Opera Mariposa's Jacqueline Ko performs in Dido and Aeneas (Stephanie Ko)
By Spencer van Vloten
Canada's only opera company run entirely by persons with disabilities, Opera Mariposa --which is Spanish for butterfly--uses opera to promote inclusion and support charities working for change.
Until June 1st, you can join them online for music, videos, shopping and prizes in support of the ME|FM Society of BC. Over $3,500.00 in prizes is available, including a post-pandemic vacation.
Spencer van Vloten talked with Jacqueline, Stephanie, and Robin of Opera Mariposa about how they got started, their biggest inspiration, and most memorable performances.
Spencer: How did you get started in opera, and where did the idea for Opera Mariposa come from? Jacqueline: I started taking voice lessons when I was ten, and my first singing teacher was an opera singer. We discovered I had a singing range that was naturally suited to operatic repertoire - I got introduced to some great music, found out how much fun it was to sing high notes, and I was hooked! Opera Mariposa itself came about because of a few different factors. I made my operatic role debut when I was sixteen. Around that time I also started working backstage with other companies, as well as producing indie shows with Robin and Stephanie.
I found I really enjoyed the creative aspects of bringing a show to life; at the same time though, I discovered the opera world has a lot of barriers for a disabled and chronically ill performer like me.
I discovered the opera world has a lot of barriers for a disabled and chronically ill performer like me
I mean, I was very lucky to receive all the opportunities I did, and the directors and companies I worked with were terrific. It's more that the traditional opera ecosystem isn't really set up with a variety of access needs in mind.
For example, rehearsal schedules can be very dense, with some productions rehearsing nearly all day, every day. That just isn't doable for me, so I'd have to be incredibly selective about what projects I even auditioned for. Basically, we wanted to keep creating more shows, but we also wanted to make a space that was more accessible from the ground up. We launched Opera Mariposa when I was twenty, and we’ve never looked back.
Spencer: What type of disabilities do the performers you work with have? Stephanie: Opera Mariposa works with both disabled and non-disabled artists - our philosophy is that opera is for everyone.
We happen to be entirely disability-led and run, but that came about organically; we didn't quite realize it, until one day, someone said to us, "Do you know, you're the only entirely disability-run opera company in Canada?"
I guess it's basically a case of, "If you build it, they will come" - in this instance, if you welcome a variety of access needs, then you'll bring in other people who share those values.
Stephanie Ko is Opera Mariposa's general manager (Diamond's Edge Photography)
We've worked with people who identify in many ways: as disabled, chronically ill, neurodiverse, low vision, mobility aid users and more.
Some of our key team members have physical, psychiatric and learning disabilities; quite a few of us have invisible disabilities or dynamic (that is, fluctuating) disabilities. We've also worked with a lot of artists who don't consider themselves members of the disability community at all. One thing I should mention is that in Opera, it's actually very rare for artists to be "out" about disability or chronic illness. A singer's body is their instrument, so there's a huge pressure in the industry to seem "able-bodied".
A singer's body is their instrument, so there's a huge pressure in the industry to seem "able-bodied"
Our hope is to alleviate some of that pressure, and basically say - look, it's entirely up to you what you'd like to disclose. But if there's something that would make it easier for you to fully participate in a production, then we'd love to know. That's what we're here for, and we want to create a space that lets you bring your whole self into the room. Spencer: Do you have a particular operatic inspiration? Jacqueline: One of my personal favourites is probably the soprano Virginia Zeani, one of the legendary singers of the 20th century. She sang the lead role in Verdi's La traviata more than 640 times, and actually taught one of my own singing teachers, so she's sort of like my singing grandmother - grand-teacher? - in terms of operatic lineage.
She's a disability icon for me as well: she’s had lung issues throughout her life, and learned much of her singing technique while horizontal in bed, yet has one of the most beautiful and effortless voices in the world. Robin: I agree with Jacqui completely - Zeani’s work is beyond amazing, in every way. I’d absolutely list her as my top operatic inspiration, as well.
In fact, I recently made a YouTube video about my top five vintage opera performances of all time, and her 1960 recording of La traviata from the Royal Opera House topped my list!
She stepped in at the very last minute to replace another singer, and had absolutely no rehearsal before going onstage - she barely had enough time to get fitted into her costume and ask which singer was playing her love interest. The performance was amazing and absolutely electric - if that isn’t inspiring, I don’t know what is.
