as heartfelt.
There is no such thing as spontaneous grace on stage. It’s all built on sweat and tears.
Jay-Alexander, who has coached the likes of Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler and Glee‘s Lea Michele, stopped one song mid-point to declare: “I don’t care about notes; they don’t mean a thing to me. It’s all about the meaning.”
That advice holds true for any genre of music from any point in history.
“It’s amazing how many similarities there are between pop and art song, in terms of how you produce the music,” Ciufo admits during a short break in the rehearsal.
He says he still sees a vocal coach three times a week, and is very much interested in a career on the classical side of the spectrum. “I hate that whole crossover thing,” he declares. “But a lot of this music is what I grew up with, and I like it.”
Ciufo says it’s one thing to be in school, but, now that he’s out in the working world, he needs to eat. And this is a fine way to put bread on the table.
Jay-Alexander became involved the moment he heard the tenor sing.
“Somebody had to do this,” the musical theatre veteran says of the opportunity to mould a young talent.
Jay-Alexander, who spent a lot of time in Toronto during the Blockbuster Musical years of Phantom of the Opera, Les Misérables and Miss Saigon, wishes it were easier to build up careers on this side of the border.
“There’s no star system in Canada, which makes me crazy,” he exclaims.
The American tore apart the tracks on Ciufo’s album, and introduced some new material. “I wanted songs that were ready to be reborn,” he says of ballads from the 1950s and ’60s that have been gathering dead moths on flea-market shelves.
Ciufo sings “It Amazes Me,” a low-key 1957 love song written by Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh as if his beloved were sitting next to him on a sofa.
And, I’m happy to admit, I’m hooked.
There’s a little bit of life-story patter from Ciufo between songs, but the show is mostly about music well-sung and well-performed by a backup band of piano, violin, drums and double-bass.
People who want to hear the tenor in an operatic setting should check out Opera in Concert’s presentation — with orchestra — of Franz Schubert’s little-known Zingspiel, Die Freunde von Salamanka, on April 1 at the Jane Mallett Theatre (details here).
The singer is also beginning to tour his one-man show, with dates in Hamilton and Stouffville later in April (details here).
There are still tickets available for tomorrow night’s gig in Mississauga — details here.
With any luck, this is the start of something impressive.
Here’s the promotional video for Momento, to give you a taste of Ciufo: