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One Conquers, the other Sings: How Lunenburg Academy of Music Performance is shaking-up opera training and cementing its role in its tight-knit Nova Scotia community.

In Oct. 2015, I was trying to reach conductor and musicologist Alberto Zedda, one of the architects of the 'Rossini Renaissance,' for an interview. To my surprise, I found him in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. Maestro Zedda had come to Canada at the invitation of Burt Wathen, Artistic Director of the newly-minted Lunenburg Academy of Music Performance (LAMP), where the annual Rossini Opera Academy, a late-summer performance workshop centred on Rossini's music, was underway. With contagious enthusiasm the 87-year-old Zedda told me he was helping orchestrate "Rossini's conquest of the Americas." Sadly Zedda died in 2017, but in Sept. 2019 a sixth Rossini Opera Academy nevertheless opened at LAMP, keeping Nova Scotia as a beachhead for his Rossini conquest.

Lunenburg, located one hour south of Halifax, is a charming seaside town established in 1753, and UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1995. It is certainly worth a visit for its steep, narrow streets lined with colourful houses, bookstores, craft shops, and excellent restaurants. Amid all of this stands the unmissable Lunenburg Academy, one of the most remarkable Victorian buildings in Nova Scotia and LAMP's permanent residence. Built in 1894-95, this massive three-storey white, red, and black Victorian structure dominates the entire landscape of the region. It served as a public school until 2010, when the need for modern facilities hastened the construction of a new school. Yet every long-time resident of Lunenburg I met, including LAMP's general manager Susan Corkum-Greek, fondly remembers their school years in the building, which has recently been restored and now belongs to the municipality.

Burt Wathen greeted me in his sunlit office. A native of Sydney, Nova Scotia, Wathen received his early musical training in Saint John, New Brunswick and was a founding member of the Nova Scotia Symphony before pursuing opportunities in Europe. In 1993 as principal viola of the Orchestra del Teatro Communale di Bologna he got to perform at the Rossini Opera Festival (ROF) in Pesaro." I was not a Rossini fan but I became a staunch Rossini fan," he confesses." Like all North Americans, I knew Barbiere and ... basta! I discovered this extraordinary music, and became friends with Alberto [Zedda], sharing his passion as he explained to me many aspects of Rossini's music that people don't know about. I bought a house in Pesaro, which is now my principal residence. I resigned from my position in Bologna in 2014 and my last performance was with Alberto conducting Il viaggio a Reims. However, I am still very much involved in ROF."

When I asked Wathen how the Academy was founded his enthusiasm was palpable: "It's my project! The town of Lunenburg approved my project to create LAMP in this building. For 30 years I [had] been working on this Academy in my brain, and as I was getting closer to retirement I started writing it down, budgeting, making plans. My dream was to find a place on the Acadian coast in New Brunswick, between Moncton and Sackville, but then I found out about this building and it seemed like a perfect fit. And it is a perfect fit. We created a society with charitable status and we negotiated a three-month lease with the town. Then I had to find the money and I must say this community was extraordinary. They didn't know me, I am not from here and I had this project that seemed impossible, and yet we raised, from local industry and individuals, a hundred and some thousand dollars so we could start this three-month experiment. The first Rossini Opera Academy opened on Thanksgiving Day in 2014 with Alberto and his team."

For the first few years the program relied on corporate and private funding, until a grant of $15,000 from Arts Nova Scotia Special Projects delivered their seal of approval, convincing the town to give the project a two-year lease. Since then the Academy has accessed funding from the Canadian Arts Training Fund, from Nova Scotia's Creative Industries Fund, the Canada Council, and the Canada Arts Presentation Fund. Public funding now provides a third of the $660,000 annual budget.

Homeward Bound

As soon as the Academy opened its doors a wide variety of highly regarded Canadian and international artists came to Lunenburg: the Gryphon Trio, Uri Caine, and violinist Sergei Krylov in the first year alone. In 2018 both Martha Argerich and Gidon Kremer offered residencies and concerts. Last fall a world music academy, two chamber music programs, and a ten-day exploration of Italian Renaissance court entertainments were quickly booked up. A faculty of distinguished musicians is now attached to the institution: flutist/composer Robert Aitken, bassist Joel Quarrington, cellist Adrian Brendel, composer/performer Dinuk Wijeratne, jazzman Roberto Occhipinti, and maverick violinist Mark Fewer.

