The Canadian Tenors
Who are the Canadian Tenors? Four young men who are taking the music world by storm. Read on for a biography of the Tenors.
A taxi pulls into the gravel parking lot of Calgary’s Edworthy Park on a hot June afternoon. As children spin on the roundabout, four handsome young men in tuxedos wait to get into the cab. Although they’re overdressed for this casual setting, Giorgio Armani would agree that his formal wear looks good anywhere.
Wearing the Armani tuxedos are the Canadian Tenors–Fraser Walters, Remigio Pereira, Victor Micallef, and Jamie McKnight. They flew in from Toronto in the wee hours of the morning. A police takedown outside their hotel room doors interrupted the precious little sleep they were destined to get. By 7:30 am they were warming up their voices to sing on Breakfast Television.
Changing in a public washroom at the park, swatting at mosquitoes, and dodging raindrops all failed to dampen their spirits. Lugging heavy clothing bags over their shoulders, they ran and waded through tall grasses to pose for the alive photo shoot.
It’s all in a day’s work for the Canadian Tenors. Successful singers and musicians in their own right, their paths converged, thanks to Victoria composer and pianist Jill Ann Siemens.
In 2003 Siemens came up with the idea of creating the group. She enticed Walters, Pereira, and Micallef away from their respective careers in musical theatre and opera, but there was one piece of the puzzle that was missing. That piece turned out to be McKnight. After four years of searching, Siemens had found the perfect combination of people and voices.
Since the Canadian Tenors’ debut at Toronto’s Winter Garden Theatre in November 2007, they have been impressing audiences and winning fans wherever they perform.
Each individual Tenor brings a wealth of experience to the group. Walters holds a bachelor’s degree in voice performance from the University of British Columbia. At 16, he left home in Richmond, BC to move to Brisbane, Australia where he played the title role in Jesus Christ Superstar.
“It was an epic production and quite a role to tackle when I was 16. I grew my hair long and really lived it for six months,” recalls Walters. “It was a humbling experience.”
McKnight starts to laugh and playfully interrupts, “Did you have a beard too?”
“I had some peach fuzz,” Walters admits.
Walters later performed in the Grammy Award-winning 12-man a cappella vocal ensemble Chanticleer, based in San Francisco. More recently he played the role of Haldir, the Elf, in the short-lived Toronto stage adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.
McKnight was also involved in musical theatre prior to joining the Tenors. As a child growing up in Scarborough, Ontario, his piano teacher told his parents he was singing along to the music he played. She suggested that he audition for the Canadian Children’s Opera Chorus.
McKnight went on to sing, dance, and act in a variety of musicals including the role of Gilbert Blythe in Anne of Green Gables, the lead tenor in the Toronto company of The Producers, and the title role in Aladdin.
When McKnight auditioned for the Tenors, he was performing at the Stratford Festival in King Lear and Oklahoma. McKnight found the biggest challenge of joining the Tenors was adjusting to only singing while on stage.
“It’s such a huge challenge. It’s all about your voice. There’s no dancing, there’s no script,” he says, “but being around people who make me better was a very attractive challenge.”
Walters agrees. “Four is better than one. We could all stand on stage and carry a concert, but I would never be able to reach the dark quality that Remig has or Victor’s incredible power in some of his Italian repertoire and Jamie’s got his own"
“Pleasant smile,” McKnight interjects with a boyish grin.
“Everyone is so distinct in what they bring that no other person can do what that person does,” Walters concludes.
This is evident when attending a Canadian Tenors’ concert. Walters’ and McKnight’s musical theatre backgrounds coupled with Pereira’s and Micallef’s opera training allow the Tenors to weave rich layers into the tapestry of songs they perform.
Father Knows Best
Toronto-born Micallef never dreamed that opera would become his passion. When his sister was enrolled in piano lessons, his father overheard young Micallef playing by ear and signed him up for lessons, too. His father also pushed him to sing at church. Being very shy, Micallef says it scared the life out of him, but he’s grateful for that push because singing became his life.
Micallef’s father didn’t live long enough to hear his son sing the music he loved so much–opera. “I always ask my mom, ‘What do you think Dad would be saying?’ I’d love to just have him be here for five minutes. I sing better when I’m feeling him with me.”
After attending the universities of Western Ontario and Toronto for vocal performance and opera studies respectfully, Micallef spent six years in Italy studying opera and performing.
Micallef loved the slower pace of life in Italy–the caf? the sense of community, the fresh food, and fragrant wine. But during a trip back to Toronto, he auditioned for the Canadian Opera Company on a whim and soon found himself back in Canada performing with their Ensemble Studio from 2004 to 2006.
Micallef is the only married member of the group. He and his wife Kathleen have been married 12 years and are the proud parents of their first child Zachariah, who was born in July.
While the other tenors took music and singing lessons as children, Pereira pursued the dream of many Canadian boys–to become a hockey player. He had reached the bantam level in his hometown of Ottawa when an injury sidelined him. To amuse himself, Pereira picked up his sister’s guitar and discovered a passion for rock music.
