My year in the Life of Opera McGill.

Photo: Brent Calis
For those of you who only know me from my writings here about Canada, let me introduce you to the other me. I am a freelance filmmaker and for the last year I have been making a documentary following three Opera McGill students at the Schulich School of Music.  You don't have to know anything about opera to enjoy it and get involved in the story of BC native and soprano Chelsea Rus, Ottawa bass-baritone Jonah Spungin and Montreal mezzo Rose Naggar-Tremblay. The three episodes which make up the film trace the ups and downs of their lives at different stages in their studies.  In this first episode all three singers audition for roles in the Opera McGill season and we see how an opera is made from start to finish - in this case Little Women by Mark Adamo.

Patrick Hansen, director of opera studies at McGill, who commissioned the film said: "I'm thrilled at how this documentary seems like a love letter, not just to Opera McGill but to the McGill campus and all the people who study and work there."

I've made many films for Opera McGill over the years including trailers for their productions and another documentary on their Year of Shakespeare but this was definitely the hardest.

Photo: Brent Calis
I really wanted to capture exactly what life is like for the singers in this project - to see the hard work but also see them at play whether it be doing karate in the park (Rose), making dinner with girlfriends (Chelsea) or playing hockey on a winter's night. (Jonah)

Their enthusiasm is infectious but the singers have tough times - feeling exhausted, getting sick during rehearsals and panicking with a demanding maestro. Chelsea says at one point: "I was sick all last week it was the worst. It's always such am emotional thing for a singer to get sick because I feel like I lose a part of me."

In each episode we hear from members of the village it takes to put an opera on stage - costume, makeup, lighting and set designers, conductors and stage directors. Backstage we see the singers and hear how they deal with their nerves. Here's the first episode which began in September last year.

Patrick Hansen has written about why he commissioned the film on his blog which is always a good read. He talks about the questions he gets asked all the time - such as do the students make their own costumes? (Er no actually,  they have an amazing costume designer Ginette Grenier who makes them from scratch and is so brilliant that she got a gig with Seattle Opera last year.)
Photo: Brent Calis
One of the challenges of making a film in Montreal for a year has got to be the weather. Rose and I were pretty exhausted filming the intro for this next film (Episode Two) after climbing in -20C with a camera and tripod up the mountain (what Montrealer's call Mount Royal Park). It was also a freezing day when Chelsea went skating at Parc La Fontaine (ouch).  Only Jonah's hockey was filmed on a relatively mild night, though dragging camera and tripod in heavy snow to the hockey rink was a challenge. All three singers were the most amazing good sports to let me into their lives like this. They kept me informed about all their plans and between us we managed to send each other over 600 text messages while organising these filming sessions. They made me tea, cooked me dinner, invited me to their birthday parties and ordered me taxis. In Episode Two we see the day by day progress of the Opera McGill team as they put on a production of Donizetti's opera L'Elisir d'amore.  Rose says "I'm lucky enough to have found someone that I can love and can also speak Italian to," Jonah gets to sing as a cover in rehearsals and Chelsea gets some amazing news. 

In the third and final episode, I finally get to film in some warmer weather and it was a chance for all three singers to look back over their year and reflect on what they had learned. Patrick said: "So many people out there in the wide world have very few inklings about what goes into learning to sing- especially opera. When audiences watch these episodes, they'll see many of those behind-the-scenes staff who are instrumental in making Opera McGill happen."

I was most amazed at the dedication of these singers. I filmed Jonah in a practice room one day and casually asked how much longer he would be singing for - as I packed up to leave. Probably another four or five hours on his own, was his reply.  It is no coincidence that great things are predicted for this trio. There wasn't a single diva/divo moment (well maybe just me) and I look forward to watching their careers soar.

In this film we see the creative team putting together a visually stunning production of Handel's Rodelinda. Looking back Jonah says: "If someone were thinking of coming to McGill to study opera I would absolutely tell them to do it and maybe brace yourselves." Rose stars in her biggest role yet at Opera McGill, Jonah makes a big decision and Chelsea notches up another milestone in her career. Get the Kleenex ready.


To see the whole playlist of all three videos: Year in the Life Playlist.

Photo: Brent Calis


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