Opera program up and humming

by Gavin Wilson
Staff writer

The School of Music's opera program is hitting a high note.

Enrolment is soaring, grads are finding work and new outreach programs have students singing everywhere from schools in Chilliwack to the opera houses of Europe.

As part of this renaissance, students are performing in public more often. The next chance to see them is April 1-5 in the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts performing Mozart's The Gardening Girl's Secret, sung in English and accompanied by the UBC Symphony Orchestra.

The program, which has already produced such stars as Ben Heppner and Judith Forst, has bloomed under the direction of Assoc. Prof. Nancy Hermiston.

Since she arrived from the University of Toronto two years ago, enrolment has increased from nine to 49 students. This includes 14 at the graduate level, up from just one student a short time ago.

Hermiston feels graduate studies are very important for young singers because the extra two or three years of training can turn them into polished professionals.

"There's so much involved in becoming an opera singer," she says. "It's a very long and complicated procedure. They have to learn acting, stage techniques and languages, as well as the basic musical skills."

For those who master the skills, the job opportunities have never been better, says Hermiston, who herself has performed with the Canadian Opera Company and the Nuremberg Opera in Germany.

"Well-trained voices and musicians are very much in demand. The musical theatre scene especially has opened up many employment opportunities."

By the time they graduate, Hermiston's students will already have a great deal of performing experience. They sing in local schools, seniors' homes, and on mini-tours to B.C. centres such as Kelowna and Kamloops.

Last year, UBC students performed in international opera workshops in Germany and the Czech Republic.

"The European audiences adored their energy and enthusiasm. They really loved them," says Hermiston.

The opera program accomplishes all of this on a shoestring budget of $4,000 which it supplements with bake sales, raffles and singing telegrams on Valentine's Day.