The road to the Highlands Opera Studio
By Huw Morgan
Special to the Echo
Imagine the pressure! You are a young, talented opera singer looking to launch your career in the major opera houses of the world. If you get selected at this audition, you’ll be enrolled in a five-week, all expenses paid master class with some of the leading opera coaches drawn from around the world. Best of all, the master classes will be held in one of the most beautiful places in the world, Haliburton. At the end of your classes, you’ll be called on to perform an opera program consisting of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and Mozart’s Don Giovanni at the Northern Lights Performing Arts Pavilion for local opera fans. But first, you’ll have to impress the judges.
Your audition takes place in the large living room in a church in mid-town Toronto. Facing you sit your evaluators, two of Canada’s opera royalty, the husband and wife team of Richard Margison and Valerie Kuinka. Margison is one of Canada’s most famous tenors and had a distinguished career performing at major opera houses around the world. Kuinka also has had a fantastic career, performing as a violist with the Canadian Opera Company as well as a stage director for major opera houses including the Metropolitan Opera. The two judges are cordial and encouraging, but the odds are stacked against you. Only 20 singers will be selected from 132 applicants, so the pressure is on to perform your best. You hand your music to Trevor Chartrand, the accompanist, who launches into the introduction to one of your audition pieces and now, it’s up to you…
Who are these young people who trekked to auditions in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and New York vying for a spot in the Highlands Opera Studio program? I had a chance to catch up to two singers who were part of the program in 2019 and are hoping to return.
Leanne Kaufman comes from a musical family and started singing seriously in Grade 12. She obtained a bachelor of voice degree from the University of British Columbia and a masters degree from the University of Toronto. She hopes to return to HOS in 2020.
Leanne Kaufman comes from a musical family and started singing seriously in Grade 12. Her sister had taken voice lessons and recommended that Leanne take it on too. She obtained a bachelor of voice degree from the University of British Columbia and a masters degree from the University of Toronto.
Kaufman loves live operatic music because it tells great stories. She also likes singing in a variety of languages. Her biggest challenge in opera is learning how to be comfortable moving around the stage and communicating to the audience. So far in her career, Kaufman has earned a spot in the Canadian Opera Chorus, but she is looking for opportunities to take on roles in major opera productions.
Kaufman wants to return to Haliburton because if offers coaching with such a high level of opera expertise and gives her a chance to build rapport with colleagues and friends. She loves the Haliburton studio setting because there is no stuffiness. It’s a relaxed environment in a beautiful setting. She also appreciates the opportunity to sing in front of influential coaches drawn from New York’s Metropolitan Opera, The Lyric Opera of Chicago and Opera Montreal. There are also agents who come to hear the singers. Acquiring an agent is a huge step in launching a singing career.
Maeve Palmer started singing as a youngster in Irish festivals, singing with her family. Her dad is an oboist and musicologist. She begged her family for singing lessons at nine years old and knew that she wanted a career in music.
Palmer did her undergraduate and masters degrees in voice at the University of Toronto and went on to do the Rebanks family fellowship at the Royal Conservatory of Music.
According to Palmer, the Highlands Opera Studio is the most supportive opera program in Ontario because it is fully funded, including room and board. She also loves the Haliburton setting and feels that the environment is very supportive of the participants.
As I watched and listened to Kaufman and Palmer and all the other participants, I was struck by how difficult it must be to be in Kuinka and Margison’s shoes. All the young singers have been through years of singing lessons, obtained advanced degrees at opera schools, and performed in many school productions and opera choruses. They sing wonderfully and present themselves as polished performers. To the untrained ear, there is little to choose from between each candidate. Yet, Margison and Kuinka must cast this year’s operas and decide on who will make it and who will not. It is an unenviable task.
Two of Canada's opera royalty, the husband and wife team of Richard Margison and Valerie Kuinka, are the evaluators for Highlands Opera Studio.
It’s so much easier for us, the people who live or vacation in Haliburton. We get to enjoy the fruit of Margison and Kuinka’s labour, the annual productions of the Highlands Opera Studio. We also get a chance to sit in at some of the master classes to learn a little bit of what it is like to be an aspiring opera singer.
This year’s Highlands Opera Studio runs from July 19 to Aug. 24 and features three master classes, a pop concert, an alumni concert, karaoke at McKeck’s, and three opera productions, Purcell’s Dido & Aeneas, a Canadian opera yet to be named, and Mozart’s famous Don Giovanni. Details can be found at the Highlands Opera Studio website.
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