We are where we live…

by Olivia Whiddon. Olivia Whiddon is the artistic director of Kenora Opera Theatre (KOT). She and Ruth Girard, chief advisor, founded the KOT.

Kenora Opera Theatre: “How’s that for a cultural wasteland?”  They may not know it, but our audience created this tagline.  After every concert in Kenora someone always comes up to me and says “How’s that for a cultural wasteland?”

KOT’s inaugural production “Classical Music in a Cultural Wasteland”. From left to right: Olivia Whiddon, Eleanor MacDonell, Wendy Paton and Denique Adams

When I started Kenora Opera Theatre (KOT) I just couldn’t get that phrase out of my head.  Several years ago Kenora, Ontario was given that title by MoneySense Magazine’s Best Places to Live List, not because we don’t have art here, but because of the low number of individuals who make a living at their art.  In reality, we do have a thriving community of artists. However, in a place where hydro prices are the highest in Canada, gas prices sit around 139.9 a litre, and rental costs run up to $900 plus hydro and water for a bachelor apartment, making a living as a “full-time artist” is incredibly difficult here.  Most artists supplement their income by other methods, such as teaching… and that’s where things start to get interesting.

KOT arose from a need to give performance ready students a project and venue to both perform and learn in.  Our teachers are highly trained performers sharing their knowledge with students through workshops and masterclasses, before finishing off their teaching week with performing. Other professional artists also perform with us. This arrangement allows our students to learn not only by participating, but also through observation. Meanwhile, our professional musicians are given more opportunities to share their knowledge and practice their craft.

Eleanor painted sets for a production of Hansel & Gretel

While student tuition fees go towards paying our teachers and pianists, the concert tickets go towards each show’s production costs.  This allows every show to pay for itself.  Initially we tried applying for funding, but we quickly discovered that this was not a practical approach to running our company.  We wanted to create something sustainable that could run on its own legs.

One of the biggest lessons I have learned as a singer is that when it’s show time, the audience is far more important than the performer.  When Kenora Opera Theatre began, many people questioned whether we would find an audience in town.  The answer was an unequivocal YES!

We have learned in this past year that our Kenora audience base is a loyal and supportive one, and they are more interested in seeing local performers than visiting artists.  Perhaps that’s because the person they go to see on stage also happens to be the girl next door. Or maybe it’s because when there is only so much disposable income to go around people will chose to support someone they have a personal connection to, whose quality is equal to any visiting artist. Or maybe it is because we both create and evolve together in our audience-performer relationship. As our singers progress so too does our audience, and as our singers continue to learn our audience can share in the knowledge.

Singer Eleanor MacDonell with Ruth Girard & violinist Jan Boutwell in opening concert.

Our productions are also carefully tailored to suit the needs of our company and our community. Consideration is always given to the singers, audience, performance space and the length of rehearsal time required for each show. For example, our limited (but beautiful) performance venue does not have the capacity for sur or sub titles, but that does not mean we need to perform everything in English.  Some of the ways we have worked around this dilemma is by eliminating recitatives and replacing them with a narrator, storyteller, or master of ceremonies, to give poetic translations during concerts.  We also sometimes shorten lengthy operas into more manageable productions, by eliminating pieces of music and inserting text to preserve the story. These alterations do cause our productions to become more like operettas, but that makes the work more accessible to our singers and more interesting for our listeners.  Our operas may not be for purists, but they are made for the people.  After all, opera was originally written to entertain. That’s one of the best reasons to create with the community in mind.

The Impresario was the pilot project to see if there was a market for opera in Kenora.

Being an opera company “made by the community for the community” means things run a little differently here than in other places.  Diva behaviour is not accepted, nor is backstage drama.  We are a company based on mutual respect and cooperation.  Our leads rotate per show, and they must audition for each and every show. Singers are accepted for roles based on their audition as well as their behaviour in past productions. Upon applying for any role in our productions each student must sign an “etiquette form” detailing unacceptable behaviours. Young students with the Olivia Whiddon Academy of Music (KOT’s parent company) are given stage etiquette lessons as part of their regular voice lessons. Our singers take great pride in their ability to act as professionals and take our mandate very seriously. This makes a safe learning environment for students of all ages.

Our teaching style accepts no nonsense and every student is made to pull their weight and learn about all production elements.  This means students also participate in the backstage portion of the productions, learning how to do stage make-up, build and decorate sets, create and properly store costumes and clean-up.  Leads, small roles, and chorus members all participate in these tasks. Students are generally allowed to take on backstage roles where they are most comfortable. Our chorus often does the set-up for a production while the leads take care of the after clean-up. Adding your own signature to the costumes or set has become a point of pride for many people. In fact, many students volunteer their time and talents long before they are asked. This all-encompassing “community mentality” enhances our artistic skills beyond the opportunity to sing. It also gives participants a knowledge of the backstage workings of a production that many singers often do not have. The shared workload across disciplines reminds our entire team that every aspect of a show is just as integral as the others.

Kenora’s Trylight Theatre Company and the Lake of the Woods Concert Series were both already established before Kenora Opera Theatre began. Not only did they pave the way for us, they supported and assisted us in our first year. In many ways our productions are bigger and better than they could ever be without this amazing community support.

Dancers from Dance Works Kenora with singers from KOT in Hansel & Gretel.

Kenora’s thriving artistic community does not solely consist of classical singers.  In fact, we seem to be a minority here.  That reality has inspired us to regularly collaborate with Dance Works Kenora and numerous local visual artists. This infusion of diversity adds additional elements to our productions.  Many of these collaborative artists are either students or teachers, and they want to create art as much as we do.

So perhaps being a “cultural wasteland” is not such a bad thing. We may not be making money hand over fist, but we are constantly creating sustainable projects that can run for years on the project’s own merit. We enrich the lives of students, teachers and the audience in our very own way. Our culture is one of community creation. It’s a culture Kenora has in spades.

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