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The COC Ensemble Studio is Canada’s premier training program for young opera professionals. Since the inception of the program in 1980, over 230 young professional Canadian singers, opera coaches, stage directors and conductors have acquired their first major professional operatic experience through the Ensemble Studio. Former members include Ben Heppner, Isabel Bayrakdarian, John Fanning, Wendy Nielsen, Joseph Kaiser, David Pomeroy, Allyson McHardy, and Krisztina Szabó.
The members of the Ensemble Studio are the COC’s resident artists and important ambassadors for the company. The COC’s pioneering, collaborative approach to training ensures that singers receive a blend of advanced study and practical experience through an individually tailored, multi-year program, involving understudying and performing mainstage roles, intensive vocal coaching, language, movement and acting studies, and career skills development, as well as participation in masterclasses with internationally renowned opera professionals. Intern coaches participate in the preparation of the company's mainstage productions, as well as art song recitals and Ensemble Studio performances.
The Ensemble Studio is chosen through a national audition process which culminates in the Ensemble Studio Competition, the feature event of the COC’s annual fundraising gala Centre Stage.
Competition and Audition
The Ensemble Studio Competition is an awe-inspiring showcase for emerging Canadian talent, hoping to follow in the footsteps of Ensemble Studio graduates such as Ben Heppner, Isabel Bayrakdarian, Joseph Kaiser, Wendy Nielsen, John Fanning, and many more. Finalists in the Ensemble Studio Competition perform from the mainstage of the Four Seasons Centre, accompanied by the internationally acclaimed COC Orchestra conducted by COC Music Director Johannes Debus. Last season’s Ensemble Studio Competition took place on Wednesday, October 30, 2019.
The competition was launched in 2011 by COC General Director Alexander Neef to showcase the operatic talent the COC had scouted from across the country and create a public platform for celebrating the future of opera in Canada. With the creation of Centre Stage in 2013, the competition was moved from the intimate setting of the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing to R. Fraser Elliott Hall, opening the Ensemble Studio Competition to an audience of over 1,000 guests.
The annual Ensemble Studio audition process, open only to Canadian citizens and permanent residents, takes COC artistic staff across Canada for preliminary auditions, followed by a final callback audition at the COC’s Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Opera Centre in Toronto. It’s from this pool of singers that finalists are selected for the Ensemble Studio Competition.
Thank you for your interest in auditioning for the 21/22 Ensemble Studio. The COC is committed to ensuring a safe work environment for artists. Due to the ongoing COVID-19 health risks, the COC will be postponing auditions originally scheduled for Fall 2020. Additionally, when auditions can safely take place later this season, the final round of auditions (the public competition portion) will be held without a public audience.
If you would like to receive an email when new audition dates have been confirmed, please sign up here.
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For further questions, please email [email protected].
Joel Allison – Bass-baritone
Joel Allison, from Ottawa, earned his Master of Music in opera performance from the University of Toronto and, in 2019, placed second in the Christina and Louis Quilico Awards. Joel has performed with the National Arts Centre Orchestra, Theatre of Early Music, Saskatoon Symphony, Orchestre Classique de Montréal, and Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra. His recent credits include Schaunard in La Bohème, Superior Senator in Hadrian, and Zaretsky in Eugene Onegin (COC), Leporello (Don Giovanni) with Westben Arts Festival and Don Basilio (The Barber of Seville) with Saskatoon Opera. As a member of the Young Singers Project at the Salzburg Festspiele, he sang in the world premiere of Das Zauberinsel (Lange). This season with the COC, Joel is a Mandarin in Turandot, Fiorello in The Barber of Seville and Peter in Hansel & Gretel (Opera for Young Audiences). His upcoming concert engagements include Bach’s B Minor Mass with Symphony Nova Scotia.
