Iconic operas still drawing huge crowds in Mississauga, making the city unique amongst its peers


Published February 26, 2024 at 4:01 pm

opera tosca mississauga ontario music theatre
Tosca enjoyed a two-night run at the Living Arts Centre in Mississauga - Dave O'Donnell Photography

Nothing demonstrates the resilience of arts and culture more than a remarkably well-attended opera in suburban theatre on a Thursday night. The theatre itself may be spacious and elegant (few can accommodate fully staged operas) and the symphony known for its excellence, but seeing almost every seat in a 1,300-seat auditorium packed to enjoy a medium that most modern audiences are simply not familiar with shows that if you take a risk, it’ll pay off.

And for Maestro Denis Mastromonaco and the Mississauga Symphony Orchestra, the risk of putting on four fully staged operas between 2017 and now at the Living Arts Centre seems to be paying off.

“I could be bold enough to say outside the Canadian Opera Company, we’re the only community orchestra I know of that’s mounted something like this,” Mastromonaco told insauga.com, referring to the MSO’s recent production of Tosca.

“Fully staged, with sets and costumes. [Some opera] groups will say [their productions are] fully staged, but there might not be a set or just a table and chair sitting on the stage. This was about as big time, as professional, as anyone could imagine.” 

On Feb. 8 and 10, theatre fans were able to see Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca in the LAC’s Hammerson Hall. While Tosca, a tale of a painter and a singer who face a tragic end after an attempt to rescue a political fugitive from a corrupt police officer goes terribly awry, was the MSO’s most recent opera, it was not its first. 

Ernesto Ramirez and Angela Maria Sanchez in Tosca – Dave O’Donnell Photography

“We had nearly 2,000 people (combined) in Hammerson Hall for the run of Tosca. It was the second best-attended of the four operas we have produced, which is fantastic considering it is the first opera produced in Mississauga since the end of the pandemic,” Ryan Tobin, the director of marketing and production with the MSO, told insauga.com in an email. 

“It was a major achievement for arts and culture in Mississauga and highlighted exactly what Hammerson Hall and the Living Arts Centre is capable of. Our attendance this year has seen a robust rebound from COVID – it is a good sign that the MSO is well on its way to recovering.” 

Mastromonaco, who has staged such operas as Carmen, La Bohème (the inspiration for the modern-day musical Rent), La Traviata, and The Barber of Seville (which was semi-staged) with the MSO, says audiences have been excited to return following two years of pandemic disruptions. 

The Barber of Seville was the first one once we opened up again. The orchestra was on the stage and we had no set or costumes. It was our first official season after the pandemic years and we only did one performance and it was sold out, but we did one show versus multiple shows.” 

Tosca, set in 19th-century Rome during the Napoleonic era, marks the MSO’s first post-pandemic foray into fully staged productions. 

The production featured performances by tenor Ernesto Ramirez, soprano Angela Maria Sanchez, baritone Andrey Andreychik and bass Gabriel Sanchez Ortega. 

Cast and crew members involved in the production described the two-night run as an incredible experience, praising the maestro, the work, and the theatre. 

“For me the music of Puccini is something that stays with you for life. It reminds me of the visceral passion and emotions that exist in this world, and that though life can be tragic and painful, it is also as painfully beautiful. Tosca as an opera embodies this truth, and it is why, in my opinion, it has endured as a seminal work in this art form,” Sanchez Ortega told insauga.com in an email.

“What is always difficult for me is to live up to the standard of the past great artists that have performed this work. But I was lucky to be surrounded by a great cast of singers who have taught me a lot in this production, particularly Ernesto, Andrey and Angela. I’ll always be thankful to them for their support. It is always a joy to work with Maestro Mastromonaco and a pleasure to sing in Hammerson Hall.” 

Maestro Denis Mastromonaco – Dave O’Donnell Photography

John Holland, who played the part of Sacristan–and who is no stranger to MSO operas, having performed in La Traviata and The Barber of Seville–told insauga.com in an email that he was happy to return to Hammerson Hall and work with talented colleagues. 

“Being part of MSO’s Tosca was magical. I have always thrived on stage and in front of an audience, so live opera is where I am at my best. Being able to share these experiences with friends and colleagues is a great joy. I have worked with almost all of the Tosca cast previously, and some even previously with the MSO,” he says. 

When asked why the operas, which tend to attract big audiences, are typically performed for just two nights, Mastromonaco told insauga.com that they require a lot of planning, time and funding. 