Romania's Virginia Zeani, who struggled with lung issues, has been a source of inspiration to Opera Mariposa
Spencer: What's the most memorable production Opera Mariposa has done? Jacqueline: That's a tough one - I think they're all memorable in different ways. Some of the most personal shows for me have always been our annual Benefit + Awareness events.
These started back before Opera Mariposa, actually - I held my first Benefit + Awareness concert when I was seventeen to raise awareness and support for people with chronic neuro-immune diseases, like Stephanie and me.
Since launching Mariposa, we've teamed up with a lot of other great artists and organizations to hold a Benefit + Awareness event every year, and raised over $90,000 for healthcare, research, advocacy, accessibility upgrades and community support.
Since launching Mariposa...we've raised over $90,000 for healthcare, research, advocacy, accessibility upgrades and community support
In past years, these events were in-person performances; once the pandemic began of course, we had to adapt. Since then, we've gone online, sharing music, videos, prize giveaways and more, with people not just in BC but around the world. Robin: For me, the answer is actually pretty simple - that’s Mariposa’s comic opera production Don Pasquale! We ended up with a stellar double cast that all became incredibly close over the course of the rehearsal process, and the final show ended up even better than the sum of its parts.
It was onstage magic, it really was. That’s the type of synergy you only get a few times in your life!
Robin Hahn, along with Jason Cook and Matt Chittick, in Don Pasquale! (Machuca Photography)
Stephanie: One of the most memorable for me was probably Verdi's grand opera Un ballo in maschera, or 'A Masked Ball', which we presented in 2017 as a co-production with Heroic Opera. It's an amazing show full of intrigue, romance - and about ten zillion costume changes, which was fun, since I'm Mariposa's resident costume designer.
We were working with one of my favourite directors, and we had two great casts of international artists - I think we had folks from five different continents. There were a lot of memorable moments from that production - and some memorable challenges, such as when there was a flood through our entire rehearsal space and costume department.
I'm just glad that we had people onsite to lift the piano before it filled up with water... and that miraculously, after cleaning, none of the costumes were the worse for wear! Spencer: How would you describe opera to someone who's never seen it? Robin: Opera is a form of storytelling where music is key to conveying the emotions and the drama - and where the performers must not only be talented actors, but singers who've trained to the pinnacle of what the human voice can do. Other than that, it really depends on the particular opera production. There isn't only one type of opera, any more than there's only one type of movie or book.
Stephanie: I totally agree about the huge variety of operas. I think people tend to assume opera is very grand and dramatic, and some of it definitely is - basically the onstage equivalent of Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones.
But other operas are hilarious and frankly very silly, full of mistaken identities and physical comedy and dance routines. There are operas in many different languages, including English and ASL; some of them are centuries old, but plenty are new and being written today.
There are works that straddle the line between operas and Broadway musicals, as well as operas based on rock music by bands like Pink Floyd. There is also Chinese opera, which has a rich tradition distinct from Western opera and dozens of regional sub-genres.
Basically, the word "opera" can apply to all sorts of different productions - and hopefully, there's something for everyone. Spencer: Anything you'd like to add? Jacqueline: Opera Mariposa is currently holding our ninth annual Benefit + Awareness event - taking place all month, all online, and all for charity! Until June 1st, you can join us for music, videos, shopping and prizes in support of the ME|FM Society of BC, which is a terrific local charity led by chronically ill people and allies.
Folks can enter to win over $3,500.00 in prizes, including a post-pandemic vacation (and yes - there's a free way to enter) - and they can find the whole schedule of events. Robin: Yes! As part of that campaign, Jacqueline and I recently released a video discussing our lives as opera singers with chronic illness, the concept of disability as an identity and more.
Robin and Jacqueline talk about opera, disability, and more (Robin Hahn YouTube Channel)
Plus there will be ever more releases dropping soon, including a new video in the 'Opera Treats' series on the Mariposa YouTube channel, and an all-new single from Jacqueline called 'The Singer' at the end of the month! Stephanie: If people would like to learn more about Opera Mariposa, they can join us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube; sign up for our newsletter - and of course, check out our campaign. Join Opera Mariposa for their Benefit + Awareness campaign this May - all month, all online, and all for charity!
Spencer van Vloten is the editor of BC Disability. To get in touch, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org!