General & Co-Artistic Director
August 19, 2020
Over the past several months, we as a community of operatic artists have been faced with many new challenges that these uncertain times have thrown our way. Due to the effects of COVID-19, we have entered a world where live art making has had to be put on pause, with professional engagements and full seasons cancelled and/or postponed, and our income deeply compromised. As our society was put on pause for our health and safety, a parallel rise in xenophobia crept into the public eye across Canada and the US, including the verbal and physical attack on Asian people blamed for the pandemic.
As we waited out this pandemic at home, we witnessed the brutal murder of George Floyd by law enforcement, and were confronted with the reality that our culture has allowed the systemic racist treatment of black people to exist for far too long, and, with that, the flood gates opened, revealing how so many facets of our culture have allowed this bigotry to permeate their spaces. These spaces include our own.
Our art form is at a crossroads, and has to now ask itself, “Is opera an art form for all peoples?”
The roots of this musical genre are Eurocentric, and many of our current performance and business practices are steeped in outdated traditions. Up to now, many of us on this Council along with our fellow IBPOC artists who wanted to pursue a professional career had no choice but to fit into white-centric molds, which included being racially cast in the same outdated productions and roles throughout their careers, as well as being overlooked during casting due to their physical appearance.
The vast majority of our audiences are wealthy white patrons. Operatic performance spaces more often than not exude a strong ‘elitist’ feel, unwelcoming to many IBPOC individuals and preventing them from feeling comfortable and safe attending our shows. Many professional companies still choose to create and perform operatic plots which are by contemporary standards, racist and sexist, and within these shows, cast characters of a specific ethnic background with white singers.
Our educational institutions often disregard the difficulties IBPOC individuals have to face just to enter the system. Many IBPOC individuals struggle to have the same educational opportunities as their white counterparts. For individuals from disenfranchised backgrounds, having the opportunity of learning and perfecting skills needed for a professional operatic career can be downright impossible. Young aspiring professional artists are also expected to pay for additional summer stage time/education just to be taken seriously by industry professionals, and that practice is still encouraged and accepted in our present day. Anyone without the means to pay for this ‘required’ additional training is often out of luck.
We would like to thank Highlands Opera Studio for reaching out to all of us, asking us how we should confront these issues in our business collaboratively. Acknowledgement of these issues is a first step. We also thank HOS for being a beacon of representation throughout the programs’ existence. For many of us on this Council and beyond, our summers at HOS were the first situations in which we were all treated fairly and without bias from the first to the last day of the season. HOS as a company has always cast based on one requirement: Vocal excellence, regardless of race, sexual orientation, body size, etc.
For many of us, HOS was our first summer professional training experience where we didn’t have to worry about the societal and financial constraints so many facets of our business still place on our shoulders. As we move forward, we are looking forward to working with HOS to represent Canada visually and vocally through virtual and live representation, and to showcase the work of HOS IBPOC alumni across Canada and internationally. We will be working collaboratively to create platforms for IBPOC artists to be represented, so that we can collectively make our business a better place for all individuals, one step at a time.
– Samuel Chan, on behalf of the Highlands Opera Racial Equity Advisory Council
July 28, 2020
The subject of systemic racism, rejecting complacency, and the necessity of listening to our IBPoC community, learning, and taking action to do what we can to make changes within the white-dominated world of opera has been brought into sharp focus over these recent months, and has been on my mind and in Richard’s and my conversations and intentions for many weeks now. As of yesterday, the online version of Highlands Opera Studio 2020 is underway, and I would like to return to these important subjects, and, with your help and guidance, move toward concrete steps for taking action at Highlands Opera Studio.
I would like to humbly thank those of you with whom I had conversations and email communications around the time of the horrific death of George Floyd and, previously, with the Indigenous members of the HOS community regarding the equally horrifying atrocities committed against Indigenous people for centuries. Thank you for sharing the personal stories of experiencing and dealing with racism in your own lives, in personal and professional contexts. I often felt shocked to hear what I would consider deeply upsetting experiences, but for many of you are daily occurrences and a ‘normal’ way of life.
Although Richard and I have always considered ourselves to be strong advocates of anti-racism and racial equity, the truth is we are white, privileged members of North American society, and because of that, cannot ever truly understand. We are, often, ignorant to racist situations and micro-aggressions that you can face on a daily basis. We can, however, listen, learn, and take action in our personal lives and through Highlands Opera Studio to provide a platform for our IBPoC community to offer their stories, experiences, and accomplishments to our public.
