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.
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.
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.
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
Suzanne Windsor-Liscombe is passionate about music and education. She is also deaf. Having suddenly lost her hearing in 2010, she can no longer hear music or sing in tune, or do many of the things she used to enjoy as a skilled pianist and singer. But in the aftermath of this life-changing event, she has found her unique calling as an educator-composer and librettist, working around her hearing loss to write children’s operas for elementary students in B.C.’s Lower Mainland.
As Head Teacher at Confederation Park Elementary in the Burnaby School District, she and a few colleagues founded an arts-integrated program which saved the school from being shut down – the student body had dropped to only 90 students when they first took over in 2006. She began to compose children’s operas for the curriculum in 2011.
“We were trying to get students to understand what opera was, and also learn something significant about our history [and] society,” she says.
The challenge of writing operas for children prompted Windsor-Liscombe to create what she calls musical-operas. “While there’s some recitative in my works” — that is, dialogue which is sung to move the story along — “it’s too challenging and unreasonable to expect untrained elementary students to take on recitative fully. So the pieces I compose have considerably more spoken dialogue than an opera.”
Her first project was based on a children’s book: Mean Jean the Recess Queen, about bullying on the playground. Working in close collaboration with Bonnie Ishii, Confederation Park’s music and dance educator, she adapted the story for grade four and five students to perform.
“Writing the music and re-crafting the story into song lyrics was just a lot of fun – and very gratifying,” she says. “It worked really well for the kids, so I wanted to keep writing more.”
In the following years she wrote the operas Sadako and Kinderzug, integrating the grade seven studies on World War II Japan and Germany, respectively. Sadako, adapted from Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, tells the true story of Sadako Sasiki, a young girl who died from leukemia in 1955 due to radiative exposure from the Hiroshima bomb. Kinderzug is Windsor-Liscombe’s original story, about a teacher who is determined to deliver three Jewish children safely out of Nazi Germany.
“The kids loved them,” she says. “It’s better than just reading a book. When the kids can become the characters in a certain point in history, they live the history more.”
Besides helping the students learn through experience, Windsor-Liscombe’s operas give them the opportunity to express their talents, and work together in a community.
“It’s great for encouraging self-esteem. Kids who you thought couldn’t carry a tune came forward wanting to do lead roles, and they were wonderful,” she says. “Then there’s always that one kid who just doesn’t want to be onstage. So they do tech or backstage work instead. Everybody gets involved. It’s really rewarding.”
Bringing community together is important to Windsor-Liscombe. Over the years she has invited parents to volunteer as photographers and technicians, as well as guest artists to help with the productions. “It’s about as professional as you can get in a school gym,” she says, laughing. Recently she had Sadako professionally recorded with UBC Opera students Spencer Britten (BMus’15, MMus’17), Andrea Wyllie (BMus’18, MMus student) and alumna Marie Civaterese (MMus’17). For Kinderzug, she hired Civaterese as an artist-in-residence to help teach the students and sing the lead role.
“Having Marie here took everything up a level, because the kids got to work with a real performer. The kids loved her, and I think she had a good time too,” says Windsor-Liscombe.
“From our first meeting, Suzanne's passion and excitement for her stories was infectious,” Civaterese says. “We discussed the libretto in detail, and once I started learning the music I could immediately feel her connection to the characters. Her operas are a most special educational tool to teach our history to children in a way that helps them connect with the emotional context of the events.”
Since Windsor-Liscombe first helped Confederation Park transition into an arts-integrated school 12 years ago, the school has flourished. It’s filled to capacity today, with students pouring in even from other districts. Her opera productions are an important part of the curriculum.
Windsor-Liscombe says she pieces the music together bit by bit in her head, relying on her knowledge of theory and cadences.
“Even though I can no longer hear music, I can hear it inside my head. It was like my external world became my internal world. Sometimes I think I’m going a little crazy – but now that it’s internalised, I want to get it out.”
It’s a slow and difficult process, but it works. She believes she is lucky to have had good training from teachers such as Stephen Chatman and Cortland Hultberg while studying at UBC in the late 70s and early 80s. But it wasn't until she lost her hearing that composing became profoundly important to her.
“I used to play for ballets, musicals, sing in choir, direct things, teach, go to concerts. All of that was just completely washed out when I couldn’t hear anymore,” she says. “I think composition saved me. It made me feel like I still had some ability after all those years. More than anything else I’ve done in music, this makes me the proudest.”
Windsor-Liscombe continues to teach and to write about issues that matter to her. Currently she is working on another opera: A Letter to Wanda, which focuses on bullying in its many subtle forms, based on the story The One Hundred Dresses by Estelle Estes. It will be performed next spring at Confederation Park Elementary.
