The Canadian Opera Company is continuing to highlight members from our Circle of Artists initiative — an advisory body that is sparking conversation around institutional change at the COC and speaking directly to decision-makers to shape commitments that will support Indigenous communities with relationships based on reciprocity, caring, and mutual respect.
Olivia Shortt (She/her/hers: Anishinaabe from Nipissing First Nation) is a Tkarón:to (Toronto)-based multi-disciplinary artist. She trained as a classical saxophonist but also works in the arts as a multi-instrumentalist, improviser, composer, sound designer, curator, and producer.
Many exciting firsts for Olivia include the creation of her first string quartet, as a part of the JACK Studio, which will be premiered in 2020 by the JACK Quartet at the Kaufman Music Center in NYC; her film debut playing saxophone & acting in Atom Egoyan’s 2019 film Guest of Honour; her Lincoln Center (NYC) debut with the International Contemporary Ensemble in 2018; her Australian debut in 2017 performing with keyboardist Jacob Abela in Melbourne; and a recording session two kilometres underground with her duo Stereoscope in the SnoLAB (a Neutrino Lab in Northern Ontario). She has also opened for Sarah Neufeld (Arcade Fire) and performed behind Polaris Prize Winner Tanya Tagaq on numerous occasions.
As a recipient of a Metcalf Foundation Performing Arts Internship grant, she interned in producing with Brittany Ryan at Nightswimming and Signal Theatre. She is an alumnus of the 2018 cohort of the artEquity facilitator training program (New Orleans, LA), as well as the 2019 Toronto Arts Council’s Leaders Lab and was a lead organizer and co-founded the Toronto Creative Music Lab (TCML).
Q: How did you get involved with the Circle of Artists initiative at the Canadian Opera Company?
A: I’ve known Cole Alvis for a long time since we’ve worked together in a number of capacities at organizations like Native Earth Performing Arts and the Indigenous Performing Arts Alliance, and are good friends. Cole invited me into an initial meeting, before we had officially become the Circle of Artists, which came about regarding discussions around the work being done with the Louis Riel opera that the COC had produced in 2017.
Q: What kind of potential do you see the Circle of Artists as having, not only to change the COC but impact the arts sector more broadly in this country?
A: The Circle of Artists, being such a strong, experienced and intelligent group of Indigenous artists, has the potential to be a leading voice at the COC and to create the possibility for innovative movement forward since we are able to give direct feedback to those in charge at the COC. We’re a positive force for change being recognized since everyone involved has a stake to claim in the COC’s work. The artists involved care not only about seeing how the COC will work to create new Indigenous works and operas but also how our communities can exist in a space that comes from a long line of white colonial histories and hasn’t necessarily always been a welcome space for Indigenous and other equity-seeking folks. When larger institutions actually listen to the communities around them, they become leaders in change and other organizations will follow. It’s a win for everyone and makes our art-making spaces a safer space for all.
Q: As you look ahead in your various projects and commitments, where do you draw inspiration from?
A: I’m often looking to the indie organizations in our city and to individuals who are speaking out regularly, even when it’s difficult to do so. I really admire the women, non-binary, trans and queer artists (especially those from equity-seeking communities and those identifying as Black, Indigenous or as People of Colour) who are doing some truly heavy lifting and emotional labour in our communities. I am inspired by so many amazing artists, activists and creative humans such as Syrus Marcus Ware, Yolanda Bonnell, Ty Sloane, Maddie Bautista, Deanna Choi, Matana Roberts, Ty Defoe, Catherine Hernandez, Brittany Ryan, Du Yun, among so many others that if I kept naming them this list might go on for a while. Anytime I need strength, I remind myself of the fact that there is a lot of good people out there doing amazing things and that when our communities are supported and recognized, we can make a lot of positive change and take action as well as to make beautiful art.
Q: You’re a multi-hyphenate with lots on the go, composing new works, performing with various ensembles, in films and with notable artists like Tanya Tagaq, serving as an arts administrator and consultant, and more. Can you tell us how your diverse career has evolved? Why does such a multi-disciplinary career appeal to you?
A: Being a multi-disciplinary artist has meant that I am constantly working with fantastic people and I can pick and choose who I work with. I’m not limited by being one thing or by being categorized in one way. One day I can be working with a string quartet, another day singing weird sounds for a film, and then be putting contracts together for a show I’m curating the next weekend. I started off studying classical saxophone and realized that I hated being limited. I was also trying to find a way to deal with my panic attacks and performance anxiety in a way that gave me control over my life. I started becoming involved in administration for theatre which led me to meeting so many great artists who allowed me to create in the way that worked best for me. I love working with artists from other arts practices, such as dance or theatre, because they have pushed me to become a better and more confident artist. It’s really been a way for me to take in as much of other’s art-making practices while growing and developing myself as an artist and person. I’m so grateful to the folks around me who support and continue to push me.
Q: What kind of challenges do composers, and artists in general, face today when creating new work?
A: In general, composers and artists are facing issues that are not only in regards to funding (depending on what government is in charge) but also, they are continually facing pushback from white-led organizations who are often not supporting them or their needs or in a way that actually builds relationships and develops the community. I think there’s a lot of fear that if organizations change too many things with their programming that their audience, donors, boards, granting bodies and other sources of financial support will pull away or leave and give their dollars elsewhere. Fear is pretty natural since there’s a precariousness to the work we do and a fragility that means no one’s career is truly safe. These are my own opinions and in no way the only issues or challenges that our community faces.
I truly think that if organizations don’t drop their fear and take risks to support and promote more equity-seeking artists then we are never going to get anywhere past the gender equity discussion which leaves out so many other communities. Moving forward means being intersectional and consulting with voices who have been excluded how we can make good and well-supported change – actually asking what they want and what they need to create art in a healthy way.
Q: In your career to-date, what is the accomplishment you’re most proud of?
A: There are a couple that would currently take the cake for me – going two kilometres underground into a Neutrino Lab up in Northern Ontario to record music by Robert Lemay, being recorded and filmed in Atom Agoyan’s 2019 film Guest of Honour, as well as being commissioned by the NYC-based JACK Quartet as part of its inaugural JACK Studio. My life is often anything but ordinary and that’s how I like to keep it.
Photo credits: Photos of Olivia Shortt (top to bottom) by Alejandro Santiago, Caitlin Cox and Sara Everson; Cole Alvis in Louis Riel (COC, 2017), photo: Michael Cooper