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Opera NUOVA: The Edmonton-based young artist program celebrates 20 years of training Canada's best and brightest singing stars.

Twenty years ago, Kim Mattice Wanat was an aspiring opera singer and voice teacher. She'd attended summer programs in Europe and the U.S., while intermittently taking lessons with Nico and Carol Castel in New York. On one trip, she and the Castels met in Metropolitan Opera's cafeteria, and Mattice Wanat proposed a project to them--she wanted to start an emerging artists summer program in Edmonton. With their many years of experience training singers, and Nico's reputation as a veteran performer and lyric diction coach at the Met, the couple seemed like the perfect pair to approach for advice on the project. Mattice Wanat knew they had seen the best and the worst of such programs, and believed they could devise a winning formula to get the idea off the ground.

The Castels were immediately on board, but Carol admits she was skeptical at first. She'd seen far too many great ideas like Mattice Wanat's wither before they had a chance. In Edmonton for the 20th anniversary of what is now a six-week NUOVA Opera & Music Theatre Festival, Carol recalls that within a mere four months of that cafeteria conversation, Mattice Wanat called to say she'd secured a theatre and funds for the rights to Ravel's Lenfant et les sortileges; a place near the theatre for the Castels to stay and, was ready to book them plane tickets to Edmonton for the inaugural year of what she was calling the Newly United Operatic Vocalists Association (NUOVA). She had also persuaded McGill professor Michael McMahon, a specialist in training pianist collaborators, to add his expertise to the project. Except for a few years when she was nursing her ailing husband, Carol has returned every season. McMahon hasn't missed a single one.

NUOVA began modestly with a strong Western Canadian focus. As Carol explains, "There was no training for Western Canadians to get what they needed to compete in the East. If you had somebody out on a farm in Alberta with a really good voice, they had nowhere to go to become competitive enough to go to Toronto and audition."

Mattice Wanat first approached Edmonton Opera for support, but they balked at taking on the initiative if they couldn't be in charge. Michael Cavanagh was Artistic Director at Edmonton Opera in 1998 when she pitched her idea.

"[Kim] called me up," Cavanagh recalls, "and said 'I want to start this young artist program. Would you support us, and can we hand out pamphlets at your opening nights?' I was completely in favour, but not everybody was." In the end, Mattice Wanat decided that it was her vision, and resolved to implement it herself.

"I remember saying in the first two or three years, there will be lots of momentum and enthusiasm," Cavanaugh recalls, "but it's after that the hard work will really begin, and here we are in year twenty. Incredible."

The early years were almost as smooth as he predicted. University of Alberta's music and drama departments offered their 289-soft-seat Timms Centre gratis as well as considerable technical support. Besides Nico Castel, Canada's foremost coloratura soprano, Tracy Dahl, also lent her name to NUOVA, and over the years has sent some of her best students to Edmonton, including Andriana Chuchman. Baritone Theodore Baerg and soprano Wendy Nielsen were the first two pros to join the faculty roster and over the years, the aristocracy of Canadian opera singers have lent their expertise to NUOVA, including John Fanning, Judith Forst, Benjamin Butterfield, Joanne Kolomyjec and Kimberly Barber. In recent years, past participants who have established successful careers have also returned to add their voices to NUOVA's illustrious list of teachers.

Forst, who has been coming every spring for the past decade, has a special regard for the NUOVA program."[Kim] is the only person for whom I will actually stay two weeks," she said the day after singing at Bramwell Tovey's May 31st Vancouver Symphony Orchestra farewell gala, as she was preparing to come to Edmonton. "What she has done with the program over the years is extraordinary."

It hasn't always been smooth sailing--there have been spells of discouragement. By the 15th year, the University had jacked up the rent prohibitively, and so NUOVA was itinerant for a while. It has since secured venues at King's University; Festival Place in Sherwood Park east of Edmonton and other occasional facilities depending on any given year's requirements.

Funding problems almost forced a fatal crisis. Also, NUOVA s raison d'etre--to give university-trained singers a stepping stone toward the next phase of their professional lives--seemed less urgent as a greater number of competing programs cropped up in the mid-2000s and schools began to expand their curriculums to include better opera performance opportunities.

