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Music A ‘new’ Bernard Labadie returns to podium for COC's Magic Flute

Bernard Labadie conducting the rehearsal of Die Zauberflote, The Magic Flute.

Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Those people who think there are no second acts in North American lives should talk to Bernard Labadie.

The internationally sought-after conductor, best known for his own Quebec City group, Les Violons du Roy, was conducting in Germany in 2014 when he came down with what he thought might be the flu. The flu turned out to be aggravated Stage 4 lymphoma. He was 51. For 18 months, in Europe and eventually back home, Labadie faced a horrendous series of treatments that brought him close to death several times. Eventually, he received a stem-cell transplant from his sister, and recovered. With a totally new blood supply, a new blood type and the immune system, as he told me last year, "of a one-year-old baby."

Labadie has returned to the podium, and one of the unexpected features of his "second act" is a new-found connection to musical life here in Toronto. For the second year running, Labadie has been the curator and conductor at the Toronto Symphony Orchestra's annual Mozart Festival. His performances of the Jupiter Symphony and Mozart's Requiem (the latter in a staged version), with Labadie sitting rather than standing at the podium, were among the most spectacular concerts of last year's entire classical season. This year, he'll be conducting the TSO in a program of violin concertos and the Prague Symphony, on Wednesday and Friday nights this week.

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He won't be conducting the TSO on Thursday night for a pretty good reason – because on Thursday, he'll be in the pit at Toronto's Four Seasons Centre leading the COC Orchestra on the opening night of 12 performances of Mozart's The Magic Flute. His appearance with the Canadian Opera Company is not just his first gig with the company – it's only the fourth opera he has conducted anywhere since 2005.

"I wouldn't say I was a control freak," Labadie explains, "but opera by nature is compromise. It's a huge machine. And I have to say I've had a long and troubled relationship with that world, which is why I resigned as artistic director from Opéra de Montreal in 2005. But many of my friends and colleagues have been telling me for years, especially since the appointment of Alexander [Neef, the COC's general director] and Johannes [Debus, the principal conductor], that this was a place where opera was respected, and people are respected. So I thought I'd give it another try. So far, I'm very happy about it."

He's also very happy about the Four Seasons Centre itself, the vision of former COC general director Richard Bradshaw. "I was just in the theatre for the first time ever the day before yesterday," he said, "for orchestral rehearsals. It's wonderful. It was so easy to orchestrate balances. There's a wonderful bloom to the sound – that really helps my approach to this music, where we aim for transparency and lightness, a conversational fleetness. This might be the best opera theatre in [North] America."

There is no hint of frustration or regret when Labadie starts talking about the Mozart of The Magic Flute, written in the last six months or so of the composer's life. "Late Mozart is so powerful," he says, "because you're looking at a composer at the height of his powers. I feel very small and humble in front of a score like that. … In an opera like The Magic Flute, I think an interpreter can get in the way. A lot. And I'm trying not to get in the way. I'm just trying to take what's there and enhance it. I've heard other conductors take a lot of liberties with the score to try and make it more expressive. It's a mistake. The music is easy to kill by excessive love."

Labadie also doesn't worry too much about the famously confused story for The Magic Flute, where good and evil characters seem to switch places mid-opera, and where everything from the libretto's overt misogyny to its sheer slapstick buffoonery has been criticized for two centuries. "The story itself – it's whipped cream. But if you look at the pie under the whipped cream I think it's something quintessentially human and deep. Something fundamental about the story that spoke directly to Mozart – about the essential brotherhood and sisterhood of people, about humanity, about kindness. And it's such simple music, in the end, a mark of a true master. Because simplicity is extremely difficult to achieve in anything – in life, let alone in art."

As for the simplicity or lack of it in his own, renewed life, Labadie, now 53, says it's still a work in progress. He really only resumed his full conducting schedule in November, 2016. "The jury's still out," he says, "about how much work I can tackle. I had an urge to get back into the full range of what I do for a living, And actually, working, conducting – the actual music-making is absolutely not a problem at all. But my immune system is weaker, so pretty much every time I fly I catch something. So it's a bit annoying, the basic thing hasn't changed from last year. I'm just thankful to be alive and be able to go back to what I love. It's just that I'm now living with a new me and I've had to learn all about him. It's getting better, but there are still some areas where we haven't gotten reacquainted yet."

The COC's The Magic Flute runs at Toronto's Four Seasons Centre from Jan. 19 to Feb. 24 (coc.ca). The TSO's Mozart@261 Festival is now under way at Toronto's Koerner Hall, through Jan. 21 (tso.ca).

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