Opera Boot Camp

When I was in grade 5, my school (Patricia Heights Elementary) put on a small operetta. It was The Frog Prince, and I played the lead. The next year in grade 6, I said "We have to do a show again." The principal said, "Well we can’t because the teachers felt it took way too much energy and time and there’s not money." On and on - there were all these reasons why it couldn't happen. She was very gracious with me, but she just said, "It can't happen, Kim."

And I thought, "Well, that's ridiculous. It has to happen." I only had  little vocal selections from The Wizard of Oz, and I had no idea that you could rent a show, so I took one of the books, and totally took all the quotes from it, and wrote a play. Typed it up and chose 3 of my friend and said, "Let’s put on this show together."

We got a whole bunch of kids together. We practiced every lunch hour and recess and worked on the show until, finally, the school had no choice but to get involved. Before we knew it, teachers were helping us put on this huge 2 and a half hour production of The Wizard of Oz. All based on just the songs from a vocal selection book. I mean, really.

There's a whole article from the Edmonton Journal, with me dressed as Dorothy, about this completely student-created production of this major show. It's so funny.

So I've always been an educator, even as a little girl, and I never see anything as being impossible. If you want it, you can make it happen. Same thing, 11 years ago, when I had the idea to start Opera NUOVA, which came from a collection of things happening around the same time:

  • I had been in an accident, and knew I was not going to be able to sing opera, and it was questionable that I could sustain a music-theatre career based on the condition of my jaw.
  • I had a number of senior-level students in my studio, all very fine singers, ready to go off to university. I researched the operatic programs across Canada with them, and realized none properly prepared students for a professional singing career.
  • Then I went to Shakespeare in the Park, and watched a performance of As You Like It. I left the park and said to my husband, “You know, if they can do that with Shakespeare, I can do that with opera.” Even though my first love was musical theatre, because opera to me still felt quite stuffy. I wasn’t charged by it, not the way I was by Shakespeare.
  • Later that same summer, I went to Europe and watched opera in small opera houses. It was so close, so much more intimate. More edgy. Not so traditional. I felt totally different about opera after that.

All those things really influenced me. And, essentially, a very challenging event in my life became an open window for something new to emerge, because I had to redefine myself.

And NUOVA is very much about defining yourself and clarifying for yourself, "Am I really following my heart? Or have I just been doing this for so long now that I don’t know what else I’d do?"

That's why the program is a boot camp. Six days a week, 12 hours a day of classes and rehearsals. It's intensive because it's filtering things about who you are, and whenever you're delving into who you are, you can't hide. Even in the military, that's what they say, after a while there's stuff about yourself you really learn because you have to. You're too tired to create the mask any longer.

Watching the NUOVA students begin to honour and understand who they are is more important to me than anything else. Whether or not they clarify by the end of it all that opera is not what they’re going to do and they know why. Or when students tell me, “I was gonna end it.” And it’ll often be a very talented singer saying, “I was totally doing this program to finally decide whether or not I was gonna take this on. And I’ve decided that I absolutely need to.” It’s them finding clarity about who they are and what they wanna do.

That’s the key. The best part.

Where Next?

Kim Mattice-Wanat

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Kim Mattice-Wanat is a sessional instructor in the University of Alberta's drama department. She is also the artistic director of Opera NUOVA, a program that brings singers from across Canada to Edmonton each year. Many alumni have gone on to have successful international careers.

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