The incredible thing about opera is that there are so many ways to enter into and participate in this highly collaborative art form. At its core, opera is really about storytelling – whether that’s through music, poetry, visual art and design, or movement, all those elements are collaborating to communicate a story about the reality of some shared human experience.
Working in the COC’s Community Partnerships & Programs is a chance to demystify what most young people think about when they consider what an opera is all about, by helping them envision stories they can tell about their own lives and then support the creation of original operatic works based on those stories.
For us, it’s key that co-creation is at the heart of how we engage with each of our community partners and participants. Rather than entering into a classroom, school, or community partnership with a pre-determined approach, we always start by listening to our partners and building long-term relationship with them: when the creative process originates from a place of trust and understanding, the results are truly impactful and ones that participants carry with them in rewarding, lasting ways.
Our partnership with Heydon Park Secondary School in Toronto is a great example of something that has grown into a rewarding and meaningful experience, both for the phenomenal teaching team at HPSS and for us at the COC. This partnership is part of a pilot program at HPSS that’s designed to close gaps in literacy by integrating different forms of learning into their curriculum. Students at HPSS are unique; they may have learning differences, some may have gaps in their education, and/or other personal circumstances that make traditional learning more challenging. Over the 2020/2021 school year, we’ve been working with a group of grade 9 students on an Opera Makers program that’s designed to develop reading and communication skills through arts integration and experiential learning. Students are also introduced to career paths in the creative industry such as make-up and set design, all of which align with the vocational programs provided at the school.
From the very beginning, it was important to build an environment of safety and trust for these students. A sense of equity and inclusivity is instilled into every phase of the opera creation process: the students are the ones writing the libretto, and deciding on the characters, the lyrics for their compositions, the colors for the set design, or how makeup should be applied. For us, a major part of the process is helping the students find their voice, and making sure they’re being heard and valued – student voice is a key component in the process. Acknowledging their authentic role within the creative process is not only empowering, but is also at the heart of student-directed, experiential learning. For many of these students, this is an opportunity to keep them further engaged in the education system.
This week, we’re also launching a brand new program, Opera Makers: In Partnership with Building Roots and YEA! (Youth Enrichment Academy). Collaborating with these two organizations allows us to introduce the world of opera and the COC to a new group of young people, while also addressing community needs by contributing to the after-school programming that YEA! facilitates. YEA! is an initiative designed to address the gap in after-school programming for youth in Regent Park and surrounding communities.
Building Roots is an organization that fosters social cohesion through innovative projects that respond to community needs, envisioning vibrant, resilient neighbourhoods across Toronto's Downtown East. Over the course of eight sessions, YEA! students will work with staff from the COC and Building Roots to create and perform a brand new opera entirely over Zoom. While the storyline will be shaped and driven entirely by the students taking part, we will be focusing on themes of community sustainability, social justice, and supporting our neighbours. Once the music and the libretto are written, each student will record their sung parts from home, and send the videos in to be edited and stitched together into a virtual operatic chorus. The result will be performed over Zoom: the recorded composition will be played as the participants perform the libretto and plot of the opera live for a virtual audience of their family and friends .
Young people who have never experienced opera may feel that it isn’t for them; they might not have knowledge or familiarity with classical music, and they might not be fluent in any of the languages that constitute the opera canon. But by inviting students to participate in the creation process we overcome those barriers by making opera a form of cultural expression that’s at hand and available to them in a way anybody can relate to—and that’s in the importance of sharing stories: the emotional connection and how we process our human experience.
Between having to adapt to virtual schooling and not being able to see their family and friends, so much has been taken away from youth during this time—we’ve worked with over 100 students over the past year, and it’s truly amazing how resilient they are. While we have certainly had to adapt our programming and creative process for virtual conditions, we are so grateful to have the opportunity to continue providing high quality arts programming to children and youth across the GTA.