• At Home With... the COC Ensemble Studio

    By COC Ensemble Studio

    COVID-19 has impacted all of our lives in countless ways. When your job relies on creating music and rehearsing face-to-face these times become especially challenging. We spoke to the artists of our Ensemble Studio training program to discuss how they’re coping with isolation and balancing the drive to continue making music together. 

    Conversations with the COC Ensemble Studio


    Jamie Groote, mezzo-soprano:  It was such a surreal time. I don’t think the magnitude of the situation set in all at once, it took some time. I’m an immuno-suppressed person, so I was thinking about my own health and was thankful for the steps that the COC took to protect its artists and protect its employees.

    Anna-Sophie Neher, soprano: When this all started, I decided to rent a car and drive back home to be with my fiancé. I packed for a week…and have been here ever since. I wasn’t expecting it to last so long.

    Alex Soloway, pianist/intern coach: I was a little thrown off – I’d been looking forward to working on The Flying Dutchman all year and it took a while to get accustomed to the idea of not going to the office. I’ve known for a long time that I’m a very social music-maker, as well as a social person. It’s part of what drove me into collaborative arts and working in theatre. So for a while, I lacked the inspiration or desire to make music. This “artistic depression” lasted much longer than I expected, but when that desire to create did return, it came back like a tidal wave.

    Vartan Gabrielian, bass-baritone: I was covering the role of Ramfis in Aida, which was going to be a great training opportunity for me – it’s something that a lower-bass baritone has a blast singing. It was the opera I was most looking forward to this season and I had high hopes that it would go on.

    Rachael Kerr, pianist/intern coach: It was more than a bit heartbreaking when we learned that this amazing production of Aida probably wouldn’t continue. But we knew it was for the best because we need to stay healthy and safe, so we appreciated the COC making a tough but wise decision.

    The Ensemble Studio catches up in weekly Zoom meetings


    Joel Allison, bass-baritone: I got a call from Nina Draganic [Director, Access & Training] and we talked about how we could continue the Ensemble Studio because everything would have to be put on hold for at least a week or two. We played with the idea of doing in-person coachings with social distancing but once it became evident that wouldn’t be possible, the virtual thing came up. My worry was that we wouldn’t be able to really get detailed work in – maybe there’d be check-ins with our trainers but I didn’t think we could continue training at the same level. Now that we’ve been doing this for over a month, I feel like I haven’t really missed a beat. There was an adjustment period for the first week or so, but everyone was really game with trying to figure out “the new normal.”

    Jamie: We feel very lucky to be able to train at home but it was a little bit intimidating when we first started out; nobody really knew what that looked like or what that meant. I am not a technologically savvy person at all so there was a bit of a learning curve for me. But we’re all in the same boat and everyone has been very collaborative.

    Simona Genga, mezzo-soprano: I was one of the first people to get really on board with virtual training. Of course it presents a few difficulties, but I thought it was a way for us to be really creative and find ways to collaborate during this time when we’re all staying home.

    Rachael: I was ready to try anything. We quickly found out that certain things work really well virtually and some things don’t, particularly playing music in real time with each other. So I’ve been making a lot of recordings for people, which has been really fun. I have this little camcorder that I’ve been recording my piano accompaniments on and it’s made all these projects possible. I’m so inspired by my fellow artists, so playing without them in the room is definitely a challenge; now I have had to find that inspiration inside myself.

    Vartan: When I first heard about the idea of virtual training, I thought there was no way this would work. But I gave it a shot and was definitely proven wrong. I’m a believer in separating your workspace from your living space, so I’m currently painting and renovating my room to have a good space to work. It’s interesting to see how people are transforming their homes.

    Matthew Cairns, tenor: What we’re doing right now would be impossible, even just 20 years ago. Video conference and call apps, Zoom, FaceTime, Skype. We live in an era where tech is so much more widely accessible and that means we can continue talking about ideas for next season and planning out our goals.

    Anna-Sophie Neher studies a score


    Vartan: It’s so important to have a routine. I’m used to having a set schedule at the COC: I’d have a half-hour commute to work and could warm up in one of the practice rooms or have a coffee in the COC’s courtyard. But all that had to change. It was hard to find motivation in the first two weeks of being at home all the time, especially knowing that our shows were cancelled.

    Alex: I try to start every day the same way, which is by playing a little bit of Bach – right now I’m reading through all the Partitas. I was a bit down for a while and wasn’t driven to go to the piano, but after a few weeks of not wanting to make much music, I found playing Bach’s music made me happy. It wakes up not just my brain and my listening facilities, but also my hands. Aside from the physical warm-up, I soon realized this was having an important spiritual effect on me as well – not in any religious sense, but in helping feed my desire to hear music. It’s become really meaningful, so I’ve just stuck with it.

    Lauren Margison, soprano: I try to keep to the same schedule of waking up at the same time every day. I always start my day by listening to a playlist I made of all-Canadian folk artists like Joni Mitchell, Stan Rogers, Gordon Lightfoot and Leonard Cohen. That always seems to put me in a very good mood to take on the day. Then I’ll either have a voice lesson with [Head Vocal Consultant] Wendy Nielsen or a lyric diction coaching with Steven Leigh, which is wonderful – he’s fantastic.

    Joel Allison at the piano

    Rachael: Another thing that’s worked really well is our movement coachings with [Performance Kinetics Consultant] Jennifer Swan. On Zoom, the software we’re using, you can see the coach and yourself, which you can’t in an in-person session. It’s really helpful because the screen acts like a mirror so I can see if I’m doing things properly and she can demonstrate the movements at the same time. It kind of works better virtually. 

    Joel: All of our coaches have been incredibly supportive. It’s really incredible to have the entire Ensemble Studio program 100% committed to making sure we’re continuing our training while we go through this period of isolation.

