Opera to the people: the Halifax Summer Opera Workshop adds a new cultural dimension to the city.
By Kate Watson
Halifax Magazine, August 2009
Opera. The word conjures up vision of august singers and opulent sets on stages in faraway places like Sydney, New York, Vienna or Rome. Most Haligonians believe that a night at the opera comes with a hefty price tag and requires some serious jet setting.
But an innovative program known as the Halifax Summer Opera Workshop (HSOW) is bringing affordable live opera to the city. Sets and costumes are pared down, but the performances are first-rate and at $20 per ticket, it’s opera at a price that’s hard to beat.
It’s the brainchild of Tara Scott (vocal coach, accompanist and music director) and mezzo-soprano Nina Scott-Stoddart. The pair hatched the idea in the fall of 2004 as a way to give young singers the opportunity to learn and refine the myriad skills required to perform opera. They designed a program that included private coaching and masterclasses in things like auditioning and dramatic and musical interpretation. The four-week long session culminates with the staging of two opera, with each participant receiving at least two public performances.
Scott-Stoddart’s first exposure to opera happened when she was just a child. She has fond memories of listening to CBC Radio’s Saturday Afternoon at the Opera while visiting her grandmother in rural Ontario, but didn’t actually see a live opera until she was 21. Then, the sheer magnificence of the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnburg hooked her. She fell in love with opera’s combination of spectacle, drama, music and amazing voices. It’s a passion that she works tirelessly to share with others.
“I really love opera!” gushes Scott-Stoddart, who also produces and directs the Maritime Concert Opera in Lunenburg and the Dalhousie Opera Workshop. “It’s bigger than life, and it’s an outlet for all those emotions like passion, jealousy and anger that we tend to keep a litd on. And I find that if people are welcomed into opera through things like the summer workshop performances they really get that”.
Since HSOW’s first season in 2005 when it presented Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte with a cast of nine performers, it has expanded to include two full operas in 2008 – The Consul and The Marriage of Figaro – showcasing 36 performers. “We have students applying from all over North America”, says Scott-Stoddart. “We do auditions in Toronto and London, Ontario and here in Halifax, and people from other cities send us audition tapes. We had over 150 applications year so we had to turn a lot of people down.”
Although the registration fee is only $700 for four weeks of instruction, the cost to students is steep when you factor in the price of transportation, accommodation and the loss of that all-important summer income. So why do so many people clamour to attend?
“Singers and their families sacrifice a lot to make it possible to do what they love and opera can be an important style of singing in a performer’s repertoire” explains Scott-Stoddart. “Every year we make a special effort to be sure we have people from Atlantic Canada involved in the workshop. It gives the families an opportunity to see the shows and see the pay-off for the years of sacrifice.”
She also finds that Halifax itself is one of the selling points of the program. “It’s a great city, a great setting and such a beautiful place to visit in the summer”, Scott-Stoddart adds.
Nineteen-year old Jonathan MacArthur from P.E.I. is studying music at Dalhousie University and was accepted into this year’s HSOW. He believes the financial sacrifice will ultimately be worth it. “I think that I’ll learn more about how to be a better performer, gain some experience and I’ll be working with new people so that will be fun” say MacArthur, who is planning to make his living performing and teaching. “Opera is so dramatic! I love being on stage. The feeling and the energy in a performance is all I need.”
Halifax’s Garry Williams has been involved with HSOW since its beginning when he starred as Guglielmo in Cosi fan tutte. He had a role again in 2007 when he played Monastatos in The Magic Flute and he directed the 2008 production of The Marriage of Figaro.
“I auditioned the first time because I was teaching voice at The Canadian Conservatory of Music and I wasn’t confident that I’d had enough practical experience,” he recalls. “So I said to myself, ‘If I get cast [in Cosi fan tutte], I’ll keep teaching.” Four years later he’s still teaching as well as working as artistic director of the independent theatre company, DaPoPo Theatre.
He’s discovered that his theatre background serves him well in the world of opera. “As for directing Figaro, Nina [Scott-Stoddart] basically offered me the job on good faith,” he says. “I had a vast theatre background but a very slim operatic singing record. But Nina has a really lovely way of using and fostering people’s unique strengths.”
For Williams, one of the best things about being part of HSOW is that it brings together professional, working opera singers and students who are just starting out – and every level in between. Together they have the opportunity to learn, grow and execute a full-length opera in a non-threatening atmosphere. And, after completing the workshop, they have opera roles to put on their resumes. “It’s really important for an opera singer to be able to say something like ‘I sang in Figaro,’” he says. “It means this person is capable, competent and reliable, and has the stamina to hold their own in the intense schedule of any theatrical production.”
Williams feels that the HSOW program is also wonderful for the people who come out to see the shows, because it makes opera more accessible on many levels. When you pare opera down to its essentials, it removes some of the things that can leave the audience feeling distanced from the work. “I know several of my friends who had never seen an opera before they came out to see me in Cosi fan tutte, and now they’re hooked,” he says. “I think that’s pretty great and I know that offering opera here in Halifax can only add to its reputation as a cultural mecca.”
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