Magazine article Opera Canada

A Year in the Life of Opera McGill

Magazine article Opera Canada

A Year in the Life of Opera McGill

Article excerpt

This October, McGill University celebrates the 60th anniversary of its opera program. To mark the milestone, filmmaker Anne Rostalas followed three voice students for a year to capture the joy and stress of training for a singing career. In this print preview, she and her subjects--Abbotsford, B.C.-soprano Chelsea Rus, Montreal mezzo Rose Naggar-Tremblay and Ottawa bass-baritone Jonah Spungin--talk about the experience

I first met Chelsea, Rose and Jonah on the day of callback auditions for Opera McGill's new season. I was nervous on their behalf. Their performances here would, in many ways, determine the course of my film, A Year in the Life of Opera McGill. They had agreed to be followed on camera for the whole of the academic year and I don't think any of us realized exactly what would be involved.

In those first interviews in September 2015,1 got an early glimpse of the students' personalities. For Jonah, the auditions were nerve-wracking. A fourth-year undergraduate in voice performance, he said: "I used to have a problem where my legs would actually shake. That s gone away, luckily. But still, if I have to raise a hand or something, 1 will often catch myself--my hand is just shaking."

By contrast, Chelsea, in the final year of a Master's, seemed like a fully-formed professional already. "For me, it's not about pushing down nerves, but using that energy as excitement and joy." Mezzo Rose, in her third year of voice performance, appeared more excited than nervous, and had her eye firmly on the abundance of mezzo roles in the three major productions McGill planned for the season--Mark Adamo's Little Women, Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore and Handel's Rodelinda.

My film, released in three episodes on the Opera McGill YouTube channel, was the idea of Director of Opera Studies Patrick Hansen, who wanted to show potential students exactly what to expect. "These students represent the potential in every student who studies classical music," he said of my three subjects. They were among dozens who auditioned for roles in the Schulich School of Music's Pollack Hall, and when the results were announced, the extent of my documentary became apparent. Chelsea had lead roles as Adina in L'elisir and Beth in Little Women, Jonah was cast as Gideon March in Little Women, as well as chorus member and cover for Dulcamara in L'elisir, and Rose had her first major roles in opera as Cecilia March in Little Women and Unulfo in Rodelinda. I had my work cut out.

My training as a journalist in newspapers, BBC television and radio has given me a passion for storytelling. Combining this with my love of opera, I have ended up creating a niche for myself in the unlikely world of opera documentaries. I like to promote the art form in an entertaining and unexpected way, showing singers as real people who make bagel and eggs for breakfast or down shots at birthday parties. In this documentary, I wanted the young singers to reveal the diverse ways in which they had ended up in opera. Jonah had been in a rock band, but wanted to improve his singing, Rose had at first wanted to be a composer, while Chelsea wasn't sure whether to be a lawyer or a singer: "I ultimately decided, along with many talks with my parents, to pursue music because that was where my heart really was."

By his own admission, Hansen set the bar high with last season's Opera McGill lineup. He described the first production, Little Women, as difficult music and added delightedly: "We brought in the conductor of the world premiere and put the fear of God into the cast." Conductor Christopher Larkin was indeed an imposing figure, and each of the singers had their struggles during the production.

"When we started," says Rose, "I actually had a moment of panic in which I totally lost control of what I was doing for the first run-through." For Jonah, movement and acting created the most difficulty. "I was accused of having the worst feet in the entire cast," he says cheerfully. …

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