nancy hermiston

Inside the brain of an opera singer  

UBC Opera and the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health embark on the Wall Opera Project, an exciting interdisciplinary study of how opera training sculpts the brain

Tim Matheson/UBC Opera

Tim Matheson/UBC Opera

By Tze Liew

What happens inside the brain of an opera singer?

Prof. Nancy Hermiston, Chair of the Voice Division and Director of the UBC Opera, has wondered about this for nearly 20 years. She suspects that opera training can rewire the brain, given how cognitively challenging it is as an art form.

“Opera is very complicated,” Hermiston says. “Singers are required to multitask on so many levels. They must perform difficult music, sing in a foreign language, act, dance, keep an eye on the conductor without the audience noticing, coordinate with the rest of the cast, feed off the energy of the audience without getting distracted, all while wearing a costume weighing up to 45 pounds!”

It is no doubt incredibly taxing on the body – and the brain. But over the span of her 24-year teaching career, Hermiston has time and time again been amazed by the marvellous feats and learning leaps achieved by her students. She has observed many cases of students with learning differences – various forms of dyslexia and attention-deficit disorder – improving drastically in their academic abilities over years of opera training.

 “I once had a student who would take two months to learn a ten-minute excerpt,” says Hermiston. “As the years progressed, her learning speed increased significantly: so much that when she was given two weeks to learn a lead role in a contemporary opera – and contemporary ones are especially difficult – she was able to do it.”

Hermiston has also worked with students who found it difficult to learn foreign languages in a traditional classroom setting. Many canonical operas are sung in German, Italian, and other European tongues, so a measure of fluency is essential for aspiring singers. Hermiston noticed that when language training was combined with singing and music in opera, the students learned much more quickly.  

Prof. Nancy Hermiston

Prof. Nancy Hermiston

Based on all these observations, she was convinced that opera training must be sculpting the brain somehow, and she saw the need to investigate deeper. After 16 years of trying to build a research team, she finally succeeded in kickstarting the Wall Opera Project, bringing together experts in opera, neuroscience, linguistics, education and kinesiology – one of the largest interdisciplinary projects combining the arts, humanities and sciences across UBC.

“When I first proposed the idea for a research project years ago, it was rejected. People thought I was out of my mind,” says Hermiston. “But now the climate is changing. The importance of interdisciplinary research is much more recognised. I’m so grateful to the Peter Wall Institute for seeing the potential in this project and funding it so generously.”

Indeed, music has become a hot area of study among brain researchers. In recent years studies on everything from how creativity works in the brains of pianists to how musicians process music differently than non-musicians have been published to great public interest. 

“We hypothesize that opera training increases plasticity in the brain, and that it would be more extensive and involve more critical parts of the brain, compared to those who have gone through language or athletic training alone.”
— Dr. Robin Hsiung

The study will begin in spring 2019, and run for a span of three years with Prof. Lara Boyd, Canada Research Chair in Neurobiology of Motor Learning, Prof. Janet Werker, Canada Research Chair in Developmental Psychology, and Dr. Rachel Weber, Director of the Faculty of Education’s Psychoeducational and Research Training Centre Neuropsychological Assessment Clinic, as principal investigators. In one experiment, three groups of students will be compared: opera students, students in a usual language program, and students who are trained athletes. As they go through their second, third and fourth years of university, each group will complete neuropsychological tasks and receive MRI-based myelin water imaging and electroencephalogram (EEG) scans to evaluate changes in neurocognitive functioning, brain structure and electrical activity. In another experiment, opera students with learning differences will be compared with those without, and their rate of learning improvement throughout the program will be evaluated.

 “A lot of what we learn is registered in our brain through myelin. We want to find out what the distribution of myelin is like for an opera singer to begin with, and in which parts of the brain it increases over years of training,” says Dr. Alex Mackay, physicist and developer of the myelin water imaging method, and MRI scientist on the project.

 “We hypothesize that opera training increases plasticity in the brain, and that it would be more extensive and involve more critical parts of the brain, compared to those who have gone through language or athletic training alone,” says neurologist Dr. Robin Hsiung.

