by Anne Fullerton
Published at 2017-06-29
Dr. Bartolo's Umbrella and Other Tales from My Surprising Operatic Life
By Christopher Cameron
Published by Seraphim Editions, 2017
Former TEC editor Christopher Cameron's Dr. Bartolo's Umbrella is an entertaining, informative, and cheeky look at an individual's experiences working in Canadian opera. The book takes the reader through the journey of Cameron's unlikely musical beginnings, lucky breaks, hard work, and various roles within the Canadian classical music scene. He weaves an enjoyable tale of how he was able to pursue and achieve success in something he not only enjoyed, but was good at.
Cameron relays his unpredictable beginnings as a suburban youth who was somewhat uninterested in school, and uninterested—or even reluctant—to take up music. He didn’t find his stride in academics, but after teaching himself the trumpet, music began to follow him throughout his adolescence. His passion grew as he buried himself in classical music and Toronto Symphony Orchestra performances. In high school musicals he was surprised that others could not pick up, read, and interpret the music as quickly as he could, and so he began to realize his aptitude for music, and for singing.
In his memoir, Cameron offers the readers what, in his opinion and experience, are necessities to become a successful performer, an important one being seizing opportunities when they become available—and Cameron certainly did this. His career began as a super (or background member) of operas, where he realized his fervour for the excitement of the stage and live performance. He continued on to perform in well-respected choirs and chorales throughout Ontario.
His memoir is also an honest one, and he is very clear that his experiences were not always successful or desirable. He unashamedly describes one of his early ensemble vocal performances as having “emitted more bleats than a sheep farm at shearing time” (70), and is upfront about the reality of sometimes accepting income and jobs that were less than glamorous.
Cameron is perhaps not the individual you would expect to author a memoir of the opera. He describes himself as too small and not loud enough to be a proper opera singer (especially a bass one), but his costumes, makeup, and performance training helped spur him on to success. He was also at times a big-headed character who did not mind a few glasses of beer to kill time between performances. As well, while the opera can be an intimidating place for newcomers, Cameron’s conversational tone makes it an accessible read. His humour and often self-mocking style highlight the bizarre and funny behind-the-scenes incidences of opera life. His anecdotes of this nature are one-of-a-kind and not to be missed or easily forgotten.
Dr. Bartolo’s Umbrella also offers its readers a historical and social look at the Canadian opera scene, with Cameron working and socializing with some of the most respected names in Canadian music. It also provides practical and technical wisdom and insight into the world of classical music performance, including staging, makeup, tech, stage management, and direction, as well as accessible enlightenment into the mechanics of singing.
Although of course unique to his own experience, Cameron’s memoir will resonate with many readers as it goes through the unexpected and unwanted circumstances that come with life—travel disruptions, unsuccessful competitions, and personal defeats. But it also traces the uplifting sentiments of finding and pursuing something you love, and eventually realizing when it is time to move on from that pursuit. Art and life imitate one another, and both are unpredictable beasts—or as Cameron writes, “on the stage or anywhere else—we are never totally in charge of anything” (201).
Although at times self-congratulatory, Cameron ultimately takes little credit for the success he achieved. He chalks much of it up to good fortune and being in the right place at the right time. Without a doubt, he enjoyed a colourful career in a field that few of us have insight into—until now. Cameron expertly describes his time on stage as “so terrifying and so delicious” (194), and through the stories and descriptions in Dr. Bartolo's Umbrella, you certainly get a taste for this sentiment.
For more of Chris's writing, check out his blog, Lyricycle!