Inside the dusty dressing room at Delta Secondary School, Walter Cruz was struggling to feel the rhythm of his song.
Standing in front of Hollywood mirrors, Cruz sang the lyrical opening line of an Italian aria, tripping slightly over an extended beat in the third bar. Frédérik Robert, a professional tenor and singing instructor, coached him along from the electric keyboard.
The two of them didn’t always spend their after-lunch hours singing inside the girls’ dressing room; Robert would teach voice lessons at the Vancouver Academy of Music or performing with Vancouver Opera, and Cruz would go about his day, just another regular Grade 8 student at Sands Secondary.
But every second day over the past school year, they’ve both been involved in the Delta Opera and Performing Arts Academy, where singing in unusual places is just another part of the day.
Robert, a drop-in voice instructor for the academy, was teaching Cruz how to sing the plaintive aria “Sebben crudele”(sometimes translated as “Though not deserving” or “Although, cruel love”) from Antonio Caldara’s opera La costanza in amor vince l’inganno (Faithfulness in love defeats treachery).
Cruz would be singing it as a solo in less than a month, and was still struggling with the rhythm and feeling of the song.
“The word ‘grazioso,’ which is used here,” Robert said, pointing to the top of the page, “is graceful … This love that this person speaks of is graceful. It’s not awkward. It’s not pedantic. It’s graceful.”
“That tells you a lot about … how you express your love as this character,” he continued. “The fun thing about music is you don’t have to be you. You get to be whatever the song is.”
On June 15, Cruz will be performing “Sebben crudele,” channeling the spirit of Aminta, the hero in Caldara’s 1710 opera, who has just discovered that his love, Silvia, has fallen for another.
It will be part of a year-end recital for the Delta Opera and Performing Arts Academy, happening June 15 at Delta Secondary’s Genesis theatre, as it wraps on its innaugural run.
The academy is a collaboration between the Delta School District and Vancouver Opera. The goal, district academy programs vice-principal Paige Hansen told the Delta school board in May, was to not only teach students about opera, but to “use opera as a vehicle that we can understand the world we live in and apply it to anything.”
Every second school day, 23 students from across the district are bused to Delta Secondary’s music room to learn about opera, singing and performance.
The students were treated to performances by Vancouver Opera, attended master classes by opera professionals, received individual voice lessons by teachers like Robert, and studied snippets from the history of opera. They performed solos, duets and ensemble pieces throughout the year, and even performed a musical theatre-style opera they wrote themselves.
At the year-end recital, the opera students will perform the solos and duets they have been working on in their private voice lessons. There will also be two choral pieces: “Belle Nuit,” from Jacques Offenbach’s opera The Tales of Hoffman, and a pop version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “The Phantom of the Opera”, arranged by Layne Stein.
During their class on May 24, the students were introduced to “The Phantom of the Opera” for the first time. Julianna Kato, the main teacher for the academy, divided the class into a three-part harmony. The sopranos pared off into their own room to learn their part on a piano, while the tenors went into the music office to practice alone.
Kato took the altos over to the piano by the door.
Mona Subramani, a Grade 8 student at Seaquam, was in Kato’s group. Peering over the sheet music as the notes were plunked out on the piano, Subramani was learning was would usually be considered an alto or mezzo soprano harmony.
Subramani said she sometimes struggles with harmonies, and wants to “develop the ability to learn them and sing them while other things are going on.”
“I can still do them, but I feel like I’ve been learning them a lot quicker based on before I came to the program.”
Subramani joined the academy after hearing about it in her elementary school, and said the whole experience has been positive.
“There’s kind of space for everybody here,” she said.
One student only plays the piano, but “Miss Kato repeatedly finds opportunities for him to be able to showcase what he’s interested in, and what he’s talented at.”
For Kato, that’s because this “really [is] a dream job,” she said. “I love opera, and introducing it to students is just what I love to do.”
Currently, only 11 students are registered for next year’s program, which is being renamed the Delta Performance Academy with Vancouver Opera to better reflect the variety of the course. Only five from the academy class this year have registered.
One of them is Cruz, who attended this year on a Vancouver Opera scholarship. (Normally, the academy costs $250 a month, plus a $600 deposit and $100 administration fee).
He came into the academy with little knowledge about opera and even less experience — “I thought it was just people who were singing gibberish words,” he said — but now hopes to continue exploring the genre through high school and possibly beyond.
But if registration numbers don’t improve, there might not be an academy for him to go to.
“Last year they had about that number at this time,” Kato said, adding it’s possible that number will double by September.
If it does the class, and the shows, will go on.