But Mattice Wanat has always seen her mandate as filling in the gaps where early-stage opera training has fallen short. At first this gap was insufficient, economically-viable opportunities for talented young Westerners. The next deficiency she identified was a lack of attention to actual stage performance techniques and the details of the opera business itself. Four years ago, she rebranded what was originally a purely classical singing experience to add musical theatre to the training and production choices. Purists were dubious, but at a singing teachers' conference in Chicago in 2016, Mattice Wanat felt vindicated when she heard representatives of Lyric Opera of Chicago endorse the idea of expanding notions of serious singing training. Mattice Wanat is not a woman who doubts herself, but hearing pros from that distinguished company confirm the benefits of such versatility was reassuring.

"They spoke strongly about how musical theatre will now be a part of every one of their seasons. That conference affirmed for me that I was looking in the right direction, and that people were going to catch up with my vision even though [it] was being questioned." This year for example, Brian Deedrick, another former Edmonton Opera Artistic Director, staged Sondheim's musical, Into the Woods.

NUOVA alumni say that besides its relentless intensity and breadth of performance opportunities, going through the program can be a life-changing challenge. It's an existential experience that teaches much more than just performance techniques. Besides acting, movement, singing and stage training, Rebecca Haas, herself an opera veteran, runs life coaching sessions to help singers consolidate their authentic motivation for following an artistic path.

Tracy Cantin sang her first role, Nella in Gianni Schicchi, at NUOVA in 2009. She has since appeared as Chrysothemis in Edmonton Opera's Elektra (2016) and more recently, was called upon to jump in for an indisposed Sondra Radvanovsky in the title role of Canadian Opera Company's Anna Bolena (2018). The NUOVA experience, she says, is far more than just an opera boot camp.

"NUOVA is really unique in that it's a very open environment. They really encourage self-reflection and self-discovery. It's not just a machine to turn out opera in five weeks to sell tickets to make money for the company. I know people who have gone to NUOVA thinking their dreams were one thing, then after six weeks of real self-discovery, they realize, 'actually what is [more] important to me is administration.'"

Conversely, others' experience at NUOVA confirmed their commitment to opera and the program has helped lead them to the heights of the profession.

Mireille Asselin sang her first-ever role, Adele in Die Fledermaus, at NUOVA in 2008, directed by Cavanagh. Knowing the part led to her first professional engagement, again as Adele, for Opera Hamilton. While still a member of the COC's Ensemble Studio, she sang the same role with Canada's preeminent company. From that came an understudy contract with the Met, where she eventually landed a night on their stage singing Adele alongside Susan Graham in 2015. "It all really started at Opera NUOVA," she says.

Andriana Chuchman attended NUOVA on her teacher Tracy Dahl's suggestion in 2003. Chuchman, who now sings lead roles at companies such as the Met, Lyric Opera of Chicago and Canadian Opera Company just to name a few, was Barbarina in NUOVA's Le nozze di Figaro and counts her weeks in Edmonton as pivotal in making a decision to sing opera.

"I went into the program very curious, and I was excited to come out of it knowing that this was what I wanted to pursue. It [directed] me into the classical opera performance mode for my last couple of years at university."

In 2008, Simone Osborne became one of the youngest singers ever to win the Metropolitan Opera Auditions. This feat came right after her NUOVA stint in 2007, where she sang Marenka in Smetana's The Bartered Bride." I sort of credit NUOVA with a lot of that [Met win]," she says.

Osborne came to the program having almost completed her undergraduate degree at UBC, looking to test herself against 50 or so other ambitious young Canadian artists.

"I was interested in hearing and working with singers from other parts of the country. I didn't really know where I stood in terms of development and what I needed to work on. I just wanted to be surrounded with other young singers who wanted a career in opera, and I definitely got that," she said in an interview from Frankfurt, where she lives with her husband and fellow NUOVA alumnus Gordon Bintner, a principal singer with Oper Frankfurt.

What Osborne was looking for is exactly what NUOVA provides to its participants, says Mel Kirby, Manager of Calgary Opera's Emerging Artist Development Program.