    Anna-Sophie: When we’re training in-person and rehearsing a production, we work at least six days a week and you have a lot of rehearsals, which can take a lot of your energy – it’s really great, but it’s also very nice right now to have the time to sit down, open your score, work on every aspect – like diction and drama – really intensely before even trying to sing it. It’s a chance for me to work on my vocal technique without any of the stress of performing.

    Jamie: I’m not surprised by everyone’s willingness to collaborate however they can, but it’s still so appreciated and a continued support. I imagine that won't change when this is over. We’ve started little group meetings with our trainers, colleagues and coaches that’s just for morale building and I appreciate that those things are respected and prioritized by everyone at the COC.

    Ensemble Studio trainers and staff Zoom meeting


    Lauren: After I’m done with my Ensemble day, I write for a couple hours – I’ve started writing a book, which has been a little pet project of mine during this time. Then, I’ll watch some old movies to unwind; tonight I’m watching Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?. I’m very lucky to be with my parents [tenor Richard Margison and director Valerie Kuinka] right now, especially since we haven’t had family time like this in my entire life, given their careers. We also have access to a forest, which has been very helpful for me – this connectivity with nature makes me feel like things will return to normal. This has been here before us and it will be here after us.

    Matthew: I’m definitely cooking more in this time and trying out new recipes. I have a BBQ-top pizza oven that takes your standard baking temperature from 550 to 750/800. I tried a nice overnight no-knead pizza dough recipe and made a bunch of pizzas. I have a dehydrator, so I made four pounds of beef jerky. I made my mom that massive Ina Garten cosmo.

    Jamie: I am killing the Netflix game. We have watched more TV than I think I ever have – I mean, we can’t be productive every minute of every day. I’ve also been running a lot; I need a moment to get outside, while respecting social distancing protocols. I also do a lot of drawing and sketches; it’s been my little side hustle for a while and I’m taking this opportunity to work on more portrait commissions, which has been nice.

    A sketch by Jamie Groote, who's making more time for her art

    Simona: I’m very fortunate to be able to be home with my whole family, but it definitely presents some interesting dynamics, especially when we all have our different online work situations. My favourite part of the day has been at night when we ceremoniously put on the kettle, make a tiny snack and all settle around the fireplace... and television. Recently we watched a Spanish show on Netflix, with Italian dubbing and English subtitles so that our entire family, including my Nonna, can follow along and watch the same thing. My Nonna normally lives in Florida, so it’s been really nice to spend more time with her. I’ve made it my goal to try and record and watch her make our favourite family recipes every now and then.

    Rachael: When this whole thing started, I thought, “Wow, I’m going to have so much free time!” But, surprisingly, lots of things I didn’t expect eat up the day. I’ve been doing a lot of solo projects that I normally don’t have time to practice for during the year. I’ve also been able to explore more hobbies – I’m growing a little herb garden, cooking a lot, and doing yoga every day.

    Joel: Every Sunday, my family does Skype calls with my great-aunt, who lives in a care home in B.C. My sister, brother and I will play some hymns for her, and she’ll sing along to them in her room. She just turned 89 and she, along with my grandma, was a huge supporter of our musical pursuits growing up. So this helps us stay connected and spending that time together with my extended family has been very special for us.

    Alex: My girlfriend and I have been going on really long walks – far longer than I thought we ever would – with our very energetic dog, who’s happy to have us at home. I’m pretty sure this is the best time of his life.

    Alex Soloway with his office buddy, Mello


    Anna-Sophie: It’s a hard time for everyone. We’re all trying to adapt and have a “new normal”. In everyday life it’s hard on everybody, but we’re all together, we work together, it’s nice that we’re not alone, and we’re all going to get through this. Music has definitely been helpful in keeping me going. It’s been my saviour!

    Simona: It’s such a magical, special thing to be able to be in a room together with someone else and make music in real life. When we are able to reunite, it will be all that much more special.

    Lauren: Once a version of normalcy has been restored, I’m hopeful that there’ll be a collective sense of gratitude and appreciation for things that we once took so quickly for granted. That thought is kind of what’s getting me through all this: I think there’ll be a societal “wide eyedness” for things like holding hands – platonically, romantically, all of it!

    Matthew: I hope people realize the importance of the performing arts. Try to think about going through the day without some form of art, whether that’s painting, being creative, watching a movie or listening to music. So many videos are trending online of people singing to their neighbours or on their balconies. It’s been a real eye-opener and beautiful to see the positive reactions they’ve been getting. I think now, in isolation, people who might have looked down on the arts realize how much it is needed.

    Rachael: I’m just so excited to be back in the Four Seasons Centre because we all know there’s really no place like that theatre – to have the joy and energy of hundreds of people on stage combined into one amazing performance.

    Alex: There’s something so special that happens when we are in a room together, when we are living and breathing this art together simultaneously. I’m really looking forward to that sense of collaboration and togetherness. If we can just stand there and hear each other breathe and hear the music that comes out of it, that will be a really special moment.

    Anna-Sophie: We’re opera singers, so we live on the stage – that’s where we shine! I’m looking forward to getting back to the stage and sharing what we can do with the world.

    The Canadian Opera Company and other arts organizations in Toronto are facing unprecedented financial challenges due to the effects of COVID-19. If it is possible for you at this time, we respectfully ask you to consider making a donation.

    Photo credits (top to bottom): Artists of the 2019/2020 Ensemble Studio, photo: Gaetz Photography; Zoom chat, photo: COC; Anna-Sophie Neher, Joel Allison, photos: courtesy of the artists; Zoom chat, photo: COC; tiger sketch, photo: courtesy of Jamie Groote; Alex Soloway, photo: courtesy of the artist

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