Cameron McPhail is a Baritone and a member of The Canadian Opera Company‘s Ensemble Studio, Canada’s premier training program for young opera professionals. The Brandon, Manitoba native first appeared with the Canadian Opera Company as a finalist in the 2011 Ensemble Studio Competition, a vocal showcase featuring Canadian operatic talent. He recently performed with the COC this past fall as Schaunard in La Bohème and the Officer in Dialogues des Carmélites in spring 2013. Other credits include Nick Shadow in The Rake’s Progress (Music Academy of the West); Ford in Falstaff and the title roles in Don Giovanni and Gianni Schicchi (UBC Opera). This season with the COC, McPhail also appears as Guglielmo in Così fan tutte (Ensemble Studio performance). As the COC launches Centre Stage, a fundraising gala where singers from the final round of auditions for the COC Ensemble Studio compete before a live audience, we caught up with McPhail to find out more about his experience with the Ensemble Studio.
Tell us a snippet about you. What should people know?
I love people, which is one of the reasons why this business is so great. Coming into the opera world from a business and sports background, I had no idea how big of an impact this art form’s music would have on me, my colleagues and on the audience. This is a responsibility I wasn’t prepared for, but I’ve been playing catch-up ever since. That challenge has been the best part, aside from the cool tights I get to wear in The Brother’s Grimm (as part of the COC’s Glencore Ensemble Studio School Tour that’s currently travelling to elementary schools across Ontario).
What was the first piece of opera that inspired you to move in this career path?
The first opera I ever saw was the one I was in! I was invited by U.B.C’s Nancy Hermiston to sing the title role in Don Giovanni in the Czech Republic after only one voice lesson, no Italian and no music training. In hindsight, ignorance was bliss. But after the first dress-rehearsal, I was hooked. It was something I could do well and it was something others loved.
Who are some of the great voices that shaped your vocal technique, whether directly or indirectly?
Indirectly, the early recordings of Robert Merrill, Sherrill Milnes, Gabriel Bacquier and Bastianini. If I needed to learn something perfectly, I listened to Sir Thomas Allen and Gerald Finley. Directly, I’ve had the honour of getting to learn from personal time with Marilyn Horne, Kiri TeKanawa, Tim Noble, Richard Cross and Alan Held. I’ll never forget Ms. Horne helping me with Silvio from Pagliacci. She said “Listen kiddo, you need to breathe HERE, and then just finish the damn thing like it’s the last thing you’ll ever sing again.” I asked why and she said “because that’s how Robert (Merrill) did it when we sang it together”. Oh…. 🙂 More important was the early encouragement and technical foundation I received from several of Canada’s greatest singing teachers Bruce Pullan, Peter Barcza, Judith Forst, Papa John Fanning and Richard Margison.
Describe “the rush” you get when performing. Paint us a picture of what it’s like to stand in front of hundreds of adoring eyes as you belt your lines.
It’s a lot like playing in a very big game each night. The big difference is that you can’t just dive in with all adrenaline and forget the mile-long list of things you’re supposed to be doing. 1) Don’t push 2) Don’t step on the soprano’s dress 3) Watch the conductor 4) Don’t forget to double the “L”s on “Frittelle” 5) Don’t forget, you’re supposed to be SAD here…
What does being part of the COC’s Ensemble Studio mean to you?
Being offered a position here was the deciding factor for me. Being accepted to the Yale Opera Studio was wonderful, but the transition from school to the professional world was the one I was most worried about and it gave me all of the confidence in the world and at the same time, a slice of humble pie. I owe everything to the Canadian Opera Company and look forward to being back for years to come.
Let’s dredge up the past. What’s the most embarrassing audition/performance/in-class happenstance you can (or care to) remember?
Most of the work I did for the first few years was pretty embarrassing… I had a lot to learn. Still do… In my first masterclass, the only aria I knew that wasn’t from Don Giovanni was “Eri tu” from Un ballo in maschera… When I announced it, I pronounced it mas-CHER-a (instead of MAS-chera). So I was going to my first Ball with much longer, fuller lashes.
When you’re not singing or practicing technique, you’re _________________.
Exploring whatever city I’m in, waiting for a shoeshine, eating a street hotdog or obtaining a pair of coffees.
What’s one Opera that would convert someone new to the genre into a diehard fan?Honestly? I think it really depends on what kind of person they are. If they’re into musicals and are very pure of heart, La Bohème or Le nozze di Figaro! If they’re naturally very sarcastic and cynical, Rigoletto, Il Trittico or The Rake’s Progress. If they’re a bit dark and twisted like me, Billy Budd, Don Giovanni, Tosca or Two Boys. It’s like buying a woman a pair of shoes. You better do your homework.
What’s your favourite restaurant in Toronto?
I love Sassafraz in Yorkville, for dinner or for a few martinis. The Stilton Burger at Nota Bene is all I ever order there. It’s perfect. However, a grande quad Americano paired with the Classic Sausage, Egg and Cheddar from Starbucks gives me equal joy and satisfaction.
Favourite drink and where you go to get it?
The whisky list at Feathers is unrivalled. I’m very much a single-malt guy. Especially the Islay expressions. If the operas over, and I can’t get to Opera Bob’s on Ossington , I love The Keg-size Bombay martini up with olives.
How would you describe the Ensemble Studio Competition in three words?
1) Glad 2) Wedding’s 3) Over 😉
What do you think Centre Stage brings forth that no other event has done in the past?
It has to lend insight into a singer’s ability to fill the space that they’re being hired for. Regardless of the level we’re at when we enter the Ensemble, it’s how you leave that matters. The people here know that, and you are in extremely good hands while you’re here. We are very, very lucky.
How have you seen the Ensemble Studio Competition evolve since your involvement in it last year, to what will become Centre Stage?
I competed in the competition’s very first year. It was a new experiment that has obviously proved extremely successful. Each year it gets better and demands an increasing level of talent for those competing. Good luck guys. Let us know if we can do anything to help!
Let’s get social for a moment. Have you any online profiles where people can stay up-to-date on your operatic self?
Twitter is good! – @Cameron_McPhail
The Canadian Opera Company’s Ensemble Studio Competition Gala will be held Tuesday, November 26th at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto. For more information, visit coc.ca.