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The Music Scene Vol. 1 No. 1
Mirela Tafaj -- Have Voice, Will Travel

by Joseph So Tuesday, October 22, 2002

For soprano Mirela Tafaj, her beautiful voice is her calling card. New to Canada and a total unknown, she stepped onto the stage of Opera Ontario last fall for her audition. She opened with Musetta''s Waltz from La Boh?me, followed by a ''knock ''em dead'' "? strano, ? strano... Sempre libera" from La Traviata. It was immediately clear to everyone present hers was no ordinary voice. "When she opened her mouth, you could immediately tell that she was a real find," explained an enthusiastic Daniel Lipton, artistic director of Opera Ontario. "When she sang, our jaws dropped," recalled Peter Phoa, director of marketing for the company and a voice aficionado. Lipton was so impressed by the young unknown soprano that he immediately engaged her as the Company''s newest Musetta, in La Boh?me, which opens the 2002-3 season.

A native of Albania, Mirela Tafaj (pronounced ''Tafai'') follows a long line of exciting new voices introduced to the Canadian public by Opera Ontario, formerly Opera Hamilton. This company has the enviable reputation of spotting new talents that puts the bigger and richer companies to shame. Who can forget the Countess of Ren?e Fleming before she became the reigning American diva? Or Canadian sopranos the likes of Anna Shafajinskaya, who is now making her Covent Garden debut as Turandot, or Isabel Bayrakdarian, who has the Paris Opera and the Met on her datebook this season

Gifted with a lovely natural voice and a talent for imitation, young Mirela grew up singing at weekly family gatherings. Without having had a single voice lesson and fresh out of high school, she learned a couple of arias by rote, auditioned, and was accepted at the conservatory in Tirana. Her talent was recognized early and after graduation she rose quickly through the ranks, singing Violetta, Gilda, Mica?la, Nedda, Despina, Donna Anna and Tosca for the National Opera. A high point early in her career was winning first prize at the 1998 Umberto Giordano International Vocal Competition in Italy.

The latest in a long list of former East Bloc singers who have found new lives and careers in the West, Mirela Tafaj now calls Toronto home, where she lives with Jim, her violinist husband and their young son. The political

changes in Albania from the highly regulated communist system to a fledgling but chaotic democracy were not easy for her. "The normally busy opera season was reduced to two or three shows a year, and we just couldn''t make a living," explained Tafaj, in her accented but quite serviceable English. Like so many from communist countries, Tafaj craves the artistic freedom not yet possible in her home country. "If you are an artist, you can go only so far; you don''t have many opportunities..." Tafaj chose her words carefully, reluctant to talk politics: "We have a system of exit visas, so unless you are invited at the highest level, you can''t leave. Here in Canada, I can move and sing anywhere."

Except for a few Violettas and Toscas for Giuseppe Macina''s school-based Toronto Opera Repertoire, Tafaj''s Musetta in Opera Ontario''s La Boh?me will be her official Canadian debut. Though decidedly a seconda donna role, Tafaj looks forward to the challenge: "It''s a good role for me to introduce myself to Canadian audiences who don''t know me." The willful and glamorous bohemian will allow Tafaj to show off her dramatic flair. An attractive woman with luminous eyes, a warm personality and a ready smile, Tafaj grew up in a typically middle class family in Tirana, where her father was an engineer and her mother a government bureaucrat ? a world light-years away from Caf? Momus. But Musetta is tailor-made for her dramatic talents. With a twinkle in her eye, she quipped, only half-jokingly, "As an only child, everything was done for me. I was a little spoiled, no? So playing Musetta won''t be a problem!"

These days, Mirela Tafaj is busy auditioning in Canada and south of the border. Things are moving, but not having signed on the dotted line, she is understandably reluctant to talk. Her timbre is distinctive, with an impressive range, from luscious mezzo-like lows to ringing high E-flats. With temperament to spare, Tafaj brings a strong sense of drama to her singing. Her Tosca ? despite an essentially lyric sound ? is a spitfire, yet the Vissi d''arte is full of pathos. "My sound is (that of) a lyric soprano, but my spirit is more dramatic soprano!" Tafaj confessed amid gales of laughter. Turning serious, she explained, "I love to laugh and cry on stage, to move myself and my audience. If you feel the emotions, it really shows in the voice."

Changing country and culture is never easy, and in her case, coming from a small communist country means exploring unfamiliar repertoire. German and English works are rarely performed, and oratorios are just about nonexistent in atheist Albania. Opera programming is heavily Italian. Albanian pieces ? "we have some wonderful operettas!" ? are practically unknown outside its borders. To make herself more marketable, Tafaj is adding new auditions pieces such as the soprano part in Handel''s Messiah and the saucy Adele from Die Fledermaus. Down the road, she would like to explore Leonora in Il Trovatore and Rosina in Barbiere. Is there a dream role? "I would just love to do Carmen someday ? many, many years from now!"

When not auditioning and learning new repertoire, Tafaj teaches. She finds substantial stylistic differences in singing here, which takes some adjustment on her part as a teacher. An analytical singer and eager to express her ideas, Tafaj is enthusiastic about teaching. "Yes, I enjoy it very much ? it is wonderful when students understand what you are trying to say and they improve." Alone in Canada and separated from her family until very recently, Tafaj had to rely on her inner voice to stay focused, vocally and otherwise. Her husband, a former first violinist with the symphony orchestra in Albania, has always been a source of strength and inspiration: "He has a good ear and I trust him ? he always tells me when he hears something that is not so good!"

The beginning of their romance has a charm befitting a comic opera plot. While part of the opera company touring small Albanian towns, Jim Tafaj found a tiny ring on the sidewalk one day. A practical joker, he announced to all the single ladies on the opera bus that whoever the ring fit would be his wife. The giggling young women ? ballerinas and choristers ? were all eager to oblige, but alas the ring was just too small. Until Mirela stepped on the bus, that is, and her small fingers were ? well, you get the idea. "It was like Cenerentola, except with a ring, not a shoe!" laughed Mirela Tafaj. Partners in life and in art, Mirela and Jim Tafaj look forward to making music together in Canada. *

Upcoming Engagements:

Classical Cabaret Mirela Tafaj, soprano; Jim Tafaj, violin; Ruth Morawetz, piano. Arts and Letters Club, 14 Elm Street, Toronto, September 23. Dinner and performance: $15 Phone: (416) 925-0284

La Boh?me Opera Ontario. October 19, 24, 26 (Hamilton); November 1 (Kitchener-Waterloo) Phone: (800) 575-1381 (Hamilton); (800) 265-8977 (Kitchener-Waterloo)

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