Ninety minutes from Rome, deep within Italy’s mountainous Abruzzo region, lies the small Medieval town of Sulmona. In addition to being the birthplace of the poet Ovid, it’s home to the Centre for Opera Studies in Italy, or COSI.
In summer 2014, two University of Lethbridge students and one recent graduate journeyed to Sulmona to participate in COSI’s performance and internship programs. They’re among nearly 400 emerging artists and opera professionals who have studied there since the institute opened its doors in 2007.
Very few singers from Western Canada were admitted to the Centre, which requires applicants to audition for their programs. The U of L students earned their positions by singing up to three prepared arias in Italian in November 2013, when Artistic Director Darryl Edwards visited the University.
Alyssa Durnie, a bachelor of music student, joined the Opera Studio program to study concert repertoire and sing in the chorus of Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea. She recalls her first encounter with her cohort at Fiumicino Airport, where she met them after spending a few days in Rome.
“I was very anxious to meet everyone and hear the different voices within the group,” she says. “When we were able to start mingling, I felt immediate support from my colleagues. It calmed my nerves right away and I got excited about the weeks to come.”
COSI’s immersive summer programs, which ran from June 22 to July 21, are designed to hone participants’ skills in Italian, performance and production management. In addition to providing classes and coaching, the Canadian-run centre gives its participants a wide range of performance opportunities, including outdoor concerts and full-scale operas.
Kjel Erickson, a student in the U of L’s BFA Multidisciplinary program, was invited into the Opera Ensemble to play the role of Marcello, the painter, in Puccini’s La Bohème. In between rehearsals he received coaching and lessons to help him polish his technique and his repertoire.
Both Erickson and Durnie also sang in COSI’s evening concerts, which featured the work of Puccini and Donizetti.
“It was amazing to be in a country where the music I was learning to perform had been a pillar of their cultural identity for centuries,” says Erickson. “It would be hard to come away with a greater appreciation of the art form and its importance.”
Behind the scenes, Kennedy Greene and her fellow stage management interns, or SMIs, enabled the rehearsals and productions to run smoothly. A recent graduate of U of L’s BFA Dramatic Arts program, Greene gained the hands-on experience she needed to complete her final Stage Management Apprenticeship Credit with the Canadian Actors’ Equity Association.
As an SMI, Greene assisted at rehearsals, including set-up and clean-up. In addition to these duties – and attending to things like costume fittings and props finishing – she and her colleagues were responsible for stage managing the evening concerts.
“We would have 15- to 45-minute breaks between some of our activities, but for the most part SMIs go all day,” says Greene.
In the mornings, she, Erickson and Durnie all took Italian language and Pilates classes. (The exercises helped the opera students to sing through the more challenging poses on stage, while SMIs used the time to balance out their rigorous days.) After that, they would perform their separate tasks.
For Durnie, it was actually dinnertime that presented the greatest culture shock.
“Most restaurants [didn’t] even open for dinner until about 8 p.m.,” she says. “So we were often out quite late to eat.”
However, she adds, the meal always ended with gelato and she adjusted fairly quickly.
Over the course of these busy weeks, the three participants gained experiences that promise to serve them in the years ahead. In addition to making contacts across Canada and Europe, Durnie developed a greater understanding of Italian culture and the rehearsal process in that country.
“Italian time is much different than Canadian time!” she says. “You have to keep an open mind and stay flexible.”
Greene says that she learned a lot from working overseas, and formed close relationships with her colleagues in the process.
“I think the program helped me make some very wonderful connections. I also think it helped my confidence, which will only benefit me professionally.”
“I made many new friends who are on, or have taken, the same road as I’m taking,” says Erickson. “Drawing on their advice, and experiencing things with them, is invaluable for my professional development.
“I now have a broader knowledge base and world-view to draw from that I wouldn’t have had otherwise.”
Erickson and Durnie will share the stage with lead roles at the Lethbridge Symphony Orchestra and U of L Opera Workshop co-performance of Dido & Aeneas, Jan. 16 & 17 at 8 p.m. at Southminster United Church. Tickets are available online.