Sunday Feature: Soprano Ileana Montalbetti on Ellen Orford, Peter Grimes and Ben Heppner
Ileana Montalbetti as Elettra in the Canadian Opera Company’s Ensemble Studio performance of Idomeneo, 2010. (Photo: Michael Cooper)
Living a Dream: The Journey to Ellen Orford by Ileana Montalbetti
Canadian soprano and Ensemble Studio graduate Ileana Montalbetti last performed with the Canadian Opera Company as The Voice of Antonia’s Mother in The Tales of Hoffmann. Her COC appearances include Clorinda (La Cenerentola), the Russian Mother/Newspaper Seller (Death in Venice), Anna Kennedy (Maria Stuarda), Mavra Kuzminichna (War and Peace), and with the Ensemble, the First Lady (The Magic Flute), Elettra (Idomeneo), and Fiordiligi (Così fan tutte). Ms Montalbetti’s credits include Antonia in The Tales of Hoffmann (Edmonton Opera); Leonore in Fidelio (Michigan Opera Theater); and the Fifth Maid in Lehnhoff’s production of Elektra and Anaï (understudy) in Moïse et Pharaon under Riccardo Muti (Teatro dell’Opera di Roma).
The journey to singing Ellen Orford in Peter Grimes has been long and winding and sometimes I have to pinch myself to believe that I am now living my dream; not only to be singing this role but of being a principal artist at the largest opera company in Canada!
I was raised in a wonderfully artistic household. My mother is a trained singer and Artistic Director of Saskatoon Opera and my father is a trained actor; they now both teach in their respective fields. Performing has always been a huge part of my life and there was always a huge emphasis on singing and opera in my home. I never felt pressure from my parents to pursue a career in the performing arts; I just did not know that other careers were an option. Performing and singing have been my passion from a very early age and it seems very fitting that my first principal role at the Canadian Opera Company is a role in a Britten opera. The first award I was ever given for performing was in the under 13 Folk Song Class at the Saskatoon Music Festival. I sang Sweet Polly Oliver, a Britten folk song, and was awarded first place. Skip ahead a few years and in the fourth year of my undergraduate degree, at the University of Manitoba, I sang the role of Ellen in an excerpt from the opera for our opera scenes class. I then sang the Embroidery Aria as one of my audition arias for the University of Toronto Opera Division, where I was accepted. After completing my Opera Diploma I went on to sing in the Canadian Opera Company Chorus and the following year I was accepted in to the Ensemble Studio and now here I am singing the role surrounded by a cast of world-class singers.
Photo by BoHuang
I feel as if the role was a “graduating gift” of sorts from Alexander Neef, the General Director of the COC and my mentor. I auditioned for the role in December 2010 and I signed the contract in January 2011. I did not graduate from the Ensemble until May 2012 but that is how far ahead companies cast. I’ll never forget him telling me that he was going to give me the role. We were sitting in rehearsal for Magic Flute – I was covering First Lady and singing the Ensemble Studio Performance. He came in to watch the rehearsal and sat down beside me and whispered “I’m giving you Ellen Orford in fall 2013. I think you will be a good match to Ben Heppner.” I just about fell out of my chair and since rehearsal was going on I had to keep quiet. I immediately whispered back, “I will work VERY hard” and he said, “I know you will”.
I HAVE worked hard and being a member of such a phenomenal cast has pushed me to work even harder. In these last weeks of rehearsal, I have had to grow and rise to the challenges that such a complex role and opera bring. It is a real piece of theatre and each character has many layers. Watching Ben, in rehearsals, fully embody Peter and bring such depth of emotion has challenged me to dig even deeper inside myself and to find out who Ellen really is and make her as real as possible, I have even learned to knit! There are times when I stand back and think, “I am singing opposite Ben Heppner – WOW!” It is a huge thrill to sing with one of the leading helden tenors in the world, especially now as I am beginning to sing more dramatic repertoire. As I was learning Leonore in Fidelio for Michigan Opera Theatre last spring, I constantly referenced the DVD recording from the Metropolitan Opera that Ben appears in and there were many times when I would stop to think, “I get to sing with him on my next gig!” He is one of the kindest and most supportive colleagues I have ever had and along with the rest of the cast: Alan Held, Jill Grove, Roger Honeywell, Peter Barrett, Judy Christin (to name only few). I have felt nothing but support and encouragement from day one - they have made me feel like I belong!
The other person who has helped to encourage me to grow and push myself as an artist is Johannes Debus, our conductor and music director of the company. I met Johannes in my first year of ensemble. I was singing a small role in War and Peace and he was the guest conductor. It was also Alexander’s first season as General Director. As we all know, Johannes was appointed as music director the following season. He also conducted my last production, as an Ensemble Member when I sang The Voice of the Mother in The Tales of Hoffmann in spring 2012. Now we are working together again. Not only is it incredibly fitting that he is conducting this production but it has put me completely at ease to have someone who knows me so well guiding me through this process.
I feel incredibly blessed and honoured to have the opportunity to sing this role but I also feel a huge amount of satisfaction as hard work really does pay off!