Matthew Cairns – Tenor
One of CBC’s 2019 “Top 30 Under 30,” Toronto-based tenor Matthew Cairns was the First Prize winner of the 2018 Ensemble Studio Competition and winner of the CBC Music Young Artist Development Prize. He earned his master’s degree in opera performance at the University of Toronto (UofT), where he studied with Dr. Darryl Edwards and performed numerous roles including Count Belfiore in La finta giardiniera; Sam Kaplan in Street Scene; John P. Wintergreen in Of Thee I Sing and Sam Sharkey/German Lumberjack in Paul Bunyan. Other credits include Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni (Centre for Opera Studies in Italy [COSI]/UofT Opera); Gherardo in Gianni Schicchi (COSI); Liberto in The Coronation of Poppea (Opera Theatre of Saint Louis) and Detlef in The Student Prince at the Chautauqua Institution, where he placed first in its Sigma Alpha Iota Competition. Cairns can be seen in the COC’s 19/20 season as The Prince of Persia in Turandot, the Gamekeeper in Rusalka, the Messenger in Aida, and the Witch in Hansel & Gretel (Opera for Young Audiences).
Vartan Gabrielian – Bass-baritone
Toronto-born bass-baritone Vartan Gabrielian recently completed his master’s degree in vocal performance at the Curtis Institute of Music, where his credits include the title role in Sweeney Todd, Prince Gremin in Eugene Onegin, Doc in A Quiet Place, Groves in Doctor Atomic, Collatinus in The Rape of Lucretia, Bartolo in The Marriage of Figaro, and Colline in La Bohème. He has also appeared as Sparafucile in Rigoletto (Opéra de Montréal/New Jersey State Opera), Sarastro in The Magic Flute (Chautauqua Summer Festival), and a Cappadocian in Salome (Detroit Symphony Orchestra). In 2018, Mr. Gabrielian was a Santa Fe Opera Apprentice, as well as the recipient of a Metropolitan Opera National Council Encouragement Award. This year, he makes his role debut as Leporello in Don Giovanni with Curtis Opera Theatre. His roles this season with the COC include the Hunter in Rusalka and the Officer in The Barber of Seville.
Simona Genga – Mezzo-soprano
One of CBC’s 2018 “Top 30 Under 30,” Toronto native Simona Genga completed her master’s degree in opera at the University of Toronto, where she was the recipient of the 2017 Norcop Recital Prize. An avid interpreter of art song, she is also the recipient of the Elora Festival Recital Prize and fellowships at the Franz Schubert Institute and Ravinia Steans Music Institute. She was granted First Prize and the Audience Choice Award at the 2017 COC Ensemble Studio Competition. Now in her second year of the Ensemble Studio, Ms. Genga can be seen this season at the COC in the roles of Berta in The Barber of Seville, Priestess in Aida, and Gertrude in Hansel & Gretel (Opera for Young Audiences [OYA]). Other credits include Cindy in WOW Factor: A Cinderella Story (OYA); Second Maid in Elektra (COC); and Annina in La Traviata (Opera Theatre of Saint Louis).
Jamie Groote – Mezzo-soprano
Mezzo-soprano Jamie Groote earned her master’s degree in opera performance at the University of Toronto (UofT). Her recent credits include Page in Rigoletto (Opera Theatre of Saint Louis [OTSL), Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni (UofT Opera); Nicklausse in The Tales of Hoffmann, Komponist in Ariadne auf Naxos and Fox in The Cunning Little Vixen (Wilfrid Laurier University Opera); and Roméo in I Capuleti e i Montecchi (Opera NUOVA). She has also been a Gerdine Young Artist with OTSL, a Bonfils-Stanton Foundation young artist with Central City Opera, and has attended Houston Grand Opera’s YAVA, Opera in the 21st century at the Banff Centre, and Opera NUOVA. Groote can be heard in the COC’s 19/20 season as the Second Wood Nymph in Rusalka and Hansel in Hansel & Gretel (Opera for Young Audiences).
Rachael Kerr – Pianist and intern coach
Rachael Kerr has served as rehearsal pianist for COC productions of Hadrian, Elektra, La Bohème, The Elixir of Love, Rigoletto, and The Nightingale and Other Short Fables. She has held staff pianist positions at the Banff Centre and Orford Musique, and served as rehearsal pianist for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in numerous projects, including world premieres by Brett Dean, Vincent Ho, and Gary Kulesha, and other projects such as Britten’s War Requiem, Wagner’s Die Walküre, Mozart’s Requiem, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13, and Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins. Ms. Kerr holds a doctorate from Northwestern University. This season, she returns as a rehearsal pianist for COC productions of Turandot, Hansel & Gretel, The Barber of Seville, and Aida. She will also be featured in a recital tour under the auspices of Jeunesses Musicales Canada, premiering a new song cycle commissioned by the Canadian Art Song Project, as well as taking on the musical direction of Against the Grain Theatre’s Figaro’s Wedding.
