Opera on the Avalon

Festival offers intensive instruction, performance opportunities for young singers

Danette Dooley danette@nl.rogers.com
Published on July 20, 2009
Opera on the Avalon co-founder and Newfoundland opera singer Cheryl Hickman performs the role of Donna Anna in Don Giovanni at the Manitoba Opera. Submitted photo

Twenty-five young opera singers from various parts of Canada and the United States are in St. John's, studying and performing in an intensive program of opera song and repertoire.
Opera on the Avalon drew more than 400 applicants, says festival co-founder Cheryl Hickman, and the 25 will be taught by some of the best in the business. Faculty include mezzo soprano Elizabeth Turnbull, director Rob Herriot, coach and voice specialist Jennifer Matthews, coach Elena Hammel and lyric diction coach Steven Leigh.
One of the highlights will be staged scenes - with subtitles - in the original opera language. Performances take place from July 24-26 at the D.F. Cook Recital Hall at Memorial University's School of Music.
"A lot of times people are intimidated by operas because they don't know what the people are saying …," Hickman says.
"So, we have subtitles for every scene that's in a foreign language. If it's good enough for the Metropolitan Opera, then it's good enough for us."
After days of master classes, coaching, scene study and song preparation, participants will host a concert at St. George's Anglican Church in Brigus on July 23, with all proceeds going to the church.
"The benefit is a way of helping young artists realize the importance of giving back to the community," Hickman says.
She founded Opera on the Avalon with Joan Woodrow and Jennifer Matthews.
"We were just frustrated with the lack of opera in the province and also the lack of advanced training for students in this art form in Eastern Canada," Hickman explained.
Five of the students accepted into the program are doing so on full scholarships.
"It's important to think about students who cannot afford the festival, so for five students the festival is free," she said.
While some students are entering the program as beginners, others are already performing with major companies, Hickman said.
"We want to give the kids just starting off a really good grounding in the art form, and for people who are already performing, we want to help them polish their skills, give them new contacts and enable them to go even further."
While not all students will carve out careers as opera singers, many may find their niche in performance-related positions such as director, make-up artist, seamstress, coach or stage managers, Hickman said.
"Some of them will make it and some of them will become the next generation of audiences and that's just as important."
The festival's co-artistic director and vocal coach, Hickman is no stranger to opera.
She has a master's degree from New York's Juilliard School - one of the world's most prestigious performing arts conservatories. A soprano, she's been performing professionally for two decades.
She's been on stage with many of the major companies across Canada and the United States, including Florida Grand Opera, New York City Opera, Vancouver Opera and the Canadian Opera Company.
Allison Nicholas, a two-time junior vocal rose bowl winner at the Kiwanis Music Festival, recently completed two years at Memorial University's School of Music.
The 20-year-old says she's "over the moon" about heading to the Manhattan School of Music in New York in the fall where she'll be working towards an undergraduate degree in voice and performance.
She said Opera on the Avalon is the first program close to home that caters to classical singers.
"It's got a fantastic lineup, it's affordable and it was just too good to pass up," Nicholas said, adding she's really looking forward to the diction classes.
"And I'm looking forward to working with (Elizabeth) Turnbull, who is a mezzo-soprano with a fantastic international career."
Nicholas plans to pursue a classical performance career.
"This is the sort of program that would do that for you. It would help you make connections that you wouldn't make otherwise," she said.
Hickman says enticing people to come onboard as festival faculty hasn't been difficult.
"We've got one of the most beautiful, scenic places in the world, and for us we're used to it; it doesn't seem like such a big deal. But for these people who are stuck in concrete cities all the time, to come to a place like this - it's a miracle."
For more information on Opera on the Avalon visit www.operaontheavalon.com