Highlands Opera Studio: a national beacon for the art of opera
The Highlands Opera Studio didn’t come to Haliburton County in 2007 with humble beginnings. With experienced mentors Richard Margison, a critically-acclaimed opera singer with 25 years of experience and the Royal Conservatory of Music’s highest honour, the Honorary Fellowship, alongside wife Valerie Kuinka, musical stage director with the same amount of experience to match and performances all across North America, the non-profit organization has a high profile.
Despite this, Kuinka said that Haliburton may not know the value the program provides to the art of operatic theatre.
“It seems that we’re going backwards in understanding the trained human voice and the expressive possibilities for the spirit,” said Kuinka about the opera scene in Canada. “And what we offer to Haliburton is the performance of these young people, and I know I’ve had so many conversations over the years with local residents who don’t like opera. And I say, well, I challenge you to give it a try.”
According to Kuinka, applicants come from all across North America, and international applicants from Germany, England, and parts of Asia. Each year, they only take on 20 to 25 participants, helping to close the gap to employment for fledging opera singers, that can often include pathways to symphonies, musical theatre and related streams.
“We are very competitive,” said Kuinka. “The program is at an extremely high level – the people we do accept are not students. They’re young professionals. The people that come to our program are looking for the top-level polishing.”
Women in Opera: Then & Now musical director Jennifer Szeto is passionate about the opportunity this program provides professional opera singers to learn and grow.
“They make amazing connections here,” said Szeto, who’s working with HOS for the first time. I heard all about it from my colleagues, because it’s a program that many, many successful singers and high-level performers have gone through. It’s filled with top-notch faculty and staff, it’s free of cost to singers. Singers are endlessly opening their wallets to pay for training – this is one of the very few free programs that are here to train singers, and it’s top level.”
Often, the program helps expose participants to agents and connections within the industry. Many opera singers from Canada tend to branch out internationally, as opportunities in the country are sparse.
“A lot of our past participants have gone on to great things, and I say out of all the people that have gone through our program, a good 85 per cent are either making a full-time prominent career in the world of opera, or in a related industry, doing singing and teaching at a high level, or singing on a part-time basis.”
The program brings in high-profile guest mentors to work one-on-one with the participants and give a glimpse into the realities of the industry. Notable guest mentors include the likes of past director of music administration for the Metropolitan Opera of New York City John Fisher, who’s visiting this summer’s participants.
Kuinka and Margison run this free program as a means of giving back to the small community of opera, but funding is often the biggest obstacle they face each year.
“It costs about $10,000 per participant,” said Kuinka. “We do our best to subsidize the best that we can for international students and offer the program free of charge to worthy Canadians. Fundraising is the ongoing biggest challenge.”
Micah Schroeder, who appears in HOS’s Ariadne Auf Naxos, grew up in British Columbia and took the program last year.
“Most programs you get a couple of different things,” said Schroeder. “You get education, from faculty and staff and from the learning experience of being in an opera, and you also get experience. And you also meet other singers, you make connections with other people who work in the industry, and they may connect you with other people. It can be sort of a springboard to start things.”
HOS provides the chance to sing in front of agents, which is what Schroeder calls invaluable.
“It doesn’t necessarily lead to something, but getting the chance to sing for agents and get their feedback is super helpful because we don’t really get that chance often,” said Schroeder.
This year’s operas put heavy emphasis on women in opera, who Kuinka and Szeto say aren’t represented in the opera scene as often.
“This season is dedicated to women,” said Kuinka.
A panel after the Women in Opera show, which includes three story lines and begins at 8 p.m. on Aug. 15 at the Northern Lights Performing Arts Pavilion, will be available after the show for a chance for the audience to engage with the artists. The Ariadne Auf Naxos, an exploration about the various psychological archetypes of women, will be showcased at two different times at the Northern Lights Performing Arts Pavilion at 7:30 p.m. on Aug. 22 and 26, and 2 p.m. on Aug. 24 and 25. Tickets are $37.50. For more information, visit www.highlandoperastudio.com