Highlands Opera Studio’s 2020 season was “an enormous success” despite the pandemic, says Valerie Kuinka.

She added they are planning an outdoor concert Sept. 20 to thank and support the community. However, the concert was cancelled Sept. 19 due to the province increasing limits on private outdoor gatherings, decreasing it from 100 to 25.

HOS invites up to 25 emerging operatic talents to the Highlands each summer to train with leading opera professionals from around the world and perform in several local concerts. The program is operated by internationally-acclaimed Canadian tenor Richard Margison and former Metropolitan Opera stage director Kuinka, who serve as artistic director and general/co-artistic director, respectively.

The program ran online this year, with 17 participants. However, they could not train in Haliburton, and there were no performances to raise money.

Kuinka said the pandemic brought operatic careers to an abrupt halt and is causing significant psychological damage, but also gave participants time to slow down and reflect.

“The priority was on positivity, clarifying and realigning personal career goals, building skills, and looking toward making positive change through opera,” said Kuinka.

Conversations focused on topics such as personal and professional reflection and growth, emotional health, community, adaptability, systemic racism in opera, and vision for the future of professional opera. As part of that future, HOS also officially launched the HOS Racial Equity Advisory Council, which had been several months in the making.

Participant Geoffrey Schellenberg, a baritone from Vancouver, said in a Facebook video that HOS provided “absolutely incredible resources” that changed everything about his singing for the better.

“This is more important than ever now when performing is very limited,” said Schellenberg. “[To] have something that is as inspiring and as helpful as Highlands Opera Studio really makes a difference in all of its participants’ lives.”

The success extended to funding, where the pandemic had a lesser effect than it might have done. This was in part due to existing and new sponsors and supporters such as BMO Financial Group, the Azrieli Foundation, and Haliburton County Development Corporation, but also due to very dedicated private donors, many of them local. HOS is extremely grateful to all, said Kuinka.

The concert was planned as a “love letter” to the community because the usual performances and community interaction are “a very important half” of the program and they were deeply missed, said Kuinka.

“This little moment is going to be a wonderful opportunity to reconnect in a small way with the community.”

Soprano Lauren Margison and tenor River Guard was to perform a variety of music styles with pianist Stéphane Mayer . at the Head Lake Park bandshell in Haliburton.

Although the concern is not going ahead, the studio said it would record much of the music that was going to be performed and post it in social media.

“We will continue to miss all of you and will bring this concert to you as soon as possible!” HOS said in an email.

HOS has been operating since 2007. The program is valued at up to $15,000 per participant and is free to Canadians. The housing costs generally charged to international participants may be offset by sponsorships.

This season’s participants have been invited to return next year. To learn about 2021 performances and buy passes, visit highlandsoperastudio.com.

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