The COC Ensemble Studio is Canada’s premier training program for young opera professionals. Since the inception of the program in 1980, over 230 young professional Canadian singers, opera coaches, stage directors and conductors have acquired their first major professional operatic experience through the Ensemble Studio. Former members include Ben Heppner, Isabel Bayrakdarian, John Fanning, Wendy Nielsen, Joseph Kaiser, David Pomeroy, Allyson McHardy, and Krisztina Szabó.
The members of the Ensemble Studio are the COC’s resident artists and important ambassadors for the company. The COC’s pioneering, collaborative approach to training ensures that singers receive a blend of advanced study and practical experience through an individually tailored, multi-year program, involving understudying and performing mainstage roles, intensive vocal coaching, language, movement and acting studies, and career skills development, as well as participation in masterclasses with internationally renowned opera professionals. Intern coaches participate in the preparation of the company's mainstage productions, as well as art song recitals and Ensemble Studio performances.
The Ensemble Studio is chosen through a national audition process which culminates in the Ensemble Studio Competition, the feature event of the COC’s annual fundraising gala Centre Stage.
Matthew Cairns – Tenor
One of CBC’s 2019 “30 Hot Classical Musicians Under 30,” Toronto-based tenor Matthew Cairns was the First Prize winner of the 2018 Ensemble Studio Competition and winner of the CBC Music Young Artist Development Prize. He earned his master’s degree in opera performance at the University of Toronto (UofT), where he studied in the studio of Dr. Darryl Edwards. Some of his recent roles include: the Gamekeeper in Rusalka, Prince of Persia in Turandot, and the Witch in Hansel & Gretel (Canadian Opera Company, Opera for Young Audiences). Other credits include Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni (Centre for Opera Studies in Italy [COSI]/UofT Opera); and Detlef in The Student Prince at the Chautauqua Institution, where he placed first in its Sigma Alpha Iota Competition. Cairns can be seen in the COC’s 2020/2021 season as Kudryas in Katya Kabanova, Gastone in La Traviata, and Emile in Fantasma (Opera for Young Audiences).
Vartan Gabrielian – Bass-baritone
Toronto-born bass-baritone Vartan Gabrielian completed his master’s degree in vocal performance at the Curtis Institute of Music, where his credits include the title role in Sweeney Todd, Leporello and Commendatore in Don Giovanni, Prince Gremin in Eugene Onegin, Groves in Doctor Atomic, Collatinus in The Rape of Lucretia, and Bartolo in The Marriage of Figaro. He has also appeared as Sparafucile in Rigoletto (Opéra de Montréal/New Jersey State Opera), Sarastro in The Magic Flute (Chautauqua Summer Festival), and a Cappadocian in Salome (Detroit Symphony Orchestra). Gabrielian was a Santa Fe Opera Apprentice, as well as the recipient of a Metropolitan Opera National Council Encouragement Award. His roles this season with the COC include Kuligin in Katya Kabanova, Dr. Grenvil in La Traviata, and Devon/Tino the Clown in Fantasma (Opera for Young Audiences).
Jamie Groote – Mezzo-soprano
Mezzo-soprano Jamie Groote earned her master’s degree in opera performance at the University of Toronto (UofT) and is now in her second year with the Ensemble Studio. Some of her roles to date include: Wood Nymph in Rusalka (COC); Page in Rigoletto (Opera Theatre of Saint Louis [OTSL]); Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni (UofT Opera); Nicklausse in The Tales of Hoffmann, Komponist in Ariadne auf Naxos, and Fox in The Cunning Little Vixen (Wilfrid Laurier University Opera); as well as Roméo in I Capuleti e i Montecchi (Opera NUOVA). She was also a Gerdine Young Artist with OTSL, a Bonfils-Stanton Foundation young artist with Central City Opera, and has attended Houston Grand Opera’s Young Artists Vocal Academy, Opera in the 21st Century at Banff Centre, and Opera NUOVA. Groote can be seen in the COC’s 2020/2021 season as Mercédès in Carmen, Flora Bervoix in La Traviata, and Léa in Fantasma (Opera for Young Audiences).
