Who’s afraid of a little opera?

Photo credit: Don Craig

If you’ve never attended an opera but are thinking of giving it a try, a new company in Victoria, BC could make you a believer. Fear No Opera is a platform for emerging artists and professional mentors that provides a non-threatening introduction for new audiences. Their upcoming production of the comic opera Don Pasquale promises to be a fun evening.

Recently I met with Fear No Opera co-founder Amy Steggles who, as a soprano, has performed with Opera Kitchener, the Brantford Symphony Orchestra and the Guelph Symphony Orchestra, among others. Her ambition is to share the magic of opera with as many people as possible, and her passion is evident as she discusses her love of music.

What was the inspiration behind the creation of Fear No Opera?

I came here from Toronto. Large cities across the country are already seeing a groundswell movement, similar to what we’re doing – things for emerging artists and artist-led initiatives. Victoria is such a musical city. It may be small, but not arts-wise. People talk about Halifax having the highest number of pubs per capita – I think Victoria must have the highest number of choirs per capita! I’m blown away by the musical community here. So I was sure that there would be something already in place for emerging artists and I was shocked to find there wasn’t.

Tell me more about the niche you’re filling.

There’s a bit of overlap with the opera institutions that are already here, but we’re by no means trampling on anyone’s toes. There is Pacific Opera Victoria on the professional level, they get in singers from across the country and around the world and they have big, lavish sets and costumes. There’s Opera Studio at the Victoria Conservatory of Music, which does a really awesome job of taking in people who are curious about opera and giving them the first steps in learning how to do it, and also people who are a little further along the path. But emerging artists are, for the most part, in between those two places. We have done our schooling, we’ve had some professional experience, but we’re sort of in an in-between land where we’re getting some professional work, but still doing our day jobs.

Why do you think opera might intimidate some people?

I think one reason is that it’s just not as much a part of our society as it used to be – people used to go to the opera like we go to movie theatres. Language – we don’t all speak four languages, our primary language is English and most operas aren’t in English. But there are usually surtitles, so you can read along with what’s happening. Another thing is that people think opera is super expensive, and it’s not. Especially when you think about the price of hockey tickets! Our ticket price for students and unwaged is $10, and regular tickets are $25. If you’re curious, then money should not hold you back from a night of entertainment. You could also say that cuts to the education system mean that the study of music and arts just aren’t seen as being as important as they used to be, so we have entire generations of kids growing up thinking that classical music is the recorder, because that’s all they had in school. Which is tragic!

DonPasquale_handbillWhat are your goals for Fear No Opera?

One is that we like to provide a performance platform for emerging artists. There are all sorts of great performers, and what they need is the opportunity to perform. The other part of it is that I feel very deeply that opera needs to get back into… if not the mainstream, then at least farther forward in people’s consciousness. I really feel that it’s a deeply expressive and valid art form. And until you experience it, I don’t think you know what you’re missing. The number of people who have come up to me after a performance and saying “I had no idea you could do that without a microphone!” and “how do you get such a big voice out of such a small body?”

What can audiences expect from a Fear No Opera production?

I think emerging artists are hungry, and I think you can feel that coming through in the performance because we are so excited to be there. It will also be more intimate than a big performance in a big hall. You will be able to see everything.

If it’s someone who comes to opera and they have a bit of background and know what they’re expecting, I would hope that they would be impressed with the level of the voices, the professionalism and the acting. I think they’ll be quite impressed. And people who’ve never been before… my dental hygienist told her students about our last performance and one of them showed up on a whim, and she loved it! So that’s what I hope for. That they show up and find it fun.

And Don Pasquale is a fun opera, isn’t it?

Yes! Don Pasquale is an aging bachelor, and he decides that he wants to disinherit his nephew, and so a plot is formed to have him see the error of his ways. My character faux-marries him and all hell breaks loose.

I think musicians really don’t have a choice in the matter. If you have this calling, that’s who you are and what you do.”

When did you start singing?

My mother says when I was little I would wander around the house singing tunes that would pop into my head, and drive her crazy, so I suppose I’ve always been singing. I think musicians really don’t have a choice in the matter. If you have this calling, that’s who you are and what you do.

What attracted you to opera?

I started off in choirs, like most kids who want to sing, and eventually that translated into voice lessons, where I did art song, oratorio and opera. I still sing all three, because they’re all valid musical forms, but at the end of the day there’s something about opera that appeals to my personality. I think because I love acting… that’s why opera.

There’s a physical component to opera, the strength and stamina required. How do you prepare, physically or otherwise?

Partly it’s practice. Like athletes, you have to use the muscles or nothing works. Part of it is developing a routine that works for you. What really works for me is exercise like jogging or cycling. Yoga is good too. I recently started meditating, because I find that in our action packed society you really have to be able to focus to do music. So I think attacking any of the skills you need for singing from another perspective is always useful. You have to be careful about what you’re eating and drinking, and when you’re eating and drinking it… if you’re going to have alcohol make sure you finish two hours before bedtime so you can rehydrate before you go to sleep.

Because singers use the diaphragm muscle, do you have to work on your core muscles?

There’s an interesting school of thought surrounding that. One is that yes, absolutely. Renée Fleming, who is arguably the world’s leading soprano, does Pilates, and that’s to work on her core muscles. But other singers will say ‘don’t ever do a sit-up!’ because it puts pressure on your neck. Which might be a handy excuse! But yes, I certainly notice a difference, when I can actually get my butt into doing the sit-ups, it helps.

I also study languages, so I can speak with varying degrees of accuracy in German, Italian and French. I can parrot Czech, I haven’t tried Russian yet. There’s also historical study, because it’s nice to know a composer wasn’t just composing in a vacuum, you know… what was going on at the time because that hugely influenced the mind set they were in.

Amy Steggles

Photo credit: Mike Portt

What would be your dream role?

My voice is still developing, some people thing that there’s going to be a little more depth and breadth that comes into it, so I think the roles that I play have yet to be fully determined. But at some point I would love to be Musetta in La Boheme, because she’s such a flirt, and so fun, and she has this huge Italian personality. I think that would be awesome. I think also it would be lovely one day to play the Countess from The Marriage of Figaro. I’ve played Susanna, and she was a lot of fun, but I think in the future I will end up more on the Countess side of voice colouring. I’d like to give her a try. Those are two totally contrasting characters, because one spends a lot of time bemoaning her fate, and the other spends a lot of time making her fate, but very interesting women.

This might be tricky to answer off the top of your head, but if there was one aria that could be your theme song, what would it be?

(without hesitating) Vissi d’arte from Tosca, my first opera ever. I was a novice nun in the chorus, and just being there, that opera won me over. That aria is so beautifully simple. She’s saying “all I ever did was worship you through my music, I brought flowers to the Madonna, and you’ve left me in this terrible situation.” The line is so pure, and the orchestra underneath is providing this beautiful cushion. It’s pure emotion. Just put “Vissi d’arte” into YouTube and you’ll get a million versions.

The first line of Vissi d’arte translates as “I lived for my art, I lived for love.” It seems a fitting choice for Amy, whose passion and enthusiasm for her art are obvious.

Amy Steggles performs in Fear No Opera’s Don Pasquale on June 15, 2013. Visit the Fear No Opera web site for details.

Thank you, Amy!


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2 Responses to “Who’s afraid of a little opera?”

  1. Sue Knutsen
    May 22, 2013 at 10:27 am #

    Great article Kate – this is exactly what Victoria (as well as many other cities) need!

  2. May 23, 2013 at 7:42 am #

    What a fantastic idea. Lucky Victoria!

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