By Joshua Chong Staff Reporter
One night, some two decades ago, made a lasting impression on maestro Jordan de Souza and fundamentally changed his relationship with music.
It was a performance of Richard Wagner’s final “Ring Cycle” opera, the epic “Götterdämmerung,” at the Canadian Opera Company (COC). De Souza, at the time, was only a teenager and the production at the Hummingbird Centre, the COC’s former home, was one of his first operatic experiences.
He vividly remembers the “mythical power” of Wagner’s score and how former COC conductor Richard Bradshaw led the orchestra, “like some kind of sorcerer.”
“I was just sitting there, enthralled,” de Souza recalled. “And I didn’t even watch the stage because I couldn’t believe what was going on in the pit: what the musicians were doing together and this sound they were creating.”
De Souza is returning to the COC this fall as the company remounts its acclaimed production of “La Bohème,” running at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts from Oct. 6 to 28. But instead of sitting in the audience, the 35-year-old conductor will lead the orchestra and ensemble that offered him that unforgettable introduction to opera all those years ago.
Though de Souza has conducted Giacomo Puccini’s romantic tragedy numerous times around the world, the personal significance of this upcoming COC production is not lost on the Mississauga native.
“It feels very special,” de Souza said in an interview at the COC’s downtown rehearsal space. “The fact that my mother, nieces, nephews, high school teachers, childhood friends will be there kind of puts everything into perspective.”
Spend any time with de Souza and you’ll likely hear stories of his musical family. It’s them, he said, who led him to the path he’s on today.
The second youngest of eight siblings, de Souza grew up in a household filled with music, “where the idea of three pianos being played simultaneously was very normal.” He, himself, started playing the piano early on before picking up the organ at age nine, an instrument he continued to learn through his time at McGill University.
Even though he’s a professional conductor, de Souza can still spend hours in front of a piano or organ, often playing Bach. It’s an activity, he said, that grounds him.
“There’s no greater pleasure for me, musically, than to practise Bach, slowly by myself,” he said. “There’s something about the complexity of it that lends itself to eternal analysis and discovery.”
That analytical mindset and curiosity also permeates de Souza’s work as a conductor. He lights up when he describes his process of engaging with a score, poring over the phrasing of a passage at his piano or sitting down at his desk to analyze a work’s overall structure.
A score is “still just dead notes on a page. It’s a last testament in a way of a composer,” he said. “My goal is to understand that to the best of my ability … trying to find this colour.”
De Souza has been conducting for more than half his life, first as a teenager in school, where his teachers gave him the opportunity to lead his choir. He then cut his teeth in Toronto as an assistant conductor for both the COC and National Ballet of Canada, as well as the resident conductor for Tapestry Opera. Later, between 2017 and 2020, he was the kapellmeister (leader of the orchestra) of the Komische Oper Berlin.
Though de Souza has explored other forms of classical music, from ballet to choral works — he also wants to try musical theatre some day — opera, he said, will always be home.
“The sheer impossibility of the premise of opera is crazy. We’re going to put a bunch of people in wigs and makeup and shine really bright lights in their eyes, and then they’re going to try and be together with 100 musicians sitting underneath the stage,” he said. “The potential for disaster in opera is so great. I kind of love that: being the guy that’s supposed to hold it together.”
De Souza is a bit of an enigma, a down-to-earth, earnest personality who brings an old-school approach to his work but also a youthful energy and willingness to strike out in new directions.
He talks with equal zeal of his operatic endeavours as his passion for sports. (Though Berlin is his home base, he still keeps up to date with all the Toronto sports scores.)
And he dreams, one day, of bringing those two world together: what if, he asked, he could collaborate with the Raptors and invite some of Toronto’s basketball stars to a classical concert? He also bets they’d play better if they changed their game-day walkout music to Prokofiev or Mahler, or even Beethoven’s sweeping “Seventh Symphony.”
But what drives de Souza is his passion for music education. He talked extensively of his musical upbringing and what society could be if every person had access to those similar opportunities. Even with his busy schedule of rehearsals and performances, he’s still finding time during this visit to Toronto to conduct workshops at the University of Toronto and with students at his alma mater, St. Michael’s Choir School.
“It’s a dream come true to stand on the podium of the COC and conduct this production, but I’m hoping that it enables me to help encourage a better discussion of how we can best serve the next generation,” he said. “That is my greatest interest right now.”
The COC’s production of “La Bohème” runs from Oct. 6 to 28 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen St. W. See coc.ca for tickets or call 416-363-8231.