But he never envisioned himself performing opera. “When I was playing rock music, I really hated opera, didn’t understand it until I went to university for classical guitar,” he says. “I met some singers there and that’s how my love for it began.”
Pereira received a master’s degree in classical guitar performance from the Conservatoire du Quebec. He has sung and performed internationally and is also an accomplished composer and songwriter.
Pereira credits his father with being a major influence in his life, as a person and as a musician. Although his father wasn’t a trained musician, he loved to sing.
“My dad would be able to hold a room captivated with his voice. I grew up with my father whistling and singing in the house,” he recalls. “He used to serenade my mother; he was a very romantic person.”
The Tenors’ strong grounding in their families and their obvious affection for each other translates into relaxed offstage and onstage banter and a heartfelt connection with their audience.
Whether singing Rita McNeil’s “Home I’ll Be,” their single “I Only Know How to Love,” or the classical “Nessun Dorma,” the Tenors switch genres seamlessly in a way that captivates listeners of all ages.
When the Canadian Tenors started performing, the average age of their audience was 50 and up, but fans have started bringing their children to shows. Micallef says, “If you sit and watch our audience, it’s made up of kids from six years old to 96. It’s great.”
Size Doesn’t Matter
Walters explains that there has to be an exchange between themselves and the audience regardless of what size the audience may be.
In the early days, the Canadian Tenors played to groups of 15 to 20 people. But at the 2007 opening of the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal, the Royal Ontario Museum’s new $135-million addition, they played for an enthusiastic crowd of 45,000.
One of Walters’ favourite concert memories is playing for 300 people at the Igloo Church in Inuvik, Northwest Territories. “It’s so incredibly remote and it’s so damn cold in December. Seeing elders from many different bands, knowing that they don’t hear this type of music often, was an unbelievable experience.”
Pereira interjects, “Another cool moment was when we sang before Bill Clinton’s speech.” (The former president spoke at the Power Within conference in Calgary sponsored by alive in spring 2008).
Walters excitedly agrees, “Clinton said, ‘Those Canadian Tenors, I just love those guys.’ He said we made his job easier because even if the audicence didn’t like his speech, they had already got their money’s worth.”
One of the most moving experiences for the Tenors was singing with the African Children’s Choir. The Tenors hope to get involved with meaningful social projects such as working with children in Africa.
“There was so much tangible love in the room,” Walters enthuses. “You can’t help but want to perpetuate it yourself. It makes you live in the now. It makes you look at life differently.”
A Healthy Balance
Living in the now is difficult with a lack of sleep, rushed backstage meals before a show, or performances in Calgary and Vancouver the same day. The Tenors have their own regimens they follow to stay healthy while performing on the road.
For McKnight, staying healthy means lugging along a blender and a tub of whey protein in his suitcase. He eats every two hours to keep his metabolism going. He also runs to oxygenate his blood. “I feel less nervous and I have more breath on the day of the show,” he says.
Athletics have always been a huge part of Walters’ life. He was on the national track and field team and played varsity soccer while attending the University of British Columbia. He maintains a gym membership as much to deal with stress as to obtain a physical workout. Growing up in BC, he snowboarded at Whistler where the outdoors is more accessible than it is in Toronto.
All of the Tenors live in Toronto now, their practicing and recording base.
A Mental Focus
For Pereira, health is as much a mental attitude as a physical activity. When he was 18, he attended a Tony Robbins seminar that changed his life. “I focused more on myself health-wise, spirit-wise, and I became a vegan,” he says.
When Pereira began studying opera at 21, his Italian teacher chided him, “How are you gonna sing opera if you don’t eat meat?” Since then, Pereira has become adept at listening to his inner voice to tell him what his body needs.
Micallef practised yoga a couple of hours a day when he lived in Italy. “Physically, mentally, even for my breath as a singer, it was a great thing to do,” he says. A few years ago, he suffered three herniated discs in his lower back which caused him to suspend his yoga practice. As his back gets stronger, he is working out at the gym.
Walters recently started Bikram yoga classes in Toronto. He credits his mother with persuading him to try yoga.
Walters stresses the importance for singers to hydrate themselves properly, to drink enough water, and to schedule vocal rest for recovery. When touring becomes hectic, Micallef takes 2,000 to 3,000 mg of vitamin C a day. All of the Tenors take oil of oregano at the first sign of a little tickle in the throat. “It burns everything in its path,” jokes Micallef.
The Tenors need to stay healthy. Their path leads to Asia, Germany, Holland, Norway, and Ireland, where they’ll be touring to promote the Canadian Tenors’ debut album which is being released this fall (canadiantenors.com). The CD is being released along with the singles “Silent Night” and “I Only Know How to Love.”
Wherever the Canadian Tenors’ path leads, Walters sums up their goal: “To connect with other human beings and to leave a lasting memory; to take people to a place that they wouldn’t otherwise experience.”
As the Tenors climb into the cab to return to the hotel, they do indeed leave a lasting memory–of four regular guys with a shared passion for music, hanging out in the park–in tuxedos.