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UBC Reports | Vol. 51 | No. 2 | Feb. 3, 2005

Young Tenor’s Star on the Rise

By Brenda Austin

Philippe Castagner was handed a unique opportunity last summer to showcase his talent. And he made the most of it. Asked to jump in at short notice, the former UBC opera student performed at the June 2004 Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina, earning reviews that dubbed him the next great tenor of this century.

The 26-year-old’s star has risen in bursts since various roles as an opera student at UBC in 2001-02. Castagner won a whirlwind set of auditions held by the Metropolitan Opera National Council while still with UBC’s opera ensemble, first in Vancouver, then Seattle and finally New York, leading to his present role as Beppe in I Pagliacci at the Metropolitan Opera. And he has just been named a Young Concert Artist award-winner in a competition that included 300 applicants from 43 countries. The rewards include concert engagements, publicity and career development for three or more years.

On his own admission, Castagner was an unfocused student in his early years at UBC. And he almost did not come in the first place. It was luck that led him here, when his high school choir teacher suggested he apply for university in Canada to study music. The Canadian-born, but New Jersey-raised, teenager did not read music and had never considered it, but worked hard on his grades and gained acceptance to UBC.

“He resided on the third floor couch much of his first two years in the School of Music,” recalls Nancy Hermiston,” director of the UBC voice and opera programs. “Then he decided he wanted to be an opera singer.”

Castagner remembers himself as a twitchy singer, diagnosed at one time with attention deficit disorder. Hermiston remembers him in an acting class as unable to stand still.

“I had to stand behind him when he sang with one hand on top of his head, one arm around him and a leg over his ankles to refocus the energy,” says Hermiston. “Over the course of two to three months this beautiful voice came out. It was like peeling off layers of tension to reveal an intensely musical performer.”

UBC taught Castagner the process, but he has continued to learn about the effective use of the body through the Alexander technique. He says, “The system doesn’t discriminate between mind and body. It teaches one to inhibit habits and replace them with conscious choices, so one works through the body. This is very important in the theatre world, and gaining acceptance in the music world.”

Coming from a French-Canadian family, he spoke French at home and English outside. Bilingualism leaves the mind receptive to other languages, he says, and he is now fluent in Italian and working on German.

Castagner had his stage debut with the UBC opera ensemble in the role of Slender in the Merry Wives of Windsor, and in 2001 and 2002 in the role of Danforth in the Crucible. His professional concert debut in 2001 was with the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra, performing the Verdi Requiem, and he returns there this season for performances of the Berlioz Requiem.

Castagner made his debut at the Metropolitan opera in the 2002-03 season, as the First Prisoner in Fidelio, and returned during the 2003-04 season as the Second Watchman in Die Frau Ohne Schatten. He has also worked with the San Francisco Opera, the Aspen Festival Orchestra and the Portland Opera.

Much as he appreciates the classics, Castagner would like to see new operas written to attract a larger audience.

“We don’t want to be museum curators,” he says. “The field is struggling artistically. We need innovation, to think outside of the box. It is hard to attract younger audiences. Perhaps we can use audio-visuals. If Wagner had known about animation he would have had no problem with it, as long as it was done well.”

A Profile: UBC Opera Ensemble

The UBC opera ensemble, now built into a 50-member company, performs two main productions at UBC every season. Main stage productions for the 2004/05 season at The Chan Centre for Performing Arts are Offenbach’s comedy Orpheus in the Underworld and Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin.

This year the ensemble will tour the Lower Mainland and Interior of B.C. with their children’s show Opera Night in Canada.

Each summer, the ensemble also tours in the Czech Republic and Germany to provide performance opportunities for young opera singers, including the production of new operatic and music theatre works.

Spring 2004 saw two productions there of Puccini’s La Boheme and Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. Plans are being made for productions this summer of Mozart’s Cosi fan Tutte and Handel’s Xerxes.

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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