SesayArts in Conversation with Katherine Semcesen: COC offers an unbeatable opera opportunity in Youth Opera Labs



Sesaya specializes in music and arts education.

Katherine Semcesen, Associate Director of Education and Outreach, Canadian Opera Company

Katherine Semcesen, Associate Director of Education and Outreach, Canadian Opera Company (photo courtesy of COC)

It’s the beginning of the end . . . though thankfully only for this season. Today marks the start of the final Youth Opera Lab of the Canadian Opera Company‘s season, in conjunction with its production of  Bluebeard’s Castle/Erwartung. Envied by their peers are 25 lucky youth, whose timely applications were accepted. The COC’s Youth Opera Lab program is a series of interactive, experiential, and multi-component events that enable youth ages 16-25 to experience various aspects of opera–for free (Yes, you read that correctly). To make sure that there’s no regret next season, we asked Katherine Semcesen, the COC’s Associate Director of Education and Outreach to fill us in on every detail of this incredible opportunity to experience the opera, up close and personally.

  1. What inspired the Youth Lab Program?

The COC’s programs for youth are designed to connect adolescents and young adults to professional artists, raise their awareness of the opera creation and training, and provide vehicles and resources for youth to explore their critical and creative potential. The COC launched the Youth Opera Lab in 2008/2009. Each Lab consists of 3 components:

  • an interactive and participatory workshop led by an artist,
  • a Q&A and informal meeting with an artist or creative team member connected to a main stage production, and
  • watching an onstage rehearsal for the orchestra and entire cast

Participants are invited to attend a BMO Financial Group Student dress rehearsal of the opera a few days later. Thanks to support from the J. P. Bickell Foundation and other donors, the COC is able to provide this program for free.

  1. How are the topics of the labs selected and who selects them?

Opera is a collaborative art form, so it’s quite natural that many individuals are involved in programming a season of interesting and compelling Labs! First, the COC’s Children and Youth Programs Co-ordinator and I explore all of the interesting aspects about each production for the upcoming season. We look for inspiration in the overall concept, story, music, costumes, make-up, staging, lighting effects, props, orchestrations, etc. We also consider which artists will be in town, and we work with colleagues at the COC and in the industry to determine which artists would work well with young people.

We also review feedback forms from the previous seasons for programming suggestions directly from past youth participants. After we’ve exhausted all of our ideas, we focus in on what we think and hope young people will enjoy and benefit from the most, and what would make young people want to sign up. Keeping the programming diverse is crucial to the success of the Labs, so that youth with many types of backgrounds and experiences can find their way into opera. Though it doesn’t always work out, we try to avoid any duplication of topics.

  1. YOL - Backstage Tour RESIZED

    YOL Backstage Tour (photo courtesy of COC)

    Why do participants have to apply rather than, say, have spots offered on a first-come-first-served basis? Is there something in particular you are looking for in applicants in order to be accepted?

The COC staff and funders work very hard to ensure that this program remains accessible and free for young people. In lieu of any fees, we ask that interested youth take the time to complete an application form. The application form encourages youth to really consider why and how the programming would benefit them, and in turn there is a sense of commitment from the applicant to attend should they be chosen.

Space is limited to 25 participants per Lab, so we can’t guarantee that everyone will be admitted. When accepting applicants we take their responses into consideration, as well as how many times they’ve applied and/or attended the program in the past, and if they’re new to the art form or not. We like to keep a balance of returning youth as well as welcome new people to the program. I’m pleased to report that over 51% of applications for the upcoming Youth Opera Lab are new to the program and 32% have never attended an opera before! I’m very excited that for some of the youth, Bluebeard’s Castle/Erwartung will be their first opera experience. On top of the expressive score, the production is so compelling and theatrical.

YOL Backstage Tour

YOL Backstage Tour (photo courtesy of COC)

4. What kinds of youth tend to apply to the program? Are they interested in opera in particular, artistic in general or just innately curious about new experiences?

What really excites me about the Youth Opera Lab is the diversity in experience of the applicants. Most of the applicants are interested in learning more about the creative and production process, but their motivations for signing up are very different. We have young singers apply because they’re interested in learning more about the vocal technique and performance practices involved in singing opera, or drama students who are curious to know what is involved in creating a concept for an opera and staging the piece, or, my favourite, are the numerous young people who are studying sciences, law, journalism, history, or other non-music or drama related subjects who are simply looking for a new, different, and stimulating educational experience. I take great joy in meeting and getting to know the participants during each Lab.

  1. YOL Vocal Workshop

    YOL Vocal Workshop (photo courtesy of COC)

    What has been the reception of this program so far? Will there be any changes to the program next season?

Overall, the response has been very positive. COC staff members make every effort to ensure that each Lab participant feels welcome and respected at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. The result is that the participants begin to feel at home in our space and comfortable with staff and artists.

At the end of each season we review feedback forms and our own internal reports to determine the programming for the following season. I do not foresee any major changes looming ahead. But based on the operas lined up for next season and the cast and creative teams coming to Toronto, we have a wealth of options to explore. I am confident that the programming will be new, innovative, and even more tailored to attract a diverse group of youth.

  1. YOL participants in the inaugural 2008-2009 season, focused on Aida, with guests COC General Director Alexander Neef and Director Tim Albery. Katherine in back row, far left (Photo courtesy of COC)

    Many people view opera as such as specialized, foreign art form that they need to be educated in it in order to access it. In terms of this program, the website states no previous experience with opera is necessary for youth to apply. What impact has this program had on providing opera experience and perhaps making opera less remote to our young people?

In general, we emphasize with the youth that opera is another form of telling a story and what makes this art form so dynamic is that we draw on all of the art forms to make the story as compelling and expressive as it can be. Welcoming youth to the space, providing them with engaging programming, and connecting them with creative and generous artists, contribute to breaking any stereotypes youth may have about the art form or the Company.

What: Youth Opera Lab Program

Who: Ages 16-25 years

FYI: Canadian Opera Company

Stay connected: @CanadianOpera on Twitter and

© 2015 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya

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