Music & Entrepreneurship

“You don’t have to fit in a box”: Debi Wong on opera’s potential to create spaces for underrepresented voices

By Aryn Strickland

Alumna Debi Wong (BMus '08)

Alumna Debi Wong (BMus '08)

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. 

WATCH: The trailer for Debi Wong's Acis and Galatea

“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.

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.
— Debi Wong

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.

Composer and conductor Hussein Janmohamed on choral singing, identity, and fostering cultural understanding

Note: This is the third story in a new series that profiles UBC School of Music alumni who have followed interesting and innovative paths to career success.

By Aryn Strickland

Photo: Vincent L. Chan

Photo: Vincent L. Chan

As a composer, conductor, and teacher, Hussein Janmohamed (BMus'96, MMus'98, MMus'14) has built a career using choral music to challenge cultural stereotypes and reframe the conversation about race in Canada. Growing up as an Ismaili Muslim in rural Alberta taught him that discrimination was an unfortunate fact of life, even in a country celebrated for its multiculturalism. And for Muslims and many other groups, he says, the issue is as pressing now as ever.

“[W]e are in a society in which there are a lot of negative representations of Islam, not only from the media but from small minorities within the faith,” he says.

For Janmohamed, challenging these stereotypes starts with combating self-stigma. After graduating from UBC with the first of two Master’s degrees, he founded the Vancouver Ismaili Youth Choir to help Muslim youth understand their dual and often plural identities.

The decision was inspired by his own formative experiences: As a young teen he found that the bridge between his two identities, the Canadian and the Ismaili, was congregational singing. Within the Ismaili community Janmohamed took part in religious devotion through ginan (Indic devotional expressions) and zikr (remembrance of the Divine) — and the experience made him aware of how powerful collective singing can be.

In high school, he found that same feeling through choral singing, an artform traditionally associated with Christian churches. He began to rethink choral music as a more open mode of collective singing and used it to combine the musicality of devotional chants with choral songs.

“In choral music there are so many layers and choral singing actually shows us what harmony can sound like when all the layers of identities come together,” he says. “One of the key elements [of the Ismaili Youth Choir] was to find ways to express cultural diversity of our community because our community is world-wide with members in Syria, Iran, Western China, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, the Indian subcontinent, Africa and the diaspora. Our cultural expression is so diverse, so as a choir we started to explore what that sounded like. There wasn’t a lot of repertoire from that part of the world that spoke to our community, so we started to make arrangements.”


“In choral music there are so many layers and choral singing actually shows us what harmony can sound like when all the layers of identities come together."


Janmohamed led the compositional work, often combining texts from the Ismaili culture with melodic structures from traditional choral songs. Janmohamed had already made a name for himself writing pieces that reflected multicultural perspectives. In 2004, he was asked by the Westcoast Sacred Arts Society in Vancouver to compose a piece with Russell Wallace from the Lil’wat nation to explore how Ismaili and Indigenous cultures could be harmonized.

Janmohamed’s unique focus on multicultural choral singing garnered success early on in his career, and led to high-profile performances and opportunities to found other diverse choirs. The piece he co-wrote with Wallace was performed for His Holiness the Dalai Lama during his visit to Vancouver in 2004. More recently he led two global Ismaili music ensembles to commemorate the 80th birthday and Diamond Jubilee of His Highness the Aga Khan.

Since assembling the Vancouver Ismaili Youth Choir, Janmohamed has gone on to be a founding co-conductor of Cor Flammae, Canada’s first queer professional choir in Vancouver, and the Awaaz Ensemble, a cross-cultural a cappella choral ensemble in Toronto.

“[The indigenous scholar and elder] Lee Maracle says that if we’re not at the table together, we can’t shape a shared future, and I think for me, how I come to the table is by bringing choral music to the cultures and traditions that I belong to,” Janmohamed says.

He says that while many audiences members tell him that they feel inspired by the interweaving of music from different cultures in his work — as in the songs currently performed by the Awaaz Ensemble — he has noticed that some people still don’t understand what his music tries to achieve. They will come to him and request songs that are less spiritual or, on the flip side, songs that sound more ‘Arabic.’

“There is not a great understanding of how music of the Muslim world is diverse or how historically Jews, Muslims, Christians and many other religious communities intersected harmoniously,” he explains.

Now working on a PhD at the University of Toronto, Janmohamed continues to explore this cultural divide in music through scholarship, while at the same time trying to close that divide through his work as a composer, conductor and singer of choral music. It is a slow, ongoing process, but Janmohamed believes we all have a desire to get there.

“We desire connection, we desire unity and healing. There is a therapeutic element to my work that tries to do that.”

Singer-songwriter Nat Jay on music licensing, grant-writing, and getting her first big break on The L-Word

Note: This is the second story in a new series that profiles UBC School of Music alumni who have followed interesting and innovative paths to career success.

By Aryn Strickland

Nat Jay performing live at the Rickshaw Theatre

Nat Jay performing live at the Rickshaw Theatre

While the rise of Spotify and other music streaming services has been a boon for major artists like Taylor Swift or Drake, this new economic model has arguably made it harder for independent and emerging artists to make a living by selling their music. The alternative, says singer-songwriter Nat Jay (Minor’04) is to diversify.

Jay has won national awards for her lyrical pop-folk songs and shared the stage with top Canadian artists like Juno-winner Dan Mangan. But instead of signing with a record label, Jay followed a less traditional path to musical success. She has built a thriving career by licensing the rights to her songs for use in TV and movie productions.

