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DR. BARTOLO'S UMBRELLA 
and 
OTHER TALES

By Christopher Cameron

Seraphim Editions

264 pages, $19.95

 

Christopher Cameron’s memoir of his 12-year professional career as concert and opera singer begins with strange modesty. The son of a physician father and a mother who was a “decent pianist,” he claims to have had “an uneventful, undramatic, healthy relationship” with his parents and four siblings. He describes himself as “a miserable scholar,” “a model of recalcitrance when it came to high school discipline,” and “a non-starter” in athletics. As if this confession of inadequacy were insufficient, Cameron goes on to admit that “there was no single thread of expertise or musical preference that wove itself through [his] career as a singer,” though he made all his early solo appearances on the concert stage. He remains modest about his success in vocal competitions (he beat out Ben Heppner once in a Mozart Singing Competition), and he concludes that he failed in career-management. Cameron undermines the very title of his memoir when he confesses that he was not suited physically, dramatically, or temperamentally to the role of Dr. Bartolo, “one of the most famous of buffo bass opera characters,” and which he never managed to perform “with much success at all,” as many times as he sang it.

Given such devastating candour, why did he opt to write this book? Because of music and his love for it. In his immaturity and adolescent confusion, music was his “companion and confessor.” And when he developed in Grade 9 an infatuation for a girl cast, it seemed only fitting that she played percussion with him in the school band. He acted and sang in Oklahoma! a little later, sounding ridiculous in his “high-pitched countrified Pappy Yokum type of voice” but loving the comic lines as Andrew Carnes. Hired as a supernumerary for an upcoming Canadian Opera Company season, he played a captive Ethiopian in Aida, was paid a dollar per rehearsal, and two dollars a show, for which he wore black body paint and a fuzzy wig. When not on stage, he would stand in the wings or sit in the house during rehearsals to watch and listen. Fascinated by chorus master, Lloyd Bradshaw, who was a magician “seeming to draw the music out of the singers as if by sorcery,” he eagerly accepted Bradshaw’s invitation to sing in the youth choir of St. George’s United Church, and subsequently becoming the baritone lead in The Gondoliers, and giving various choral performances in another church and then being taped by the CBC at Christmas.

His book covers some of his personal life (romance, marriage, fatherhood) and moves over his early years in the profession, marking his audition for the Royal Conservatory of Music, the growth of his voice, reputation, and musical knowledge. It also details his experience with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the Mendelssohn Choir (conducted by Elmer Iseler), his audition in 1976 for the Opera School, Faculty of Music, University of Toronto, and the culture-shock he suffered when he moved from choral music to opera. Famous names begin to collect in his narrative (Ben Heppner, Teresa Stratas, Ermanno Mauro, Gino Quilico, Mark DuBois, Mark Pedrotti, Caralyn Tomlin, Katherine Terrell, etc) but Cameron fails to share revealing anecdotes about these singers, opting, instead, for digressions on Verdi, vocal categories, technical information on vibrato and resonators, effects of the body or physiology on voice, stage management, costumes and footwear, or the requisites for being an opera director. While interesting and even important in their own right, these digressions are not made an organic part of his narrative but seem to serve as space-fillers that belong more properly in a manual or reference book. The impression of a guide or self-help book is reinforced when he categorizes the factors that led him to become a singer. There are candid moments when he does dare to pass less than complimentary comments on a celebrity or two or on the O’Keefe Centre (“the quagmire of acoustic quicksand”), and there is undeniably good memoir-writing in the chapter “Singing In My Chains,” but in sum, his book is too modest and too tepid by far.

 

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