Liberating singers, creating spaces

Emma Yee. Photo taken by Hayley Andoff

As we begin a new school year, there is no doubt that student research is thriving! Throughout the course of the semester, many student researchers will eagerly share the fruits of their labour. On September 13, the Mt. A Department of Music hosted a Colloquium Musicum highlighting one such student. Fourth-year BMus student Emma Yee presented a fine example of the ground-breaking work she completed over the summer, entitled Liberatory Praxis in Operatic Rehearsal Processes. Opera history has been riddled with scandal, conflict, and a reputation for toxic work environments for singers. Yee’s research seeks to understand ways in which singers’ agency can be heightened during the laborious process of rehearsing and staging an opera. When asked why she would pick a topic like this, Yee responded, “I’m somebody who wants to go into performance right now; I’m on that path where I’m trying to become an opera singer. I’m also a person who can’t let issues just be.” 

A combination of advancing rehearsal methods with an activistic sense of improving singers’ rights in rehearsal spaces was not only an excellent topic for Yee to research, but to be shared with the university community as well. With guidance and support from Music faculty members Drs. Linda Pearse and Christina Haldane, Yee’s project took an innovative approach to a very commonplace element of the performing arts. The research was facilitated through several phases. After a review of the literature surrounding this topic, Yee hosted a Zoom roundtable discussion with current opera practitioners. This discussion greatly influenced her next step, an on-campus workshop in the Motyer-Fancy Theatre. This workshop was an open, shared environment, complete with four participant singers, an opera “facilitator” (a term Yee chose intentionally, seeing it as more cooperative than “director” or “conductor”), a collaborative pianist, and Yee herself, who made observations and offered minimal guidance. 

While watching the presentation, and from my conversations with Yee afterward, I  sensed that this workshop was a space where prior notions of how a rehearsal was supposed to run could be cast away. A sense of openness allowed the participants to explore elements of movement, use of space, character, vocal technique, and acting. What I found particularly fascinating about this workshop was the way Yee described the other participants using their various levels of expertise to help each individual’s needs. Of course, I was curious as to whether there was any hesitation in adapting to this new method of rehearsal, and if any of the participants unconsciously reverted to traditional methods. Yee confirmed this when discussing how one of the participants turned to what she referred to as “perceived leaders,” falling back on hierarchical structures, and seeking some sort of advice from a guiding force in the room. But liberatory praxis is best employed when in the company of others, and I was delighted to hear the ways in which the other participants banded together in collaboration to help make each person comfortable and feel open to share their thoughts, ideas, and opinions. After the completion of the workshop, armed with successful observations, Yee then began writing a paper about this project which then evolved into the presentation given for the colloquium. 

There is no doubt in my mind that this research is important and valuable to not only the opera industry but to the performing arts as a whole. This was almost all but confirmed by a supportive crowd of eager listeners in Brunton Auditorium on September 13, where students and professors alike were captivated by what Yee had to say, and the work she and her supervisors were so proud to present.

After witnessing and hearing about all of this remarkable work, it is easy to wonder, “how can I be involved in research of this scale?” After the presentation, even I found myself rattling off questions I felt were unanswered in my own field, or things maybe I could change. I wondered; how could I get started with doing some student research as well? If you are as inspired as I am, Yee has some advice for you. “Start talking to professors. My first research opportunities at Mt. A were in my first year, that came out of me showing interest [in] topics and an interest [in wanting] to learn more.” With the sheer amount of student researchers we see on campus, it is almost impossible to resist admiring their work. Projects like Yee’s remind us that the environment we study in gives us the ability to make a difference in the communities we occupy. I can only hope that one day, that is something many opera singers will also be grateful for.

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