Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
The thing about opera is…it’s an art form that’s impossible to categorize. On the one hand, it’s been around for over 400 years…so it can be termed “classical”. On the other hand, of the 100 composers referenced in the recently updated The Opera Guide by Amanda Holden, more than 50 have been popular since 1900, and 18 of them are living–and young. In fact, David Pountney points out in his Foreword to the book that opera is more diverse now than ever before–which definitely puts opera in the “contemporary” category. Given this contemporary dynamism, one can’t help but wonder: is it accessible for children?
Canadian tenor Aaron Sheppard avers enthusiastically that it is. “There are so many new operas being written, or even old ones updated, that are incredibly relevant and accessible to children of all ages,” he asserts. “Opera is an unique example that’s sometimes viewed as an antiquated art form. However, it is anything but!”
And he should know. As a member of the Canadian Opera Company’s famed Ensemble Studio, he’s performed in many classical operas, and is excited to perform in more contemporary ones this season. Firm in his conviction that opera should be introduced to children – to show them how fun and exciting it is – he is the ideal opera ambassador to present this art form to children. So naturally, he’s a part of the COC’s annual Ensemble Studio School Tour (his second), which brings interactive opera experiences to around 10,000 students in Ontario schools every November and December. In addition to the tours, the COC offers local audiences a one-day opportunity to see the School Tour show and participate in hands-on activities related to the opera. This year’s performance on November 27 is already sold out, a clear indication that opera is alive and thriving amongst the young set.
This, along with the recent updating of The Opera Guide support Sheppard’s view of opera being more relevant now than ever, and having special importance in the preservation of arts and culture worldwide. “It’s not just loud voices with Viking costumes,” he stresses. “Opera is sung and set in so many languages. It’s all people, of all ages and ethnicities. Studying opera informs you of various cultures, and it is an incredibly inclusive form of art.” The relatability of opera is a point that the COC has promoted tirelessly through its school tours for 50 years – and with considerable success. This year’s school tour is the Canadian premier of Second Nature, a futuristic opera about habitat loss, created last year specifically for young audiences by 26-year old American composer-conductor Matthew Aucoin.
Second Nature isn’t Sheppard’s first experience performing for a young audience: he performed Operation Superpower last year. An accomplished performer, he has found audiences, whether young and old, to be both “tough and nurturing.” He adds with a laugh that it’s kids who “tend to speak their mind with less of a filter. I love the feedback we receive during the school tour!”
While the school tour might whet young appetites for opera, their exposure need not end there. Two operas of the current season have strong appeal for young audiences: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Magic Flute and the highly-anticipated new all-Canadian production of Harry Somers’ Louis Riel, which the COC is co-presenting with the National Arts Centre to mark Canada’s sesquicentennial. As it happens, Sheppard has significant roles in both of these distinctly different stories. The Magic Flute is “an operatic fairy tale” that follows the journey of Prince Tamino and Princess Pamina in their quest for love, with many whimsical and magical circumstances throughout the plot. “It’s almost like watching a Disney movie!” he marvels, adding “Mozart is an absolute magician himself when it comes to composition.” The Magic Flute will be directed by Ensemble-Studio graduate Ashlie Corcoran, who is experienced in directing several COC family operas, including this year’s Second Nature and last year’s Operation Superpower and The Bremen Town Musicians. Corcoran has long experience directing a range of other productions (not the least of them as the Artistic Director of the Thousand Islands Playhouse). This production of The Magic Flute, a recreation of Diane Paulus’ original staging, will no doubt be accessible and engaging for audiences of all ages, and Sheppard hopes “they’re humming all the fantastic tunes from The Magic Flute–maybe the ‘Queen of the Night’ aria”–on the drive home!
Harry Somers’ Louis Riel, composed in Canada’s centenary year, is an altogether different opera. Sheppard comments soberly on the school teacher turned Métis political leader’s central role in Canadian history: “I remember learning all about him when I was growing up back in Newfoundland. He fought and died for his people, and for a cause he truly believed in. Louis Riel helped shape this country into what it is today, a country of acceptance and diversity.” Given Riel’s abiding importance, Louis Riel might just be an alternate – and resonant – way for young audiences to access the post-Confederation First Nations and Métis uprisings, and to gain insight into the leader of those uprisings – all while experiencing a modern Canadian opera.
And if Aucoin’s, Mozart’s and Somers’ works seem like enormous responsibilities to convey vocally (especially to candid young audiences), Sheppard isn’t daunted. In fact, he’s pumped and ready! “Just trust your voice,” he nods. “We’ve all trained so hard to get to this point. Just be yourself!” Yet while Sheppard loves to perform and welcomes audience interaction, he balks at being asked to sing on cue. “Sometimes we do radio interviews super early in the morning and are asked to sing,” he winces.”Just like an athlete, we really need to warm up, so singing super early on the radio is sometimes a daunting task!”
Okay, hint taken! It’s on the tip of my tongue . . . but I refrain from asking for any on-demand singing. However, when I ask him what songs have influenced him on his operatic journey, he gladly offers this playlist of favourite songs-classical and contemporary-suitable for all ages:
1. Irish Folk Song “Danny Boy” (performed by John MacDermott) – I grew up in Newfoundland, surrounded by incredible folk music everywhere. I remember singing this back when my voice had just changed and discovering that I may actually have a decent voice down there somewhere. Plus it reminds me of home and family.
2. Kenny Rogers: “The Gambler” – I just remember singing this all the time on choir trips and stuff as a kid. It reminds me of all the fun I had doing music as I was growing up.
3. Queen: “Bohemian Rhapsody” – I really discovered that I was definitely a tenor when I sang this song in high school, the song is so diverse and really makes you actually sing in so many different ways. I think Freddie Mercury is quite possibly the greatest performer of all time.
4. “La Donna e Mobile” from Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto by (performed by Andrea Bocelli) – I sang this for my entrance auditions to get into university– and it got me into the school of my choice! I put it away for a few years though, as my voice probably wasn’t ready to sing it at the time. Now, I’ve started singing it again at 25.
5. Simon and Garfunkel: “Bridge Over Troubled Water”– Probably the song I sang more than anything during my life. From solos in high school and university, to driving down the road making harmonies with my buddies driving in the car.
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What: Second Nature by Matthew Aucoin, featuring Aaron Sheppard/Charles Sy (Jake), Emily D’Angelo/Lauren Eberwein (Lydia), Betty Allison/Danika Lorèn (Elizabeth), Iain MacNeil/Bruno Roy (David/Bonobo), Samantha Pickett/Megan Quick (Elder Constance); directed by Ashlie Corcoran
Who: Audiences of all ages
When: November 27, 2016 (sold out)
Where: Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Opera Centre, 227 Front St E, Toronto, ON M5A 1E8
© 2016 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya