Highlands Opera Studio


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"My name is Suzanne Taffot. I am a resident of Montreal, a Lyric Soprano, mother of two, immigration lawyer, and wife. I was born in Spain, grew up in Camaroon, and came to Canada as a young adult where I studied both law and music and completed a Masters of Music in Voice (M.M.) and a Degree in Law (LL.B.) both at l'Universite de Montreal. My first year at HOS was in 2017, and it was a new experience for me on many levels. As an African Canadian, for years prior to this, I had too often been marginalized and excluded from getting real singing opportunities. I remember hesitating to audition because I thought that because of my age and my level, I would not be selected. Great was my surprise when I received the letter of acceptance, launching me into my first professional internship as an independent aspiring professional artist. During this internship, I was able to observe other professional singers, coach with the greatest teachers in the industry, sing in front of agents and above all, gain self-confidence. The following year I auditioned again and was selected to do a leading role. I had had no opportunity on a professional stage prior to HOS and that experience enabled me to prepare myself properly for my professional life as an operatic singer. When I arrived in Germany to perform my first "real role", I used all the tools I had collected at HOS. In 2018, even though I was the only black singer in the program, I felt included and understood but, above all, I felt that they wanted to give me MY chance, because I was WORTHY, not because of the colour of my skin.

I am eternally grateful to HOS for having accepted me into their big family. As a founding member of the Highlands Opera Racial Equity Advisory Council, I am committed to working with my colleagues on the committee and the management of HOS and look forward to continuing the work on racial equity and inclusion by providing equitable professional resources for aspiring opera professionals from the IBPoC community, and above all, by contributing to the education and raising of awareness among opera fans, directors and other decision makers in the industry of the real issues and challenges of diversity, inclusion and racial equity in the world of opera."

"The opportunity to create and collaborate with Highlands Opera Studio on the Indigenous chamber opera Mishabooz's Realm in 2017 was one of the most enriching and powerful commissions of my career. From the very beginning Highlands Opera studio was able to provide a collaborative creative experience and a clear vision of such a new and groundbreaking work. With all the cultural protocols and respect, the team behind the opera was able to pursue a healthy and innovative process that celebrated and explored the rich and challenging history of the Indigenous people of Turtle Island. A true multicultural approach was taken in this project and it was in the spirit of the Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action that made this project so meaningful both the the creators and performers and the community that was able to experience the opera. I believe that this project was able to lay the groundwork for a much larger creative dialogue involving the opera form and indigenous issues and culture.It is my deep hope that this work, and our work together as members of the Highlands Opera Racial Equity Advisory Council, can continue to evolve and grow to present important issues and opportunities for First Nation artists and creators in this country."

"Highlands opera studio came into my life during a very crucial transition period. I was in my mid 20’s, no college education, and no real future for work as an opera singer materializing. As an African American, I had been too often marginalized and sidelined from getting real opportunities here in the States. I didn’t really know my true potential, and certainly did not believe in my own self efficacy.

Highlands Opera Studio not only welcomed me with open arms, but also transformed my life. I learned to believe in my gifts and worked towards utilizing my full potential as an artist. I received an intensive crash course in vocal technique, stage deportment, languages and diction, as well as the business of singing. The volunteers and board members became a second family, and to this day I am still supported by this great network of artists. In my first year of studying at HOS, I learned enough to secure management and subsequently scored my first international tour working with a top dance company in the US. Five years since, I have had a steady stream of professional work engagements, culminating in my debut at Lincoln Center Theater this past year.

I am honoured and excited to be a founding member of the Highlands Opera Racial Equity Advisory Council. The influence of HOS has given me the opportunity to work all over the world, and build a reputation as a singer of strong vocal technique with deft acting skills. None of this would have been accomplished without HOS. Even in the midst of a global pandemic, I have been afforded opportunities to help keep music alive. I only wish I were rich, so that I could afford to underwrite HOS for the next decade. Until then, I implore any and all foundations to help HOS invest in the artists of tomorrow, those who also feel marginalized and sidelined, but who show true potential to help keep the arts alive and thriving."

"Highlands Opera Studio's providing 4 weeks of free online sessions proved an invaluable resource to young professional artists who are emotionally, mentally, artistically and financially compromised due to the pandemic. Having daily sessions with esteemed coaches and artists helped keep us all motivated and engaged, and Q&A sessions with people in the industry such as Sondra Radvanovksy and Christine Goerke and top managers and opera house directors helped us stay optimistic and energized regarding the future of our art form. I felt my skills improve tremendously as I coached arias and art songs with the program’s international faculty, and reached a new level of artistry and adaptability that will serve me moving forward into our new operatic world. I also found renewal in the connective aspect of seeing my colleagues every day during the program, as well as improved holistic and financial wellness in our life coaching and financial seminars. I could not be more grateful to Highlands Opera for supporting young artists and providing this lifeline during these unprecedented times."

"As the news started rolling out in March, Valerie and Richard kept us updated on their plans and as to how they would be moving forward with this year’s festival. I can happily report that their plan to move the training online was a success! For a 4 week period we engaged with coaches, voice teachers and opera agents for feedback in private sessions. We also welcomed singers, general directors and financial advisors for group conversation sessions.Hearing from these professionals and being able to ask them questions reassured me that despite the current global pandemic, everyone in our industry is moving forward with new projects and exploring alternative avenues for artistic programming, planning and community outreach.

For me this program was marked with excellent coaching sessions and lessons that made me return to a truer, healthier and more honest approach to my singing. At the end of the 4 week period, I found myself in a much stronger place in regards to the technical aspects of my singing. It is truly mind blowing that despite all the activities taking place online this program did not lose a drop of quality, if anything it allowed for more focused work considering that the participants and coaches spanned 9 time zones! I do hope that we find ourselves together and safely get to rehearse and collaborate in person but this experience has shown that with creativity and foresight HOS was able to overcome this problem and bring everyone together even remotely."

"For years now, I have heard amazing things from colleagues about their experiences spending summers in Haliburton studying and performing with Highlands Opera Studio. The Faculty, the Staff and the program have always been set to a very high reputation and so I was extremely excited and honoured to be able to join them this summer as a participant. Due to Covid-19, Highlands Opera Studio quickly worked on finding the safest way to continue this [past] summer and made the decision to adapt the 2020 season into online training to keep all participants and staff safe and still supported during these challenging times for the arts, with a commitment to re-invite the participants back for the 2021 season. The Highlands Opera Studio experience was one of extremely high artistic quality and musical experience. We had 4 weeks filled with one-on-one lessons and coaching, as well as weekly group meetings, and. one of my favourites, the daily ‘in conversations’ with a wide array of guest consultants from all over the industry. These opportunities created the perfect platform to allow a direct and open space to connect and ask highly specific questions. Everyday throughout the program I left having learned something new, filled with inspiration towards my personal goals, and hope for the future of our art form and industry. Through HOS I was able to connect and work with some of the most amazing professionals who were extremely helpful in providing phenomenal feedback and sharing their vast knowledge of artistic skill."

"Highlands Opera Studio has been one of the most positive and formative experiences I have had since I began studying opera. Valerie and Richard are able to connect participants with some of the best conductors, teachers, and coaches in the world, giving singers the ability to see incredible improvement over several weeks. Even though the pandemic prevented the participants from working with these mentors in person in 2020, we were still able to have an incredible experience as we were able to work with Highlands’ entire team, with some additional guest faculty, online which was extremely successful. I am so thankful that I have been able to train at Highlands Opera Studio for the past two seasons. It has had a tremendous effect on my vocal technique, musicality, and performance skills. It is the perfect program to help aspiring professional singers transition into having an operatic career."

“It would be hard to overstate the value of this program. I was given the chance to perform one of my dream roles, and to work on it with world-class coaches. Moreover, Val and Richard are more than just great artists and teachers; they're genuinely supportive of the studio members, and the care they have for us shows in everything they do. I couldn't have had a better time in a summer programme, and the exposure and connections I made while I was there really helped to launch my career.”

"I have taken part in a number of artist development programs with various opera companies in the US and Canada. While these programs serve an important purpose for the companies that host them, many of them are of dubious benefit to the young singer in the early stages of his or her career. Many offer young performers understudies and token-bit parts on the mainstage, and may sweeten the deal with the promise of extensive coaching and training. While coaching is certainly important, stage experience and exposure are two of the most crucial elements in the early development of a singer's career--elements many programs only scarcely provide. In order to work in this business, one needs to be heard, but singing two-line-roles on a major stage is not going to give anyone in the audience a halfway-decent idea of one's singing and acting skills. Additionally,  the experience of performing these bit-parts generally afforded to young singers is a far cry from the experience of performing a featured role on a company's mainstage. The process of preparing a role for high-level performance and dealing with pressure of the performance itself can only be learned by doing. Having a good coach work through a role with you can be a great help, but no amount of coaching is going to prepare you for the feeling of stepping out into the lights with an audience of thousands before you.

