Bye-bye Brunhild

Riki Turofsky has a build that would break glass

JACK BATTEN October 1 1974

Bye-bye Brunhild

Riki Turofsky has a build that would break glass

JACK BATTEN October 1 1974

Bye-bye Brunhild

Riki Turofsky has a build that would break glass

JACK BATTEN

The atmosphere in Hamilton Place, an elegant new theatre-concert hall, was solemn. The audience was sublimely tensed. The orchestra and chorus were on stage and in position: 76 members of the Hamilton Philharmonic, 130 men and women from the city’s Bach-Elgar Choir, and 32 cute kids from the Canadian Children’s Opera Chorus. A few subdued minutes fled by, and the evening’s four principals entered from stage left: conductor Boris Brott, a handsome, robust baritone named Julian Patrick, a tall, beak-nosed tenor named Albert Greer and — whoosh — a young woman whose appearance instantly conjured up the glamour and razzmatazz of a Hollywood sound stage more than the hush and reverence of a serious concert hall. The woman was slim, exotic, blond and tumble-haired in the style of a folk singer. She was dressed in a flowing, deep green, medieval gown that was cut in front to reveal almost as much cleavage as your average streaker exposes. All eyes fixed on her cheerfully insouciant stroll to centre stage, and a murmur went up from the packed house that, in the stillness, had the explosive impact of a bomb burst.

Riki Turofsky, soprano, had just completed another grand entrance.

The entrance was for a performance at Hamilton Place late this spring of Carl Orffs Carmina Burana. It’s a charming and witty work for orchestra and vocalists, just the vehicle for the Turofsky voice, but in a conversation a few days before the concert about the Turofsky visual effect the owner of all the talent went straight to the heart of the matter: “I always do well with the audience, especially with audiences that aren’t all that familiar with opera. They come to the hall expecting some 300pound soprano and they get me instead. Lots of times, standing up there on the stage, I can hear them gasp.”

Riki Turofsky is like no other concert and opera singer you're likely to come across in Canada. In one photograph from her new brochure, she registers as a dead ringer for Raquel Welch dressed

for her movie role in The Three Musketeers. In another picture, she gives off an undeniable charge of Xaviera Hollander, the infamous Happy Hooker.

Needless to say, her stunning looks have stirred controversial skirmishes in the tradition-heavy world of serious music. John Fraser, a music critic for the Globe and Mail, pinpointed the predicament in a review of a Turofsky performance in April of this year: “Her coloratura voice is certainly not the most scintillating on the opera stage or concert circuit. But the lady does have a remarkable presence and for every purist she infuriates she probably wins 10 converts to the cause of singing and opera. Just by stepping out on the stage, she won two thirds of her audience.”

It would be unfair and inaccurate to balance all of Turofsky’s appeal on her physical endowments. She can. after all, sing too. In the past couple of years she’s commanded jobs all over the continent that mark her as somewhere between a comer and a star. She alternated with the great Beverly Sills in the lead role of Donizetti’s Daughter Of The Regiment for the Houston Opera, and she sang Frasquita in Bizet’s Carmen for the New York City Opera. She’s taken frequent roles with the Canadian Opera Company, and her tour this spring with Carmina Burana topped off a season in which she appeared with virtually ever/ major Canadian orchestra.

So she’s in demand, and North America’s music critics have decided that she’s someone who must be dealt with. The consensus among them is that, at this comparatively early stage of her career, her voice is tenuous in the upper range. In critics’ jargon, “tenuous” can mean shrill or forced and tense. Nothing, in short, especially complimentary. But all reviewers agree that Turofsky has a rich, full medium range and that on overall talent she is at least promising and very likely something much grander. Max Wyman, the critic for the Vancouver Sun, expressed the opinion of her admirers in a review in late 1973: “Miss Turofsky has matured into a

singer of great grace and ability,” he wrote. “Because beyond the vocal gymnastics, beyond the decorative tricks, beyond the command and control — all of which are impressive in themselves — there is the natural ease that marks the true singer and the potentially great.”

Turofsky pays heed to the critics — she keeps eight fat scrapbooks of clippings faithfully up to date — but in person she exudes an air of tough independence. If one word sums up her outlook, it’s Ambition.

