Chris Thornborrow and COC’s Summer Opera Camp are spreading “opera fever” — by Sayani S-G, Guest Contributor



Sesaya specializes in music and arts education.

“Can I go?”

This is not always the keenness you anticipate from a 14-year-old about summer camp … let alone a summer camp focused on opera. But when 14-year-old Sayani heard about the Canadian Opera Company’s Summer Opera Camp, these were her first 3 words. Not a typical response to the word “opera”…and quite the opposite of the confused “huhs” or disgruntled “ews” routinely heard from some teenagers.

Award-winning composer Chris Thornborrow, Musical Director of COC's Summer Opera Camp (photo: COC)

Award-winning composer Chris Thornborrow, Musical Director of COC’s Summer Opera Camp (photo: COC)

Her enthusiasm is thanks in no small part to the COC’s dynamic educational and outreach programs, which are making opera increasingly accessible and appealing to young audiences. And the COC’s annual Summer Opera Camp is now running for the first time out of the spectacular Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, which only adds to its allure for aspiring young performers like Sayani.

Regrettably, Sayani wasn’t able to participate this year due to scheduling conflicts. But she is keen to explore the opportunity next July. In anticipation, she spoke with Musical Director Chris Thornborrow about what makes this camp experience unique, what campers can expect and the skills they might develop. “Each week, participants will create an original opera​, including elements of design, theatre, movement, and, of course, music!” he enthuses. “Beyond developing the technical skills of performance, including good, healthy vocal technique, sense of rhythm and melody, breath support, etc., campers will learn how to express themselves through music by performing an opera of their own creation.”

(No wonder Sayani was excited!)

The weeklong camps are organized by age range: from secondary students composing their own operatic work to primary students interpreting Lynne Cherry’s environmentally-themed picture book The Great Kapok Tree. Regardless of age, Thornborrow explains what can realistically be achieved by students in each age group, given the defined timeframe.”How we get from an idea to performance is very different depending on the age group. Older participants will be expected to contribute significantly to the story, music, and design.” Though we might safely assume that few children or teenagers have ever written an opera, he insists that they instinctively have the ability to create melody through improvisation.

Summer Opera Camp participants (photo: COC)

Summer Opera Camp participants (Photo: COC)

Nor is a strong theoretical knowledge essential to write the music. Thornborrow has found that young people can sing original melodies instinctively, so his role is to facilitate learning these lines, nurture their development into a song, and then teach it to the rest of the group. That creative process does vary, he concedes, with the age and developmental experience of the participants. For instance, while the older students in the Senior Company may come with prior knowledge about music performance and theory, the members of the Little Company create their compostions through games and process. Accordingly, Thornborrow designs activities that incorporate rhythmic patterns, call and response, improvisation, chant and composition. These then become the building blocks for the final opera. “With this process,” he explains, “it’s really kind of magical to see it all the pieces come together for the performance!”

But there is no magic without an accompanying challenge. In this case, it’s the stringent one-week timeframe. “The creative process doesn’t always get along with deadlines! There are always challenges when it comes to making creative decisions as a group. Naturally, not everyone always agrees on artistic choices (nor should they!), so a big challenge to keep things moving along, staying focused on the big picture, and making sure that, overall, everyone is happy with how things are progressing.” So the biggest “take-away” from Summer Opera Camps is the ability to work creatively — and collectively — on a complex project. “In almost every real-life situation—whether it be at school, work, or home—people are expected to work collaboratively. So the team-building that happens in creating an opera is reflective of the day-to-day experience that students will encounter at school, work, or home!”

 Summer Youth Intensive participants (Photo: COC)

Summer Youth Intensive participants (Photo: COC)

Speaking as an artist, Thornborrow does hope that campers will also come away with a new perspective on opera. Telling a story through music and theatre is a vital art-form, he muses, one that’s centuries-old, and which is (and always has been) evolving. “Composers, writers, and performers continue to perform and create operas across Canada and around the world,” he maintains.”If campers came away from the program excited about the notion that opera can speak to them and that they have the ability to bring their own voice to opera—whether it be as a performer, designer, writer, or composer—that would be pretty amazing!”

(This is already the case for at least one prospective camper!)

Generally speaking, “students should be exposed to opera for its ability to express human emotion,” says Thornborrow, who enjoys working with young people through various projects, including a partnership with the Toronto District School Board.”For me, opera is the perfect art-form that challenges both intellectually and emotionally. And, again, when you’re creating it from scratch, you’re allowing young people to express themselves through art, design, narrative, movement, and music.” He’s seen how this combination of story and music can tap into an emotional experience in a way that no other art form can. Through this emotional experience, opera is a vehicle to ask questions, and explore what it means to be alive today.

Summer Youth Intensive participants (Photo: COC)

Summer Youth Intensive participants (Photo: COC)

By end of interview, Sayani is no longer asking one particular question of her mother. As she contemplates next summer, her 3-word question has become a 2-word assertion.

“I’m going!” ​

News You Can Use

What: Canadian Opera Company Summer Opera Camp Programs

When: July 6-31, 2015

Where: Four Seasons Centre, 145 Queen St W, Toronto, ON M5H 4G1


© 2015 Sesaya

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