Singing the song of opera in the Highlands
By Sue Tiffin
Published Aug. 22, 2017
When Valerie Kuinka and Richard Margison said they were going to bring opera to the Highlands 11 years ago, they meant it. This year has been one of their busiest, with performances ranging from masterclasses to concerts to workshops to karaoke, in churches, in a theatre and even on the patio of a bar. With each note, their Highlands Opera Studio brings the sound of music to increasingly diverse fans of the art form.
“We’ve been pleased to see new and different faces in the audience from the community,” said Kuinka, who is general director of HOS alongside Margison as artistic director. “It’s a word a lot of people shy away from. Opera is starting to become not such a foreign concept for people in the region, and that it really is accessible.”
Kuinka said the HOS’s work in showcasing highly qualified, emerging professional singers taking on opera as well as musical theatre, broadway and pop selections has been very well-received and supported by an increasing number of fans, volunteers and financial backers.
“I think understanding that singing is singing is something that’s growing in the community,” she said.
The HOS have also grown their professional training program, which attracts young artists to the Highlands on both a national and international scale, from seven people their first year, to 20 chosen from 200 auditions this year.
“Everything was just a little smaller then,” said Kuinka. “What we do in Haliburton is offer highest level training to young people who are drawn from all across Canada, through competitive auditions. Who you’re hearing here in Haliburton are the best Canada has to offer.”
Kuinka said this year’s masterclasses, held at the beginning of August, went over exceptionally well, giving guests a casual chance to learn more about what opera’s about. The From Opera to Broadway concerts in both Minden and Haliburton in mid-August were at capacity and audiences were receptive.
“What we try to do in the Opera to Broadway concerts is show that musical theatre, any kind of singing, is singing,” said Kuinka. “These performers are not stuffy, nor is our art form stuffy.”
Last week, an HOS Celebrations! Canada 150 concert held at St. George’s Anglican Church in Haliburton featured works by Canadian composers, including a piece titled How Oft When Thou Play’st, for four singers inspired by a Shakespearean sonnet and written by Patricia Morehead, a much-celebrated composer and oboist who now resides in Dwight. Morehead dedicated the piece to HOS and Kuinka and Margison, who she called the “dynamic duo.”
“Richard and Val know how to do this,” said Morehead. “They really do. It’s amazing what they do, just incredible.” Morehead compared the quality of the HOS singers to those of the Lyric Opera of Chicago, a renowned opera company.
On Aug. 19, the HOS presented the first public semi-staged workshop performance of Mishaabooz’s Realm (Le Royaume de Michabous), a collaboration between Indigenous artists and operatic performers. The project is being funded by the Canada Council, New Chapter and Canadian Heritage 150 Fund and will be a 90-minute opera in three parts, reflecting Canada’s history, Canada now, and Canada in the future. The project is being created by Cree composer Andrew Balfour, who stepped in after Barbara Croall withdrew from the project due to family health reasons, and who Kuinka said has done “miraculous things.” A collaboration with L’Atelier Lyrique, L’Opera de Montreal, the full work will be performed in December, and will include community choruses from Montreal and Haliburton.
“The final part is filled with hope that we can find a way, in the interest of truth and reconciliation, to respect one another and live harmoniously together,” said Kuinka.
The 2017 performances are winding down, but if the HOS performers aren’t found singing karaoke at Boshkung Social in Minden, they’re preparing for Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte, an opera Kuinka describes as being “a battle-of-the-sexes opera” and the final production of the season. The opera will be performed Aug. 27 and 30, and Aug. 29 and 31 by a double cast.
“I would encourage people to come to two shows, to see each show,” said Kuinka. “It’s interesting to see how a show can take on a different feel with a completely different group of people, even though the music is the same.”
For more information about HOS, visit highlandsoperastudio.com.