Lauren Margison – Soprano
Toronto-born soprano Lauren Margison is a graduate of the Atelier Lyrique de l'Opéra de Montréal, where her roles included Clorinda in La Cenerentola and Missia in Atelier Lyriqueʼs production of La Veuve joyeuse. She was a First Prize winner of the 2018 George London Competition, and was also the youngest finalist in the Meistersinger von Nürnberg competition in 2016. Her recent credits include Principal Fée in WOW Factor:A Cinderella Story (Opera for Young Audiences [OYA]) and the Trainbearer in Elektra (COC); Micaëla in Carmen (Brott Music Festival), Fiordiligi in Così fan tutte and Suor Angelica in Suor Angelica (Highlands Opera Studio) and an appearance in concert with the PRISMA Festival in Straussʼs Four Last Songs. Ms. Margison has also performed with the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra and the Toronto Jazz Festival. At the COC this season, she can be seen in the role of the Sandman/the Dew Fairy in Hansel & Gretel (OYA) and she makes her Pacific Opera Victoria debut in the role of Micaëla in Carmen.
Anna-Sophie Neher – Soprano
Gatineau, Québec native Anna-Sophie Neher completed her Master of Music degree at McGill University where she won the prestigious Wirth Vocal Prize. She has also studied at Bard College and the Montreal Conservatory. Winner of the First Prize at the 2019 Christina and Louis Quilico Awards and the 2017 OSM Manulife Competition, her operatic credits include Barbarina in The Marriage of Figaro (National Arts Centre); Clorinda in WOW Factor: A Cinderella Story (Opera for Young Audiences [OYA]) and Lavia in Hadrian (COC); Blanche in Dialogues des Carmélites (Opera McGill); and Adele in Die Fledermaus (Opera McGill). Three-time winner of the Jacqueline Demarais Scholarship, Ms. Neher has also appeared as a soloist with Clavecin en Concert, Montreal Bach Festival, Orchestre Symphonique de Gatineau, Festival Schubert de Montréal and Festival Lanaudière. With the COC this season, she sings the roles of First Wood Nymph in Rusalka, the Sandman/the Dew Fairy in Hansel & Gretel, and Gretel in Hansel & Gretel (OYA).
Pianist Alex Soloway, from Ottawa, received his Master of Music from the Schulich School of Music at McGill University. While at McGill, he won the Chamber Music Competition (2015) and the Classical Concerto Competition (2017). He has performed in Canada, Europe, and the United States, including in the Canadian Opera Company’s Free Concert Series in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, the Mozarteum University in Salzburg, and Weill Recital Hall in New York. In 2018, he was an apprentice collaborative pianist at the Lachine International Vocal Academy and the Highlands Opera Studio. In 2019, he was the winner of the Best Pianist Prize at the Festival Classica 3rd International French Mélodie Competition. In the COC’s 19/20 season, Soloway will serve as rehearsal pianist for Rusalka, Hansel & Gretel, and The Flying Dutchman.
Alex Soloway – Pianist and intern coach
Liz Upchurch – Head of the Ensemble Studio
Liz Upchurch is a graduate of the Royal Academy of Music in London, England, where she won several prizes as solo pianist and accompanist. As a music director, vocal coach and repetiteur she has worked in 21st-century and traditional opera, music theatre, and theatre. She has also covered a wide range of working techniques with singers, actors and instrumentalists in community and educational projects. For many years she worked with young artists at the Britten-Pears School in Aldeburgh where she played for masterclasses with artists such as Anthony Rolfe Johnson, Suzanne Danco, William Pleeth and Dame Joan Sutherland. Ms. Upchurch has also worked at the Kammeroper Schloss Rheinsberg festival in Germany and the National Theatre in London. She held a faculty position in the 20th-century opera and song program at the Banff Centre for the Arts and was repetiteur and chorus director at Edmonton Opera. As a pianist she has performed all over Europe and has been broadcast with the BBC, Norwegian Radio and CBC. Ms. Upchurch also appeared as a judge on Bravo’s hit series, Bathroom Divas: So you want to be an opera singer!
