Personal letters bring to life writer’s success in...
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Jan 23, 2013  |  Vote 0    0

Personal letters bring to life writer’s success in the opera world

Our London

Joanne Mazzoleni credits her 20-year career singing in the Canadian Opera Company to a woman she said nearly destroyed her before she ever set foot on a stage.

Mazzoleni, 89, was born in London as Joanne Ivey, wrote the book Libretto: Memoirs from a Shoebox, under the name I.V. Mazzoleni. The book essentially tells the story of how her musical career came to be under the tutelage of a woman she calls, not entirely affectionately, “the mad Russian.”

The book (libretto is the text used in an extended musical work) is actually a fictionalized account of Mazzoleni’s beginnings in the opera world, utilizing letters she wrote home to her mother Ethel Ivey back in London in the 1950s. Within the letters are many memories around her early singing career, particularly those Mazzoleni said that focus on the woman who started her on the path to opera success.

“I studied with this mad Russian woman who taught many of the famous singers of that era in the ‘50s. She was a very difficult person; she nearly killed me actually,” Mazzoleni said. “The name in the book is Svetlana Usova. Everybody called her Lana. There might be some of her students still alive, so I used that name for the book.”

In the book, Mazzoleni appears as Jessica St. James, a young woman who put herself “completely in the hands of this obsessive and authoritarian teacher,” who was determined to make her newest student into a famous opera singer. A lot of the story, Mazzoleni said, focuses on how Usova pushed St. James to the point where her voice strained and nearly broke, on her way to a career with the Canadian Opera Company.

In addition to the stories about her former teacher, Mazzoleni draws upon those letters, which were literally found in an old shoebox, as inspiration for stories involving what she calls tales of “the good times and the bad times” in Canada’s early opera community. A good deal of the book takes place in Toronto, as well as New York and other European locales, Mazzoleni said, but also includes bits of her time in London as well.

“The book uses my past, but I exaggerated it, developed new personalities, but essentially what goes on in the book is what happened to me,” Mazzoleni said. “In order to make it into a more exciting book you create characters and combine things that happen. But it truly is the story of those first years of the opera company when everything was new and exciting.”

Mazzoleni left London in the 1940s, spending time at a boarding school in Toronto. She eventually graduated from the Ontario College of Art, in Toronto, and would go on to study music at Columbia University, in New York City, before returning to Canada and joining what would eventually become the Canadian Opera Company.

Her singing career began in 1947 with Mazzoleni’s time in the opera company starting in 1950. She would remain with them until approximately 1965 and would stop singing entirely in 1968 after the death of her husband.

After her singing career, Mazzoleni — along with her brother Peter Ivey — would go on to purchase a pair of old mills in Benmiller, Ont. (about 11 kilometres southeast of Goderich) where they started up the Benmiller Inn & Spa. That process, Mazzoleni said, took about 10 years.

Mazzoleni did write a book on that experience back in the 1980s (Benmiller: Then & Now), but she hadn’t tried her hand at fiction until agreeing to join a friend who was taking a creative writing course.

Needing material for her writing exercises, Mazzoleni remembered the letters she had written to her mother and drew upon the memories they contained as her material. The letters actually are used to introduce each of the chapters of the book, which took Mazzoleni about two years to complete.

Getting her story published was a greater challenge, Mazzoleni said, than even writing the book in the first place. After being turned down by several publishers, Mazzoleni found support from a company in the United States called iUniverse.

“It was too big a challenge for many companies, particularly for someone who isn’t likely to write another. So eventually I got in touch with iUniverse, they liked it, and so they published it,” Mazzoleni said. “It was good to get it done. When you spend that long on a project, you like to see it to its fruition.”

Besides the personal satisfaction in getting the story published (it is available for $20 through both at and, Mazzoleni said she hopes the story will help create greater interest in opera. That is an experience she also knows well as when her career began, Mazzoleni said opera was “virtually non-existent” at the time.

“Opera has everything, absolutely everything. Visually it is wonderful and the music is divine. It becomes a feast; a lot of people can’t live without it,” Mazzoleni said. “If you give into it, it does take you over completely. I get my kicks now from listening to someone else sing beautifully.”

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