A Conversation with... Canada's First Family of Opera

I’m in the doctor’s office awaiting results of a check-up and playing in the background – Classical 96. I instantly recognize the playlist, much like that heard years back on those ‘made for television’ sales pitches advertising, “not one, not two, but three box sets of top 100 Classical Masterpieces.” I can almost predict the follow-up selection.

To be fair, I’m a Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Bartok kind of listener. I used to hit the public library for symphonic and piano scores. I lost that Beethoven, Mozart and Strauss buzz early on, especially after hearing Miles Davis' ‘Kind of Blue’ and the Rolling Stones' “It’s All Over Now.” So when I suddenly hear familiar voices speaking in the background - Canadian tenor Richard Margison and partner Valerie Kuinka addressing their summer music camp, Highlands Opera Studio —my ears tuned in.

This is a family with big music history and even greater talent. Recently, the pair dropped by my Thursday morning radio show at CIUT FM 89.5, along with their extremely gifted daughter Lauren, for a chat. Here’s a bit of our recent conversation.

Bill King: Valerie, you were gigging last night. That’s jazz slang – does that work for a classical violist?

Valerie Kuinka: Oh yes, we all talk that way. It’s a musician’s term. I was playing with the National Ballet Orchestra. We opened 'Sleeping Beauty' last night. Our last show is on the 20th of June.

Bill: I came in contact with this wonderful family through arranger Glenn Morley who wanted me to hear Lauren sing when she was just fourteen. Lauren became part of a 2006 'Real Divas' show featuring  Liberty Silver, Heather Bambrick, June Garber, Lori Cullen, Andrea Menard, Eliana Cuevas, Karin Plato, Melissa Pisarzowski, Shakura S’Aida, Sophie Berkal-Sarbit, Janelle Headley, Diana Braithwaite and Kim Richardson at Nathan Phillips Square as part of TD Jazz Festival - the youngest person on the stage that night.

Bill: You’re off the road for the summer?

Richard Margison: I’m doing a lot of master classes, teaching–I think one or two performances, but predominantly education and Highlands Opera Studio.

Bill: In these master classes are you prepping people for careers?

Richard: I’m doing vocal technique and style–anything from pop to opera singers.



Bill: What is the most common thing you hear that needs the most work?

Richard: There’s a definite misunderstanding. Singing is all about breathing. People don’t breathe properly or use their body as an instrument. They try to sing from the throat instead.

Bill: You understood this early in life?

Richard: That I did, after my throat got sore.

Bill: And you started off as a pop singer.

Richard: I wanted to be Gordon Lightfoot number two or Stan Rodgers number two — or Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell —and realized after a time we weren’t going to get past the bars we were playing. So I went to university to get a degree that would allow me teach in the schools, and after my first year auditioned to be a performance major in voice. Alas, they told me I didn’t have a voice to make a career so I quit the university and have been working every since.

Bill: How did you reach the international stage and craft this magnificent career?

Richard: I went to the conservatory in Victoria and had a wonderful teacher, Selena James, who had a career herself and was a great vocal technician and a great person for bringing out the best in everybody. The rest came through doing two-thousand school shows in a five year period. I really honed those skills through performance and built up the infrastructure in the body to sustain what I eventually ended up doing at the Metropolitan Opera and La Scala.

Bill: How did you break-out?

Richard: I actually had an agent in Toronto–Hart Murdoch. I started doing oratorio and small opera parts in the Canadian companies and people would say, 'You should be doing this and that' and  'you have a better voice than most' and I worked my way up in the roles that I did. Then I got a manager through Hart Murdoch in New York, went to England to audition and landed a role in 1989 singing, “Riccardo in Un Ballo in maschera” at the English National Opera. The reviews were great and I never did another audition in my life. Then I got major management in New York and life moved on from there.

People don’t realize the hard years before you achieve a measure of success. Many think they can come out of an institution and “bang” the world owes them a living. It’s not going to happen.

Bill: Valerie, you were most likely watching TV and came upon, 'So You Think You Can Play Viola.'

Valerie: My favourite show! Lol!

I grew up in an incredibly musical family and continue to carry the torch. My father not only played stand-up bass but electric bass and did that all the way through the Second World War. Shortly after the war he came back to Toronto and thought he needed to set a standard. He got his RCT from the conservatory and started working in Toronto. He was the house bass player for what was then known as the O’Keefe Centre (now the Sony Centre), the Toronto Symphony and also did a stint with Oscar Peterson in the late '40s.

