February 2011

Cultural convergence

Opera company and northern mining communities share more than music

By Marlene Eisner

Michael Barrett as the prince in the Xstrata Ensemble Studio School Tour production of Cinderella at Pigiurvik School in Salluit, Québec | Photo courtesy of Michael Cooper

Excitement and awe rippled through northern Quebec mining communities last November when the Canadian Opera Company (COC) troupe performed specially selected arias and a children’s version of Cinderella. For the last four years, Xstrata Nickel has sponsored the COC’s ensemble studio school tour, which has performed for approximately 16,000 children a year across Ontario introducing them to the enchanted world of opera. This year, however, Xstrata asked COC to bring its tour to its Raglan Mine and the Inuit communities in the Nunavik region of northern Quebec.

“It was a very unique opportunity that required immense efforts by our team at the Raglan Mine,” says Peter Fuchs, director of corporate affairs at Xstrata Nickel. “As a sponsor of the Ensemble Studio School Tour, it was important that we extend the tour north to the communities in which we live and work. We strive to bring more than just jobs to the North; we want to create sustainable values, which can come in many different forms, including art, culture and education.”

Performance logistics

Successfully executing such an event takes careful planning, good communication and attention to detail. The goal was to bring the 10-member ensemble (five singers, one music director/pianist, one stage manager, two COC staff, one photographer and a host of props) from Toronto up to the mine, located 1,880 kilometres north of Montreal.

For two months, Raglan Mine HR supervisor Yannick St. Germain and HR coordinator Amélie Trépanier worked closely with Katherine Semcesen, senior manager of education and outreach at COC, to iron out all the details. While Semcesen put into place the educational material that complemented the performances, St. Germain and Trépanier prepared for the group’s arrival — from air transportation and housing accommodations to outfitting the artists with proper outdoor Arctic attire.

The itinerary included a recital of operatic arias for mine employees as well as a performance of Cinderella for the children of elementary schools in two villages that comprise the 14 Inuit communities that make up Nunavik (pop. 10,500), Salluit (pop. 1,241) and Kangiqsujuaq (pop. 605).

“When we arrived at Donaldson Airport, I think our reaction was a bit of sheer disbelief that we flew as far as we did,” says Semcesen. “We had looked at maps, but you really don’t understand it until you get off the plane. There are no roads lined with lights. You just see snow and darkness. It was really interesting when we walked into the mine complex coming from the perspective from an arts world; you got a sense of family and community.”

Weather takes the spotlight

When it comes to living and working in the Arctic, it is best to prepare for the unexpected. In spite of the best laid plans, Mother Nature often has the upper hand.

“The weather is a big factor up north, so even if you plan for one type of scenario, it might change at any time,” explains St. Germain. “The first show for the children was scheduled for November 16. We managed to fit everything into the tiny plane, but I received a call 20 minutes after takeoff to tell me it was snowing. They didn’t have visibility and couldn’t land the plane, so they had to come back.” Unfazed, St. Germain moved the performance time for the mine employees from the evening of the 17th to the 16th, and was able find alternative air transportation for the troupe the next day.

At Salluit and Kangiqsujuaq, the children were treated to an abridged version of the Cinderella production. Initially, the troupe was to perform at the schools on two separate days, but the poor weather resulted in the shows having to be rescheduled on the same day.

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