Composer-in-Residence and Circle of Artists member Ian Cusson
As a kid, I was always making things. So when I started taking piano lessons, putting sounds together came naturally. I’d start with improvisatory play at the piano, and that turned into creating larger and more elaborate works. This always felt like a form of storytelling to me, which is probably why, even as a young kid, I was excited about opera.
I remember once waiting for my music lessons to begin and hearing my teacher give the student ahead of me a very vivid description of Aida
— what it might have looked like, and how its staging could work. They listened to excerpts and I was totally enthralled by all of it. This teacher later introduced me to the work of composer Benjamin Britten; once I heard Peter Grimes
, I was hooked.
Being a composer, and in particular a composer of contemporary opera, is an interesting job. We all know the stereotype of opera as a relic of the past, but to me, it’s always spoken to the nature of humanity and the questions of the day. As Composer-in-Residence, I’ve been privileged to see first-hand how exciting it is to invest in opera as a growing and evolving art form.
My residency has had two facets. One was the commissioning of Fantasma
, a new opera for young audiences. Composing an opera is something I could have done outside the residency, but, working in the COC’s incredibly collaborative environment with singers from the Ensemble Studio program, we were able to rehearse and workshop the opera in real time. The second facet of the residency was being immersed in the life and day-to-day activities of an opera house; I visited the props department, spent time with the hair and makeup people, and got to spend time with wonderful people from almost every department across the organization. I really got to see and experience the way an opera company functions, and understand the practicalities and the considerations a composer may not necessarily be aware of otherwise.
Ian Cusson (centre) in a workshop for
Fantasma with Simona Genga (left) and stage director and dramaturg Julie McIsaac
Working in this collaborative environment has informed the way I write for singers, and the way I approach text. I got to know the singers of the Ensemble Studio very well. I would often hear them in their lessons and coaching sessions and, as a result, could tailor music more specifically for them. I hope this very integrated way of working and creating will become a model in new opera creation. An opera is never only a composer’s work — it’s informed by singers, musicians, and whole creative teams who have deep and varied experience in the art form. These people have expertise that I don’t; they may question the way something is written, or tell me if something feels unnatural in the voice, or suggest different options. Working in an environment like this makes for stronger, more cohesive, and compelling work.
When I think about great opera, I think about works that speak deeply to the human condition — the core human desires of longing, love, loss, joy, sorrow and pain, greed, and generosity. The power of art, and opera in particular, is that it holds a mirror up allowing us to see ourselves and forcing us to confront the question, “Who am I?” Great art shows us how to live and how to die — in that way, it gives us new insight into what it means to be a human being. Ensuring this art form remains vital and vibrant necessitates the creation of new works that allow us to continue looking in that mirror and see ourselves against the backdrop of the world in which we live now.
Ian Cusson performing at a Spotlight Series event with Marjorie Maltais
Committing resources to new work development and investing in creators with diverse perspectives and voices is how opera can continue this important work. There are wonderful spaces across the country in which to create small works, but it's rare to get an opportunity to create something on a larger scale with the infrastructure and the support that a larger project requires. Moreover, COC residencies are helping to elevate underrepresented voices and give artists the agency to lead their own conception of a work. Opening up space for diverse voices and perspectives is huge: it’s how we know art is still holding up that mirror to society. The Canadian Opera Company is a leading organization doing that work in this country, and I’m excited to hear about more of that work as it continues to unfold, and for others to experience all the exciting things going on within the company.