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.

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