This is why the experience Highlands Opera Studio offers is so important. Highlands engages singers with a wide range of experience levels--some will be university students with little to no professional experience, a few will be in the early stages of a successful career with several mainstage credits already on their résumé, and many will be somewhere in-between. The most developed singers receive the featured roles where they will be seen and heard most often by guests, critics, and audiences. The greenest singers receive smaller assignments where they can grow in a lower-pressure environment, and learn from their more experienced colleagues. Valerie and Richard treat all their artists like artists, rather than students. This model results in a supportive environment where everyone's artistic input is valued. I feel this kind of environment provides much better preparation for working on the professional operatic stage than the typical educational or young-artist-program model in which young singers' artistic choices and opinions are rarely heard or considered. The experience at Highlands helps a singer become a collaborative artist who actively participates in creating the performance, and this is precisely what is expected of a professional working in the mainstage opera world.

There are very few artist-development programs in Canada that provide such a valuable experience, and Valerie and Richard's decades of experience at the top level of this business brings a very high profile to the productions. Performing a featured role at Highlands lends an air of legitimacy to an emerging artist's résumé, and can act as a springboard to the next level of a singer's career, be it graduate school, season-long young-artist programs, or transitioning to the mainstage. Of all the development programs I've gone through (and there have been a few), I honestly feel like my experience at Highlands Opera Studio was the best. Highlands young artists are not there to fill out a chorus or sing small roles at a discount. They are not their to fulfill an outreach commitment so a company can access more funding. They are there to sing and create art at a high level, and to be seen and heard in their element by influential figures in the business. Highlands exists for the sole purpose of advancing burgeoning careers, a quintessential niche that few other organizations can fill."

“Hands down, Canada's top opera summer training program.”

“HOS is a life-changing, path-defining, transformational experience.”

“Highlands is one of the best organized and most rewarding training programs that I have had the pleasure of being a part of.”

“An oasis for emerging young singers to improve upon the skills needed for a life dedicated to the art of opera.”

“A magical experience which will stay with me forever.”

"It is hard for me to find the words to adequately describe my experience at Highlands Opera Studio! I could go on and on about incredible high-pedigree of each faculty member. Truly!  Being able to work under such experienced, wise, devoted, generous instruction was truly a privilege.

I have never participated in a training program that is so holistic and practical. The faculty is deeply invested in helping individuals make strides vocally, musically, interpretatively, and personally in lessons, coachings, public masterclasses, staging rehearsals, and numerous performance opportunities throughout the program.  Participants benefit from individual consultations with agents, casting directors and other influential people working in opera.

Richard Margison and Valerie Kuinka are unbelievably generous and inspired in their leadership. Their commitment to helping young singers is an extension of their love for opera itself. This passion is truly inspirational!"

"My experience at HOS was absolutely wonderful. The summer I spent there was a crucial step in my continuing development as an opera singer. The faculty of professionals they assemble is first-rate."

"Highlands opera studio is a wonderful program for artists looking to learn in a safe and nurturing environment from some of the worlds best singers and teachers.  I found this program extremely valuable because we had the opportunity to work and spend time with those that have worked internationally and therefore, learn from them what is required to have a long and fulfilling singing career."

"Highlands opera studio is an intimate intensive retreat ideal for the most accomplished young professional singers. It gave me personal access to world class agents, artistic directors and teachers."

"After successful performances throughout Canada and abroad, through my participation in HOS, I met and sang for Bruce Zemsky who has since signed me to the Zemsky/Green Roster in NYC and I have recently made my Met debut. The high level of training and networking opportunities in an intimate environment make HOS a truly invaluable experience."

"In Canada there are few professional training programs for opera singers. There are even fewer that bring teachers, coaches, directors, and other important people working in this industry as professionals themselves, together for zero cost to the participant. As a working professional myself, the tools that I have received from Highland Opera Studio have been invaluable and pinnacle in not only creating my career, but also fueling it. What Valerie Kuinka and Richard Margison have created for us, is an ability to focus on our art for a few intense number of weeks. Most of us artists live hand to mouth and have a hard enough time trying to survive let alone hone our artistic abilities. The subsidy provided by this program is desperately needed and tremendously helps emerging artists while we attempt to launch our careers in this very difficult industry. In an age where there are unfortunate funding cuts to the arts, this program is NEEDED."

"A unique opportunity that facilitates musicianship and artistry of the highest order in the most talented group of young Canadian opera singers."

"This is the one and only young-professional  initiative in Canada. One of maybe five of its kind in the world. Future Canadian opera success stories depend on it. Truly."

"The location is reason enough to want to attend this wonderful program, but the training we receive is absolutely top notch. Allowing the young artists to fully immerse themselves in their craft without the added financial burden of tuition is an opportunity that is simply not found elsewhere."

"A summer program unlike any other in Canada and one that is on par with its international counterparts. The level and standard of professional consultants that HOS brings is humbling to say the least."
HOS 2009