It’s been a while since Phillip Ens was in Victoria.
The last time the Canadian bass opera singer appeared on a stage in the B.C. capital was early on in his career when he made his Pacific Opera Victoria (POV) debut as Figaro in the production of The Marriage of Figaro during the 1990s.
Ens’ career has skyrocketed since then, and he’s returned to Victoria to take on the role of Fiesco in Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra. It’s a role Ens is familiar with, having performed the character with the Canadian Opera Company in 2009, but it’s still one he has a tough time describing.
“He’s the most senior character in this opera. He’s a man of nobility and honour and has a deep love for his clan,” said Ens. “Verdi puts it into the music so well that the best way I think to get the character is to honour the music and to love it and sing it well.”
The production is described as a political thriller based on a real-life historical figure, and is one of Verdi’s most complex and dramatic operas, featuring vivid characters and some of the most beautiful and haunting music he ever wrote.
The title character, Simon Boccanegra, is a former pirate who is elected doge (duke) of 14th century Genoa. The opera spans many years, in which he grapples with the chaos of politics and the unwavering enmity of the man whose daughter he once seduced.
Boccanegra learns very quickly that politics is nasty and uses every means at his disposal to maintain his power. When Boccanegra’s long-lost daughter re-enters his life, everything changes and he must struggle to protect her while facing down rebellion.
The original version of the opera premiered in 1857 and was labelled a fiasco by Verdi. But the composer remained fond of the work and welcomed the opportunity nearly 25 years later to revisit his creation with librettist Arrigo Boito. The revised opera is now considered one of Verdi’s most magnificent achievements.
“I love Verdi and it’s (Simon Boccanegra) a different kind of Verdi. It has your traditional grand moments, but it has these heart wrenching moments that I find haunting,” said Ens, who’s been singing for 30 years and was invited by POV artistic director Timothy Vernon to perform in the production that involves a cast of Canadian and international singers.
“I think he’s (Vernon) done such a great job with the opera in this town and with this company…It’s pretty incredible that Victoria is producing this level of performing arts.”
Born and raised in Manitoba, Ens got into opera when a relative of his (who lived in Victoria and sang tenor as a hobby), suggested he get into singing as well. The pair performed a duo in Manitoba that Ens deemed a success, sparking his relative to make a few phone calls to some of his connections in the business.
At first Ens wasn’t sure about opera, but the more he understood and experienced it, the more he started to love it and it got into his blood. In 1985, he made his operatic debut with the Manitoba Opera, followed by appearances with several opera companies across North America and Europe. Now Ens is based out of Germany and splits his time between Europe and Canada.
“Opera is something, especially in North America, many people don’t know that well so sometimes it can be very hard to relate to,” said Ens.
“It seems so absurd and so over the top and so unnatural, but at the same time, I believe when it’s well done and well sung and you have the right opportunity to experience that, it can be very moving and have a deep impact on a person.”
American Todd Thomas, who returned to Victoria to perform lago in last season’s Otello, will sing the character of Boccanegra.
The production takes place on select days between Oct. 13 and 23 at the Royal Theatre. For more information call 250-385-0222 or visit pov.bc.ca.