The ideas that have come forward during individual discussions with several of you are as follows:
1) Create a Highlands Opera Studio Racial Equity Advisory Committee, to create a visible presence. Role(s) and responsibilities open for guidance and discussion. The advisory committee would oversee suggestion #2 below. [N.B. This has been formed and is now in place.]
2) Offer the platform of Highlands Opera Studio social media on a regular scheduled basis to share personal life and/or industry stories, career accomplishments, and general news from and about the IBPoC community of HOS. [This is an ongoing and active commitment.]
3) Offer an ‘In Conversation’ session through Zoom at Highlands Opera Studio 2020 (and beyond) to open a dialogue, provide education, share stories, to increase awareness and positive action. [N.B. This idea was approved by the now established HOREAC and will take place monthly.]
Richard and I look forward to hearing from you and to implementing ways, through your guidance, to be part of the solution and not part of the problem.
With great respect and warmest regards,
General & Co-Artistic Director
After two more private meetings between management and the HOS IBPoC members who came forward to play an active part in this initiative, a group Zoom meeting was scheduled for August 19th during the 2020 Professional Development program to include all participants of HOS 2020. The Conversation/Information Session was entitled ‘Racial Equity in Opera: Realities and Strategies for Change’.
General & Co-Artistic Director, Valerie Kuinka:
"It was extremely important to share the conversations and initiatives with every member, staff and participants, of HOS 2020. This is only the beginning of a long overdue journey for the opera industry. We at HOS are committed to playing our part in listening, learning, and taking action.
This is a new and extremely important initiative and it will take time to formulate and implement details of actions and opportunities."
During the August 19th group conversation, which was organized and led by the members of the HOS REAC, personal stories were shared by the 5 members of the Council, and comments were shared amongst everyone present. The official announcement of the establishment of the HOS REAC was made by General & Co-Artistic Director, Valerie Kuinka, who, along with Artistic Director Richard Margison, welcomed and expressed deep gratitude to the 5 members of the newly formed Council for their desire to guide HOS in active ways to make a positive difference. The pledge was made by HOS to support and facilitate the agreed upon initiatives and to work together to be part of the solution to systemic racism and not part of the problem.
Suzanne Taffot, LLB, Soprano (HOS ‘17, ‘18)
Andrew Balfour, composer (Mishaabooz’s Realm, HOS commission, 2017)
Samuel Chan, baritone (HOS ‘16, ‘17)
Matthew Gamble, baritone (HOS ‘14, ‘17)
Chantale Nurse, soprano (HOS ‘14, ‘15)
June 15, 2020
Richard and I, and all of us at Highlands Opera Studio, hope you, your family, and those closest to you are taking all necessary precautions, and staying healthy.
After exploring various creative options with our venues and collaborators in Haliburton County, and considering the government advised precautionary measures to ensure the health and safety of our community, we have made the difficult decision to POSTPONE ALL SCHEDULED 2020 LIVE EVENTS TO THE 2021 SEASON.
All professional development activities offered to the participants of Highlands Opera Studio 2020 chosen from across Canada & America WILL GO AHEAD AS PLANNED THROUGH ONLINE PLATFORMS.
OPTIONS FOR 2020 TICKET HOLDERS:
1) Donate what you’ve spent on tickets for a tax receipt.
2) Defer your tickets for use in the 2021 season.
3) Request a refund.
As the world stays home and turns to music, art, and entertainment to get through these hard times, the value of art and professional artists becomes more crucial and evident than ever before. We hope you will keep the professional performing artists of Highlands Opera Studio in your heart and mind when considering your own contributions. WE SINCERELY HOPE you will choose OPTION #1, and consider donating the cost of your ticket(s) for a tax receipt instead of requesting a refund. It will mean so much to so many.
Please follow HOS on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to stay connected to our community! Meet the 2020 participants! Enjoy interviews, games, and selected musical selections offered by our current and past Highlands Opera Studio emerging and established professionals. We are in this together. We all need each other more than ever!
