Chris Thornborrow on how COC’s Opera Camps prime youth for creativity and collaboration in art and life

Chris Thornborrow; photo courtesy of the COC

“When you hear the word ‘opera’, what do you think of?”

Posed to a small group of youth in grades 10 to 12, this question elicited responses like “the singers are always talented”; “singing with a lot of ornamentation”; “long concerts with high-pitched singing”; and “classical music in a foreign language”. When probed, the students acknowledged there is “a lot more” to opera than just the musical aspect . . . though they were hard-pressed to pinpoint exactly what.

Clearly, there is more to opera than readily meets the teen eye. And luckily, the the Canadian Opera Company’s (COC) annual series of Scotiabank Summer Opera Camps provides young people from grades 1 to 12 a compact, immersive insight into the many facets of opera creation . . . while busting a few of their misconceptions.

The final camp of the season, called Senior Company, is designed for students entering grades 9 to 12, and runs July 23 – 28 this year. In 6 days, the teens will explore music composition, singing, story creation, acting, movement, and visual arts, inspired by professional artists. Senior Company members are given the unique opportunity to create an opera based on an original story of their own conception. They select roles, and begin the process of staging and rehearsing their opera, which includes the design and creation of costumes, props, and set. On the final day of camp, they present their opera as a robust rehearsal to an audience of family and friends.

There is so much that goes on, including writing, composing, design, ​drama and singing workshops,” enthuses Chris Thornborrow, a prolific, award-winning composer who has been a leader at these camps since 2015. “Anyone who walks in is pretty much guaranteed to find something they’re really good at, while at the same time, getting to do something they may have never done before.” He explains that participants are a mix of “new and returning students” who attend for a variety of reasons. Generally, the returning students are ones who are planning on pursuing a degree in music or performing arts. Though most of them are singers, the Senior Company also attracts students who are passionate about music theory and composition, as well as “students who have less experience [but] get a lot out of the program we offer!”

In his experience, many come for the chance to perform an original opera. “Storytelling through music is a really powerful way to express yourself, and it’s all the more exciting when the story, characters, props, and songs were created by you!” The camp is also a vibrant opportunity to meet new people who are likewise passionate about the arts. Mr Thornborrow also speaks enthusiastically about the myriad of non-artistic benefits. ​Beyond the confidence-building that comes with the challenge of live performance, students learn to collaborate in a team on a “complex and ambitious theatre project, creating an opera.” Through it, they gain experience negotiating, having the courage to voice their ideas, and learning how to listen to the ideas of others. “There is also a sense of resilience and patience that you get when you nurture a baby opera from scratch into a full-scale performance.” All of these traits of cooperation and tenacity are vital in any academic and professional capacity, and are critical elements of social development.

Catherine Hume, Sonja Rainey and Chris Thornborrow; photo by Chris Hutcheson

The experience blends purposeful creativity among peers with inspiration and mentorship from some of Canada’s foremost performing artists. Besides Mr Thornborrow, participants also work with Designer Sonia Rainey, who is a Dora Award-nominated set and costume designer; Accompanist Christina Faye, who is a sought-after pianist and one half of the acclaimed duo Millan and Faye;  Vocal Specialist Kyra Millan, the soprano who is the duo’s other half; and Drama Specialist Catherine Hume, an artist-educator and emerging director.

Given the caliber of artist and the intensity of the effort, Mr. Thornborrow grants that  the weeklong creation process is daunting but rewarding. As you might expect, “there’s never enough time!” And because the process is entirely democratic— “everyone gets a say in the creation of the work” — it is a huge challenge to negotiate the arc of the story, with key ingredients being patience and compromise, with everyone’s collective sights set on the “big picture”. But “the beauty . . . is that, ultimately, you’ve come together with a whole bunch of people to create something that didn’t exist before,” he avers. “That’s truly an amazing experience.” Moreover, being involved in such an “intense process” can itself create “really strong connections”. He has observed that many participants strive to sustain the friendships begun at camp over the longer term. He delights in knowing that “many of the students who have since gone on to university even keep in touch, and stay involved as volunteers with the COC after they graduate from high school!”

When asked for his final thoughts, Mr Thornborrow offers young people some advice born of his own involvement with the COC’s opera camps and working with students over the years: “if you are someone who may be shy, or who hasn’t performed before, …give opera camp a chance,” he encourages. “Opera incorporates all art-forms, including storytelling, music, acting, and design. I’ve even seen professional opera incorporate film!” Although he has worked with children and young adults for 17 years, it has just been in the last several years that he has realized his own deep passion for telling stories through opera with – and  for – young people: “Working with teens has given me the courage to create contemporary opera with their world-view in mind.” His first full-length opera, Hook Up, “deals with the issues and complexities of being a young adult in today’s world”, and will receive its world premiere in January, 2019. “Opera camp gives you a chance to experience all these things,” he affirms, so you may, like he did, “find a way to express yourself in the most unlikely of places.”​

Senior Company members 2017; photo by Chris Hutcheson

A few spots still remain for this summer’s Senior Company in the final week of July. So that group of teens who admitted their unfamiliarity with the intricacies of opera?  They – and all teens like them – have a golden opportunity to deepen their knowledge, co-create new art, and build life skills and lifelong friendships in an energizing and inspiring environment.

After reading a draft of this article, they were asked a new question: “when you hear the words “opera camp”, what do you think of?”

Their answer was more succinct and unanimous: “Wow. Just wow.”

News You Can Use

What: Canadian Opera Company’s Scotiabank Summer Opera Camps, Senior Company

Who: Students entering grade 9 to students who have completed grade 12

When: July 23-28, 2018, 9 AM – 4 PM

Where: Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen St. West, Toronto, ON

Info and Registration:

© 2018 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.