Vancouver/UBC Opera Summit, Old Auditorium, UBC
Thank you, Nancy.
What a privilege to welcome you all to our beautiful UBC campus… we are deeply honored to have you here and trust you have enjoyed your first day of this national summit.
It’s an important conversation you’re having here, on topics that resonate deeply in our university community: how to be more inclusive… more collaborative… and ultimately, more innovative. How to “build new bridges” to better serve our communities, advance emerging talent and explore mutually beneficial partnerships. This is a theme UBC knows well, and upholds consistently across our institution.
Here at UBC, we strive “to inspire people, ideas and actions for a better world.” It might well be argued that that’s what drives all of you too. In fact, in a recent Guardian article about the enduring value of opera, David Pountney—the former artistic director of the Welsh National Opera—observed that “because the experience is communal, it is one of the essential ways in which society can express the imaginative and emotional truths about itself which are frequently more important than the material truths.”
That’s a big job. A huge responsibility! In this world of populism and divisive politics, art — and especially opera! — has the power to build bridges across cultures … to impact society in positive ways … to tell our stories … and build empathy and understanding.
So, I applaud you for your courage to confront the challenges facing your sector of the arts… and your collective efforts to stay nimble and boldly relevant.
The opera program here at UBC has a long history of successful bridge-building. It is one of North America’s leading operatic training centres, offering deep and rigorous education at both the undergraduate and graduate levels: our students learn about all aspects of opera production, from singing to stage design, to publicity and fundraising, so they can better navigate the inevitable career gaps that you have been discussing. Among its alumni, UBC Opera boasts global stars such as Judith Forst (who I think is with us here tonight), Ben Heppner, Simone Osborne, Philippe Castagner, Teiya Kasahara, and Michael Mori.
Across Europe and Asia, our opera program has forged strong connections, giving performances and leading workshops to enrich local choirs and orchestras, and mentor aspiring opera singers. These relationships help not only to strengthen the global reputation of our music school, but our entire university; without a doubt, the UBC Opera program led by the tireless Nancy Hermiston is one of our most cherished institutional ambassadors!
Closer to home, UBC Opera models a different kind of bridge-building—a unique pairing of artistic excellence and academic expertise that has resulted in some of the most compelling community engagement this city has ever seen.
After 9/11, UBC Opera mounted that famous exploration of McCarthyism, The Crucible… and hosted a concurrent symposium with several UBC faculties to deepen the conversation around the opera’s challenging themes.
At the height of the Syrian crisis, the program worked with UBC’s Liu Institute to stage The Consul — a mid-century opera that explored the plight of Jewish refugees during the Second World War. They took that show on the road and performed it for some of our city’s most vulnerable citizens at the new refugee centre near the SkyTrain station at Commercial and Broadway.
Last year, the opera’s production of Silent Night, about the horrors of World War One, sold out. In cooperation with the Veterans Transition Program, UBC hosted a simultaneous symposium to explore themes of PTSD and veteran mental health. Some of you here today will still recall Romeo Dallaire’s moving talk at that event.
And this coming January, I hope some of you will consider joining us for a production of The Passenger, commemorating the liberation of Auschwitz 75 years ago. The related symposium will brave a question that weighs heavily on our minds these days: in today’s volatile political climate, are we headed towards another Holocaust?
These are not easy topics—but the opera narrative allows us to explore them from fresh angles, with new eyes and open hearts.
During orientation, we like tell our students how important it is to step outside their comfort zones … to welcome new friendships, ideas and experiences. There’s definitely no gold star in the status quo!
This summit is likewise an invitation to embrace new possibilities. As the writer Margaret Drabble once famously observed, “When nothing is sure, anything is possible.”
You are all to be commended for the work you have already done to increase accessibility to opera training programs and to opera in general. I urge you to continue to build on that foundation by working to dismantle the barriers between university training programs and professional companies to find new ways to collaborate and advance shared goals. Imagine the potential — and very powerful — benefits of sharing space, and sets, and costumes, and even human resources! And that’s just the start!
It’s not a new idea by the way: back in the 1950s, the Canadian Opera Company was already working closely with the University of Toronto to build bridges between one generation of artists and educators and the next!
Before I leave you this morning, I’d like to share a personal story about the power of bridge-building in the arts.
Some of you will know that I love to play the cello. To this day it is the most powerful, effective way for me to relax. When I’ve had the most stressful experiences in my life, or in my job, I turn to my cello and it takes me to a different place.
But there was a period of time after graduate school—well, actually it went on for 30 years! —when I did not touch my cello. I was busy reaching for tenure. I had kids. I had a wife. I decided I just didn’t have the time.
And then one day, just a few years ago, I found myself in Cincinnati listening to a group of inner city kids who were learning how to play chamber music from students at the conservatory. The students were volunteering their time to bring music into the inner city and the kids were playing with relatively poor instruments — and I was deeply inspired by what they were able to pick up in very sub-optimal conditions.
And I figured: if they could do it, then so could I.
The first time I played again, I played with them—the inner-city kids.
Without that program — that bridge between the conservatory and the community — I may never have returned to my instrument. I was definitely not the intended beneficiary of that program — but benefit I did.
And so, in your remaining time at this summit, as you lean into possibility and purpose, I ask you to consider: Who will be changed by the bridges you will build?
Thank you and enjoying your remaining time here at UBC.