By Sharon Savunthararajah
For many of us, our first impression of opera came from musical cartoons like Bugs Bunny or popular figures like Pavarotti. The same was true for Donna-Michelle St. Bernard. Pop culture may leave an impression, but an impression alone does not inspire someone to get involved. For St. Bernard, what inspired her to get involved in new opera was also her first experience with Tapestry.
While attending Tapestry’s production of Lisa Codrington’s libretto, The Colony, she noticed its story was so unlike those of traditional opera. And after being invited as a practitioner to LibLab, she had an epiphany of sorts. She realized her idea of what stories are told in opera had been based on “what has been told” and not on “what can be told”.
St. Bernard sees new opera as a contemporary perspective of classical opera and as a way to diminish the sense of exclusivity associated with it. And this is precisely what she believes Youth Inside Opera conveys.
She understands that youth are not yet conditioned to think of opera as an outdated and exclusive art form and so, they can see what is possible with it. As directing facilitator for this program, St. Bernard hopes to create an environment in which youth can bring forth ideas of what is possible and where exploration of these ideas are encouraged. So that they get “the feeling that their voice is valued.”
Besides the benefits Youth Inside Opera confers to the art form itself, she thinks just as much, if not more, about how the program benefits its participants. The arts for the young contribute much to the evolution of individual identity and as a consequence, the social identity of the community as well. This is not being done so much in all class brackets and art is considered a luxury despite being a necessity of life, for it is through art, she believes, that we discover who we are.
This rings true in her stories as well. She says, “A good story to me is something that tells me something about myself”. There seems to be a link between her understanding of art and her art. The question of who we are seems to emerge in her writing as a playwright as well, through themes of race and colonialism. Her Cake is a clear example of this.
“The way I see myself and the way I define myself is influenced by the existence of the structure that I’m inside of…but being aware of it gives me agency in how I define myself.”
Although her words give powerful expression to her ideas, she understands that if an audience is to experience the full palette of her story, she must “yield space to other forms of expression that can communicate more complex and more nuanced things that words don’t encapsulate”.
Sharon Savunthararajah is an undergraduate marketing student at Ryerson University at the Ted Rogers School of Management and studies Digital Media at OCAD University. She currently provides pro-bono marketing consulting services within her community and constantly looks for ways to experiment with media.