IN OUR NATURE
Opera encourages artistic appreciation and environmental concern in youth,
For many young people, their first taste of opera will come with a touch of “green.”
The Canadian Opera Company will treat almost 10,000 students across the GTA and beyond to an opera with an environmental theme by 26-yearold Matthew Aucoin as part of its annual Ensemble Studio School Tour from Thursday to Dec. 4.
There’s also a public performance on Nov. 27 at Toronto’s Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Opera Centre in Toronto.
“For the same reason that it’s important to expose young people to any art form, there are some things that can only be expressed through a particular medium,” composer and librettist Aucoin said.
“There are some things that can only be expressed through cinema or can only be expressed through sculpture. And there are some human emotions that for me can only find their fullest form in opera.”
Katherine Semcesen, the COC’s associate director of education and outreach, said she was shocked to learn from a new report from the public advocacy group People for Education that only 43 per cent of Ontario schools have a full- or part-time music teacher.
All the more reason, Semcesen said, to continue a tradition dating back 50 years of bringing opera to young people.
The 50-minute show, entitled Second Nature, “empowers young people to think about the environment and to think about their responsibility in preserving their environment and ensuring it survives.”
“That’s part of how we choose programming, to ensure that it’s not just a piece of entertainment . . . but that there’s an educational element that can stimulate a lot of activity and discussion outside the actual performance,” she said.
Second Nature features two fivemember casts from the company’s Ensemble Studio training program. Semcesen acknowledged that bringing opera to young audiences is a sure way to build future audiences for the company.
Its own internal surveys have found three-quarters of attendees were exposed to the art form before the age of 24, the vast majority through live performance.
Second Nature is the second work by Aucoin, a Boston-area native who grew up wondering how to combine his love of music and writing.
“When I got older and it became clear that music was going to be my life’s work, I thought pretty hard about how to integrate this parallel passion for language, and opera struck me as the best way to do it,” Aucoin said.
The opera is set in a zoo in a postapocalyptic future where two young people begin to question why they live in a “synthetic” environment and long to escape to an outside world that has been ravaged by the effects of climate change.
The work was first commissioned by Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2013 and subsequently performed in California, where it was seen by Nina Draganic, director of the Ensemble Studio.
Aucoin, who spent nearly a week in Toronto in September working with the young cast, was impressed by the calibre of their skills.
“I was just blown away by the level of artistic quality in the singers. These are really exciting young artists.
“Occasionally when you work with the so-called young artists programs of the big opera houses, you come across people who have God-given, extraordinary voices but not the artistic mindset or the soul to match the voice,” Aucoin said.
“In Toronto, what struck me is that these kids are real artists. They’re in various stages of developing, but they are so artistically exciting.”
Aucoin, who is in the fledgling stages of a very promising career of his own, said he has no fear that opera as an artistic form is outdated and on its way out.
In the U.S., he noted, there are more than 100 professional opera companies, far more than during the “golden age of opera” in the1930s and ’40s.
“To paraphrase that great line, reports of opera’s death are greatly exaggerated. Los Angeles, where I’m working at the moment, didn’t have an opera company until the 1980s. Now we perform dozens of performances a year for 4,000 a night,” he said.
“OK, sure, that’s not quite on the scale of Justin Bieber, but we would never want to be on the scale of Justin Bieber. Opera, and classical music more broadly, is a niche art form. And that’s OK.”
In 2014, the Canadian Opera’s Ensemble Studio School Tour presented The Bremen Town Musicians. This year, they will present Second Nature.
Boston native Matthew Aucoin, 26, is the composer and librettist of Second Nature, his second work.