Jennifer Swan – Performance Kinetics Consultant
As Performance Kinetics Consultant with the COC Ensemble Studio, Jennifer Swan works in private and group sessions with Canada’s top emerging singers. Her methodology creates, sustains and strengthens a singer's breath support, a technique which evolved from her extensive dance and Pilates background. Her voice method has also been an integral part of the program at the Centre for Opera Studies in Italy (COSI) since 2008. She joined the teaching team at St Andrews by-the-Sea in 2016, has been a regular guest lecturer at the University of Toronto’s voice studies program since 2010, and has led annual workshops at Choirs Ontario since 2012. As resident choreographer for the Toronto Children’s Chorus since 2011, she choreographed the world premiere of Nikmaq by Donald Patriquin as well as debuts of Tsimshian Welcome Chant by Patriquin in 2015 and Arctic Lights by Lori-Anne Dolloff in 2016. Ms. Swan has also worked extensively with various international Olympic athletes, including figure skaters Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir. She choreographed their award-winning Carmen in 2013 and their programs for the 2014 Olympics. Ms. Swan is the artistic director of Performance Architects/Swan Studio Dance and Children’s Dance Project in London, Ontario. She obtained her bachelor of arts degree (honours) in dance from the University of Waterloo.
Wendy Nielsen – Head Vocal Consultant
After a 25-year career on the international opera and concert stages, soprano Wendy Nielsen is now head of voice and assistant professor in voice and opera at the University of Toronto. She is also Head Vocal Consultant for the COC Ensemble Studio and maintains an active private voice studio in Toronto, teaching many of Canada’s prominent performers. Ms. Nielsen made her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1996 as Fiordiligi in Mozart’s Così fan tutte under the baton of James Levine. Subsequent performances at the Met over 12 seasons included: Countess Almaviva in The Marriage of Figaro, Micaëla in Carmen and Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni. Her international orchestral performances were numerous, notably opening the Lucerne Summer Festival as Elsa in Lohengrin with Ivan Fisher conducting the Budapest Festival Orchestra. Other significant performances included appearances with the Beijing Philharmonic; New York Philharmonic; Beethoven Festival in Krakow, Poland; Madrid Sinfonica; Prague Autumn Festival; Toronto Symphony Orchestra; Düsseldorf Philharmonic; and Montreal Symphony Orchestra. A native of New Brunswick, Ms. Nielsen attended Mount Allison University and earned a bachelor of music from the University of Lethbridge, as well as a master of music in opera from the University of British Columbia. She also holds three honorary doctorates and has garnered numerous awards recognizing her contributions nationally, provincially, and locally.
Steven Leigh – Lyric Diction Coach
Steven Leigh works with the COC Ensemble Studio to achieve standard stage-language pronunciation in Italian, German, French and English repertoire. He is a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto’s (UofT) Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), where his research integrates pronunciation pedagogy theory with his background as a professional opera singer and linguist. Presentations of his research-in-progress have included a public demonstration-lecture with the COC's Spotlight Series, as well as workshops for the COC Orchestra Academy and Ensemble Studio.
He has also given masterclasses in opera lyric diction at UofT’s Faculty of Music and the Irish National Opera Studio, and has been a lyric diction instructor at the Canadian Vocal Arts Institute in Montreal and at Opera on the Avalon in St. John’s, Newfoundland. In addition to his work at the COC, Mr. Leigh teaches a series of lyric diction classes he developed for the Royal Conservatory of Music's Taylor Academy and has previously taught at the RCM's Glenn Gould School. Highlights as a singer include the world premiere performance of Srul Irving Glick’s A Life's Journey (Songs for Isaac) in Toronto, Don José with the Illinois Opera Theater, the Duke in Rigolettoat Fairfield Halls, England, and appearances in Montreal with the Cantabile Chorale and Orchestra.
Photo Credit: Gaetz Photography (2019)