Opera Studio ponders a big, green option

Here is an interesting story about a colleagues at the Highlands Opera Studio.

Opera Studio Dreams Big
It is a dream of monumental proportions. One that could turn the Haliburton Highlands into a major destination for those with an interest in the performing arts.
Sunday evening a group of opera enthusiasts shared their dream of a performance space, an opera house with seating up to 700, located near the community of West Guilford.
The gathering was held at the home of John and Thea Patterson, overlooking Cranberry Lake.
This opera house will be a state of the art venue. However, it could also attract world-wide attention for another reason. In an association with Abbey Gardens, the dream envisions the hall as the “greenest” performance facility in Canada and possibly the world.
The dream, and all those who spoke about the vision emphasized that they were “testing the waters” and “floating ideas”, is being spearheaded by Highlands Opera Studio (HOS) artistic directors Richard Margison and Valerie Kuinka. Margison is a world renowned tenor who has sung in opera houses around the world. Kuinka is a musician and opera director who has worked throughout North America including directing at the Met in New York City. The husband and wife team brought their enthusiasm for opera to the Highlands five years ago, when they opened the Opera Studio. This summer program provides a nurturing environment for emerging young professionals to hone their skills under the instruction of some of Canada’s outstanding opera talent.
Margison and Kuinka purchased a cottage here ten years ago and slowly developed the idea of the HOS. After meetings with Curtis Eastmure, Melissa Stephens, and others, (including this writer) a co-operative venture emerged with the Highlands Summer Festival. Since then, the HOS has been operating each summer during the month of August, utilizing facilities at the High School in Haliburton with performances at the Northern Lights Performing Arts Pavilion and other venues.
“We were blessed with the embrace of the community,” Kuinka told the meeting. She said that while the Northern Lights Performing Arts Pavilion was a great intimate space, the artistic director added, “We had always dreamed of an opera house, with a professional company, a facility large enough to accommodate an orchestra and a chorus.”
Since talking about the idea with a number of opera enthusiasts in the community, including Fred and Joan Chapple, it was suggested they explore the idea of incorporating the opera house into a project called Abbey Gardens. The 198 acre site, another dream in the making, is being developed under the direction of John Patterson. According to the organization’s website, “The purpose of the Abbey Gardens project is to focus our community on a collective effort to reduce its carbon footprint and to foster community-based action research and demonstration projects designed to increase the ecological viability of the community.” The project already has productive gardens, green houses and a poultry operation located in an abandoned gravel pit west of West Guilford. The long range plan calls for solar and wind power generation, recycling and reusing of all materials within the site, use of waste material from outside sources for power and heating as well as a restaurant, gift shop and entertainment centre.
It is unlikely that Patterson’s initial vision of an “entertainment centre” included something as large as that being proposed, but as Margison commented Sunday night, why not? “Mozart and mushrooms; Puccini and poultry!”
“There are few places in North American with a facility such as we are proposing,” Richard said. “There is Gilmmerglass at Cooperstown in New York State and the Santa Fe Opera in New Mexico. These are magical places where performing arts complement and share the beauty of the natural environment. I think we have an opportunity to accomplish the same right here.”
Melissa Stephens, well-known musician and choir leader in the community commented on the opportunities for educational activities at the location. In the vision, accommodation on site will provide housing for students coming to study the green technologies at work. “During the same visit these student could see an opera or hear a concert or watch a play.” The accommodation could also house families on a green holiday experience or be used by participants of the Highlands Opera Studio or other performing arts program.
Kuinka said the involvement of the community is essentials for the success of the performing arts facility.
Patterson explained discussions have already been held with municipal, provincial and federal politicians to gauge their interest and it was “very supportive”. The group has also talked with the Haliburton County Development Corporation and Fleming College representatives. The Abbey Gardens project has already accessed government support for the initial planning of the site.
The speakers emphasized that while the garden portion of the project is moving ahead, planning for the performing arts facilities is still in the formative stages. The multi-million dollar facility would include a state of the performance space, smaller studios and rehearsal spaces and even a recording studio, which would be available for rent.
Concern was expressed about the future of the Northern Lights Performing Arts Pavilion if this new facility went ahead. “We see this opera house as adding to the performing arts opportunities, an expansion of what this county has to offer,” Kuinka responded.
She said there was much to do before even thinking about breaking ground. She wants to rally community support for the idea, and then start to present the concept of the concert hall, but also a performing arts program with a professional company, to major donors who might wish to become involved. She noted that there is still a lot of paperwork, zoning and approvals. She said there are business plans to be worked out, not only for the building phase, but also for the operational part of the project.
The group is looking for a team from the community to help move the concept forward, Fred Chapple commented. “A project like this will certainly put Haliburton on the map.” Chapple and his wife Joan have been involved throughout the planning up to the announcement Sunday evening.
Reflecting his own enthusiasm and the energy which he felt in the room, Margison commented, “I can’t think of a more beautiful place to showcase the beauty of the performing arts than right here in the Haliburton Highlands.”
Prior to the presentation of the vision of the performing arts space, the tone for the evening was set when those in attendance heard from three opera singers. Soprano, Charlene Santoni, bass-baritone Giles Tomkins and Lauren Margison entertained with several numbers, accompanied by pianist Christopher Mokrzewski. All appeared on the Highlands Opera Studio stage this past year.

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