Hermiston believes that if the study were to yield conclusive evidence, it would be valuable not only for opera singers, but also for the fields of education, childhood development, brain health and rehabilitation.

“Nowadays, music and the arts are slowly getting put out of the education system, which is a huge mistake,” says Hermiston. “If we could have black-and-white evidence that opera has positive effects on the brain, we could start integrating music performance early on in kindergarten or Grade 1. It could help students overcome their learning difficulties since [from] a young age.”

There is also substantial scientific and anecdotal evidence that music has healing effects for patients with brain diseases.

“We know that music can be therapeutic for those with Alzheimer’s disease, and that music lessons early in life can change outcomes for people who experience a stroke,” says Boyd.

In a similar, separate study spearheaded by opera singer Renee Fleming about the effects of music on the brain, a patient who couldn’t speak or move regained his abilities after going through music therapy.

UBC Opera students perform a scene from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte.

Hermiston herself has an interesting story to share. “Once I brought my students to perform in a nursing home: there was a dementia patient who had never spoken a single word to anyone before. Then a student stood up and sang an old song called “Old Dog Shep” – and the man quietly sang along. At the end, he looked up and said, “Come over young man, I want to talk to you.” The caregivers’ mouths fell open – they just couldn’t believe it. Something about the singer’s performance had brought him alive again.”

The Wall Opera team hopes that the project will yield a deeper understanding of the benefits of multi-faceted training such as opera, and whether the changes in brain structure are permanent. With this they will be able to apply the knowledge to all sorts of situations: finding more efficient ways to teach, helping dementia patients to improve memory, treating patients with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, stroke – the possibilities are wide open.

“People think of musicians too often as entertainers. But we do much more than that,” says Hermiston. The Wall Opera Project is itself a testament to the importance of the performing arts in people’s lives.

With files from Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health, UBC

Photo of Prof. Hermiston: Takumi Hayashi/UBC

Beyond the Gates

The latest news from School of Music faculty

Assistant Professor and Director of Orchestras Jonathan Girard has been named a Peter Wall Institute Wall Scholar for 2018–19. As one of nine scholars “tasked with finding new approaches to critically important questions,” Dr. Girard will work with 2017 Peter Wall Institute Visiting Artist Deborah Carruthers on a graphical score for orchestra, and has plans to commission new orchestral works that explore sonic expressions of climate change.

Prof. Nancy Hermiston (right) at Canada Music Week

Prof. Nancy Hermiston (right) at Canada Music Week

In November, the Canadian Music Centre honoured Professor Nancy Hermiston with a Barbara Pentland Award of Excellence for the UBC Opera’s many commissions, performances, and support of Canadian music.

Composer and Sessional Instructor Jocelyn Morlock (MMus’96, DMA’02) won the 2018 Juno Award for Classical Composition of the Year for her orchestral work, My Name Is Amanda Todd. The 10-minute composition honours the memory of the Port Coquitlam teenager who died tragically in 2015. Watch Jocelyn and Carol Todd, Amanda’s mother, talk about the piece, and her daughter's legacy.

WATCH: Jocelyn Morlock's Juno Award speech

Sessional instructor and harpsichordist Alexander Weimann was nominated alongside Arion Orchestre Baroque for the Juno Award for Classical Album of the Year (Large Ensemble). Their album, Rebelles Baroques, is hailed for the "clarity and freshness of [its] interpretations" and attention to detail. Weimann is the Principal Artist and Director of the School of Music's Baroque Orchestra Mentorship Program.

Sessional lecturer and saxophonist Julia Nolan joined the West Coast Symphony Orchestra for its 2018 Balkan Tour, which includes stops in Albania, Macedonia, Kosovo, and Montenegro.  The tour will feature music by composers from Canada, the United States, Kosovo and Macedonia, including a reprise of Saxophone Concerto by composer and alumnus Stefan Hintersteininger (BMus’04, MLis’09).

Adjunct professor Elizabeth Volpé Bligh retired from her position as Principal Harp with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra in January 2018, after 36 years. Her former student Lani Krantz (BMus’00) became Acting Principal Harp in her place, until auditions can be held for the role. Bligh will also continue to perform with the VSO occasionally.

