In moving to Edmonton, Cosette Justo Valdés didn’t realize what she was in for.
Valdés was one of six candidates auditioning for assistant conductor for the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra in 2018. It was January, the city was in a deep freeze, and Valdés had no winter gear, not even a pair of gloves; but the journey was worth it when she stepped onto the stage.
“Another girl and myself passed to the second round, and I was already in shock,” says Valdés. “And then I remember walking around at some point during the auditions, and the security guard said, ‘Why are you smiling?’ And I said, ‘Well, why not?’”
Her positive attitude, infectious spirit and over a decade’s experience in the industry are what made Valdés stand out from the talented crowd of applicants. She got the job as assistant conductor and community ambassador of the ESO the same day as her second audition.
“I remember that night. I was staying at the Westin, and I was looking down at the Winspear and the snow, just thinking, ‘I’m going to live here. I’m going to work here. I can’t believe it.’”
Born in Cuba, Valdés didn’t leave until she was 29 years old, when she went to Germany for her masters. Her passion for music started much earlier. Her father was a music teacher and her mother a dancer. Their musical inﬂuences shaped Valdés’s love for music and they encouraged her to audition for Cuba’s national program of music.
Each of Cuba’s provinces has one arts school, and a limited number of spots are available for those who pass the aptitude tests. Smaller towns like the one Valdés grew up in only received one spot for the school and Valdés received the highest score. She studied violin before switching to piano.
“And then my parents got divorced, which was very difﬁcult for them, and it was very, very difﬁcult for me,” says Valdés. “I actually started stuttering suddenly, which brought me to conducting. Very weirdly, it became something positive and, most lately, something that I have overcome.”
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Valdés struggled with exams after the divorce, and switched paths to study music theory; however, all her career choices required public speaking. It was one of her professors who offered an alternative career.
“He said, ‘Well, you could be a conductor. You have musical talent. You have the personality. You are a leader and I think you could conduct,’” says Valdés.
In Cuba and Germany, conducting is all about the performance, but Valdés faced a challenge when she accepted her new role at ESO and realized it required oral presentations and speaking at community events. And then, she discovered something about herself.
“I thought if I’m a conductor then I don’t have to speak very much,” says Valdés. “And I don’t speak English very well. But, ESO has been so good to me that somehow English, this being the ﬁrst time that I’ve spoken English in my normal life, has become my happy language where I don’t stutter.”
Valdés, now the resident conductor, joined ESO in the middle of the 2018-19 season and threw herself into her work, immediately gaining the respect of the musicians and her colleagues.
“What I plan for this coming year is investing myself into this orchestra, into this community, into this organization,” says Valdés. “Because there is so much we can do together, and I am most grateful for the way I have been embraced and have been allowed to share everything that I have.” – Katrina Turchin
Artistic Director Edmonton Opera
Sure, there will be big productions with big sets that need to be staged in front of big audiences at the Jubilee Auditorium, but opera doesn’t have to always be about being over the top.
Opera can also happen in a cozy environment. It can be enjoyed in a bar, while you have a pint.
That’s the vision of Joel Ivany, the new artistic director of Edmonton Opera. He’s been the artistic director of opera at the Banff Centre, and will maintain his role as the artistic director of Against the Grain Theatre, a company which looks to reimagine opera and classical music for younger, more contemporary audiences. His 2018 co-production of Orphée won ﬁve Dora Mavor Moore Awards, the Oscars of Canadian theatre, dance, opera and classical music.
He comes to the EO after an extensive search by the board. Ivany and his wife, soprano Miriam Khalil, have both worked in productions staged by the Edmonton Opera. And, arts seasons being what they are, both have been to Edmonton during the teeth of winter. They felt they knew at least a bit of what Edmonton was about. Now, the challenge is to change the perceptions of what opera is, and what it can be.
“Speaking with the board, the way the job was presented, they are really looking to embrace some change and some variety in how the opera communicates and interacts with the community,” says Ivany. “And, my whole career, I’ve been excited in the different ways opera can be shared with people.”
That includes bringing opera nights to pubs, where sections of productions are sung to intimate audiences, and the performers can answer questions from the audience — even to talk about just how whimsical the storylines of the world’s most famous opera can be.
“We just consume art differently right now, and still will going forward,” Ivany says. “But, even if you remove the pandemic, it’s a challenge to welcome new people into an art form that can be really difﬁcult. Culture and society says, ‘This is what opera is,’ in terms that we’re still hearing that opera is about a big lady who sings, with horns on her head.”
He says that his vision is that the Edmonton Opera will take some of the shows out of the 2,515-seat Jubilee Auditorium and into more intimate venues.
“Having different shows in different theatres and spaces, some that wouldn’t necessarily be theatres, is our way of saying you don’t have to come to us — we’ll also come to you.”
But it’s not just about trying to make younger audiences care about classic stories from 17th century Vienna or Florence. It’s about how to create operatic storylines that are relevant to the viewers. Ivany’s challenge isn’t to get people to embrace the old — but how to make opera new.
“How do we make it more Canadian? How can we tell Canadian stories?” he asks. He says he’s pondered how Indigenous traditions can be incorporated into opera.
“It’s about changing what kinds of stories we’re singing,” he says. “You don’t have to have a master’s degree to understand what opera is. That’s the beauty of it. You can just come, listen, watch — and that’s good enough. It’s about breaking down those stereotypes people have about opera.” – Steven Sandor
Photography by Eric Beliveau
Makeup & Hair by Tiiu Vuorensola
This article appears in the April 2022 issue of Edify