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Grand tradition: Alexander Gray 1929-1998.

THE FOOTHILLS OF THE ROCKIES WERE ALIVE WITH the sound of music when Quebec-born baritone and opera soloist Alexander Gray decided to make his home in Calgary in 1971. At the relatively new University of Calgary, the ebullient Chicago-born composer Richard Johnston was creating a musical centre where talented musicians could compose and perform, as he put it, "in the shadow of the Canadian Rockies." Up the road in the Rockies themselves, the Banff Festival of the Arts was emerging as a small event with great expectations.

Gray, who had been one of Johnston's students at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto during the 1950s, was 42 years old and at the height of his musical powers when he arrived in Calgary. He had been singing lead roles with the Canadian Opera Company for 16 years--Figaro in Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Marcello in La Boheme and Ford in The Merry Wives of Windsor, to name a few--and had just completed a two-year stint as principal baritone with the Kiel State Opera in Germany. With his wife Joyce Hill, formerly a dancer with the National Ballet, and their three sons, Gray came to Calgary at Johnston's invitation to take up a temporary, Canada Council-funded position as resident musician at U of C.

Gray gave his first Calgary recital a few weeks after his arrival. Local reviewers were ecstatic. "The only apt description could be spellbinding," wrote Bill Musselwhite in the Calgary Herald. "If any University of Calgary official lets Alexander Gray leave the university, he deserves to be certified incompetent." As it turned out, Gray didn't leave. He remained at the university for the next 23 years, teaching in the faculty of music. He also spent a dozen years as head of the opera division at what was then the Banff School of Fine Arts--today the Banff Centre--teaching and staging musicals, and he maintained a full date book of guest singing engagements with opera companies across North America and abroad.

Additionally, in May 1972 he became the founding artistic director of Calgary Opera, then called the Southern Alberta Opera Association. Gray was appointed in May, a month after the Association was incorporated by a group of Calgary businessmen and music-lovers. Gray's first production for the fledgling company, La Boheme, was staged in March 1973.

Gray used his talent in many ways. As a singer, he had as much fun playing such musical-comedy roles as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof or Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha as he did essaying the roles of Sharpless in Madama Butterfly or Guglielmo in Cosi fan Tutte. "I find it a pleasant change," he said, as he prepared to star in Man of La Mancha at the Banff Centre in 1972. "When my students come and ask whether they should do something different or stick to one area, I tell them to get out and perform."

His own performing before he arrived in Calgary had encompassed such varied activities as doing summer stock in Toronto during the early 1950s, to performing in Gilbert and Sullivan productions on the Stratford Festival's Avon Theatre stage during the early 1960s, to singing on CBC Radio and appearing in CBC TV productions of Otello and Rigoletto back in the days when the national broadcaster still had its own opera company. "We were extremely busy all the time," said Gray in 1986. "I guess we were very fortunate." Gray had also toured as a soloist, and had sung short-term opera engagements in the U.S. from New York and Dallas to Pittsburgh and Portland. "It was really a hectic time, when I rarely saw my children."

Perhaps his greatest musical challenge came in 1986 when Gray, his wife Joyce and two other couples pooled $200,000 to mount a week-long, fully professional production of The Sound of Music at Calgary's 2,700-seat Jubilee Auditorium. His hope was to take the profits from that show, which received no government or corporate grants of any kind, and put them toward subsequent Calgary productions of such popular musicals as Carousel, Showboat and Brigadoon. Sadly, the box-office receipts for The Sound of Music fell $20,000 below target, leaving him without the funds to keep the project going.

Gray acknowledged that he learned a lot from the experience but, ever the musical pioneer, he then announced plans to start up a musical-theatre training school in Calgary. Unfortunately, that venture never got off the ground either. Heart problems finally curtailed Gray's musical activities. He retired from the university in 1994 at age 65 and moved to Victoria, where he died on October 6, 1998, at age 69.

Brian Brennan is a columnist with the Calgary Herald
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Author:Brennan, Brian
Publication:Opera Canada
Article Type:Obituary
Date:Jun 22, 1999
Words:784
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