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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As a boy, John O. Hess was expected to sing in the church choir his mother directed. His family also sang before meals and sang on car trips.
But as a young man Hess hated opera, an art he thought was the domain of “big fat people singing and making loud noises.”
“It was just this stupid thing that I had no real connection to at all,” said Hess, a Western Music professor billed as an authority on contemporary opera in Canada.
It wasn’t until Hess was about 30 years old and working on a doctorate in musical arts at the University of Michigan that he discovered how opera connected his love of singing to his loves of literature and music. By the early 1990s, Hess was working in the contemporary opera music theatre program at the Banff Centre for the Arts and in 1995 he co-founded a contemporary opera company with his wife Dáirine Ní Mheadhra.
“There was a sort of an inevitability about the whole thing,” Hess said.
Hess was born in Kitchener and raised in Toronto, the son of a Mennonite minister. His father, the late John Henry Hess, was a liberal thinker who taught his children to question everything. That sense of curiosity fueled Hess’ love of anything contemporary and unusual.
Hess studied at the University of Toronto and Western before teaching piano at the University of Calgary for three years. He then completed his doctorate and freelanced as a pianist for about 15 years before joining the faculty at Western in 1998.
As a freelancer, Hess worked with Western voice instructor Jackie Short, who at the time was an up-and-coming opera singer. Short used three words to describe her first impressions of Hess: energetic, crazy and open.
“John is multi-dimensional, in that when you meet him you think he’s very cerebral,” Short said. “But when you get to know John you find that he is hilarious, fearless, doesn’t take himself too seriously.”
Short went on to perform with Queen of Puddings Music Theatre, the Toronto-based opera company Hess and Ní Mheadhra founded. The company is named after an Irish dessert and its mandate is to create new work rather than performances of existing works, Hess said.
Its productions have included an opera about black slavery in Nova Scotia called Beatrice Chancy, and an irreverent take on the shorter plays of Samuel Beckett called Beckett: Feck It!
Queen of Puddings pours resources into its artists rather than sets and expensive costumes, Hess said.
No two productions are the same, but they all deal with an “economy of forces” that aims to produce opera with a small ensemble, he said.
“If someone came along and said, ‘Here. You can have a million dollars,’ we wouldn’t start commissioning grand opera with elephants,” Hess said. “We would probably just do more of what we’re already doing.”
Hess acknowledged that opera falls outside some definitions of popular music, but said he believes it is a relevant art form in the midst of a renaissance.
“I think we’re in a very exciting period of time with opera in North America,” he said. “It’s actually flourishing.”