Alex Halliday – Bass-baritone
Alex Halliday is from St. John’s, Newfoundland, where he received his Bachelor of Music in vocal performance from Memorial University. He received his master’s degree at the University of Toronto in opera performance where his roles included Figaro in The Marriage of Figaro, Sir Thomas Bertram in Mansfield Park, Colonel Denison/Samuel Miller in Maid & Master: The Massey Murder, Nardo in La finta giardiniera, Inspector Brinks in Who Killed Adrianna?, Carl Olsen in Street Scene, Alexander Throttlebottom in Of Thee I Sing, and Masetto in Don Giovanni. Additional roles include Father in Silent Light (Banff Centre), Berto in Un avvertimento ai gelosi, and Sir John Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor (Memorial University). In the COC’s 2020/2021 season, Halliday appears as Devon/Tino the Clown in Fantasma (Opera for Young Audiences).
Midori Marsh – Soprano
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Midori Marsh recently completed her Master of Music in opera at the University of Toronto. Past engagements include Sarah Thorpe in No One’s Safe and Johan’s Mother in Silent Light (Banff Centre); Frasquita in Carmen (Waterloo Symphony); Arminda in La finta giardiniera, Rose Maurrant in Street Scene, Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro, and Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park (UofT Opera); Annina in La Traviata (Cambridge Symphony Orchestra); Zerlina in Don Giovanni (Portland Summer Opera Workshop); Laurie Moss in The Tender Land and Antonia in The Tales of Hoffmann (Opera Laurier). In 2019, she took home both the First Prize and the Audience Choice Award at the Canadian Opera Company’s Ensemble Studio Competition. Her COC roles in 2020/2021 include Annina in La Traviata, and Ivy in Fantasma (Opera for Young Audiences).
Anna-Sophie Neher – Soprano
Gatineau, Québec native Anna-Sophie Neher completed her Master of Music at McGill University, where she won the prestigious Wirth Vocal Prize. She has also studied at Bard College and the Montreal Conservatory. Winner of the First Prize at the 2019 Christina and Louis Quilico Awards and the 2017 OSM Manulife Competition, her Canadian Opera Company credits include Gretel in Hansel & Gretel and Clorinda in WOW Factor: A Cinderella Story (Opera for Young Audiences), First Wood Nymph in Rusalka, the Sandman/the Dew Fairy in Hansel & Gretel, and Lavia in Hadrian. She also sang the role of Blanche in Dialogues des Carmélites with Opera McGill. A three-time winner of the Jacqueline Demarais Scholarship, Neher has also appeared as a soloist with Clavecin en Concert, Montreal Bach Festival, and Orchestre Symphonique de Gatineau. With the COC this season, she sings the roles of Frasquita in Carmen and Euridice in Orfeo ed Euridice.
Pianist Alex Soloway, from Ottawa, received his Master of Music from the Schulich School of Music at McGill University. While at McGill, he won the Chamber Music Competition (2015) and the Classical Concerto Competition (2017). He has performed in Canada, Europe, and the United States, including in the Canadian Opera Company’s Free Concert Series in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, the Mozarteum University in Salzburg, and Weill Recital Hall in New York. In 2019, he was the winner of the Best Pianist Prize at the Festival Classica 3rd International French Mélodie Competition. Alex is a 2020 Music Academy of the West alumnus. In the COC’s 2020/2021 season, Soloway serves as rehearsal pianist for Carmen, Orfeo ed Euridice, and Fantasma (Opera for Young Audiences).
Alex Soloway – Pianist and Intern Coach
Ottawa native Jonah Spungin earned his master’s degree in voice and opera from McGill University and graduated from Calgary Opera’s Emerging Artist Program. Recent credits include Marullo in Rigoletto, Mike Groom in Everest, King Melchior in Amahl and the Night Visitors, and Paris in Roméo et Juliette (Calgary Opera); Eisenstein in Die Fledermaus, Gideon March in Little Women (Opera McGill); Baron Mirko Zeta in The Merry Widow, and Captain Corcoran in HMS Pinafore (McGill Savoy Society). He also created the role of Ludovic Athenodorus in the world premiere of Ghost Opera (Calgary Opera and The Old Trout Puppet Workshop). As a concert soloist, he has performed the title role in Mendelssohn’s Elijah with the McGill Symphony Orchestra and Calgary Philharmonic, and has been the baritone soloist in Fauré's and Goodall's Requiems. Spungin appears in the COC’s 2020/2021 season as Moralès in Carmen, Marquis d'Obigny in La Traviata, and John/Fantasma in Fantasma (Opera for Young Audiences).
Jonah Spungin – Baritone
Frances Thielmann, from Vancouver, completed her master’s degree in collaborative piano at the University of Toronto and holds a bachelor’s degree with distinction in piano performance from the University of Victoria. In 2018, she was selected to be an Art of Song fellow at Toronto Summer Music, where she trained with Julius Drake and Christoph Prégardien. Thielmann has studied a broad range of repertoire at other prestigious programs, including the Vancouver International Song Institute, Orford Summer Academy, Franz Schubert Institute, Stratford Vocal Academy, Opera NUOVA, and the St. Andrews Opera Workshops in 2018 and 2019. She was an apprentice coach with the Atelier lyrique de l’Opéra de Montréal for its 2019/2020 season. In the summer of 2021, she will be training at the Music Academy of the West as a vocal piano fellow. This season with the COC, Thielmann serves as rehearsal pianist for Katya Kabanova, La Traviata, and Fantasma (Opera for Young Audiences).
Frances Thielmann – Pianist and Intern coach
Liz Upchurch – Head of the Ensemble Studio
Liz Upchurch is a graduate of the Royal Academy of Music in London, England, where she won several prizes as solo pianist and accompanist. As a music director, vocal coach and repetiteur she has worked in 21st-century and traditional opera, music theatre, and theatre. She has also covered a wide range of working techniques with singers, actors and instrumentalists in community and educational projects. For many years she worked with young artists at the Britten-Pears School in Aldeburgh where she played for masterclasses with artists such as Anthony Rolfe Johnson, Suzanne Danco, William Pleeth and Dame Joan Sutherland. Ms. Upchurch has also worked at the Kammeroper Schloss Rheinsberg festival in Germany and the National Theatre in London. She held a faculty position in the 20th-century opera and song program at the Banff Centre for the Arts and was repetiteur and chorus director at Edmonton Opera. As a pianist she has performed all over Europe and has been broadcast with the BBC, Norwegian Radio and CBC. Ms. Upchurch also appeared as a judge on Bravo’s hit series, Bathroom Divas: So you want to be an opera singer!
Jennifer Swan – Performance Kinetics Consultant
As Performance Kinetics Consultant with the COC Ensemble Studio, Jennifer Swan works in private and group sessions with Canada’s top emerging singers. Her methodology creates, sustains and strengthens a singer's breath support, a technique which evolved from her extensive dance and Pilates background. Her voice method has also been an integral part of the program at the Centre for Opera Studies in Italy (COSI) since 2008. She joined the teaching team at St Andrews by-the-Sea in 2016, has been a regular guest lecturer at the University of Toronto’s voice studies program since 2010, and has led annual workshops at Choirs Ontario since 2012. As resident choreographer for the Toronto Children’s Chorus since 2011, she choreographed the world premiere of Nikmaq by Donald Patriquin as well as debuts of Tsimshian Welcome Chant by Patriquin in 2015 and Arctic Lights by Lori-Anne Dolloff in 2016. Ms. Swan has also worked extensively with various international Olympic athletes, including figure skaters Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir. She choreographed their award-winning Carmen in 2013 and their programs for the 2014 Olympics. Ms. Swan is the artistic director of Performance Architects/Swan Studio Dance and Children’s Dance Project in London, Ontario. She obtained her bachelor of arts degree (honours) in dance from the University of Waterloo.
Wendy Nielsen – Head Vocal Consultant
After a 25-year career on the international opera and concert stages, soprano Wendy Nielsen is now head of voice and assistant professor in voice and opera at the University of Toronto. She is also Head Vocal Consultant for the COC Ensemble Studio and maintains an active private voice studio in Toronto, teaching many of Canada’s prominent performers. Ms. Nielsen made her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1996 as Fiordiligi in Mozart’s Così fan tutte under the baton of James Levine. Subsequent performances at the Met over 12 seasons included: Countess Almaviva in The Marriage of Figaro, Micaëla in Carmen and Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni. Her international orchestral performances were numerous, notably opening the Lucerne Summer Festival as Elsa in Lohengrin with Ivan Fisher conducting the Budapest Festival Orchestra. Other significant performances included appearances with the Beijing Philharmonic; New York Philharmonic; Beethoven Festival in Krakow, Poland; Madrid Sinfonica; Prague Autumn Festival; Toronto Symphony Orchestra; Düsseldorf Philharmonic; and Montreal Symphony Orchestra. A native of New Brunswick, Ms. Nielsen attended Mount Allison University and earned a bachelor of music from the University of Lethbridge, as well as a master of music in opera from the University of British Columbia. She also holds three honorary doctorates and has garnered numerous awards recognizing her contributions nationally, provincially, and locally.
Steven Leigh – Lyric Diction Coach
Steven Leigh works with the COC Ensemble Studio to achieve standard stage-language pronunciation in Italian, German, French and English repertoire. He is a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto’s (UofT) Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), where his research integrates pronunciation pedagogy theory with his background as a professional opera singer and linguist. Presentations of his research-in-progress have included a public demonstration-lecture with the COC's Spotlight Series, as well as workshops for the COC Orchestra Academy and Ensemble Studio.
He has also given masterclasses in opera lyric diction at UofT’s Faculty of Music and the Irish National Opera Studio, and has been a lyric diction instructor at the Canadian Vocal Arts Institute in Montreal and at Opera on the Avalon in St. John’s, Newfoundland. In addition to his work at the COC, Mr. Leigh teaches a series of lyric diction classes he developed for the Royal Conservatory of Music's Taylor Academy and has previously taught at the RCM's Glenn Gould School. Highlights as a singer include the world premiere performance of Srul Irving Glick’s A Life's Journey (Songs for Isaac) in Toronto, Don José with the Illinois Opera Theater, the Duke in Rigolettoat Fairfield Halls, England, and appearances in Montreal with the Cantabile Chorale and Orchestra.
COMPETITION AND AUDITIONS
The Ensemble Studio Competition is an awe-inspiring showcase for emerging Canadian talent, hoping to follow in the footsteps of Ensemble Studio graduates such as Ben Heppner, Isabel Bayrakdarian, Joseph Kaiser, Wendy Nielsen, John Fanning, and many more. Finalists in the Ensemble Studio Competition perform from the mainstage of the Four Seasons Centre, accompanied by the internationally acclaimed COC Orchestra conducted by COC Music Director Johannes Debus. Last season’s Ensemble Studio Competition took place on Wednesday, October 30, 2019.
The competition was launched in 2011 by COC General Director Alexander Neef to showcase the operatic talent the COC had scouted from across the country and create a public platform for celebrating the future of opera in Canada. With the creation of Centre Stage in 2013, the competition was moved from the intimate setting of the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing to R. Fraser Elliott Hall, opening the Ensemble Studio Competition to an audience of over 1,000 guests.
The annual Ensemble Studio audition process, open only to Canadian citizens and permanent residents, takes COC artistic staff across Canada for preliminary auditions, followed by a final callback audition at the COC’s Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Opera Centre in Toronto. It’s from this pool of singers that finalists are selected for the Ensemble Studio Competition.
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