Opera Divided

Not everyone agrees with the modern approach to classic form

By Ben Gelinas

Opera singers often refer to their voices as “instruments,” as though the sounds that come up and out of them are produced by an inanimate object. And it’s true that in the grand opera tradition, a singer is as still as any other instrument in the orchestra; singing opera, like playing a trumpet, is a little hard while dancing or crying. But a persistent movement has taken hold in the opera world over the years—for more relatable stories, alternative productions and, well, movement. Alberta institutions such as Calgary Opera and the U of A teach acting methods, choreography and in some cases even yoga to the next generation of opera singers. The idea is to build baritones and mezzo-sopranos who not only know how to sing, but are flexible, well-rounded performers as well. New operatic works and the more animated staging of old standbys demand this. Some say younger audiences demand it too. How opera sounds, while still important, is competing with how opera looks and moves.

Nurturing fit singers increases their chances of success, according to University of Alberta vocal performance instructor Elizabeth Turnbull. “It’s very physical. We need to be in good shape,” she says. “You’re remembering music and words in another language and watching a conductor and moving around the stage, wearing some kind of crazy outfit sometimes. And physically you have to be strong in order to execute that and not die vocally. Meanwhile, the performance must look effortless, dramatically spontaneous and realistic.” Turnbull doesn’t deny that a certain visual aesthetic is at play too. “I think the stereotypical fat lady with the horns—I mean, there are still larger-figured people out there, but modern audiences are less accepting of a body type that is not along the lines of what they’re led to believe this character is all about.” She says Mimi in La Bohème, dying of tuberculosis, is harder to believe when she’s 250 pounds.

Yet the old guard is pushing back, insisting the best opera focuses firmly on vocal quality, putting all other elements of training and performance second. That’s why you’ll still see European singers in their 40s cast as teenage geishas, and why singers might walk on stage and stay in one spot for an entire show, a practice sometimes called “park and bark.” According to purists, voice should come before realism.

Mimi in La Bohème, dying of tuberculosis, is harder to beleive when she’s 250 pounds. But purists say voice trumps realism.

In a rural Lutheran church near Leduc, a small team of talented Alberta opera singers ready themselves for a recital. It’s a rainy summer afternoon show for family, friends and the odd stranger. One promising soprano named Whitney Sloan sings Schubert. The selected arias are loud, even through a closed door stage left of the altar. It’s back here, before the recital begins, that Sloan’s instructors Heather Meyers and Cory Miller talk opera, a craft to which they have devoted their lives. Meyers says they selected this remote church, two dirt roads over from any secondary highway, for its natural acoustics and position far from the bustle of urban life.

“We [opera singers] are elite,” says Meyers, a Calgary-based vocal coach and contralto. “It takes years just to be able to string C, D, E together. This is extremely specific, extremely high, extremely disciplined.” Between universities and private tutors, Alberta produces chorus-loads of burgeoning opera singers like Sloan, and the method the students learn depends on who teaches them. To produce exquisite pitch over the wails and booms of a full orchestra is a daunting task, regardless of training. Few can do it and fewer can do it well. “It’s a spiritual and physical experience in the hands of people who really know what they’re doing,” Meyers says. “These young kids are taught more about the business than they are about the craft…. We’re not supposed to pander to money-making in this art form and yet we do. It’s all about commodifying this art form, commodifying our students: having a career, making money, making a name for yourself. So what happens?” Instead of serving music, you’re serving yourself, she says.


Whitney Sloan studied traditional opera methods as well as programs that stress well-rounded performance skills. (James May)

Together, Meyers and Miller, a mezzo-soprano, run the Vocal Arts Institute of Alberta, an individualized opera program for up-and-coming singers. They started the program to “bring excellence in the vocal art forms to this part of the world.” The duo is firmly in the purist camp, championing vocal ability with a heavy focus on understanding the deeper meaning of the pieces their students perform. Using words like “numinous” and “metaphysical” to describe opera, Miller and Meyers equate the classic composers to gods and singing their works to walking with those gods.

