Sesaya specializes in music and arts education.
I hope they don’t take this the wrong way, but I just can’t call Erin Bardua and Maureen Batt divas.
Yes, I know that they’re operatic sopranos who are also the founders of Essential Opera, a Toronto-based opera company whose mandate is to provide audiences and singers the opportunity to experience opera “at its most essential.” (This means beautiful music performed by talented artists in concert, rather than as a full-scale production.)
So why can’t I bring myself to call them divas? Maybe because offering “great works with great performances at great prices” means that audiences get fuller access to classic operas, as well as new Canadian classical and contemporary works. Maybe it’s because this is a novel and egalitarian approach to an art form that many deem inaccessible. And maybe it’s because these two passionate performers are practical and personable, with not an elitist whiff between them.
We caught up Erin and Maureen –who are among the most warm, eloquent and affable prima donnas we’ve ever encountered — and spoke with them about the genesis of Essential Opera, their vision for its future and their upcoming performances.
1. Starting an opera company seems like a huge undertaking…Why did you decide to start Essential Opera?
We became good friends during the Master of Voice Performance program at the University of Toronto. It’s a very small program — I think there were only four students in our year — so we already knew we loved to work together and sing together. We actually started out with an idea for just one production, The Marriage of Figaro. We both love that opera and wanted a chance to perform it, ideally together. Once we started putting everything together for the first show (our company name, a logo, a website), people started asking us what was next. Now, we can hardly believe we’re starting our fifth season in fall 2014.
2. What is your vision for its future?
We will continue to plan two shows a year in Toronto. We have been invited to two summer festivals for June 2014. And we are starting to get invitations from various organizations for the 2014-2015, 2015-2016 seasons. We expect Essential Opera to expand over the next couple of years; with Maureen being from the East Coast we also plan to start bringing Essential Opera performances to that part of the country, which we’re very excited about.
3. What has been your most memorable Essential-Opera experience so far?
It’s tough to pick one distinct moment. We feel an enormous sense of pride when each show finishes and the cast takes their curtain call. Nothing beats that feeling.
4. Opera is seen by many to be a specialized taste, not necessarily for the popular masses. Then there are others like me who enjoy it, though we might not understand every nuance of this complex form. How can more people gain a fuller appreciation of opera?
Opera is not that different from other forms of music theatre – it all comes down to a story about characters, plus great music and beautiful singing. The major opera companies in the world, the companies with full budgets, can employ lavish sets and costumes. And some operas are written for huge orchestras. This can give the impression that all opera is an intimidatingly glamourous affair. We tend to think of opera as much more intimate and personal. Our job is to be very in-the-moment, so we’re not focused on the grandeur that others might associate with the genre. Instead, it’s all about storytelling and a fun night out.
5. How can we make opera fans of our children/young people? Many find opera intimidating. How might they overcome it to be able to appreciate its beauty and drama?
We think it’s really important not to “talk down” to all our audience, both young and older. It’s normal for people of all ages to be reluctant to try new things, so it’s a good idea for children and students to be exposed to all sorts of cultural experiences early on – that way they form the audiences of tomorrow without having to be convinced. At our shows, we always have the English version of the text right up on stage with the singers, and the singers we cast work really hard to make sure that it’s relatable and understandable, so the show’s enjoyable for everyone in the audience.
The act of singing opera arias (as opposed to folk/art songs, musical theatre, for example) is not for children or young students, but we both stress the importance of healthy singing to our students, no matter what their goals might be. We work on proper technique so that they have all the tools at their disposal when making artistic choices. If a student is serious about a career in performance we set up a game plan. Being an “opera singer” these days also means singing other genres. Students need to remember that to have a successful career as a performer they need to be versatile and healthy.
6. How great that you commission new Canadian works and promote up-and-coming Canadian talent. Having said this, are there any established Canadian opera singers you hope to work with at Essential Opera?
We are so glad to offer opportunities to Canadian artists. We’ve been very fortunate with our casts so far–we’ve had many extremely talented people perform with Essential Opera. As an opera company that focuses on offering great works with great performances at great prices, we will definitely continue to feature our colleagues who are both established and emerging in our seasons. We’ve been fortunate to hear really highly skilled artists in our auditions, and even more fortunate when they happen to be available to work with us. Generally, we’ll have a few possible works in mind for future seasons, but also we sometimes get excited about working with a particular singer we’ve heard, and we’ll go hunting for a role to feature them.
7. If you could invite 3 people to dinner, who would they be? What would you serve?
We would invite an accountant, a development coordinator, and a marketing specialist, and we would serve wine and notepads!
Essential Info about Upcoming Performances
Who: Erin Bardua and Maureen Batt
What: Two Weddings and A Reunion – a Haydn/Donizetti Double Bill
Where: New Hamburg Live! Festival of the Arts, Steinmann Mennonite Church, Baden, ON.
When: June 7, 2:00 pm
What: Etiquette/Regina/Heather – a Triple Bill of New Canadian Works
Where: Open Ears Festival of Music and Sound, Registry Theatre, Kitchener, ON.
When: June 15, 7:30 pm
What: Essential Opera’s 5th season opener, Christoph Willibald Ritter von Gluck’s Paride ed Elena, in celebration of the composer’s 300th anniversary
Where: Trinity St. Paul’s Centre, Toronto, ON
When: September 27, 7:30pm
© Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya 2014