UofT Opera | River Guard – An Operatic Perspective
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River Guard – An Operatic Perspective

Stepping onto the MacMillan Theatre stage for the first time is, for many, an awe-inspiring experience. For most of us who have never set foot in a space designed for full operatic performances, one is struck by the sheer height of the ceilings and the fly system, the amount of room there is to move about onstage, and just how many seats comprise the audience that your voice must fill. It’s a space that I, personally, never thought would get the chance to make music in. So when we began staging our fall production of Kurt Weill’s Street Scene last week, I was made aware of just how lucky I am to be a part of UofT’s Opera Program.

My name is River Guard. For those of you who don’t know me, I’m a redhead, a film lover, an amateur beat boxer, and a 23-year-old opera singer in training. Having just finished my undergraduate degree in voice performance and an Opera Diploma at Wilfrid Laurier University this year, I decided 5 years of school wasn’t enough pain and suffering, so I flung myself into my masters, ready for more – well…pain and suffering. And Boy, was I right. Just kidding! Or am I?

Don’t worry, I am kidding.

Since day one, we have been hard at work preparing for a mixture of concerts, master classes, and upcoming performances. When September hit, we were thrown headfirst into a whirlwind of learning. We were introduced to a world of early morning Zumba, shared lockers, new friends and old friends, and most importantly: Opera. All day. Every day.

But what is an “Opera Student”? Who are we? What do we even do all day? Sometimes I ask myself the same question.

Rushing through the halls with newly photocopied music, dashing from coaching to coaching, catching a winded break to chat in the ‘opera hallway’ before we’re whisked away to a dance rehearsal, warming up in the stairwell because you forgot to book a practice room; this is partly what comprises a day in the life of a UofT Opera student.

Our days are often chock full from beginning to end, and we navigate schedules that can span between 9am to 7pm some days (and we haven’t even started the long hours of show weeks yet!) It’s intensive and it can be challenging, but we work with so many stellar faculty members and professionals in the biz that you can’t help but learn a copious amount every day, no matter what class or coaching you’re in.

However, the long hours are made easier and far more pleasant by the warm and supportive colleagues who learn along side us, who share the same dreams, and who understand the struggles of being young artists. It’s a pretty tight knit group! With only 13 singers and 1 pianist, we spend almost every day together, going to the same classes and the same rehearsals. Even though we only began 2 months ago, we’re getting to know each other quick, and we’re learning how best to work together for the next 1-2 years without driving each other crazy. Which we don’t!…most of the time. It’s hard not to be excited to head to school when you get sing with your friends every day, especially when your friends are as crazy as you are!

As someone who is completely new to the UofT Opera experience and, quite frankly, the University of Toronto experience, I wasn’t sure what to expect when stepping into such a fast paced and pseudo professional world. But my experience at UofT Opera so far has been, in a word: invigorating. The learning and growing I’ve done since September has been as detailed as it has been exponential, and all at an extremely quick pace. The purpose of the program is to make us autonomous; we need to become self-reliant as vocal technicians and as artists for when we step out into the professional world, and we need to learn how to use our instruments to best of our ability. From making professional connections in the business, to learning how to conduct oneself in a rehearsal hall, UofT Opera works towards bridging the gap between student and working singer. We learn how to navigate the small things, such as: should we look at the panel while singing an audition – as well as the bigger things, like: SHOULD WE LOOK AT THE PANEL DURING AN AUDITION??

You may think I’m kidding, but this kind of thing is still a topic of some debate, and it’s anyone’s guess what the answer is!

Throughout the two year program, our voice teachers and coaches usher us towards the idea that we can trust our own artistic and vocal output, that our expression and our individuality is both valid and valued in a larger professional world. As young artists, we are often cautious to step outside the box of what an opera singer should look like. We sometimes fear that the world of singing is only looking for one thing, and we try to manufacture ourselves in order to guess what that thing is. But the process at UofT Opera focuses on what makes us special and hireable as an individual voice, so it only makes sense that, as students, we must feel comfortable to play with the boundaries of what we can put forth and what skin we can live in.

In Michael Albano’s vision of Weill’s Street Scene, which is set in a style that could almost be seen as early musical theatre, every one of the Opera students and Opera Undergrads are expected to become comfortable with spoken dialogue. Many of the characters are from various countries that have amalgamated on one Brooklyn street stoop, showing the veritable melting pot that America was in the 1940’s. We have everything from Italians, Swedes, and Germans all the way to native New Yorker’s, and we have the accents to prove it! The process of learning dialogue has been quite interesting, for we are encouraged to memorize and find characterization whilst we block and run scenes, not as much on our own time. This technique facilitates our ability to keep the dialogue feeling fresh, reactive, and spontaneous, so that we can seem as natural as possible. We are terribly fortunate to have such bountiful resources to put towards the set, costume, and lighting designs for our shows at UofT Opera. We
have a two-floor apartment building and stoop – with fully functional access to the second level! – and an amazing team putting together period appropriate costumes to make us feel right at home on our little Brooklyn avenue. It’s hard not to look forward to opening night with bustling excitement!

We are so lucky to have UofT opera school alumnus, Peter McGillivray, singing the role of Frank Maurrant in our production. Having a kind, hard working, devoted professional artist share the stage with us has brought an entirely new edge to how we young singers put ourselves forward, and everyone steps up their game 120% when next to this powerhouse of a colleague. Peter has been nothing but inspiring, bursting with positive comments and creative critiques, and makes us take ourselves even more seriously – a problem that young singers often suffer from while still in a school setting. It’s been an incredible learning opportunity for us, and just another reason why we’re so lucky to be a part of UofT Opera.

All in all, it’s been a pretty fun couple of months here at UofT Opera, full of learning and shenanigans, and one can only hope that a few more months of friends, French fries, and Opera is on the way!