Some superstars are divas. They carry themselves in a way that says, I’m better than you. Some are down-to-earth, humble and warm. That’s how I’d describe Michael Burgess.
I had heard the tenor was ill but it was still a shock to learn that he had died on Monday night, in a hospice, at the age of 70. When I met him, I assumed we were close in age. He was youthful and casual, wearing a leather jacket and jeans. He looked nothing like a stereotype of a theatre star.
Burgess was known for a few things. He played Jean Valjean in Les Miserables in Toronto for more than 1,000 performances at the Royal Alexandra Theatre. (I saw two of them.) He played the role in a production that toured Canada. He also loved hockey and sang the national anthem before games at Maple Leaf Gardens for years. In 1992, he became the first person to sing O Canada at a major league baseball game.
Opera isn’t a warm and fuzzy genre of performing. The players seem distant. The songs, beautiful, but often unrelatable. Michael Burgess was that rare performer who had a world class voice, a commanding stage presence and the ability to make you believe that he was singing to your soul. He performed at Stratford, at other theatre companies across the country, acted on TV and had a reputation as a kind and gentle man. And that’s how I remember him from our radio interview in the late 90s at CHML in Hamilton.