Her songs have been heard on popular shows and movies across North America, including Heartland on the CBC and Awkward on MTV. And while she performs mostly in local festivals— like Vancouver’s Folk Fest and Spirit of the Sea Fest— she has amassed a following that stretches a lot further because of the exposure from these placements.

“My sync placements made me realize it was actually possible to have a career and generate an income in the music industry,” Jay says. “It has given me an international fan base that I could never have built otherwise,” she says.

But it was while working on the other side of television production that Jay learned about music licensing.

“I didn’t know [licensing] was a thing until it happened. I had just done my first demo, I had a bunch of burned CDs Sharpied with my name on it. I was in between jobs and I was doing some extra work on the show called The L word and I made a friend who was like, ‘I know the assistant director to a show called Men in Trees on ABC, I am going to pass your demo on to her,’” she explains. To Jay’s surprise, she received a message soon after from the show’s supervisor in L.A. asking to use one of the tracks during a big end-of-episode scene.



WATCH: Nat Jay performs her song "What I'm made of"



Following the experience, Jay connected with music supervisors at other networks to make sure they knew about her music. She also began offering seminars on the process to other musicians. It’s all part of her holistic approach to the business of music, which has since expanded to include writing grants to support her work and helping other musicians to do the same. As with sync licensing, she knew very little about grant writing going in but has turned this into another major source of income.

“Grants are an awesome source of income that we have in Canada that they don’t have in every country. It’s been the difference between doing and not doing [music] a lot of the time.”

Depending on the funder, the application process can require a marketing plan, a budget and a career history. Often the process scares off artists, Jay says. Jay has made a point of learning the ins-and-outs to the point where now she gets hired to write grants for friends in the industry like the band The Fugitives.

According to Jay, upcoming artists need to learn to diversify their means of income. “It’s naïve to think that you can just write music, play and people will come to your show and buy your music,” she says. “I think these days artists have to be entrepreneurs… I think that they need to learn about the different streams of income.”

Follow Nat Jay on Twitter and Instagram.

Pianist Lucas Wong on finding new ways to inspire audiences and students

Note: This is the first story in a new series that profiles UBC School of Music alumni who have followed interesting and innovative paths to career success.

By Andrew Hung

Lucas Wong - 4.jpg

It is difficult to give Lucas Wong (BMus’04) a specific label or title.

The UBC School of Music alumnus is a concert pianist and recording artist, but his career goals extend far beyond performance. He is also a university professor, a collaborator in a computer software project for piano students, a textbook writer, and the founder of the lecture-recital series, Mostly Debussy.

“I always enjoyed talking about music as much as I enjoy playing music,” Wong says. “As pianists, we have to look for new ways to engage the audience in our programs. One of the ways is by interacting with the audience and introducing pieces to them.”

 Mostly Debussy was featured at the Roy Barnett Recital Hall in September, a concert in which Wong performed Debussy’s Pagodes from Estampes, as well as several selections from his collection of Préludes and Etudes. As part of the concert he also explained how the pieces work and what makes them so compelling.

The lecture-recital series is currently in its fourth year, and has featured the works of Debussy and Stravinsky, as well as Chopin and the French Romantic composer Emmanuel Chabrier.

Next year, the final year of Mostly Debussy, will be an important one. It is the 100th anniversary of Debussy’s passing, and to commemorate the event, Wong has commissioned three composers to each write a work for the series.  One of the objectives of these compositions is to reflect Debussy’s late work, the Cello Sonata. 

Just a year before starting Mostly Debussy, Wong began collaborating with computer science students and professors at the Chinese University of Hong Kong to create a software that will make piano reductions — that is, simplified arrangements or transcriptions of an original score or composition — more accessible for performers, educators, or anyone who simply enjoys music.

“It will be cool if one day, if someone pulls out the iPad, and says, ‘I feel like playing the second movement of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony on the piano,” Wong says. “‘And maybe my technique isn’t too great, so give me a very simple version.’ And if that can be done in five seconds, that would change a lot of how people can appreciate music.”

Wong expects that the final product will be the first software of its kind on the market. In the meantime, the project poses interesting challenges.

“It’s more complicated than we actually expected.  Even the word ‘harmony’ opens up so many different things that one still tries to accomplish.  What is the harmony?  Or what are the possibilities?  Computers don’t usually like the word ‘possibilities.’” 



LISTEN: Lucas Wong performs Debussy and Chabrier

In the same year that the software project began, Wong also began work on a textbook for keyboard harmony students, although he didn’t realize it at first.  As one of the first faculty members in the Soochow University School of Music’s performance program, he had the opportunity to create a course from scratch, which was eventually named “Advanced Musicianship and Improvisation Skills for Keyboard.”  Wong began writing the course outline and syllabus, originally without the intention of creating a textbook.  But as the worksheets he wrote for his students grew in number, he realized that he had a textbook in the making.

“I’ve revised the format of the book many times, internally.  I’m on the fourth or fifth edition, without publishing it.  Hopefully, someday we’ll have it done,” he laughs.

Wong was once a student reading textbooks, not writing them. He was a very busy student. He played chamber music, collaborated with singers, and played for UBC Opera’s rehearsals.  In his first year, Wong also played cello in the UBC Symphony.

He recalls the instructors who made an impact on him as a student at the UBC School of Music – Bob Pritchard, Rena Sharon, and Bruce Pullan.

With 2018 shaping up to be a big year, Wong appreciates the insights he picked up in his piano lessons and Piano Pedagogy courses at UBC, lessons about efficient practicing that has also translated to other areas of his career.

“When you have less and less time, you’ll find out that the only way to do it right is to do it efficiently. You have to always be very well with time management.” 

He pauses for a second.

“But most musicians are naturally very good with time management — onstage with rhythm!”