Continued warm wishes from Richard, Lauren, and I for good health, positivity, and hope,
Highlands Opera Studio
Now in its twelfth season under the leadership of General Director Valerie Kuinka and Artistic Director Richard Margison, Highlands Opera Studio (HOS) presented an impressive array of events highlighting the talents of twenty-five new, up-and-coming artists. The five-week intensive program showcased singers from Canada, the United States, and Mexico in several concerts, public masterclasses, and two fully-staged operas. On Aug. 15th, “Women in Opera: Then And Now” highlighted both historical and contemporary roles of women in opera. As part of this exploration, Kuinka sensitively staged Suor Angelica, Puccini’s all-female one-act opera about a girl who is exiled to a convent after the birth of her illegitimate son. Lauren Margison was stunning in the title role; her wide vocal range elicited a beautiful darkness in her rendition of “Senza mamma,” while her superb acting took us through the tortured yet subdued emotions of her tragic character. Rounding out the cast was Megan Quick, playing a vocally powerful and darkly dramatic Princess, and Emma Bergin as the emotionally chilling Abbess.
The showcase was also marked by two contemporary Canadian operas, both skillfully directed by Jessica Derventzis, alongside dynamic piano accompaniment by Jennifer Szeto. The Chair, a short opera in the making by composer Maria Atallha and librettist Alice Agracen featured Sara Schabas as Melanie, a young girl immersed in her journey of grief after her best friend dies in a tragic accident. Schabas took us on an emotional roller coaster, using her versatile voice to express sorrow, anger, and confusion.
The second work, Book of Faces, by composer Kendra Harder and librettist Michelle Telford, was a rollicking journey through the world of social media. The style of the opera was akin to Handel’s oratorios, with witty lyrics like “Take it to Tumbler” cleverly juxtaposed with Baroque ornamentations for comedic effect. Carole-Ann Roussel was delightful as Rachel, her acting infectiously cheerful and her vocals sparkling. Megan Quick was equally charming as Stephanie, showing a comedic side that contrasted dramatically with her earlier role as the Princess. Both singers personified the hectic yet isolating world of modern communication as expressed in the opera’s line “I’m a live stream social recluse.”
The final show at Highlands Opera Studio was a double cast production of Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos, a work that showcased the power of the female voice. As Zerbinetta, Maeve Palmer captured the joie de vivre of this pivotal role. Not only did she sing beautifully, but she was also the triple-threat needed for this character—an expressive comic actor, a graceful dancer, and a talented coloratura. Shantelle Przybylo (Ariadne) was the perfect foil for Palmer, ridiculously self-centered in the Prologue, but regal during her immortalization at the hands of the god Bacchus. In the trouser role of the Composer, Michelle Siemens captured the angst of her character while also displaying vocal virtuosity in her show stopping “Sein wir wieder gut.” Geoffrey Schellenberg was a soulful Harlekin, while Brenden Friesen’s powerful bass voice added fullness and depth to the trio of clowns.
The second cast featured Jacob Feldman’s comic turn as one of the clowns and Micah Schroeder as a full-voiced and exuberant Harlekin. Rachel Krehm’s facial expressions as Ariadne were priceless, and her soulful “Ach! Wo war ich?” demonstrated the richness of Strauss’ writing for the female voice. Melissa McCann’s Zerbinetta was particularly charming in the rustic comic ensembles, while Frida Portillo’s Composer was empathetic and firmly sung. Local residents Reverend Ken McClure as the Lackey and Christopher Chumbley as the Wigmaker were delightful comic, as was Gemini award-winning actor Briggite Gall’s cameo role as the droll Major Domo.
Sunny Shams and Daevyd Pepper added to the light-heartedness of the production as two of the commedia dell’arte clowns while Ariadne’s three nymphs—portrayed by Sara Schabas, Emma Bergin, and Carole-Ann Roussel—were not only visually elegant but also provided some of the most sumptuous and gloriously tight vocal harmony in the entire production. David Diston offered skilled comic timing and a strong baritone as the Music Master, while Kaden Forsberg’s light tenor voice, along with his posturing demeanour and gold lamé suit, made for a superbly farcical Dance Master. Scott Rumble was outstanding as Bacchus. From his sonorous first entrance leaping through a dressing room door to his dramatic wooing of Ariadne, Rumble tackled this famously difficult role with seemingly effortless vocal strength.
