For a young artist, it doesn't get much better than this. The review in The Varsity, the University of Toronto's student newspaper, launched the star of the Victoria College Music Club's production of Guys and Dolls with the kind of rave notice sonic some singers wait for all their lives.
The Globe and Mails Herbert Whittaker noticed the up-and-coming mezzo, too, lauding her authentic-sounding Bronx accent, which, of course, she did not pick up during her childhood years in the leafy, middle-class Toronto neighborhood of Leaside. What she did pick up from just down the street were lessons from one of Toronto's best-known singing teachers, Helen Simmie. But this is perhaps getting ahead of the story.
It could be argued that the seeds of the Stubbs career were actually sown much earlier in a performance of Gilbert and Sullivan's Iolanthe, conducted by her high-school teacher father. She was only a tot at the time, but her mother, also a teacher, recalls that young Janet didn't move a muscle. It was her mother who later suggested that her daughter take voice lessons. Not that life on the wicked stage was anticipated. Singing in school choirs had simply revealed the presence of a nice voice.
English was Janet's major at Victoria University (part of the University of Toronto), her stage career in first year consisting of no more than a tiny role in a student review. Otherwise, she ushered. It was in her third year that she auditioned for Guys and Dolls, preparing by singing her way through the year in the family living room, hoping to land the role of Sister Sarah.
After three callbacks, she eventually landed the more secular role of Nathan Detroit's sneezy spouse-to-be. Was this the start of a definitive stage career? Not quite. Although musical comedy became her first love, she enjoyed her three years in the groves of academe and wanted more. With a couple of older cousins as inspiration, she enrolled in the faculty of law, receiving encouragement from a professor who later became a member of her operatic public, Horace (subsequently Mr justice) Creever.
The law might have claimed her on a permanent basis had a friend who happened to be a member of the Canadian Opera Company Chorus not taken her to a dress rehearsal of The Merry Widow, with the dashing John Reardon as Count Danilo. "This is good," she thought--almost like musical comedy.
She did take first steps toward a legal career, articling with McCarthy and McCarthy and then joining a small firm, but for less than a year. Fate, in the form of one of CBC television's last major operatic adventures, intervened. Teresa Straw starred in Norman Campbell's lavish production of Puccini's La rondine and Janet Stubbs joined the chorus. Helen Simmie, with whom she had continued to study, suggested that an operatic career could be hers for the asking.
And, finally, ask she did. In the spring of 1972, knowing just two arias (one of them the "Seguidilla" from Carmen), she auditioned for both the Canadian Opera Chorus and the University of Toronto Opera School, winning admission to both. In her second year in the chorus, the COC revived The Jerry Widow, and this time she actually got to dance with John Reardon, who blew the bloom off the rose by taking her in her arms, peering at her coiffure and costume and declaring, "Well, they've made a mess of you."
Smitten nonetheless, the ill-costumed chorister could be seen regularly lurking in the wings at the O'Keefe Centre (now the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts), watching the soloists and learning their parts. Eventually, she began to be offered them herself, beginning as a Peasant Woman in Herman Geiger-Torel's 1974 production of Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov.
A charter member of the company's resident Ensemble, she rose quickly through the ranks to bigger parts under Geiger-Torel's successor as company director. Lotfi Mansouri saw in the young singer the embodiment of an artist, one who always turned up at rehearsals prepared, always behaved with the discipline of a professional and always gave the audience her best. The lady was not without gratitude. In recent years, in her post-operatic career, she has been instrumental in arranging for Mansouri to return to Toronto periodically to give master classes and work with students at the University of Toronto Faculty of Music and the Canadian Opera Company, inspiring them the way he inspired her.
Stubbs estimates she did about 40 roles with Mansouri, including the one that almost became her signature, Bizet's Carmen, which she sang for the first time, modestly enough, in Thunder Bay. She portrayed Carmen as a free spirit rather than a sexpot, a gypsy rather than a fallen woman, having been drawn to the role by its histrionic as well as vocal challenges. The role of Nicklausse in Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann became another favorite for similar reasons. Never just a voice on stage, the lady from Leaside was just as interested in being an actress.
Although active across Canada and occasionally in the United States--the late Erich Kunzel, maestro of the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, invited her to sing Maria in The Sound of Music and other roles took her to Chicago's Ravinia Festival and Portland, Oregon--the COC became the principal focus of her operatic career.
Acknowledging that she was no Joan Sutherland (although Sutherland reportedly loved singing opposite her page Smeaton in Donizetti's Anna Bolena), Stubbs insists that she wound up going farther as a singer, in concert as well as stage work, than she had ever imagined. But she hadn't forgotten her affection for the law, and, in 1988, after 17 or so years of active singing, decided to hang up her castanets.
When she told Mansouri and others at the COC of her decision, she was invited to combine her legal and stage skills and join the company's administrative staff, serving as Director of Music Administration from 1989-'91. Thus began a second career almost as fulfilling as the first.
Even before hanging up those castanets, she had become involved in the project to build Toronto a real opera house, acting on the selection committee that chose Moshe Safdie as architect and then as Mansouri's representative on the design conunittee. The house at Bay and Wellesley streets would never be built, of course, and the erstwhile Carmen recalls reminding Bob Rae of their joint roles in the doomed project when they both participated in the 2002 50th anniversary celebrations of the University of Toronto's law faculty. As Ontario premier, Rae had urged the ballet-opera house board to come back to him with a smaller budget. When the board refused, he withdrew provincial support and the project unraveled. It was a blow from which Mansouri's successor, Brian Dickie, failed to recover, and Stubbs was not alone in departing from his eventually demoralized staff.
Although subsequently bringing her experience to bear on the architect-selection process for Mississauga's Living Arts Centre, it was through running the Ontario Arts Foundation for almost 15 years from 1995 that she made one of her biggest later contributions to the arts scene. A non-governmental sister organization to the Ontario Arts Council, the Foundation was set up to help channel private money into the arts, its Arts Endowment Fund program aiming to provide a measure of security badly needed by arts and producing organizations, with the COG, Opera Atelier, Queen of Puddings Music Theatre, Opera Lyra Ottawa and this magazine only a few of the beneficiaries of matching funds from the provincial government.
Another project she shepherded was the vocal competition honoring the late Louis Quilico, but honors also came her way. Hal Jackman, Chair of the Foundation, established a fellowship in her name at the University of Toronto Opera School, and she was included in an exhibition of 15 women "trail blazers" celebrated by the law faculty, photographed for the exhibition as a diva throwing rose petals into the air.
"I have never met anyone with so many facets," says Mansouri. "As an artist, she offered a combination of intelligence and musicality And unlike some singers, she never blew her own horn.
"I regard her as a model for young artists. She served every role, immersing herself in the dramatic situation. And she always behaved as a member of an ensemble. It was never just about Janet Stubbs."
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|Title Annotation:||2012 OPERA CANADA AWARDS|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2012|
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