There was a bandleader out of Montreal named Johnny Holmes and one of his bandleader friends was Henry Kelneck who started a band in Timmins, Ontario in the late '40s. Oscar was just starting out then and Johnny just saw a bright light in this seventeen year-old and Oscar joined the band. When Henry established his band in Timmons he invited both Oscar and Johnny and my dad to tour northern Ontario

Bill: Did you start with viola?

Valerie: My parents did their best trying to talk me out of going into music. I dabbled in quiet a few instruments, starting with piano. Classical guitar was my first major instrument. I studied seriously through all my teens and learned violin. I also found I had aspirations to become a doctor.

I liked veterinary medicine and pediatrics. That’s what I thought I was going to do until I really entertained the thought of what makes me really happy deep in my soul. I decided I really loved music but hated the violin. It wasn’t my voice. I switched late in high school to viola and I had this teacher who said 'you really have to have talent' and that made me mad, so I practiced really, really hard and got into the University of Toronto–first into education then performance. For a string player, never entertain the thought of taking this as a career if you are not prepared to practice a minimum of four to six hours a day. It has to be quality practice.

B.K: Your home saw people of note coming and going. Did you have any idea who these people were?

Lauren Margison: It was pretty interesting. Because I was so young it was just normal to me. I couldn’t grasp the concept of who I was talking to or who was braiding my hair.

B.K: Any opera jams?

L.M: No–if there were any jams they would be Sinatra jams.

B.K: I remember you as a young teenager having this mad crush on Frank Sinatra.

L.M: I’ve fallen into a lot of YouTube wormholes listening to his music. His voice is so calming and deeply passionate and like velvet. That drew me to him. Also, I had a major crush on him because of those eyes.

B.K: Your training?

L.M: With my poppa and my mom. I spent a year at U of T and for a variety of reasons that didn’t work out. I’ve now found a balance between opera and pop. I sing with dad in our show 'Back to Back.'

R.M: Sinatra really put it down to everybody: In order to make music really important, whether singing pop music or opera, he was the master at putting the words across. He had a good voice and knew how to communicate with an audience through the words and through the power of those words. It’s the same no matter what kind of music we are singing. You need that ability to connect to people through the text.

B.K: What is the Highlands Opera Studio?

V.K: For a number of years, Richard and I had noticed what we viewed as a lack of training for very high-level singers aspiring to careers in opera. There are a lot of educational possibilities–higher education, conservatories and young artists programs. But if you haven’t found the right lining up of agents, or been lucky enough to find that through all that training, you are suddenly dropped off a cliff into a sea of trying to find work and not knowing how.

Through a series of circumstances we found ourselves in Minden, Ontario and fell in love with the place and bought a cottage. We now live there much of the year.  

In 2006, I had this conversation with someone in the community who actually connected us with others in the community who helped us start the Highlands Opera Studio. There’s a community theatre company in Haliburton with a great deal of commitment and enthusiasm. When they heard who Richard was, and my career stage-directing at the Metropolitan Oper,a they were very excited about the possibility of bringing this idea to life in the region.

We started modestly with seven singers the first year of a three week program. The idea was to not only bring top level training and polishing – these voices were already very good and ready for a professional career — but more importantly to bring the agents and bring more ears to hear these people who could help them to the next level.

This year we are almost six weeks in length and produce two fully staged operas; the major offering this year is the La folle journée, ou le Mariage de Figaro, (The Marriage of Figaro) by Mozart and a great vehicle for young lyric voices. We have an intimate theatre which is great to hear anything from the operas to concerts. We are also producing a second opera by British Columbian Tobin Stokes who is forging quiet a name internationally and here and at home for his operas. This will be the debut of his opera – “The Vine Dressers.” It’s based on a story from Pelee Island. It’s a love story with a bad guy, a comic element – all the stuff of opera in it. There are also three master classes with all participants Richard teaches publicly.

B.K: Is there an amateur side to this?

V.K: Yes.

B.K: There are so many people who love singing who are passionate and willing to push themselves beyond their present limitations.

V.K: In those interactive master classes, it’s a lesson with Richard. The participants sing a number and then Richard will pick it apart and adding positive criticisms.

We choose people by listening to voices all across North America–two hundred and up for the top tier; we choose twenty who will become the core. People in the region are invited to come and listen to these master classes. It costs $15 to listen. We also have a community school we established in 2011 and, like you, we agree it’s nice to have all of those breathing rarefied air and hoping to have professional careers, yet involving those who do it to enrich their lives.

What we offer in community school at a greatly reduced rate is a lesson or two with Richard. We have a few who like to teach. Lauren teaches the teenagers. For cottagers or those who live in the region, they can become involved.  We hope through this training they will evolve and eventually be in the chorus.

There are so many ways to get people involved —set painting, costume making. All the aspects that go into creating an opera. There’s always lots of room.



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