Besides both casts’ intense talents, Richard Margison’s direction was also brilliant; busy enough in the comic passages yet understated during the scenes demanding more vocal strength from his young singers. Margison achieved the tenuous balance between comedy and tragedy needed to make this opera more than just a slapstick romp, while conductor Philip Morehead demonstrated a deep understanding of the emotional and rhythmic demands of Strauss as he led the young singers and his talented piano collaborators, Janelle Fung and Nate Ben-Horin, through this difficult musical maze. Ariadne auf Naxos is the strongest overall production I have seen Highlands Opera Studio; bold costume designs, artful wigs and makeup, and elegantly simple lighting creating a cohesive, colourful production. Kudos to Kuinka and Margison for having the courage and foresight to mount this challenging work with such talented young singers.
FULL REVIEW >
It was with a certain degree of ambivalence that I attended the summer 2018 production of La Bohème at Highlands Opera Studio. I was disappointed when I heard that the choruses in Acts II and III were cut, and I wasn’t particularly looking forward to sitting through yet another Bohème. How wrong I was. With Philip Morehead conducting, the young singers were skillfully led through the nuances of Puccini’s rich score. Janelle Fung’s piano accompaniment was intricate, sensitive, and orchestral. Two alternating casts covered four performances between Aug. 24-27. Both were equally convincing as the young gaggle of Bohemians, and I had to resist the urge to compare and contrast the singers instead of letting each cast be an entity unto itself.
Natalya Gennadi was a gorgeous Mimì; not only did she look the part of the consumptive heroine, she allowed her powerful voice to ebb and flow producing gorgeously rich tones in Act I and sweeter, melodic phrases in Act IV. Her Rodolfo, Rocco Rupolo, was a perfect match dramatically and vocally. From his tenderly sung “Che gelida manina,” to his plaintive cries at the end of the opera, Rupolo commanded attention in every scene and was vocally strong throughout.
Max Van Wyck was a vocally rich Marcello—his acting and facial expressions were on point. Van Wyck’s and Rupolo’s sensitive vocal phrasing and blending in the duet “O Mimì tu più non torni” was a highlight of Act IV. Micah Schroeder was a gregarious Schaunard who enhanced the comedic scenes in the garret. Chelsea Rus sparkled as Musetta and was simply delightful to watch in Act II. Brenden Friesen was an excellent Colline in both casts—his “Coat Aria” showcased a powerful and sonorous bass tone. He also has a commanding stage presence making him a singer to watch in the future.
The second cast was equally convincing. Shantelle Przybylo’s lush and soaring Mimì was the perfect foil for Sebastian Haboczki’s lyric and sweetly emotive Rodolfo. Przybylo and Haboczki were a powerful dramatic duo who left the audience in tears. Bruno Roy’s Marcello and Leanne Kaufmann’s Musetta produced vocal fireworks in the finale of Act III, and the pair were adept at conveying all the complex levels of their fiery onstage relationship. David Diston was a vocally impressive Schaunard whose skilled acting—which could turn on a dime from tragic to hysterically funny—was central to the realistic garret scenes.
Director Valerie Kuinka’s keen eye for detail and her ability to get the best out of her singers vocally and dramatically was evident throughout. Her inclusion of figure skater Kurt Browning as the Mâitre D’ in the Café Momus scene was nothing short of brilliant and resulted in a standing ovation at the intermission of every performance. Browning’s superb comedic timing and his physical grace on stage were delightful. Rather than distracting us from the story, his onstage antics added to Act II’s festive mood. Browning’s choreography was stunning and Kuinka’s use of supernumeraries added to the hilarity and organized chaos of the scene. It was no small feat to put this all together on a small stage, and Kuinka did it with panache.
Richard Margison was pure comedic gold as Alcindoro where his repartee with Browning was wonderful. Margison was equally funny as the befuddled landlord Benoit in Act I.
The late 1940s era costumes added to the beauty of the young cast. The scenery was simple and effective, but the New York-looking 1940s Parisian skyline was jarring. David Sweeney’s lighting was simple and effective. The audience left each performance feeling like they had experienced the timelessness of Puccini’s poignant and beautiful tale, rather than having survived another performance of an operatic warhorse. Highlands Opera Studio continues to be an operatic jewel in the rugged Haliburton Highlands.
Photo by Bill King