Bancroft’s Adam Bishop (Gabriel von Eisentein) chose opera over becoming a doctor. Local audiences of Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus were glad he did in this Highlands Opera Studio performance of the comedic operetta in 2009. The opera studio is celebrating 10 years./File photo by Matt James

Highlands Opera proud of 10 years

By Darren Lum

Published June 9 2016

Where has the time gone for the Highlands Opera Theatre?

It’s amazing how 10 years can fly by said the theatre’s co-founder and general director Valerie Kuinka who helped to start it with husband and renowned Canadian opera tenor Richard Margison.

“You work away and you’re putting one foot in front of the other and then working very hard at making what you’re doing a success hopefully and you look up. Oh my gosh. It’s been 10 years. I can’t believe it” she said.

The Highlands Opera Studio which is run in the summer by the theatre company is a proving ground of sorts for its participants. The young professional opera singers are invited for a unique opportunity to get away from the city and spend time in the beautiful Highlands while concentrating on honing and refining their craft under the tutelage of respected professionals to further their careers.

This idea was a dream for Kuinka and Margison.

Close to 15 years ago the couple noticed there was a gap for young people aspiring to be professionals in opera particularly for singers.

Although universities teach young people they weren’t doing everything necessary to help aspiring opera singers join the professional ranks. The studio stands alone Kuinka says.

“There really is no other program in Canada that provides the interaction with these top level opera professionals. There are other training programs but they’re at the university level. We’re past that. We’re above that. We’re like the young artists programs that are associated with major opera companies” she said.

The studio doesn’t just help professional singers become better singers it also connects them with important contacts in the opera industry.

Kuinka is a violist who played with the Canadian Opera Company for 20 years and is now part of the National Ballet of Canada orchestra and has been an opera stage director from 1995. Margison was named as an officer of the Order of Canada in 2001.

“We have the ear of many of the most powerful people within the opera industry and we maintain that through our own initiative all the way through the years. We know there is a relevance” Kuinka says.

Besides them the studio has included notables such as John Fisher the director of music administration at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City from 1997 to 2006. He returned to the Met post in September of 2015 after four years with the Welsh National Opera.

“He’s come for more than one season to interact with these young people listen to them sing help coach them and to therefore provide a new contact for them” she says.

The program started with just seven participants and was only three weeks long.

The participants who are often aged between 19 and 35 are professional singers. Participants are selected after an interview and audition. The core operations of what the organization does is covered by fundraising.

This year’s program starts on Aug. 1 and ends with its performance on Sept. 1. It includes 23 participants from across the country.

None of the singers are charged for their participation in the studio. The average cost is $8000 to $8500 per participant Kuinka says.

The beginnings of the theatre group came from a need to have a residence away from the city.

While looking for a second home in cottage country the couple spent time with friends in three areas seeing what worked for them. She says it was like Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

“Huntsville is too hard. Kawarthas was too soft. Haliburton [County] was just right” she says.

They bought their Mountain Lake house in 2002 and two years after a chance meeting between Kuinka and Curtis Eastmure led to a conversation about bringing opera to the Highlands.

This meeting led to an introduction to the Highlands Summer Festival’s Jack Brezina and Melissa Stephens. Both remain active with the not-for-profit charitable community theatre company. Brezina is its president and Stephens is its executive producer. The festival became an important partner to the Highlands Summer Studio. The studio handled the artistic side of running the opera school and holding performances while the Festival handled the infrastructure side which included marketing ticket sales and introductions to the community. After two years the Highlands Opera Theatre was launched to continue producing the studio.

The two organizations work together in marketing. For the past six years the theatre has been a charitable organization.

For Kuinka the ultimate dream is to have the theatre evolve into a fully professional company in the Highlands with an opera studio capable of being able to have live accompanying music.

She appreciates the Northern Lights Performing Arts Pavilion for hosting them the past 10 years. She acknowledges the support and how the venue has made opera approachable to an audience that would not usually consider it.  She says this puts the studio at the “forefront of audience development.”

There are economic and cultural opportunities being realized because of the theatre’s presence.

When the participants leave here after their studio experience they become unofficial ambassadors for the area spreading the word about the hidden gem. She estimates close to 200 participants have attended.

Kuinka says the studio allows audiences to have a better understanding of opera.

“They’ve never really understood what the story was within that opera until they saw it at Highlands Opera Studio because the experience was intimate. They felt able to focus on the drama” she said.

She wishes the theatre’s budget were bigger to market beyond Canada.

Patrons of opera are willing to go anywhere to see and hear the next generation of stars.

Once they come it’s not difficult to get them to return to the Highlands for future opera performances that rival what is staged in larger centres including everything else they discover here while visiting.

“They will be impressed as if they would be sitting in New York or Toronto or anywhere … it’s about the quality of our young people” she said. “They come to that and look around and go ‘wow. This place is amazing. What else is here? Look at the Sculpture Forest. They have a Haliburton School of the Arts.’ This is what we’re finding that is happening.”

She adds there is a hope to expand from the summer programming into the rest of the year.

“There are still lots of hills to climb in the next 10 years but we do feel that it’s on the upswing. We do feel from the community the support and appreciation for what we’re bringing and we do want to build on that and build on the engagement with the community within our activities” she said.

The public is given a unique opportunity to not just be exposed to top-flight operas but to maybe be part of it which can lead to increased ownership she said.

She wants a “collaborative operatic presentation in the summer” and an expansion of the theatre’s brand.

“If they love to sing in some sort of opera chorus or some aspect of a production to feel it and be on stage. This is something I dream about doing” she said.

See for more information and performance listings.