By Stew Slater, Staff reporter
There was a 12-month span not too many years ago during which James Westman was home with his family for just 35 days. But due to a variety of factors — some economic in nature; but others reflecting his desire to experience the upbringing of his two sons — that’s all in the past.
“I definitely do take more time off now,” said Kirkton-area native Westman, an internationally renowned baritone who has made his home in Stratford for several years.
“We get out to the farm on weekends as often as we can. I get to help my Dad,” on a family farm that has been in the Westman family since 1871. A nearby property has been worked by a different branch of the family since before 1850.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, June 19-20, Westman will be part of a concert entitled “Last Night of the Proms,” with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO) being joined by soprano Laura Whelan, trumpeter Alison Balsom and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir.
“It’s going to be a lot of fun,” he said of the concert, which is billed in TSO promotional material as a presentation of “joyful flag-waving and your favourite British tunes.” Selections include Pomp and Circumstance, Jerusalem, and Rule Brittania.
“With the Queen’s Jubilee happening, it should be a wonderful time,” Westman commented.
For some, it might seem like a significant undertaking to travel to Roy Thomson Hall for a concert. For Westman, though, trips to Toronto have been a part of his life since moving back to this area several years ago. He says a major factor in his family’s decision was the cost of living in the big city.
“I honestly don’t know how a young family does it,” he said. “We know some people in similar circumstances as us who are doing it, but we just couldn’t have the same comfort level as we do here, if we had stayed in Toronto.”
Since the global economic downturn of 2008, the sought-after opera performer told the Journal Argus in a recent interview, the nature of his performance opportunities has altered significantly.
“It’s not that I travel less. But it’s just there’s been a change in the types of shows I’m doing.”
When he first performed with the TSO, at the tender age of 12, he had just returned from a series of overseas performances with the Boston Symphony. In the intervening years, he went on to perform around the world, portraying famous characters in the most well-known of operas, on the most respected of stages.
Since 2008, however, he explains, opera companies generally have fewer financial resources than they did in the past. The effect has been felt most significantly in the United States, where over 40 small opera companies — almost exclusively in smaller cities — closed their doors last year. The US organizations, he says, were affected most because they tend to rely the most on donations from private citizens — who, in contrast to the more restrictive tax rules in Canada, can use such contributions to write off a huge proportion for charitable refunds.
“Those (opera) companies in California and some other states, they saw their annual budgets go from a healthy amount to only about five per cent of what they had before, because those wealthy landowners suddenly didn’t have anything left to contribute,” Westman said of the effects of the economic downturn on US arts organizations.
Those that remain have been pressured, meanwhile, to hire local performers — or, at least, performers from their own country. Even in Canada, the approximately 10 major opera companies have started to implement similar strategies.
The result, for Westman, has been more opportunities to perform in Canada. There’s still lots of travelling — in the two weeks prior to his TSO engagement, he’s in Quebec City performing in Carmina Burana, then in Vancouver playing a role in a new opera created by Bramwell Tovey, the conductor with whom he’ll collaborate during the TSO show.
He’s also happy to take on concerts like the upcoming Last Night of the Proms, which allow him to step away from what he lovingly refers to as the “organized shouting” of classical opera.
“It’s true. It really is — with the emphasis on ‘organized’,” Westman laughs. He describes operatic theatre as an art form steeped in tradition, that takes years and years to master but can also present risks to the performer’s voice. “You have to train your voice to sing above an orchestra, without amplification.”
“When you get to sing a recital, you get to hone your voice a little more,” he adds, referring to the upcoming TSO engagement.
Westman laughs again when it’s suggested he doesn’t run into too many other southwestern Ontario farm kids in his international travels to perform in operas. “You’d be surprised,” he responds, then names off several colleagues in the opera world — some of them extremely well-known — who were raised on farms, one as close by as the Kitchener area.
“I think there must be something about growing up on the farm, being out in the country, and being able to sing out loud without anybody around to hear you.”
And, although he admits it would probably be more difficult now than it was in the 1980s for a 12-year-old from southwestern Ontario to build a career as an opera singer (like the US-based opera companies, the high-profile San Francisco school he attended as a youth has now stopped accepting international students), he believes that may change if the global economy improves.
He also believes that, with so much of today’s popular music being essentially manufactured in a studio or on a computer, there’s an increased appetite among young people for forms of music like opera. “I was performing in Vancouver recently, and I remember being amazed by the population that was coming to the opera,” he noted. “There were so many young people.”
“People are tired of a lot of today’s popular music. And opera is different from that.”
For information about the TSO concert, visit www.tso.ca or call Ticketmaster at 855-985-2787.