By Jerelyn Craden
“Opera Night in Canada,” (ONC) the new show on Haliburton’s volunteer community radio station, Canoe FM, was given its name by creator and host, Dawn Martens, who is on a mission to change the idea of opera as elitist to one that is as accessible as hockey.
“I want to reach people who wouldn’t necessarily listen to opera,” Martens said. “I’ll take an opera and show listeners how the storyline relates to popular culture and everyday life.”
For 26 years, Martens ran the Buchanan Park Opera Club in Hamilton, an elementary school opera club and taught children about opera.
“They weren’t in middle school yet when kids get a little pickier, so they were very open to the art form. I took an opera and re-wrote it with a narration and took the important excerpts from the opera and the children sang them in English, not in German or Italian,” she said.
Martens produced 26 operas for children.
“My motive in doing this wasn’t to produce opera singers. It was to give the kids that moment on stage where they shine. The medium was opera. But, really, what I wanted was to expose them to the arts and to different music.”
Several of her students went on to pursue musical careers.
When she retired in the fall, Martens wanted to continue opera education, “because I feel it’s an amazing art form,” she said. “The radio show will be doing the same things, except for adults. They will see how the storyline of an opera relates to popular culture and everyday life.”
“I came to opera as a newbie back in my university days and I saw an opera and swore I would never see one again. I thought I would die before the thing ended. It was in Russian and it was endless. The only thing good that I can remember about it was the ice cream at intermission,” she said.
That changed when Martens went to an opera excerpt concert and a Canadian singer performed a piece from Don Giovanni.
“I found it amazingly hilarious and what clicked in my mind was that Mozart wrote this hundreds of years ago and we’re still laughing at it now because it’s still relevant,” she said. “And then, I went to a production of The Marriage of Figaro and was impressed by a young singer who played the count. There were also subtitles projected on a screen above the stage translating the text being sung into English. So, that made it easy to follow and enjoy.”
In 2021, Martens received the Governor General’s Award for her online production of the opera Bundibar with a cast of Grade 4 to 6 students, an opera originally performed by children in a German concentration camp.
“The Nazis did a propaganda film of Jewish children and adults performing the opera before sending them to the gas chambers,” she said. “They wanted to silence these poor children, but their legacy goes on in the music.”
As a writer for Opera Canada magazine, Martens has access to opera singers, opera producers and directors.
“So, I’m reaching out to them and saying: Hey, come on my show and talk about opera. Opera people are quite hilarious and very down to earth, and have wonderful stories to tell,” she said.
On ONC’s Feb. 17 debut show, Martens’ guest was John Fanning, Member of the Order of Canada, regarded as one of today’s pre-eminent baritones.
“He had some very interesting things to say about why opera has had a reputation for being elitist and how we can overcome that,” she said.
“Opera singers are just regular people who happen to do opera as a profession,” Martens said. She recalled having to drop something off to Richard Margison, a neighbour on the same lake as hers. Together, Margison and Valerie Kuinka founded the Highlands Opera Studio, which has hosted participants in Haliburton for professional development and have staged performances since 2007 (only interrupted by the pandemic).
“I was kind of nervous. The guy is famous, top of his game in opera. (Margison was named an Officer of the Order of Canada, and inducted into the Canadian Opera Hall of Fame, among other prestigious awards). “I boated into his place and there was Richard on an ATV, wearing sweat pants, a T-shirt and Crocs, driving the [ATV] to the beach to talk to me. A normal human being.”
“I can’t believe it. I love Haliburton, I love opera and I love Canoe FM and the tremendous support I’m receiving.”
Opera Night in Canada airs on 100.9 Canoe FM every third Thursday of the month from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m., and streams online at: canoefm.com.
You can contact Dawn Martens at: firstname.lastname@example.org.