In Pictures: UBC Opera's 2017–18 season

The 2017–18 season has been a busy one for UBC Opera, with ambitious productions of Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice and Rossini's La Cenerentola, as well the annual Opera Ball fundraisers. Here are some of the highlights:

Join UBC Opera for the upcoming production of Puccini’s Il Tabarro/Gianni Schicchi on June 21–24, 2018.

A homecoming in Onegin

Photo courtesy Krzysztof Biernacki

Photo courtesy Krzysztof Biernacki

Eugene Onegin has always been important to baritone Krzysztof Biernacki (DMA ’06). While pursuing his doctorate at the School of Music, he cut his teeth in the role of the arrogant and tragic title character of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s 1878 opera.

“[Onegin] cannot be compared to anything else in the operatic canon. It’s full of sensitive lyricism, fantastic melodies and real passion. The language is absolutely gorgeous, and Tchaikovsky really captured the essence of Russian life in the 19th century,” Biernacki says.

Since graduating a decade ago, Biernacki has performed in and directed a wide range of productions across Canada, the U.S. and Europe, from La Boheme to Die Fledermaus, Dido and Aeneas to The Consul. His credits include principal roles with Vancouver Opera, Calgary Opera, and Manitoba Opera. In 2007 he established the University of Florida Opera Ensemble and in 2008 made his debut at Carnegie Hall with the UNF Wind Ensemble.

But Onegin remains a touchstone, and UBC his home away from home. When the opportunity to return to Vancouver this year as guest director for UBC Opera’s production of the classic Russian opera, he jumped at the chance: “I was hugely grateful for the invitation,” he says.

Recently, Biernacki spoke with High Notes about this homecoming and the challenge of staging Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece.

Lensky and Olga in the Biernacki-directed UBC Opera production of  Eugene Onegin .  Photo: Tim Matheson

Lensky and Olga in the Biernacki-directed UBC Opera production of Eugene Onegin. Photo: Tim Matheson

What made you want to direct Onegin in particular?

This opera has a very special meaning to me. I sang my first Eugene Onegin with Manitoba Opera Chorus in Winnipeg in 1991. Serendipitously that production was conducted by David Agler [who also conducted the orchestra for UBC Opera’s 2017 production]. This was my first professional opera in Canada. I did not speak much English at the time, but I could sing and speak Russian… then I performed the lead role at UBC in 2005. So coming back to UBC to direct Onegin was a dream come true. I just love this score perhaps because it is so special to me in my personal and professional life. This opera will always hold a special place in my heart.  

My favourite part of that 2005 production was Professor Nancy Hermiston’s staging. Our set was quite limited that year so the blocking had to be very imaginative. I remember thinking how well thought out this entire production was. I have to admit that when I planned my own blocking for this production, I had a hard time not imitating certain moves from Nancy’s 2005 original. I remembered them so well and of course I still had my old markings in the score. I still created my own vision of the opera, but I was certainly influenced by Nancy’s ideas.

Are there specific challenges that Onegin presents for a director and the performers? Technical or otherwise?

It is a difficult piece. The main challenge has to do with the Russian text and Pushkin’s original in particular. Tchaikovsky took most of the text straight out of Pushkin’s poem in verse. Conversational Russian is not easy for Canadian singers, so singing it in poetic verse is that much more challenging for students. On a dramatic level, this is a very grown-up piece. Young singers are required to portray very subtle emotions with strong emphasis on poetic nuance. It requires experienced singers who can act.



"This is essentially a professional opera company with outstanding faculty, excellent professional team, and access to tremendous theatrical resources."

– Krzysztof Biernacki


Also, this opera has a lot of stylized dancing in it. The act three Polonaise is very well known as a concert piece. But there is also the Mazurka and the large harvest scene in Act 1. We actually had to choreograph the dances with singers who do not have much dance experience. It took us some time, but we did it. Everyone took really well to it also learning some new dance steps in the process.

How does one approach a canonical opera with an eye to making it fresh?

I think this opera has a very fresh quality to it as it is. The score is very unique. It cannot be compared to anything else in the operatic canon. It’s full of sensitive lyricism, fantastic melodies and real passion. The language is absolutely gorgeous, and Tchaikovsky really captured the essence of real Russian life in the 19th century. It’s a great European story turned into a real operatic gem.