When I visited Lunenburg in August, soprano/conductor Barbara Hannigan was engaged in an intensive three-day workshop with the four young Canadian artists she had selected to participate in her Equilibrium mentoring program. Jenavieve Moore, Jillian Bonner, Charles Sy, and Trevor Eliot Bowes will join the Toronto Symphony Orchestra to perform Mozart's Requiem under Sir Andrew Davis in Jan. 2020. Thanks to a LAMP residencies program, not only did these singers enjoy the rare privilege of starting rehearsals with Simon Rivard, resident conductor of the TSO, five months before the public performance, they also experienced the holistic training Hannigan designed for her "elite squad of soloists." After an hour of morning Tai chi, the 'squad' enjoyed sessions with performance coach Jackie Reardon and mentored with Hannigan herself--sessions dealing with every aspect of their professional career, from diet and fitness to performance anxiety, jet lag, and relationships with colleagues and conductors.

This is the first time that Hannigan has brought Equilibrium to Canada. Because the program shares LAMP's philosophy of reaching out to the community, Barbara and her team, including pianist Walter Delahunt, offered a concert in a nearby residence for seniors under the aegis of Concerts in Care, a local charitable organisation. Revenues of a gala evening held on Aug. 28th will be deposited into a fund dedicated to bringing more mentoring events like this one to Lunenburg.

For Hannigan, who lives in France, it was a meaningful return to her native province. After following her career for many years, Wathen convinced her to make a return visit home. "It's important," he says, "because she is such a great artist and so eclectic. And that is one of the messages that LAMP is trying to pass on to young performers: that you can't just be pigeon-holed any more, you have to be able to do everything. The artists who come to LAMP already have their technique, they know their instrument. What we are trying here is to show them the way to artistry and flexibility, so Barbara is an obvious choice. She is a first-rank musician who was born in Nova Scotia and has a significant career in Europe."

If vocal arts are not at the centre of LAMP activities, they make up a very important part of its programs. In September, Rossini scholar and vocal coach Will Crutchfield welcomed singers from Russia, Mexico and Canada, leading to a concert performance of Rossini's Semiramide in the institution's intimate and acoustically perfect amphitheater. Art song with soprano Pascale Beaudin as well as vocal and collaborative piano residencies with Walter Delahunt were offered in October, and a baroque workshop led by Bruce Dickey and Suzie LeBlanc in November.

A Province To Call Their Own

In 2020 LAMP is joining forces with Symphony Nova Scotia to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Beethoven's birth with a twelve-day intensive workshop led by tenor Richard Margison and conductor Jonathan Bloxham, culminating in two concert performances of Fidelio on May 1SI and 3rd in Halifax. The collaboration offers the Academy a unique opportunity to perform in the provincial capital, furthering its philosophy of community engagement, which has also resulted in classroom workshops in Lunenburg, preschool programs, as well as concerts at area nursing homes by very fine Canadian and international artists.

LAMP's reputation is growing: from an initial season of three months in 2014, programs now run from March to November, prompting the institution to ask the town to lease more space in its iconic building. Burt Walthen's optimism compels admiration for his unflinching commitment to artistic quality and his determination to make LAMP into a cultural lynchpin of Lunenburg, and of Nova Scotia as a whole.

Sylvia L'Ecuyer C.M. is a musicologist, writer and broadcaster, and associate professor at Universite de Montreal. She is currently host and producer of "Place a 1'opera" on Radio Canada's Ici Musique.

Caption: Lunenburg Academy, Lunenburg, Nova Scotia

Caption: Tenor Charles Sy & bass Trevor Eliot Bowes working with LAMP resident pianist Walter Delahunt

Caption: Soprano Chelsea Rus working with Giulio Zappa of Opera de Tenerife

Caption: Lunenburg waterfront
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Author:L'Ecuyer, Sylvia
Publication:Opera Canada
Geographic Code:1CNOV
Date:Dec 22, 2019
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