Opera On The Avalon | Telling Newfoundland's Stories

Opera On The Avalon
Telling Newfoundland's Stories

Opera on the Avalon, in St. John's, NL, is celebrating the announcement of their 15th season. Just how does an (any) arts organization last so long in a region far from the glittering big cities typically associated with the genre?

I asked the company's General & Artistic Director Cheryl Hickman a few questions about the company, below. 

Short answer: make opera relevant to the audience. 

First, a look at the coming season.

The Season

February: World Premiere

The world premiere of February, based on Lisa Moore's best-selling novel, will be the third work in OOTA's New Commission Series. The music is composed by Laura Kaminsky, with a libretto written by Moore and Kaminsky.

The story speaks directly to its environment, and pays a tribute to the Ocean Ranger tragedy. The offshore drilling unit sank in the Hibernia oil field near the Grand Banks, NFLD on Valentine's Day in 1982. Eighty-four men lost their lives in the incident, including 56 Newfoundlanders. 

The opera will be conducted by Judith Yan, and directed by Ruth Lawrence. The cast includes Katherine Pracht-Phares, Matthew Dalen, Leroy Davis, Pascale Spinney, Michael Kelly, Stephen Hegedus, and Lara Ciekiewicz in principal roles.

The creative team will include Alison Helmer as Set Designer, Keith Roberts as Costume Designer, Leigh-Ann Vardy as Lighting Designer, Cameron Davis as Projections Designer, and Don Ellis as Sound Designer. 

  • The World Premiere will be presented on October 13 and 14 2023, at the Arts and Culture Centre in St. John's, NL.

75 x 75 - Marking 75 Years of Confederation

75 x 75 is a multidisciplinary project designed to marking the 75th anniversary of Newfoundland and Labrador’s Confederation with Canada. The project, featuring performance and interview material from more than 75 individuals, will shine a light on the cultural and historic impact of the event. 

It launches with a concert and storytelling event hosted at the Colonial Building on March 30, 2024 (available in-person or as a livestream). 

After the event, OOTA-TV will host the collection of videos and interactive displays focusing on the region's history and culture that will be available to view free of charge. 

The Interview Series will be led by CBC producer Rod Etheridge and journalist Sarah Antle.

New Young Artist Program

OOTA is committed to helping the next gen of talent in the opera sector. They've announced OOTA a new Young Artist Program (YAP). The comprehensive 12-month hybrid experience offers a realistic skillset and support for contemporary opera artists, including:

  • mentorship and coaching with industry leaders; 
  • professional performance opportunities;
  • career development workshops;
  • a multi-week Artistic Residency in St. John’s;
  • 12 months of financial support.

It's an invaluable opportunity to focus on learning for an entire year.

General & Artistic Director, Cheryl Hickman (L) at the season announcement (Image courtesy of OOTA)
General & Artistic Director, Cheryl Hickman (L) and author Lisa Moore at the season announcement (Image courtesy of OOTA)

Q&A with General & Artistic Director, Cheryl Hickman

Opera on the Avalon has been going for 15 years - that's an achievement in the arts all by itself. Would I be right in assuming there is strong support for opera in St. John’s? 

While the longevity of Opera on the Avalon, which has been thriving for 15 years, is indeed an impressive achievement in the arts - it does not necessarily imply a strong support for opera specifically. 

St. John's, as the capital city of Newfoundland and Labrador, boasts a vibrant arts community with a diverse range of artistic expressions. While there is undoubtedly a considerable appreciation for the arts in the city, including various forms of visual arts, music, theatre, and literature - opera was not a genre that was readily available or accessible to local audiences. 

The support has increased as our audiences have grown with us over the last 15 years. Unlike many places, the work that has allowed us to increase our capacity the most has been our new commissions which have turned our history into art. We try and reflect the lives of the community around us on the stage.

February - the new commission - seems like a story that is, not to make light of it, made for an operatic treatment. How did the commission come about - how was this project chosen?

Newfoundland and Labrador is a province that is rich with stories. The commission for "February," based on the book by local writer Lisa Moore, came about through a thoughtful selection process that aimed to identify a project suitable for an operatic treatment, and based on a story from this place. 

One such story, and one that lives in the minds of many from this place - is the sinking of the oil rig the Ocean Ranger. The decision to commission this piece stemmed from the compelling nature of the story and of the book's potential to be translated effectively into an opera. 

The process of choosing a project for commissioning involves a collaboration between our artistic teams. We consider a range of factors, such as the artistic merit and narrative depth of the source material, its thematic resonance, and its potential to engage and captivate audiences within the operatic framework.

In the case of "February,"  Lisa Moore's book presented an intriguing narrative that possessed elements suitable for operatic adaptation. The story's emotional depth, character relationships, and dramatic events resonated strongly with our artistic team, making it an ideal candidate for our third new commission. 

Additionally, Lisa's status as a local writer with international success added a sense of cultural significance and relevance to the project, further enhancing its appeal.

Overall, the commission for "February" was a result of careful consideration, recognizing the potential of the story to thrive within the operatic realm, and the desire to create a compelling new work we feel will resonate with audiences both here and outside our region. 

Likewise, for 75 x 75, how did the project come together? What role did you play?

The genesis of the "75 x 75" project stemmed from a desire to celebrate the rich artistic heritage of our community and commemorate a significant milestone in our country’s history. To mark the 75th anniversary of Newfoundland and Labrador’s Confederation with Canada, we envisioned a transformative project that would bring together 75 people from our region representing a diverse range of disciplines and backgrounds.

To make this vision a reality, I took on the role of creative facilitator and curator and we are currently embarking on a collaborative journey, engaging with artists, community members, and various stakeholders. 

As the artistic director, my role is to shape the project's overarching concept and guiding its artistic direction. Our team is working closely with the selected artists, providing them with a platform to showcase their unique talents and perspectives. This involves curating their works, exploring thematic connections, and fostering collaborations between artists from different disciplines to create a cohesive and impactful presentation. 

As the artistic director, I am honoured to play a central role in conceiving and shaping this project. When it is released starting next March, we hope that it will be a testament to the power of artistic collaboration, community engagement, and the transformative potential of celebrating our local stories and artistic talent.

When will the Young Artist Program launch, and do you have a selection process in mind?

Our revamped Young Artist Program will be relaunched starting in September. We held auditions this winter, and artists are currently being selected from those auditions as we speak. 

shanawdithit, from the 2019 season: