When Kate Applin was 10 years old, she sang in the children's chorus of a Hansel and Gretel production put on by the Canadian Opera Company. Today, 15 years later, it's Applin putting young people on stage herself. As the founder and artistic director of Toronto's Metro Youth Opera, she has overseen three performance seasons, including this weekend's triple bill. Like her other productions, it stars emerging singers who are compensated for their roles.
The performers, usually in their twenties, are trained, talented and "looking forward to a professional career in opera," but still somewhat in development mode.
Applin, who has remained dedicated to the genre since her childhood stage debut, sang with the Canadian Children's Opera Company (which assembles kids choruses for the Canadian Opera Company) until she finished high school. She then completed a university degree in music and operatic performance and, upon graduating, noticed a dearth of opportunities for young singers. "Coming out of school, with flaws of my own that I had to fix and not knowing where to gain the performance experience I knew I had to gain, I figured I would fill in the gaps myself."
For emerging singers, the Metro Youth Opera is a both a stepping stone – putting them on a path toward bigger companies like the COC – and a moment to shine. Jan Nato, the 23-year-old tenor who will perform in two of this weekend's shows, says there are more opera singers than roles available for singers his age, and that Metro Youth Opera is a venue for singers like himself to not just gain experience, but to showcase their burgeoning talent.
Applin tested the waters with the company's first show, a 2011 performance of Mozart's "Così Fan Tutte…" and found it wasn't hard to solicit interested singers to audition for the six available roles. The part of Dorabella, a lead character, was played by a friend with whom she'd sang in that Hansel and Gretel chorus. The inaugural season confirmed her donor-funded business model was feasible enough to support another year, and in 2012 the company performed Donizetti's "The Elixir of Love." This weekend, with a cast of eight, the company will open its third annual production, a medley of the rarely performed comedies "Mavra" by Stravinsky, "La Serva Padrona" by Pergolesi and "Le Magicien" by Canadian composer Jean Vallerand.
Applin has made it a priority to raise enough money to compensate performers on a standard per-show basis. Paying her performers is also a vital means of keeping their singing careers – and hers – going, especially given opera's pervasive pay-to-perform and pro bono models of financing. It's worth noting that the company's former music director is now the répétiteur-in-training at the Atelier Lyrique de l'Opéra de Montréal. Another alum went on to compete in the Canadian Opera Company's prestigious Ensemble Studio Competition.
"Part of what makes Metro Youth Opera accessible to new audiences, especially young audiences, is seeing people their age performing pieces of work that seem distant," she says. "With somebody they can associate with on a peer-level making them funny and engaging, you see it's actually not such a distant thing."
Metro Youth Opera Triple Bill: Mavra, La Serva Padrona, Le Magicien Friday, April 5 at 7:30 p.m. & Sunday, April 7 at 2:30 p.m., Centre for Creative Learning Theatre; The Crescent School 2365 Bayview Avenue, Toronto.