“It is the most incredible thing, to actually be able to achieve what they intended,” Miller says. “But if you go against them and impose something upon them that they did not intend, they will take that voice, as they should.”

Sloan hits an impossible note from the altar. The singer in her early 30s is certainly capable of bounding across a stage and acting the parts, but today she just sings. Sloan has sung publicly for most of her life. At eight, the British Columbian landed a spot with the Vancouver Bach Children’s Chorus, through which she had the opportunity to sing with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. Her interest snowballed from there. The first album Sloan ever bought was Paula Abdul’s Shut Up and Dance, but after seeing Disney’s Fantasia she migrated to the Beethoven symphonies.

“I didn’t understand it. I didn’t get it,” she recalls. “But I felt there was something in that music that was as big as I felt.”

Over the years, Sloan studied traditional methods as well as programs that stress well-rounded performance skills. When she was 23 she spent a year in Calgary Opera’s emerging artist development program—a prairie paean to well-rounded performance training— which each year accepts eight young singers from Alberta and beyond to study and sing for 12 months. The students are paid to train, learning the ins and outs of how an opera company functions. They receive vocal coaching and lessons in text analysis, acting and stage fighting as well as weekly yoga and movement classes. They’re also taught the more political side of the opera world, learning how to build better resumés, work a room and present themselves in auditions: the business as well as the craft. The goal is to train the next generation of outstanding Canadian singers, the future stars of Calgary Opera’s main-stage productions, says Bob McPhee. The general director and CEO of Calgary Opera argues that the number of practicum opportunities in university programs is lacking, or was when they started in 2005, and their program is compensation.
During her year with the program, Sloan played the title character in a commissioned work by Edmonton composer Allan Gilliland and librettist Val Brandt called Hannaraptor—an opera about paleontology in the badlands. No one could have called the opera traditional. “We have an aria in there where we try to cram as many dinosaur names into the song as possible,” says Gilliland, who wrote the music with less-experienced voices in mind.

Eight emerging artists toured Hannaraptor across the province, taking it to 30 or 40 schools. Sloan divided her role with another student. She says she came out of Calgary’s program still not sure she was ready to sing professionally. She was confident in her ability to move on stage, but she says her physical performance was always to the detriment of her voice. “I recognized I didn’t have one good goddamn clue about how to actually sing. I had no technical confidence. Everything I was doing was on a hope and a prayer.”


Students in Calgary Opera’s emerging artist development program practice yoga. (Alex Bonyun/Calgary Opera)

Sloan went to Meyers and Miller to learn a more traditional way. With their help, she travelled to the Franz-Schubert-Institut in Baden bei Wien, Austria, this past summer, where she closely studied the poetry and performance of German lieder over five weeks. Lied means song in German, and specifically refers to a genre of art song that emphasizes romantic poetry beginning in the 19th century. Sloan was one of 17 singers selected to participate in the pay-to-sing program, along with a group of promising pianists. A large focus of the five weeks was intense master classes. Sloan had to learn 33 pieces inside and out and perform them in front of teachers and peers. There were no costumes. No choreography. Just voice and piano. Outside of the training, she was hosted by a local family she never saw. “Class started at nine and I came home from the practice room at eleven. If you want to get better, that’s what you have to do,” Sloan says. The experience—tearing down to the core of the songs and their poetry—made her feel open and vulnerable, free of all barriers. Now back in Edmonton, she speaks with a new confidence in her vocal ability. “It’s not about the who, what, when, where, why. Those help. Those inform you,” she says. “But what’s behind that? What is the thing that can’t be described? That is what you start to bring out in your singing.”

Meyers laments that “people hear more with their eyes than with their hearts and ears” these days. “I have a friend who is one of the greatest singers in the world. To hear her is sort of like being swept over by a wave of love and sound. She’s big and people look at her and they see a fat person, and I look at her and see a nine-foot Steinway.” A singer with a small diaphragm is going to produce a small sound, she says. There’s a place for that on stage too. But it can’t be every singer. Not if opera’s done right. “It used to be accepted that when you sang bigger music, you needed a bigger body,” Meyers says. “To not necessarily be terribly fat, but strong and have space in your body.” A six-pack may help an athlete, but muscles in the wrong place will only hinder a singer. An opera singer needs the right body type for the sound he or she wants to produce, not the right body type for a model or movie star.

