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Opera as Theatre up North
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ArtistLink6/9/2008

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An abundance of summer training programs for singers exist in North America and beyond. Among them is The Banff Centre's Opera as Theatre Program. This institution, amid numerous others, is highlighted in the Organization Directory of Opera Source, OPERA America's comprehensive career resource for administrators, singers, technical/production professionals, teachers and all creative and performing opera artists. For information about The Banff Centre and more, visit Opera Source today.

Opera as Theatre at The Banff Centre is Canada's premiere opera training program. It offers singers the opportunity to concentrate on the interpretive dramatic arts with classes in characterization, simultaneous script and score study, and body alignment, while also enhancing musical knowledge and skills. The fact that Opera as Theatre is part of the larger Theatre Arts Program at The Banff Centre speaks to the department's commitment to the drama of opera.

Program Director Kelly Robinson addresses stagecraft as it functions in Opera as Theatre's program: "The Opera as Theatre Program assumes that singers who are in their early careers arrive at the Program having focused largely on the task of developing their instrument and that training in stage skills has been relegated to a secondary requirement. The Program takes as its special focus the training of singers as communicators of opera: of text, of music and of character. Frequently, young singers focus primarily on the communication of their character's emotional state, usually expressed in the music and obvious to an audience, but find that such expressions are not convincing since [they] are at the expense of the character's thoughts, which give rise to authentic emotion. The Program uses a variety of approaches — including exercises from text-based theater, improvisation, status and movement — particularly shaped for the needs of the opera stage to develop the young singer as a dimensional communicator of text allied with music, period and class."

Program Coordinator Casey Prescott agrees, "As audiences demand more from their opera experience, it is now necessary for all singers to incorporate and employ a greater range of dramatic skills on stage. This program was designed to meet those needs."

Robinson adds that in addition to dramatic study, singers study body alignment, breath and diction, "The Program does not ignore vocal training; indeed, we have world class teachers and coaches on site this year, including famed Canadian singers Tracy Dahl and Judith Forst, and English tenor and Britten specialist Adrian Thompson, among others."

Soprano Tracy Dahl has the distinction of being both a past participant and an esteemed guest instructor at Banff. She writes, "I would say the Program has both been maintained and evolved over the years from my time as a student to today as a teacher. The Program still provides many of the things I had when I was there — voice lessons, movement and acting classes — but I think there is more focus on how to effect the wishes of a director and how to present an aria in audition using the tools they discover in acting classes. Singers explore other fields in our discipline, including musical theater and theatrical monologues. Singers learn how to focus their skill for opera beyond the voice production itself; for example, how to use one's breath as a dramatic tool, and how to physically use your body to tell a story with integrity."

Prescott describes Opera as Theatre's collaboration with other Banff Centre artists and cultural leaders. "The Program has the benefit of happening within a multi-disciplinary festival environment. The opportunity for singers to interact and observe participants in our professional dance, theater, aboriginal arts, visual arts, new media and music performance programs during the festival also expands and enhances their training experience at The Banff Centre.

"An integral part of the Opera as Theatre Program's development has been the production of new mainstage contemporary works. In the past few years, we have had the fortune of programming both Filumena and Frobisher by John Estacio and John Murrell, allowing young singers a rare chance to tackle leading roles in a new Canadian opera. Another benefit to the participants has been the chance to work alongside a composer and librettist who have both been in residence during these production periods."

Tenor James McLennan has been a two-time participant in the Opera as Theatre Program. He sang the role of Stephano in Filumena in 2005 and Tamino in The Magic Flute in 2006. Of his experience singing in Banff's remount of Filumena, McLennan says, "It works well as a piece of theater and is beautifully written for the voice."

Of the opera Frobisher, Prescott writes, "The production last summer of Frobisher was a fascinating example of a piece that — through its demanding musical score and libretto, original story and extraordinary production requirements — stretched each participant's dramatic and musical experience in the rehearsal hall and onstage. We have always found that new work is one of the most fertile canvases to deliver a training program on, as its unique and original material always provides a refreshed and energized approach to the creative training and production process."

McLellan eloquently sums up his experience at Banff: "I think what's interesting about Banff is their mandate: to develop opera into a contemporary art form. That shows in the way they treat their singers, what they expect from their singers and how they hope to bring this art form — opera — into the 21st century and make it relevant for contemporary audiences. That means creating not just new works but interpreting the traditional repertoire from a contemporary point of view."

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