Music Issue: Fulfilling potential through opera

Editor’s note: As the Juno Awards 2013 prepare to celebrate the best of Canadian music this weekend, Western Journalism students help us celebrate the best in Western Music. Read the full Music Issue.

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You hear Theodore Baerg before you ever see him.

It starts with a playful whistle in the distance. Then suddenly, his powerful baritone voice reverberates through the halls of the Don Wright Faculty of Music Building, causing both students and bystanders to stare in amazement. The words from Love Unspoken, a song from the opera The Merry Widow, flow through the hallway with the force and steadiness expected from a world-renowned opera singer.

As you enter his office, you’re greeted by a gleaming grand piano and a row of bookshelves overflowing with scripts and folios. Along the far wall runs a mosaic of black and white photographs – candid pictures of past performances, memorable roles and former students— snapshots of a dazzling operatic career that has spanned more than 40 years.

It is a career that has taken him around the world and ultimately led to his role as voice and opera professor at Western’s Faculty of Music. But as the son of a Mennonite minister growing up in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Baerg’s first stage was the church pulpit.

“Growing up, we had a lot of music in church and a lot of singing. We sang like crazy,” he said.

Baerg’s childhood was filled with music, taking violin and piano lessons at a young age. The 60-year-old father of two chuckles as he remembers his high school gospel rock band, the Gospel Minstrels. Baerg, who played the electric violin, said performing with the band helped him realize his potential as a singer.

“The guys figured we should have some vocal music in the band, so I began to sing and as soon as I sang they said ‘Why on Earth are you playing? You should be singing, you sing way better.’ ”

Baerg enrolled in the music program at Waterloo Lutheran University, now known as Wilfred Laurier University, in 1972. He discovered opera in his first-year after watching a performance of Gianni Schicchi.

“The guy playing the leading role was hysterical,” Baerg said. “I remember sitting in the theatre with a group of friends, laughing, and looking at somebody and saying ‘I’m totally gonna do that. That’s cool.’ ”

Baerg’s first professional operatic role came as Figaro in The Barber of Seville. That role sparked a career with performances at more than 50 international venues, and a repertoire of more than 90 roles.

He has performed at the San Francisco Opera, New York City Opera as well as the Canadian Opera Company and his long list of roles includes Danilo in The Merry Widow, Haji in Kismet, and the title role in Alain Berg’s Wozzeck.

Baerg, who is married to fellow opera singer Irena Welhasch-Baerg, began teaching at Western in 1996.

Before his arrival, Western only staged one operatic performance a year; the department now produces three.

Molly Bonin, a third-year master’s student, says Baerg is a firm but supportive instructor. “He takes no prisoners and expects you to come to lessons prepared, but he’s also very supportive,” Bonin said. “To have a good balance of that is extremely difficult to find in a teacher.”

For Baerg, the ultimate goal of an artist is to bring joy to people through music.

“Art is a way to express ourselves. We are not saving lives, we are not curing cancer- but we can give people a great sense of joy by simply hearing art and seeing art,” he said. “That’s important and we have a great privilege as artists to give people that.”