“I think they liked it,” Anne Sofie von Otter congratulated Joel Allison after he sang his first piece, an aria from Handel’s dramatic cantata Aci, Galatea e Polifemo. And indeed they did. The audience at the Young Singer Project (YSP) Masterclass at the 2019 Salzburg Festival, led by Grammy award-Awinning mezzo von Otter, lauded Allison with a lengthy ovation after his performance of the wide-ranging aria which spans from a growling low D to high A.
The once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work with opera legends like von Otter is just the latest chapter in the bass-baritone’s impressive trajectory. Allison’s membership in Salzburg’s YSP marks his continental European debut (he sang at the Tilford Bach Festival in the UK last summer). Allison hails from Ottawa where he began singing as a boy chorister with the Christ Church Cathedral Choir, founded by Godfrey Hewitt (pianist Angela Hewitt’s father), and later, with St. Matthew’s Men and Boys Choir. He studied voice at Ottawa University (first with Sandra Graham and later with her husband Ingmar Korjus) and then received his Master’s Degree from University of Toronto, working with countertenor Daniel Taylor. Allison is a current member of Canadian Opera Company’s Ensemble Studio in Toronto.
In contrast to the COC’s Ensemble Studio where most of the artists are Canadian, in Salzburg, Allison is surrounded by international colleagues—singers, teachers, and mentors. He is only one of two Canadians at YSP this summer [the other is tenor Josh Lovell who will be profiled in the upcoming, Fall 2019 issue of Opera Canada]—the other singers hail from Spain, Poland, Mexico, France, Russia, Ukraine, Ireland, the U.S., and the UK. Allison has also been afforded the opportunity to work with international teachers and coaches such as Michelle Wegwart, Craig Terry, Adrian Kelly, Brenda Hurley, Israel Gursky, von Otter, as well as acclaimed Austrian collaborative pianist, Helmut Deutsch.
“The level of coaching here is absolutely phenomenal,” says Allison. “Teachers and coaches are direct, but not mean. If you’re good, they don’t tell you you’re good. You need to work on this, this, this and this… I’ve got so much from these coaches and teachers because they’re right to the point.”
Along with master classes, lessons, and coachings, Allison was cast in a new children’s opera that is part of the Festival’s main program, Der Gesang der Zauberinsel, by Marius Felix Lange. The newly-commissioned kinderoper was finished just days before rehearsals began, which, says Allison, required learning the material rather quickly!
The international environment is not the only difference between Salzburg and Toronto. “Everyone knows opera here so much better than I do,” Allison laughs. “People live and breathe it here, especially in Salzburg.” He tells me that the demand for tickets is so high that many patrons line the streets outside the theatres hoping to buy a ticket for the dress rehearsals. Regular tickets to operas sell out months in advance. “Audiences…this is their passion,” Allison tells me. “They’ve seen it all. They can talk about it constantly. There’s just a lot to know, and these people really know, love and understand it.” Because of the deep respect for opera in Salzburg, Allison feels that “There’s a certain responsibility that you realize you have as an artist, as you’re going up through the ranks, as we are as young artists.”
Allison hopes his European debut will lead to securing a European agent. “[The Salzburg Festival] is a way for me to meet European agents and presenters, in hopes of being able to come over here and work in the future. There are a lot of agents here who come to hear the young singers. So my hope is that I get to audition for a couple of them. And the final concert, I’ve been told, is [attended by] a who’s who of agents, representation and houses. I met a couple agents at the premiere of the kinder-opera, but you never know what’s going to happen.”
At the time of writing, Allison had just signed with Canadian agency, Domoney Artists Management. “Kathy [Domoney] is a special agent,” Allison tells me. “She brings a lot to my career. [She] is so well connected in Canada, so for the couple months that I have been signed with her, she has already been able to make all the Canadian opera companies aware of me and what I am doing here in Salzburg and what I have done this past season at the COC and what I [will be doing this coming] season at the COC. Without someone like Kathy, Vancouver or Edmonton Opera may have heard of me, but [may] not really know what I have been doing or what I am hoping to do and become as an artist.” [UPDATE! Since writing, Allison informed Opera Canada he has just signed with the prestigious agency, IMG Artists where he will be represented by Matthew Horner. IMG’s roster includes such vocal luminaries as Renée Fleming, Gerald Finley, Jane Archibald and Luca Pisaroni.]
After Salzburg, Allison returns to Toronto for his second and final year with the COC Ensemble Studio where he will immediately begin working on the role of the Mandarin in Turandot. Later in the season he covers the role of the Hunter in Rusalka, sings Fiorello in The Barbara of Seville, and covers Russell Braun as the Father in Hansel and Gretel. In the meantime, Allison will soak in every bit of his experience at Salzburg, where, as he tells me, “It’s a really wonderful environment to be creating art and to grow as an artist.”