Amanda Smith is Artistic Director & Resident Stage Director of FAWN Opera, a new company I’ve recently seen for the first time. In the middle of April they presented l’Homme et le Ciel a new opera in progress (review). Her primary focus is in new-creation projects. To that end, she founded the Toronto-based collective, FAWN Opera & New Music, which allows her to work with a variety of talented emerging artists and be a part of the development of innovative new work.
Smith, is a recent graduate from the University of Toronto’s Opera Division (as the Student Stage Director), after formal musical training at Wilfrid Laurier University (voice with Kimberly Barber followed by opportunities to work as a stage technician in the WLU performance facilities). In her last year at WLU Smith created a customized stage directing stream in the WLU opera program. In that time, she had the opportunity to work as the Resident Assistant Director and Stage Manager for all Opera Laurier productions in the 2010-11 season, as well as innovate and direct the creation of a new, improv-based opera, with text from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Since then Smith directed Woyzeck (Buchner rather than Berg) and Assistant Stage Managed Queen of Puddings’ Svadba. Smith will be Assistant Director to Tim Albery on a new production in England of Britten’s Peter Grimes.
But this week FAWN present Synesthesia III, a series of short films with live original scores from Canadian composers. I use this occasion as the departure point for ten questions to Smith: five about herself and five more about her role as Artistic Director of Fawn Opera.
1) Are you more like your father or your mother?
I am very much a balance of both my parents. I spent a lot of time with both of my parents, doing separate, but equally valuable, activities. From my dad, I developed the appreciation for community and leadership. My dad is a Rotarian, so I was frequently involved in community events, which were always made to be viewed as fun ways to contribute to society. With my mom, I developed my creativity. My mom and I would read, paint, draw and go to galleries together, which was often accompanied by discussions of what it all meant and how those meanings were achieved aesthetically. This is not to say we academically dissected everything we saw and did, as they were casual conversations between a mother and daughter, but my mom definitely made a point to teach me how to have an opinion and understand why.
I grew up in Milton, which was quite small at the time, but my parents always made sure I saw the various cultural events that came to town. On Friday nights when my friends were going to the movies, my parents would take me to see the TSO and other chamber concerts in churches around the town. Classical and world music was consistently played at my house, which I never thought of as novel until I grew up and realized most of my other friends weren’t raised listening to classical music recreationally. I didn’t realize it while I was growing up (I don’t think they did either), but I see now that both of my parents have been preparing me for a career in the arts at a very young age.
2) What is the best thing or worst thing about being artistic director of a company such as FAWN Opera?
The very best part about being the Artistic Director of FAWN is that I essentially get to see the shows I’ve always wanted to see. No point in waiting for someone else to put it on when you can just do it yourself!
I also love that through FAWN I get to show so many young people, who have had very little to no exposure to new classical music, that it is in fact an innovative and evolutionary art form. By collaborating with individuals from other disciplines, we are able to attract a diverse audience, filled with people who have strong interests in art – many of them hear classical music as contemporary art for the first time. Some say that classical music audiences are disappearing, but I say we just have to expand and reach out to the people who are already predisposed to having an appreciation for what we do.
And now comes the worst – the money. Of course, when your primary target audience is 35 to 20 years old, it’s difficult to find the balance between affordability for the audience and the collective. The reality is that ticket sales only cover a fraction of production costs, for both our operas and our interdisciplinary concerts, so money is always a topic of discussion. Fortunately, we have a new member on our team, Ryan Coulter, who is our new Development Coordinator and will be working with FAWN to help us keep our shows affordable to young people, while keeping performance quality high.
3) Who do you like to listen to or watch?
I primarily listen to alternative electronic music. I love how it has the potential to really push my understanding of sound and musical structure, and I equate much of it to new classical music. For example, Rrose & Bob Ostertag’s collaborative album, Motormouth Variations, is an incredible example of how closely linked experimental dance music can be to New Music. A few other artists that I love are Burial, Ricardo Villalobos, Hands, Kode 9, Rone, Pinch and Mala, just to name a few.
I truly do see a direct connection between electronic and new classical music, so last December FAWN put on a free classical improv concert. The show was comprised of a one hour set by 4 classical instrumentalists, one soprano and an electronic music artist, David Psutka, who is internationally known for his work as the dj and producer, Egyptrixx. The performance was the perfect marriage of techno and classical, and people loved it!
4) What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?
One thing that I am trying to do is focus on the abilities I do have and utilize those. No one can do everything well and I see no point in coveting the skills I don’t have. Not having certain abilities just gives me reason to work with other talented people who do. One of my favourite things about opera is that there are so many people with different specialties that I would love to know more about, and I get to work alongside them.
5) When you’re just relaxing and not working what’s your favourite thing to do?
When it’s warm enough, my favourite thing to do is to lay around in Bellwoods Park on my big blanket, eat snacks and listen to music. Add a good book in there and I’ll be in the sun for hours.
Five more about Synesthesia III and the presentation of short films with live new music by Canadian composers
1) Please talk about the challenges in producing programs such as Synesthesia III.
The main challenge about producing Synesthesia III – Film & Music is that we’ve never done it before, and the same is to be said every time we do a Synesthesia concert. Since these concerts are collaborations with artistic disciplines outside of our own, we always have to figure out how to put together a new kind of show. For example, Synesthesia III is a collaboration with an online film magazine, called The Seventh Art, who selected seven Canadian filmmakers to participate in the project. It’s essential to work with people who are specialists in the industry you’re trying to collaborate with and it makes the process an enjoyable learning experience.
2) What do you love about FAWN Opera?
I love the potential of FAWN and that it provides me, and everyone who’s involved, with new and rare experiences. We’re all going to look back and know we were a part of something special.
3) Do you have a favourite moment in Synesthesia III?
Not yet! We haven’t done it yet, so I won’t have an answer to this until Sunday, the day after our show. I know I’m going to hear and see everything differently once it’s in performance, as is usually the case, so I’ll hold off from answering this for now. This is one of the most riveting parts of being a producer – you never know how it’s all going to come together.
4) How do you feel about the importance of FAWN Opera?
FAWN is an experiment in how to reach the younger generation of art appreciators. I believe this is done by aligning ourselves with other interesting and notable art forms, therefore exposing classical music to people who are involved in disciplines that are still niche but more popularized. With the growth of FAWN, we will be exposing more and more young people to classical music in hopes of contributing to the discipline’s future audience. An industry can only survive if there are those to support it, so we are working toward building awareness and interest.
5) Is there a teacher or an influence you’d care to name that you especially admire?
I have been fortunate enough to have had a number of influential teachers. I did my undergraduate musical training at Wilfrid Laurier University, which has a very rich New Music community and a number of very supportive teachers that encouraged me to explore my interests within music. As a result, I discovered my interests lied in producing musical experiences, as opposed to being the one to perform the music itself. This is exactly what I get to do as a stage director of operas and as a curator, both things I get to do with FAWN Opera & New Music.
This Saturday, May 3rd, FAWN will be presenting our newest collaborative project, Synesthesia III – Film & Music, hosted by Chris Heron of the Toronto-based online film magazine, The Seventh Art. This will be a night when two artistic communities get to introduce themselves to each other, and we’re very excited to see what happens.