Opera for beginners

Victoria couple launches company to make the art form more inviting and accessible

The land of limbo - that space between intensive training programs and bonafide music careers - is all too familiar to aspiring opera singers.

But it's also filled with opportunity, at least in the eyes of baritone Neil Reimer and soprano Amy Steggles. The two emerging singers are launching Victoria's newest opera company, Fear No Opera, catering specifically to early-career performers like themselves.

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"We really wanted to develop something that would give us and singers like us opportunities to perform - full operas, full roles," said Reimer, a policy analyst for the Ministry of Justice.

"It was really to fill a niche that we saw as empty in the city."

Fear No Opera holds its first concert Nov. 10 at the Phillip T. Young Recital Hall at the University of Victoria.

Each participating singer will perform his or her favourite aria during the evening, hosted by veteran performers Robert Holliston and Anne Grimm.

It will be a comfortable way to introduce the company to the public, before its first full opera, planned for spring.

Fear No Opera is part of a trend of homegrown pre-professionals creating opportunity for themselves across the country, said Steggles, who works in communications with the provincial government.

She moved to Victoria last year from Toronto, where several intermediate-level groups exist - Calgary's Cowtown Opera is another good example. The growth is partially a result of the economic downturn, which means many trained musicians are out of work.

"The talent pool is simply huge," she said.

Lacking a local pre-professional company, many Victoria singers have had to look to Vancouver and beyond for similar opportunities, Reimer said. Lead roles at Pacific Opera Victoria go to pros and the Victoria Conservatory of Music's Opera Studio caters mostly to its students. (At the same time, Fear No Opera isn't a closed-door company, however - out-of-towners will also be encouraged to audition for roles.)

Participants have the added benefit of a mentorship program, with established musicians lending their talents and expertise on a voluntary basis.

But there's another goal, with payoff for the larger opera community. Beyond building opportunity, the couple hopes to build new audiences for opera in town by creating accessible, more informal productions.

"The decrease in audience members for opera is something that upsets both of us, because we think it's a brilliant art form and it deserves to be shared," said Steggles.

"But we do understand that opera has that air about it - that it's not accessible and people go, 'Why would I go there?' "

Reimer and Steggles, whose love for opera is strong enough that they named their cat Despina, after a character in Mozart's opera Così fan tutte, promise no fat ladies with breast plates and horns. The full orchestra will be replaced with a single piano. And want to wear jeans and a tee? No prob - come as you are.

They also don't expect to take audiences away from Pacific Opera Victoria.

"There's no way in which we are a competitor to Pacific Opera Victoria - they are in a different performance world," said Reimer. "What we hope is we will help to build audiences within the city - people who frankly might not take the plunge and go to a POV show."

Hopefully, the simple, straightforward and laid-back message will attract new eyes and ears.

"The primary message is that this is going to be fun and entertaining," Reimer said.


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