"By the end of six weeks, they know where they stand, and they know what they have to work on. In six weeks, they've probably been through as much as some people might go through in one year of a Master's degree. It's an incredible concentration of activity in what I call a crucible of training."

Osborne herself has made more than a dozen role debuts at the COC, and in 2015, sang her first Lucia di Lamermoor with Edmonton Opera. She attended NUOVA on the suggestion of Gordon Gerrard, who was one of Michael McMahon's first piano collaborating students in 1999, and has conducted at NUOVA. Gerrard was recently appointed Music Director of the Regina Symphony. Such productive networking is a key benefit of the NUOVA experience.

"Opera NUOVA is a rite of passage into the industry," Mattice Wanat explains. Chuchman sees her own path in similar terms. After NUOVA, she spent two summers at San Francisco Opera's Merola Opera Program, and then, Lyric Opera of Chicago's Ryan Opera Center for the next three years.

"NUOVA is a great place to get you ready for those kinds of programs. The order that I went in was perfect. NUOVA really opened my eyes and set me up with a great introduction to opera, and great training, and really helped form me as a young singer, and got me prepared for the likes of Merola."

When Mattice Wanat auditions prospects, she comes without a fixed idea of what the lucky fifty or sixty will actually sing, tailoring the repertoire choices to the voices she finds. One singer I spoke with said she had hoped to sing Mozart's Susanna at NUOVA, but Mattice Wanat decided it was too early for that challenge and gave her a smaller role. In short, NUOVA is a crucible where individual talent gets tested and where participants say they come out of the process with a fresh perspective on their goals and potential because of the personal attention they receive.

Over its 20 years, NUOVA has trained more than 1,200 young artists. Many have gone on to serious professional careers, both in opera and in some cases musical theatre, such as Andrew Love, who made his Broadway debut in Les Miserables in 2013 and has been working steadily ever since.

Opera NUOVA is an investment I heard no one say they regretted making. Participants pay $2,500 for the six weeks; some are billeted, and others stay in residence. This year, the Festival's budget was $316,500, about a quarter of which comes from public ticket sales for recitals and productions. According to company statistics, 25 of 80 opera-related companies in Canada were founded or are run by NUOVA alumni.

Going into its next decade, Mattice Wanat will continue to scan for other gaps in training programs, but Opera NUOVA has already firmly established itself as a pioneer; a unique launching pad for young Canadian singers, many of whom have been catapulted to remarkable success.

Bill Rankin has been Opera Canada's Edmonton correspondent for 15 years. He was classical music writer for the Edmonton Journal, and has also written for the Globe and Mail, Gramophone, BBC Music, the American Record Guide, and La Scena.

Caption: A scene from The Cunning Little Vixen

Caption: Kim Mattice Wanat

Caption: Maura Sharkey (Chinese Teacup) & Keith Klassen (Teapot) in L'enfant et les sortileges

Caption: Jerod Bertram (Krusina), Catherine Daniel (Ludmila), Simone Osborne (Marenka) & Trevor Vandenbussche (Kecal) in The Bartered Bride

Caption: (behind column) Caitlin Wood (Nanetta), Sonia Loyer (Quickly), Laurelle Froese (Meg Page); (front) Tracy Cantin (Alice) & Jon-Paul Decosse (Falstaff) in Falstaff

Caption: Tyler Fitzgerald (background, Count) with Gordon Bintner (Figaro) & Catherine Bergeron (Susanna) in Le nozze di Figaro

Caption: (counterclockwise from top I) Sebastian Haboczki (Brighella) Matthew Chittick (Scaramuccio), Anne-Marie Macintosh (Zerbinetta), Dimitri Katotakis (Harlequin) & Ian Fundytus (Truffaldino) in Ariadne auf Naxos

Caption: (l-r) Robert Popoli (Motorcycle Cop), Simon Chalifoux (George Benton), Jordan Collato (Joseph De Rocher), Heidi Jost (Sister Helen Prejean) & Joe Lampron-Dandonneau (Father Grenville) in Dead Man Walking
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Author:Rankin, Bill
Publication:Opera Canada
Geographic Code:1CALB
Date:Mar 22, 2018
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