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“Look, Nay! No mic!”

  Hitting the high notes as an aspiring opera singer

Jan Nato, winner of the Herbert & Audrey Belyea Trophy, the Rose Bowl and the Reg Hugo Trophy. Photo by Debbe Chen

Ninety-four years ago, the first Winnipeg Music Festival took place. The competitive festival brings together hundreds of people and recognizes excellence in aspiring musicians.

Eighty-eight years ago, the first Rose Bowl competition of the Festival took place. The silver trophy was donated by the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce in 1924 and is awarded every year to the “most outstanding performance” of senior-level classical singers.

On Saturday, March 17, 2012, I became the first Filipino-Canadian ever to receive the prize after the final round of competition at Westminster United Church.

I am very proud of the achievement, but more than anything it is a reminder of the hard work that is necessary to become a professional classical (opera) singer.

Sometimes I think that I must be crazy to want to be an opera singer. Opera, essentially, is just like a musical; they are both plays set to music. There are characters and choruses, both have some of the most expressive music in the world, but the main difference is that in opera we don’t use microphones or amplification!

This is the main reason opera is such a difficult pursuit. The voice is a very fragile instrument that is affected by everything: the weather, your health and even the humidity! The vocal folds are as small as a dime and thinner than one, too. If you injure your vocal folds, there is a scary possibility that you may never sing again. While we have to sing with immense sound, we can never shout or abuse our voice.

Learning to sing opera takes at least a decade of training before you can even begin to think about working professionally. This is the main reason that I don’t put myself on YouTube or audition for popular competitions such as Canadian Idol. It’s simply because my voice isn’t quite ready to go out into the world yet.

It is not uncommon for people with certain voice types not to begin working in opera until they’re thirty years old! This must be a worrying thing to my parents.

To top it all off, we have to study all the time! We have to learn music scores that are as thick as dictionaries, and in foreign languages, too! Social lives are very often put to the side for an upcoming performance.

So, why do I do it? There are a million reasons, but to keep it simple, I’ll say this: as an opera singer, I get to express all the amazing things of humanity and sing some of the most beautiful music in the world. I get to tell stories of love, of hate, of loss and of hope. Not to mention that there’s nothing quite like the feeling of vocally soaring over an orchestra and filling a concert hall with sound – without amplification.

“Look Nay! No mic!”

Tenor Jan Nato is completing his Bachelor of Music degree at the University of Manitoba this year. Since beginning his studies five years ago, Jan has performed opera across Canada and the United States. In 2011, Jan made his hometown debut with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra in its Rising Stars concert.