But not everyone agrees with the traditional approach to opera, including those who write new works. Contemporary Alberta operas Filumena and Frobisher, both by Edmonton-based composer John Estacio and librettist John Murrell, focus on stories arguably more relatable to audiences. “Opera is, to many, an old form,” Estacio says. “That’s because we always trudge out the Traviatas, the Bohèmes, the Aidas.” He calls these “museum pieces,” and stresses that opera is a living medium.

There will always be the diehard opera fans who crave the classics performed in their classic ways, “but that group is small and it’s getting smaller. Yes, you have to appease them, but you also have to keep opera relevant to today’s audiences,” Estacio says. “I think one of the ways opera is catching up to the modern-day world is [directors] are realizing that these are also dramatic works, these are theatrical works, and you need to be able to tell the story in a physical way and not just stand there and deliver your beautiful aria…. I think our audiences of today demand that.”

Gilliland agrees: “I think there’s always going to be an audience for those great pieces. But if opera’s going to thrive or get any more popular, it’s because we think outside of the box.”
Though principally known for his symphonic work, Gilliland has actually written two operas, both for Calgary’s emerging artist development program: Hannaraptor and a lesser known piece about B-circuit wrestling called The Untimely Death of Whatsisname that has yet to go further than workshops. “I much prefer the acting opera singer, which is the norm right now,” he says.
Contemporary opera can mean more opportunity for younger singers. They may not need to sing like Maria Callas if they can really sell a role. Smaller companies such as Opera NUOVA in Edmonton and Cowtown Opera and the Calgary Concert Opera Company tend to be more open to hearing auditions by younger singers. Mercury Opera, an alternative company founded by Edmonton soprano Darcia Parada, has been especially aggressive at tearing down the rigid traditions of the craft, staging operas in public parks, on boats, in city alleyways with singers on scissor lifts, even Pagliacci in the Coney Island sideshow in New York. They’ve employed pyrotechnics and aerialists. In one memorable show, Parada had singers perform with a string quartet underground in Edmonton’s Central LRT Station. The performers arrived on trains. “I would go to standard opera and find that it felt stale,” Parada says. “It needed to be shaken up a bit and somebody had to do it, so why not me?”

But scissor lifts are not for everyone, and Sloan remains skeptical of the push for more “relatable” stories. She’s convinced that narrative in opera is secondary to the emotion expressed through the music, and that emotion is eternally relatable. She says the singer’s job is to understand the emotions captured by a composer and librettist and evoke them in listeners. “You take a standard opera, like La Bohème: it’s narrative but it’s chunky as hell. It’s a tableau. What’s the focus of the tableau? The emotional experience of a group of young kids in poverty, falling in love, discovering who they are,” she says. “That is an emotional experience. That has validity. That is worth being sung.”

Sloan doesn’t mind movement or action if it helps an opera feel more real, so long as it doesn’t take away from the singing. She feels opera starts to get convoluted when a composer is more concerned with narrative than emotion. Though Sloan is quick to laud modern, character-driven operas such as Dead Man Walking and A Streetcar Named Desire for their emotional depth, there are plenty of others that she feels focus on story at the expense of impact. If an opera’s principal focus is telling a cohesive story from beginning to end, Sloan wonders, why sing? “What’s the point? I’d much rather see a movie at that point. I’d rather see a play.” She says, “For me, when I’m on stage, my first priority is making somebody in the audience feel that emotion. If I’m sad, I don’t care what language I’m singing, they should feel sad. When I’m happy, they should feel joy. That’s my job.”

Ben Gelinas is an Edmonton writer and former journalist. His day job is story and dialogue editing at BioWare, a video game studio.


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