UBC grads lure new fans to timeless operas with Cantanti d’Oro

Former music students created a small ensemble, Cantanti d’Oro, to showcase emerging singers in intimate settings at affordable prices
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Anew Vancouver group is trying to fill a desperate need for more performance opportunities for young, up-and-coming opera singers.

Cantanti d’Oro, a small ensemble of grads from UBC’s opera program at the school of music, will sing music from two of the art form’s best-known works, Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème and Georges Bizet’s Carmen, in concerts this weekend at Christ Church Cathedral and venues in West Vancouver and Aldergrove.

Soprano Shadan Saul, who performs in the program with mezzo Francesca Corrado, tenor Sunny Shams, and baritone José Ramirez Solano, explains there’s often a big gap for students between graduating and launching a performing career. And it’s there for complex reasons that go back to the art form itself.

“Opera is such a different genre: your voice and your body are the instrument,” Saul explains, speaking over the phone to the Straight. “Unlike pop or musical theatre, we have specific voice types, so we’re already classified—not just as soprano, baritone, tenor, or mezzo, but within these there are also different voice categories.” Someone might be a spinto, a soprano with a highly dramatic lyric style, for example. “My voice is a lyric soprano, and it won’t be at its peak till I’m maybe 35, so it’s really hard: sometimes your voice isn’t ready by the time you’re able to audition,” Saul says.

“And then, if you’re in North America, especially on the West Coast, we have some fantastic houses like Vancouver Opera, but outside of that it’s difficult [to find work]. You have to build a résumé and sometimes your voice isn’t ready to do that till you’re older,” she says, adding she holds down three jobs outside her chosen career.

At the same time that it provides those opportunities to perform, Cantanti d’Oro hopes to make opera accessible to new audiences who might then be inspired to go see bigger productions. With affordable ticket prices and an intimate setting, the concerts aim to put the focus on the music, with accompaniment by pianist Richard Epp. But they’ll also have some narration to make the songs, sung in their original languages, easily understandable.

“I find opera is one of the things the world is missing now,” Saul says. “It’s humanity at its finest. The stories are timeless. I find opera is the extreme sport of fine arts. It’s bungee jumping: just letting go and letting the music take you on this phenomenal ride.”

It’s a passion that Saul herself discovered only after trying to pursue a career in jazz. When she tried out for a program in that style at Vancouver Community College, she says, an instructor pulled her aside and suggested jazz might not be perfectly suited to her voice. Saul was at first upset, but then started turning to classical music.

“I’ve always loved jazz, especially the lyrics, and I think that’s what drew me to opera too. Both have such beautiful stories and messages behind the words,” Saul says. “The more I learned, the more I loved it.” That’s when Saul decided to try out for UBC’s acclaimed opera program. “It was the only school I auditioned for and I thank God I got in and never looked back!”

For now, Cantanti d’Oro, named for the fact that all the singers (cantanti in Italian) have been told by competition judges and others that they have voices reminiscent of the golden age of opera, will stage concerts. But Saul dreams of turning it into a production company that will be able to stage full operas with sets and costumes. The focus will always be on showcasing emerging singers.

“It allows us to get the roles into our voices and our bodies,” she says of Cantanti d’Oro’s projects. “An athlete gets to run the obstacle course and do all the things they need to do before the big races. We need to do that too.” In other words, it’s a chance to practise all that vocal bungee jumping.

Cantanti d’Oro performs highlights from La Bohème and Carmen on Friday (July 25) at Christ Church Cathedral, Saturday (July 26) at St. Dunstan’s Anglican Church in Aldergrove, and Sunday (July 27) at St. Stephen’s Anglican Church in West Vancouver.

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