“I know what it takes to make it in opera and concert singing,” she said recently, sitting in her living room and sipping a cool drink she’d concocted out of orange juice and Pernod. “It takes a little temperament and a lot of ego. You must be dependable, get to rehearsals on time and so on. You’ve got to be careful of your body. There are plenty of people in my business who lead wild sex lives and drink till they’re plastered. Not me. Everything in absolute moderation. And you’ve got to work hard. Don’t tell me about inspiration. It’s hard work that earns you the top roles. You see, the world is full of beautiful voices, but they’re lazy beautiful voices. You’ve got to be responsible to the talent you start with, and then you can make a career for yourself. I intend to make a career for myself.”

What makes the distance Turofsky has already traveled in her career so surprising is that her professional debut, in 1970 with the Vancouver Opera, came late. She was, as beginning vocalists go, an ancient 26 years old then, and she’d arrived at a singing career only after she had been orphaned, given birth to a daughter, divorced her first husband and fled the Yukon.

She was born, Ricki Rita Nan Turofsky, in Toronto, the daughter of Lou _ Turofsky, a much admired news and £ sports photographer. Her father and | mother died when Riki was still in high > school, and at that stage, launched early £ on her life of independence, she was § neither beautiful — “I was a late develg oper and the kids used to call me £

Robert Sunter gave Riki tough reviews and then he courted and married her

‘Mouse'” — nor entirely committed to music, though she had taken vocal lessons. She got married in her late teens to a medical graduate who elected to set up practice in Whitehorse, and it was in the north country that the crucial changes in Turofsky’s life began to happen.

“The thing about the Yukon,” she remembers, “even though 1 personallyhad many happy times up there, is that an awful lot of people do one of three things — commit suicide, turn alcoholic or get divorced. I chose the last.”

That was one change.

“While 1 was in Whitehorse, the Canadian Opera came through, and when I heard them perform. 1 said to myself, ‘You can do that.' I said it out loud to one of the people with the company, and she said that if 1 was really serious I ought to investigate the Vancouver Opera Training program. Well. 1 left the Yukon and bugged the people in Vancouver until they took me in. More out of exasperation. I think, than from any great appreciation of my talent.”

That was change number two, and. coming in 1967. it set Turofsky on a consuming grind over the next few years of study and performing, of scholarships and Canada Council grants. After Vancouver, she graduated with honors from the University of Toronto Opera School, took part in the San Francisco Opera’s prestigious Merola Program, and studied at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, California, under the legendary Lotte Lehmann. Gradually, she built a reputation, not to mention a repertoire that includes today, committed to memory, 27 opera roles, eight orchestral parts and 16 oratorio roles.

“Carrie was a sobering influence on me through all those years of study,” Turofsky says, speaking of her daughter who is now eight. “I mean, when you’re worrying about a high C and there’s a baby crying in the next room, it kind of makes you discipline yo,ur life." She pauses and offers a satisfied smile. “And then of course there was Robert.”

Robert is Robert Sunter who. as music critic for the Vancouver Sun, gave Turofsky what she still calls her “toughest reviews.” Sunter made amends of sorts by courting her and marrying her, and today he lives with Riki and Carrie in a chic little townhouse in Toronto and works for the Ontario Arts Council.

“Robert.” Turofsky points out, “knows far more about music than I do and he’s my guide. Up to a point, that is, because when it comes to actual singing,

I have to work on my own.”

The kind of work Turofsky talks

about was obvious in Hamilton on the day she prepared to perform the soprano’s role in Carmina Burana. Up early in her Holiday Inn room, she took elaborate care in washing and setting her hair (“People expect me to look gorgeous on stage now”), then rode a taxi to Boris Brott’s house where, alone, she loosened up her voice and indulged in a variety of stretching exercises for her body. In the afternoon, she took part in a full orchestra and choir rehearsal that was, at once, both informal and intense. She rested for an hour in her room, ate a steak and vegetables (“If I don’t eat a lot, I feel skinny on stage”), again exercised her voice, dressed in her spectacular gown and waited nervously in one of Hamilton Place’s spartan dressing rooms. (“This is the time when I ask myself. ‘What am I doing here anyway?’ ”)

On stage, she sat through the other solos looking serene (“I’m not — I’m usually wishing I could go to the bathroom or have a soft drink”). She sang her own parts, and at the end the audience rewarded her and the others with bravos and a standing ovation.

Backstage afterward, pressed by admirers’ congratulations, Turofsky looked exuberant (“There’s no greater high than singing over an orchestra and moving an audience”). But she smiled quizically and shook her head at one memory of the concert just over.

“Honest to God.” she said, “I couldn't believe it but there were two people in the very front row sound asleep.”

That may be so — I was farther back and couldn’t see — yet I can’t help suspecting that from a distance as long as from centre stage to first row, she misread ecstacy as contented sleep. r;>