I experienced some major flashback moments last week when I was working with Calgary Opera’s Emerging Artists Program. In addition to giving voice lessons to the singers I was able to head out on the road with them and enjoy their wonderful production of Cinderella. This is a show that was originally conceived for Opera Lyra Ottawa by the only brilliant Rob Herriot. It is a terrific knitting together of excerpts from Massenet’s Cendrillon and Rossini’s Cenerentola in English translation with succinct and witty dialogue carrying the plot to the ears of the listeners.
How well I remember my school tour days at the Canadian Opera Company! We were divided into two quartets; one group travelled to Mississauga and the other went to Scarborough. Our show, as I recall, was more deliberately instructive in nature. ‘This is a soprano’, ‘ Madama Butterfly tells the story of…’ etc. We sang numerous operatic excerpts at crazy hours of the morning in school gymnasiums there were lots of ear covering moments and bizarre questions…
For our very first show we were well rehearsed and briefed on what to expect during the highly anticipated question and answer period. We were told that the children wanted to know the nitty gritty: were we married to one another, how much money we make, etc. I was elected to field the questions on that fateful first day. I invited the audience to ask questions, a hand went up and I indicated to a little girl that she could ask her question :
“I don’t have a question but I just wanted to tell you that my great grandfather wrote the libretto for Aida.”
Rendered speechless, the remainder of the question period was a blur. I do remember seeing a drawing done by the precocious Angelina Ghislanzoni proudly displayed in the hallway as we left.
Doing school tours is a right of passage for most opera singers these days. They are a staple of young artist programs and do the ‘in the trenches’ work of audience building for the future. For the performer the experience is both exhausting and enriching. For the fortunate Calgary Emerging Artists they are singing real repertoire. Across Canada other programs have featured the work of Canadian composer Dean Burry who has written many wonderful children’s operas that both entertain and educate audience and singer alike.
There is simply no audience like an audience of kids. They are honest; when they love it… they love it! When they are bored… heaven help you! The student matinee that many opera houses feature is a fantastic experience. They boo the villain and scream, with the fervour typically assigned to a rock star, when they like a character.
There is a lot of artistic and personal development to be gleaned from a school tour. There is, primarily, the opportunity to sing repertoire many times even if it is at 9:30 am! It is a gift to have a situation where you can risk a bit, i.e. try to incorporate new technical ideas and see how they work without worrying that the reviewer from Opera Canada is in the house. Learning to appreciate how a show is put together from the ground up is another benefit; the singers in Calgary help to assemble and take down the set. We need to keep in the forefront of our minds that the crew – stage hands, wardrobe people, stage managers – all work really hard to make us look good. When I was a student at UBC we had to help build the sets. I made a set of stairs and, boy, was I proud! Taking a practical course in costume or lighting design was a requirement for my Masters degree. I opted for the lighting as I had way too many bad memories from sewing machine hell in Home Ec. In the end I came to understand on a deeper level the magic of the lighting designer.
Back in Calgary they’re probably on show number twenty of thirty-two; laughing in the van while being ferried about, dining on fast food lunches, and coining terms like Cougarella. I encouraged them to keep a diary of the crazy and wonderful things that happened… from the wardrobe malfunctions for the 6′ 3″ mouse in a grey unitard to playing frisbee in the school gym as a ‘warm up’.
It was great for me as a voice teacher to see the singers in action. I was able to witness which technical concepts were sticking, and which were not. It was also a particular pleasure to watch the children and teachers responding to the show. You just never know what kind of an influence you might have. I remember the first time I ever heard an opera singer; it was in my grade three music class. I was completely overwhelmed by the sound of the tenor’s voice singing Vesti la giubba…all this from a vinyl disk.
Last week I sat in that Calgary school gym and was reminded that the power of the freely produced human voice will always move people…of all ages.