Banner image: Takumi Hayashi/UBC School of Music
Mezzo soprano Debi Wong (BMus ’08) believes that opera has the potential to create dialogue about underrepresented groups that all too often it goes unrealized. Even at major houses like the Metropolitan Opera, modern productions are still trapped in traditions and tropes which she says have consequences for our society.
“If we are always telling the story about the woman in distress and the man who saves her, does that affect our cultural values?” she asks. Wong’s adaptation of Acis and Galatea premiere in September brought that question directly to Vancouver audiences.
In the production Wong played the character Acis, who in the original opera is a shepherd in love with Galatea, a nymph. The two are persecuted for their love by the god Polyphemus. By changing one character’s gender and the mythical elements of Handel’s pastoral opera, Wong sought to create a space for the LGBTQ community in opera and make it more accessible to modern audiences.
“I think someone who produces opera can have an influence on the way people think about relationships. By putting two women who fall in love we can give voice to underrepresented people that we don’t traditionally see on an operatic stage.”
But it was no easy feat.
To change the character of Acis, Wong had to make significant changes to the libretto. It meant rewriting some of the text, adapting the 18th century language, pulling some songs from different places and then piecing the score together. Wong also looked at all three of Handel’s different written versions of the opera. Using these different versions she lined up the story points and when something was missing it gave her more music materials to draw on. For the story's emotional climax, she adapted a passionate duet from Roselinda, another Handel opera.
“I knew what I wanted to say. It was just a matter of making it fit with the musical rhythms and that is actually a little tricky and some of it I am not completely happy with,” she says.
One of the easiest parts was looking at Acis’s sections which in the end did not have to be adapted at all. “Handel had created a version of Acis and Galatea for one of his favourite castratos, Senesino, and it fit my range very well,” she says. “When I found that version written for him I didn’t have to change any keys or move anything at all. It is a bit lower, but that suits me well.”
Although taking the work of a legendary composer like G.F. Handel might sound daunting to some, for Wong, “It felt great.”
“When I first started studying classical music and singing in my undergrad, I was always afraid of ruining a composer's work,” she says. “I think of the composer— whether they are a living composer, or whether they are G.F Handel— as one, equal, collaborative voice in a performance.”
Then of course there was putting the actual production together. Wong developed the piece for Re:Naissance, a theatre company Wong helped form three years ago, with a mission to rewrite opera for the 21st century by mixing genres and adapting period pieces. While Re:Naissance is still relatively small, there were a number of different collaborators, namely BC Living Arts and Early Music Vancouver that helped produce show, as well as the Finnish Orchestra, Ensemble Nylandia to help perform it.
From the beginning of the project collaborators were interested in Wong’s unique approach to the beloved story. “The other companies that we connected with were really enthusiastic and supportive of the adaption,” Wong says. And it wasn’t just Vancouver opera companies that loved it: the adaptation was named one of Vancouver Classical Music's best operas of 2017.
“Even though we are completely unknown and doing something completely different we had lots of people write to us and come to talk to us afterwards to tell us how much they enjoyed it,” Wong says.
Following the show’s success in Vancouver, Wong is planning on bringing her adaptation of Acis and Galatea to Finland, where a more than half of her career is based. Since starting her doctoral studies at Sibelius academy in Finland, Wong is a part of a couple different experimental ensembles, including a guitar, lute and voice trio. Through being able to play with different genres of music and theatre Wong regained her passion for performing. It was something she says she struggled with after she graduated from UBC.
“I used to have really bad stage nerves, so I didn’t think that I could actually be a performer,” she says, “but then I realized that I was really interested in creating new kinds of performance. My stage fright never really left me and I realized it was because of the performing I was doing.”
A combination of stage directing, solo singing, working with her ensembles and producing new adaptations for Re:Naissance has given Wong an outlet to perform the kinds of productions she hopes will create dialogue about the importance of representing different voices and communities in the classical arts.
Her advice for new emerging musicians are along those same lines: “You don’t have to fit into a box, especially singers. I feel like for singers we are taught to sing a certain way and perform a certain way and that didn’t work for me and it took me a long time to figure out it didn’t have to work for me.”
Wong has more progressive opera projects in the works. Through re:Naissance Wong has a new commission in development, called Sanctuary and Storm. with composer Tawnie Olson and librettist Roberta Barker. The opera will focus on the lives of Hildegard von Bingen, a 12th-century abbess & composer, and Eleanor of Aquitaine, a 12th-century Queen Consort of France, and their struggles to understand their places in the world as women. It continues Wong’s interest in addressing the underrepresentation of women in opera both on and off the stage.
“[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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
By Michelle Keong
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.”