Can you talk about the experience of working with the student opera company? 

That’s always a real challenge. Maintaining high artistic standards, teaching through the creative process, sticking to a short schedule, and staying faithful to the composer’s original intent — that’s a tall order. However, UBC Opera is not an ordinary student opera company. As far as I am concerned, this is essentially a professional opera company with outstanding faculty, excellent professional team, and access to tremendous theatrical resources.

I am so impressed with the opera program, its system, and how well it functions. UBC Opera students are all exceptional singers. They are extremely hard working, always very well prepared, and ready to put on a great show. Technically this is a student environment, but it has a real professional edge to it. I am very proud of this ensemble and that I could be a part of it.

What’s next for you?

We are finishing the semester soon so this is a very busy time. We just finished a production of Magic Flute at UNF. In April I will sing four solo art song recitals in south Florida, and prepare UNF Opera for our trip to Czech Republic in July. We are scheduled for La Boheme and Barber of Seville so students are very excited. On a personal note I am accepting an American citizenship this spring and applying for a full professorship at UNF.

Opera alumna’s success rooted in mentorship

By Michelle Keong

Simone Osborne in Vancouver Opera’s production of Rigoletto  Photo: Tim Matheson

Simone Osborne in Vancouver Opera’s production of Rigoletto
Photo: Tim Matheson

Simone Osborne’s (DMPS’09) star continues to rise. The soprano recently reunited with Professor Nancy Hermiston who directed Vancouver Opera’s Rigoletto. It was their first time working together since she graduated in 2009.

“It’s pretty surreal for me,” says Osborne, 29, who first learned Gilda’s aria in Hermiston’s studio during her student days. “The truth is, about half of the roles that I’ve done professionally, I already did at UBC. I’m a singer because of UBC and I’m a singer because of Nancy.”

For Hermiston, who founded the UBC Opera Ensemble in 1995, working professionally with a former student marks a major accomplishment.

“It’s especially wonderful for me to be working with Simone on a role like this. It’s one of the great soprano roles of the repertoire,” says Hermiston, chair of the voice and opera divisions. “I have known her since she was 15 years old and it has just been so great to see this wonderful development.”

Based in Toronto, Osborne has maintained close ties with Hermiston over the years; she has even sung a line or two over the phone, asking for advice. Hermiston has flown to see her former student in career-defining performances, including Osborne’s debut at Carnegie Hall, her performances as Pamina and Gilda in Toronto, and her debut as the title role in Lucia di Lammermoor at Edmonton Opera.

“Nancy has always been a point person for me in my career,” says Osborne, who relies heavily on what she calls a personal board of directors. “That board is very small for me but Nancy has a prominent seat. So to do any kind of project with her is just a gift.”

A trusted circle of advisors plays a huge role in the program that Hermiston has built from the ground up. During her career and tenure at the prestigious Nürnberg Opera, her mentors—including James Craig, Constance Fisher, Irving Guttman and Herman Geiger-Torel, founder of the Canadian Opera Company—saw her potential as a singer and director.

“It’s because of them that I do what I do at UBC and I can give Simone and all those students that kind of training,” says Hermiston, who was appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada for her achievements as an opera singer, stage director and educator. “It’s like a direct heritage from the founder of the Canadian Opera Company—that’s the heritage from which I came.”

In the final year of her studies, Osborne already had a contract with Wexford Opera and engagements in the USA and Europe. She then landed a coveted spot in the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble Studio.

“I went right from UBC to an operatic career, which I feel so grateful for, and it’s a testament to the training that I got at UBC and to the time I spent with Nancy,” says Osborne, whose 2015-2016 season includes returning to the Canadian Opera Company to debut the role of Micaela in Bizet’s Carmen and crossing the USA, appearing in 14 cities with the Metropolitan Opera’s Rising Stars Concert Series.

“My UBC opera family of Irving Guttmann, Judi Forst, and most importantly Nancy, is just as influential to this day. Everything they told me is true, and everything they prepared me for has happened.”