The UBC Opera Ensemble is more relevant than ever, thanks largely to a strong vision
Anyone who thinks opera is a dusty anachronism needs to listen up: the UBC Opera Ensemble is thriving, with students performing on stages around the world.
Much of that success stems from UBC Opera Director Nancy Hermiston’s belief that stars are made by learning the business from the ground up. Students help build sets, create costumes, sell tickets, and raise money. Prima donnas need not apply.
The program wraps up its season this week with a performance of the Czech opera The Cunning Little Vixen. And when talking about it, Hermiston sounds more like a football coach than an artistic director.
“Opera is not elitist, not a diva sport – it’s a team sport,” she says. “Students are involved in every facet of production so they won’t take people involved in performance for granted. It makes them better artistic citizens.”
If students want to see how far a little grit and determination can get them, they need look no further than Hermiston, who took over as Director of UBC Opera in 1995 when it had a budget of just $1,200.
With such modest resources, Hermiston first goal was fundraising. Her strategy involved opening the Opera program to the community and engaging supporters through performances in schools, retirement homes and other venues throughout B.C. It was at one of those community events where she met David Spencer. The late patron of Vancouver’s performing arts scene launched the program’s endowment fund. The program also receives support from The Chan Centre Endowment.
“I had a solid foundation to work with – a good academic infrastructure,” says Hermiston, who has seen the UBC Opera’s endowment grow to $3.2 million. “I wanted to enhance what I found and I was given free rein to do it.” The multi-year program has grown from 86 students to 112.
She also worked to secure UBC Opera’s place in the academic community, forming unique partnerships with faculty to create symposia that accompany performances. The ensemble worked with the School of Nursing on Florence Nightingale: The Lady with the Lamp; psychiatry profs for The Dream Healer; and members of the Faculty of Law, the First Nations House of Learning and the Museum of Anthropology contributed to Louis Riel.
“Performance is an academic pursuit,” says Hermiston, who accepts about 40 new students each year from hundreds of applicants. “It’s rigorous – the ultimate multi-tasking with many linguistic, musical and theatrical elements to integrate quickly.”
Click here or below for a gallery of images from the UBC Opera Ensemble.
Going for baroque
The Opera Ensemble’s many performances distinguish UBC’s program from its competitors. UBC has performance venues unmatched by any North American university: the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts, the Old Auditorium and the Roy Barnett Recital Hall. The ensemble has also toured the Czech Republic, China and schools across Canada.
Those performances come with a price. Even with endowment support, productions must be self-supporting to meet annual costs of about $250,000.
Collaborations are vital. In addition to staging productions jointly with UBC’s Dept. of Theatre, Hermiston has forged affiliations with the Vancouver Opera Association, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Bard on the Beach and professional opera companies in Europe.
“These relationships take students beyond voice training into the world of professional opera,” says Hermiston. “When they leave UBC they are well-prepared to start their careers.”
As the sole full-time faculty member for the Opera Ensemble, Hermiston is always concerned about sustainability. She hopes to formalize agreements with other academic units and professional partners to create a lasting infrastructure and secure sufficient funding for two full productions annually.
“I am so proud of my students – I love helping them fulfill their potential,” she says. “My job is to make sure nothing gets in the way of that.”
In 2013 Hermiston was named an Officer of the Order of Canada for her achievements as an opera singer, stage director and educator. Learn more about the UBC School of Music.
55 years of excellence and counting
- 1959: UBC Dept. of Music created with provision for a continuing Opera program
- 1965: French Tickner joins the department and develops the Opera program
- 1995: Tickner retires and is succeeded by Nancy Hermiston
- Stages three main productions at UBC every season and six Opera Tea Concerts
- Performs and rehearses in the Chan Centre, Roy Barnett Recital Hall and the Old Auditorium, which reopened in 2010 following a $21-million renovation
- Main fundraising event is the annual Opera Ball at the Chan Centre
- Produced international stars Judith Forst and Ben Heppner as well as rising talents Philippe Castagner and Simone Osborne. All have been winners of the Metropolitan Opera Auditions.
- In 2008, staged the world premiere of The Dream Healer by Vancouver composer Lloyd Burritt, based on Timothy Findley’s novel Pilgrim.
- Will produce the world premiere of Choir Practice by UBC faculty composer Stephen Chatman next season.
- Received the Alfred Scow Award 2011-2012 for significant positive impact on student life and development at UBC.