Parkinson discovers a mentor, launches a career

Thinking back, Emma Parkinson (BMus '08), up-and-coming mezzo-soprano with Opera de Montréal, remembers growing up in a household filled with music.

"My dad (Brian Parkinson) is a drama professor at the University of Lethbridge and my mom is an elementary school teacher. My older sister and I grew up playing piano, taking dance lessons and putting on little plays for our family. I loved it, the performing, the singing, the dancing, all of it really," recalls Parkinson. "My parents always had music of all different genres going on in the house, but I actually hated opera when I was growing up. It was the one type of music that would make me run out of the room."

Emma Parkinson
Emma Parkinson followed her father, drama professor Brian Parkinson, to the U of L.

Parkinson spent her high school years singing with the LCI Chamber and Jazz choirs. During her last year of school, the choir went to Europe, singing its way through the south of France, Italy and Austria, an experience she describes as fantastic. After graduation, she enrolled in music at the University of Lethbridge, but remained unsure if she would enjoy studying solo voice until a summer workshop at the University of British Columbia turned her aversion of opera into a passion.

"It was a one week workshop filled with people of all ages, many of whom were more advanced singers. My eyes were opened seeing all these different pieces of opera coming to life. It was at that point that I realized opera was such a perfect combination of theatre and music," she says. "It just sort of came together for me and I remember thinking, 'wow, I really want to do that. I need to do that'!"

With this newfound passion, Parkinson continued her musical journey as a voice student at the U of L, working under the direction of well-known tenor and music professor Blaine Hendsbee. Hendsbee turned out to be the perfect mentor for Parkinson, balancing high expectations with great support.

"I had taken a couple of voice lessons with Blaine before I auditioned for studio at the University, so when I found out that he selected me for studio I was really happy. He is my mentor forever and always. He is so passionate about opera; he really inspired me to stretch and grow, and he helped me come out of my shell and find my voice as a soloist. He has a professional quality and is very encouraging but still firm. He demands a very high standard, which is exactly what you need when you are pursuing any sort of art form," says Parkinson, who made the most of her time as an undergrad, participating in several music and drama co-productions and singing with the University Singers.

"Because the University has a smaller program in terms of numbers, I was able to grow and blossom as an individual. I received opportunities that a larger school wouldn't provide, which put me at an advantage when I started my graduate studies. I got my first role in the U of L's production of Mikado. My dad was the director; I felt very privileged to work with him. He was very professional and it was nice to watch him work," says Parkinson. "I remember the first time performing Mikado on stage; I was ecstatic because we had these incredible costumes and an orchestra and I loved the overdramatic, evil-witch character I got to play. We had worked so hard to get to opening night that I wanted to go out there to have fun and entertain. I felt over the moon when the curtain dropped!"

Emma Parkinson2
Parkinson, singing Carmen in La Tragedie de Carmen from the Banff Centre Opera as Theatre Program in 2009. Photo by Donald Lee

It is a feeling that has stayed with her throughout her busy musical career. Parkinson graduated from the University with a BMus in 2008. She earned her master's of music in opera performance in 2010 from McGill University, during which time she starred in multiple operas and oratorio concerts. After her master's she auditioned for a two-year young artist training program, Atelier Lyrique of Opera de Montréal, one of only four such training programs available in Canada. She will complete the program with them in June. This summer she is excited to fulfill her first international professional contract in Berlin, where she will spend two months playing Mercedes in a new production of Carmen.

"The marriage of music and theatre is like nothing else and I really love it. I feel so lucky to spend my day working on beautiful music, singing beautiful music and performing it. At the end of the day, I can't imagine working on anything else."


Parkinson has performed as a soloist or character role in more than 25 productions

In December 2011, she participated in a 14-day concert tour of China, singing with the Montreal Youth Symphony Orchestra

In 2011, she was awarded the Prix Jeune Espoir Lyrique Canadien, as well as the Jeunes Ambassadeurs Lyriques Laureate honours

This year, she is preparing for roles as a soloist in Rossini et Ses Muses (with Atelier Lyrique), and Siebel in Faust (with Opera de Montréal)

This story first appeared in the March 2012 issue of the Legend. For a look at the full issue in a flipbook format, follow this link.