Canadian coloratura soprano, Juno Award-winner and COC favourite Jane Archibald regularly performs at the world’s great opera houses and concert halls, with recent roles ranging from Zerbinetta to Alcina, and Donna Anna to Salome. This winter, she returns to the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts to star as Sharp Ears in Leoš Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen
We asked her about her favourite Toronto haunts, the challenges and rewards of preparing for Vixen
, and how she reconnects with the natural world—as well as what she hopes audiences will take away with them after seeing this very special production.
Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen
runs from January 26 – February 16, 2024 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.BUY TICKETS
COC: Tell us what it means for you to be returning to Toronto and the COC, both personally and professionally.Archibald:
I always love coming back to the COC. I love the acoustics of the hall, which fits like a glove, and reconnecting with so many friends. I’ve been singing there now since 2011, so it’s like coming home. The production values are always so high and it’s just a joy to be there.
I have a pied-à-terre in Toronto which I haven’t seen since before COVID, so I’m really looking forward to making myself at home there again. My daughter especially has been begging to go back to Toronto, where she has so many nice memories. Since she’s in school now she won’t be able to come with me for the whole run but she’ll definitely be there at the beginning over the holidays and will come back and see one of the shows.
COC: Besides the Four Seasons Centre, do you have any favourite Toronto spots that you’ll be revisiting while you’re here?
There used to be a burger place near the COC, South Street Burger. I love them and their fries are dangerously good, so that could be a reward at the end of the first week of rehearsals. It’s been such a long time since I’ve had more than a day or two in the city, so I’ll be curious to see how the landscape has changed and which old favourites are still around.
COC: What are you most looking forward to in this production of The Cunning Little Vixen?
This will be my first Janáček! My husband [tenor Kurt Streit], who’s now retired, did a lot of Janáček, so I’m getting lots of little helpful hints from him. It’s beautiful music and there’s lots of other repertoire of his that I have on my bucket list, so this is a lovely introduction to performing his music. It’s actually quite raw, even base in a way, but not necessarily in a bad way. I’ve been going through very literal translations and a couple of times I’ve been quite surprised; I’ll type something into Google Translate and what comes up is actually quite bawdy or vulgar, which I suppose makes sense and goes along with the animal instincts being explored in this piece. No one’s beating around the bush in terms of what they say or feel! The Vixen herself is a fighter and quite direct and fun, so I’m enjoying that aspect.
Actually, when I was an apprentice in San Francisco, Vixen
was one of the shows they were doing and I covered the Cock—which of course led to all sorts of inappropriate nicknames. I remember being mortified because I was still very young and I had to jump in for a rehearsal and fake copulate with one of the hens, who was very pregnant, and I was just trying to sing in Czech while all the guys in the young artist program were having a good laugh at my expense. It was so embarrassing at the time but now it’s a fun memory.
COC: What do you find most challenging about this opera?
Language, for sure. I’m in the thick of it right now. I speak French, German, and English and I understand a lot of Italian, but Czech is another kettle of fish. It was the same for me when I did The Nightingale and Other Short Fables in Russian—it’s just exponentially more difficult to learn, because first of all your mouth is making sounds it’s not used to, putting many consonants together while also vocalizing. In the standard operatic languages they’re in the muscle memory, but for me, with Czech, they’re not. And then none of it sounds like anything else, so I don’t have a sense until I completely memorize things syllable by syllable of what’s a noun, what’s a verb—when you’re first learning it, it’s just a sound salad of random vowels and consonants.The research work I have to do before I even start learning the notes is significant, way more than for another piece.
COC: The music of The Cunning Little Vixen is a blend of Romantic, folk, and Impressionist influences. Can you speak to how it differs from other operas you’ve sung in?
The music is very singable. It’s quite fast and conversational, even though rhythmically it’s not all lyrical. The music is definitely easy to like. What can be a challenge is when the rhythm that’s written in the score and the rhythm of the language are completely different. So you’ll have a triplet written down in the score, but the way that Czech is pronounced, there will be a certain vowel that has a stretch so it gets lengthened. So something that’s a triplet gets turned into a long note and then three quick notes at the end.
There are certain people who really tend to specialize in a certain period or style, but I just sing everything and anything, from Handel and Purcell through to Messiaen—so this fits somewhere in the middle. It’s easier to learn than Strauss, but it’s harder than Mozart or Handel where you can practically sight-sing it from the beginning.
COC: A central theme of the opera is our relationship with nature. Do you have any favourite places where you’re able to reconnect with the natural world?
grew up in Nova Scotia until I was eighteen, and then I was a bit landlocked during my time in the Toronto area. After that, I was in San Francisco and I just felt much more at home, because even if you can’t see the ocean, knowing that it’s there you can sense it. And then I was landlocked again for a while when I lived in Austria. It’s beautiful, but they say you’re either a mountain person or an ocean person and I’m definitely an ocean person. I just breathe more freely when I smell the salt air.
We have a shared family cottage on the north shore of Nova Scotia looking across to Prince Edward Island and that’s one of my favourite places to be. My shoulders unclench that much more there. I feel relaxed when we walk along the beach, where my daughter can collect sea glass and shells. Especially at this time of year as the light is changing…we’re so lucky that we have a big bay window at the front of our house, and watching the way the light comes through the leaves, it’s just heaven.
COC: What would you most like audiences to take away with them after seeing this production of The Cunning Little Vixen?
To reconnect with the beauty of art, especially after COVID. I know we’re a couple of seasons past the worst of the lockdowns, but that was pretty traumatic for everybody and especially for those who really relied on the arts as a source of pleasure and relief and inspiration. To be cut off from all of that as an audience member must have been awful, and of course it was awful for us as performers, too.
Thinking about what’s going on in the Middle East, the world is certainly painful right now. We shouldn’t look away from that pain, but I also don’t think we need to apologize for consciously turning toward art and music and anything that speaks to our better selves. We need to fill ourselves up with as much light and joy as possible in order to be energised to go out and fight the good fight. So that’s always what I hope people leave with after any opera performance, or any musical or artistic experience—filled up, in some way. And this opera in particular, with all of its philosophical questions about the cycle of life; I hope it leaves people thinking and that their thoughts turn towards something positive and comforting.
Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen runs from January 26 – February 16, 2024 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.Buy your tickets now!