Michael Burgess - Canadian Tenor and Actor
A Place in the Sun
An interview article by Rosemary Phillips, September 2007
UPDATE Monday, September 28, 2015: It is with a saddened heart that I share the news of Michael's passing in Toronto this evening.
I had the privilege of meeting up with Michael again last year in Oliver, British Columbia. He was already experiencing the immense challenges of cancer and yet he performed a riveting concert in which he sang from his heart and soul, doing what he loved, and telling his story to the audience through song. It was a glorious evening, and I was brought to tears.
I feel so honoured to have known him.
Dear Michael, you are now free!
ARTICLE INTRO: Meeting Michael Burgess, popular Canadian tenor and actor, was an experience I will never forget! While the weather was absolutely gorgeous and sunny at the time of the telephone interview in September of 2007 (for a performance at Centennial Theatre in North Vancouver), by the time he got to the West Coast in December it was horrendous. After his concert at the Centennial Theatre he came to Vancouver Island to perform at The Port Theatre in Nanaimo; but, due to a terrible and unusual snow storm the show was cancelled – there was no power in the theatre. What a blow. Still Michael was enthusiastic. There was a show scheduled in Courtenay at the Sid Williams Theatre and there was an audience waiting for him - and I got to tag along for the ride!
Michael pulled up beside the road in his rental car in the mid-afternoon. Along with him was his new pianist. There had also been a huge dumping of snow in Courtenay so we were all a bit leery about the 1 ½ hour journey. Michael drove on through sleet and torrential rain. When we arrived, the parking lot at the Sid Williams was still full of slushy snow. We unloaded the car and Michael prepared for the evening concert.
It was a Christmas concert of his favourite songs interspersed with anecdotes. He performed without a mic – not something many singers will do these days. His voice was pure and moving as he related and interacted with the audience through the music and his stories. The audience loved him. It was a perfect Christmas celebration.
Show over, it was time to pack up and head back to Nanaimo. By now it was snowing pretty hard and slushing (Vancouver Island type of wet snow). Visibility was limited. It was a long journey, especially after such a great performance – and yet Michael kept going. Now how many performers would do that after a two-hour show? Thank you Michael for making sure we all got back safely.
Here now is the interview with Michael done on a hot sunny September day, as promotion in preparation for his North Vancouver concert. His words are inspiring, as is the man himself. Enjoy.
“... just around the corner”
“The next most exciting thing in life is just around the corner and the most important thing is to be open to it,” said Michael Burgess, singer, actor and Canadian icon, as he pulled off the highway in sunny Toronto for a telephone interview. Star of theatre, film, TV and musical, Michael has, over the last forty years, carved quite a niche for himself in the Canadian world of entertainment.
“I started out as an actor, doing plays, and didn't add the music until later – I certainly didn't think of it as a career. Even though my parents supported me I'm sure they would have preferred I had a normal job. It's a calling, not something you can plan. It's something that burns inside you - a constant learning process, and a joyful process where you get to work with great people.”
Born in Regina, Saskatchewan, Michael was only eight when he was auditioned for St. Michael's Choir School in Toronto. “I had all my music training there. It was rather like singing with the Vienna Boys' Choir. Quite frankly I would have found it far more difficult in my career if I didn't have that background in music education. ”
After St. Michael's he headed off to the University of Ottawa. “My intention was to go to law school, but I studied English and got into acting. I was offered my first professional job at the Citadel Theatre and I learned very quickly that you are not doing this for the money. You have to have a passion for it.”
Canada's Jean Valjean from Les Miserables
In a stage career that has taken him from Shakespeare to O'Neill and Cole Porter to Stephen Sondheim, it was his role as Jean Valjean for Canada's first major touring musical Les Misérables in the 1980’s that put him in the spotlight. “From a national standpoint my career took off later in life. Had I been working in the US it might have been different. Unless you were with Stratford or Shaw or CBC the spotlight was limited. But the big musicals helped change all that. Now you can live in Canada and as long as you are near an airport you can perform anywhere around the world. Somehow Canadians seem reluctant to acknowledge the wonderful talented people around them, and I don’t mean just in show business."
And while the world of entertainment changes with Internet, IPods and TV, Michael feels, “you still have to go out and take what you do to the people. Touring is very important, and families still need to take their kids to concerts, symphonies, plays and galleries because that's where it all begins.”
Michael, considered a Canadian musical icon, has worked in other parts of the world, and the US, but prefers Canada. “I’m happy to be and live in Canada. It’s an amazing country. And we have more freedom.”
Michael Burgess in Concert
In addition to his theatre and TV work, and opening sporting events, Michael travels across Canada lending his brilliant, clear tenor voice in a Broadway style concert, accompanied by an orchestra or his band. This year (2007) he is stopping in at Centennial Theatre on Friday, November 30 to bring North Vancouver an evening of great music that will definitely include the heart-touching Bring Him Home from Les Misérables.
“A concert is very different because I am just me, not being a character and wearing costumes. It's a lot scarier. I have to create something in the two- or three-minute life of a song. I perform a variety of music that I really love, and grew up with; I do something from shows, talk about the pieces and mix them with jazz, pop, and classical music. I have a wonderful band of three musicians, who are fabulous in their own right. They make my job easier - and we have fun.”
Vision for the Future
Michael has a clear vision for the future. “What is most important to me is opportunity - making it easier for other artists, because I know how hard it is. We have to create the opportunity for them to grow. The freelance system is ruthless, very hard. It’s not like in a company where you rise up through the ranks. There’s still a gypsy feeling about it – you are creating a structure all the time. I do think that the future is in good hands. There are extremely talented people around, and great projects.”
Taking Time to Enjoy Life
Aside from his busy touring and performing schedule, Michael takes time to enjoy his life and interests, like fishing, golf and sports. “I read a lot. I cook, and I love going to live performances and seeing other artists. I like the simplicity of things. Sometimes the most moving and affecting things are those that are unadorned and come from the heart and are honest.”
While this last year (2007) has personally been a tragic one for Michael with the passing of Ed Mirvish and Doug Riley, his pianist of the last 17 years, every day has a wonderful beginning. “I live in Toronto right on the Lakeshore and every room in my apartment looks out over the water. It's peaceful and quite lovely. Generally I start my day by checking the weather.”
On this day the sun was shining and everything was beautiful! Just like his popular CD title, he had A Place in the Sun.