“We would do it more often but it comes down to budget and opera is expensive. Tosca was incredibly successful. Opera companies are talking about us and that’s amazing. But do we have enough money to put on an opera next year? I can be blunt and say if the city feels that it puts Mississauga on the map and if that’s what they want to see happen in the arts, that’s where funding needs to come from.” 

Mastromonaco says that in comparison to a regular classical concert, opera runs about five to seven times the cost of one regular show. 

“For one opera, we can do five regular concerts,” he says. 

The MSO – Dave O’Donnell Photography

As for what goes into staging a complete opera, Mastromonaco says the shows require a large production team, bringing in sets from New York, a lengthy hall rental period and, of course, a talented cast with niche and rare vocal talents. 

He also says operas are challenging to cast, especially since every production requires a specific voice and not every soprano or tenor is ideal for every tenor or soprano role. 

Tosca is one of the hardest operas to cast. In Canada, there are really only a handful of singers who can sing these title roles,” Mastromonaco says, adding that Ramirez, who played the leading role of Cavaradossi, had to learn the score in just a few weeks after the original tenor slated to play the part was forced to drop out.

“I had to find someone who had the correct voice type, who does not know [the score], but is an incredible musician who can learn it in a short time and that’s how we ended up with our current tenor.” 

Mastromonaco also says that even if sold out, operas aren’t particularly profitable. 

“Sadly, and the public doesn’t realize this, opera companies do not make money. They don’t survive off of ticket revenue. It’s straight-up support from donations, partnerships and government support.” 

 Andrey Andreychik, who played Scarpia in Tosca – Dave O’Donnell Photography

Challenges aside, Mastromonaco says staging the operas has been a worthwhile endeavour because not only do audiences respond favourably to the productions, the LAC is an ideal venue for a more ambitious show. 

“One of [the things you need] is proper space–a healthy-sized theatre and pit and technical departments that can mount the production. And when you have that and a fine orchestra and connections with singers, you see you have the possibility for opera in Mississauga,” he says. 

“The LAC is perfect for mounting opera. I can’t say that for anything other than the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto. Smaller theatres, there’s no way we could do this.”

Mastromonaco also says the high turnout suggests that classical music fans are finally returning to the theatre after years of pandemic-related uncertainty. 

“Theatre audiences are hard to get back. Sports came back much quicker and pop entertainment came back quicker. The classical audiences were slowest to return. I’m glad to say they’re back, but it took a lot longer,” he says.

That said, he says that the opera crowd tends to skew older and might be more circumspect, not to mention more contemplative, when it comes to deciding where to spend their entertainment dollars. 

“Now, with finances, people are more timid about where their entertainment dollars are spent. [They think] ‘Do I watch the Raptors or something like the symphony? whereas before, they would go to both. For us, it’s hard to compete with hockey games and pop entertainment. We have to really be outstanding in presenting our quality to prove ourselves and I think we’ve done that.” 

Mastromonaco says people keep coming back because the quality is there. 

“We had people saying [Tosca] was incredible. The sets, the costumes which were custom-designed for us.” 

As for whether another production is in (or will be in) the works, Mastromonaco says that’s “to be decided.” 

“If we have financial means to put on such a project and if the resources are there, I’d love to do opera again and again. It’s very special to the musicians as well.”

He also says the MSO will likely include one pop-friendly offering next season, such as a concert dedicated to a famous film score. 

“We did Star Wars about a year ago and film stuff pops up generally every two seasons. One of the reasons is that every year we do a performance of non-classical music, whether it’s film or pop music,” he says. 

But one thing is certain–opera is not just for urban audiences.  

Holland, who starred in the production, says the energy of the opening night performance shows that Mississauga has not just the venue but also the thirst for opera. 

“The most rewarding part of Tosca was the energy of opening night, and being in the theatre. The passing of musical lines between the cast and orchestra, and the magic of the performer-audience relationship. The sights and sounds of live theatre, at the highest level, right in the heart of Mississauga,” Holland says. 

“People often ask, “Why bring opera outside of downtown Toronto?” and I always reply, “Why not?” Toronto doesn’t have exclusivity on the genre of opera. Opera is for everyone, and the MSO and Maestro Mastromonaco are proving that opera is accessible to all people, regardless of where they live. Knowing that opera is thriving in Mississauga is the most rewarding part of being in Tosca.” 

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