Carmen (Westben Arts Festival Theatre)


by Festival Nomad "Scoop" Correspondent, Judi McWilliams

On a sunny afternoon we headed out of town to the quaint community of Campbellford located in the Kawarthas Northumberland Region. Donna Bennett Marketing Director, soprano, pianist/composer had invited us to the Westben Arts Festival Theatre for their performance of Carmen!  I had never been to an “opera” before and, to be honest, was a little concerned that I might not enjoy myself. Boy was I wrong!

To learn more about the Westben Arts Festival Theatre, please visit our Ontario Attractions Ontario article entitles ~ "Westben Arts Festival Theatre"

As we arrived early, we were treated to a talk with Brian Finley and friends. Brian talked about the “Opera”. “If you get it in your blood, it sticks with you”. The youth of today are embracing this style of performing arts, and as Brian tells us, these youth are smart, savvy and catch on quick. Today’s performance was going to have a “Live Orchestra”! Full orchestras are made up of many members, about 100 piece Orchestra.  For today’s performance there were only 14 music stands. The reason is due to both the physical area in the Barn, and smaller financial budgets.  “Carmen” was light today.

Brian goes on to assure us that we will experience “some great taste with less calories”. Brian says that sometimes you need to choose between the less of two evils, vote to do an arrangement of work that may not be completely authentic to the music score, but, it’s out there! Mr. Finley says the beautiful thing about this type of performance and setting is the incredible intimacy you experience. You will hear each breath, experience great pleasure. Today would be “an equal part of the whole”! Brian says, as far as the “intimate experience, that’s what it is”, Brian states.

Carmen today was being put on from members of the University of British Columbia Opera Ensemble. Students and professionals from the performing arts school would delight us. First class soloists were also to perform. Their director, Nancy Hermiston, (who gave singing lesions to youthful Donna Bennett) was asked by Brian during the discussion what were some of the joys and challenges of performing live. With the quaint setting of the Barn, there is no backstage, dressing and costume changes were interesting. During rehearsals they had to eat their meals in the Barn, but, they all enjoyed playing volleyball in the fields during breaks. Hair details were taken care of in the “kitchen” up at the house. Nancy goes on to tell us how acoustically fantastic the Barn is.

While travelling, students get the feeling of what being in a full fledged tour is like. Going on a bus at 8 in the morning, arriving at 6 at night, then sing, then back on the bus to travel some more. The privilege for them is experiencing the wonderful people across Canada who spoiled them. Nancy says coming to Westben is always a joy; working with the stage designers, the technical staff, the props staff and the artistic director. All have such passion and love for the arts.

When choosing their locations to perform, Nancy Hermiston, department head at UBC, tells us that they choose with cost in mind, which is not always available. Going on to talk about youth today, getting into Opera is challenging. There are some terrific parts for youth to learn and grow into. Music of this calibre is very sophisticated. There are challenges for youth as this career is very vocally demanding. Students wishing to enter this path may not always get the role they desire, but it helps provide extraordinary experience for the “next step”. Opera has two languages to follow, both the text and music. You need to learn what the composer is saying as well as the script. This troupe was on the road from March through September. They had 6 performances in Vancouver, 4 at Westben, 4 in the Czechoslovak Republic and so on. It was a great experience to mix with other cultures.

Brian concluded the “sit in chat” and talked finally about the Westben Youth Chorus. He laughed when he told the audience that “Carmen” was a great way to introduce kids to “Opera” … “Sex, booze, cigarettes” … on with the show … “Opera”!

The "Weather Gods" were gracious to the Festival Nomad and me this summer! While we sat in a beautiful "barn" at the Westben Arts Theatre Festival in Campbellford during a performance of "Carmen" the sun shown brightly. This live performance was breathtaking as the actors/actresses sung along with the live orchestra. Intermission was enjoyed by all with refreshments of wine, ice-cream, cool drinks. Just as we all returned to the barn to our seats the next act began. A beautiful actress was about to sing her solo. That's when the skies let loose, torrential rains began to pour down. They closed up the sliding walls of the barn doors to block out the noise and rain. As they say, "the show must go on". Just as the show was ending the sun began to shine brightly, they opened to barn doors and we all walked through the forest back to our cars in the sunshine, not a drop of rain on us.

The Westben Arts Theatre Festival in Campbellford is an experience for all! We encourage you to take the journey to the BARN! It’s well worth it!