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Member Spotlight: Nancy Hermiston

August 25, 2022

Nancy Hermiston is chair of the UBC School of Music’s Voice and Opera Divisions and also serves as University Marshal. In 2014, she was appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada for her achievements as an opera singer, stage director and educator. 

Her operatic career has taken her throughout Canada, the United States and Europe. Her New York debut took place in Carnegie Hall with Marilyn Horne and Mario Bernardi. Her European début led to a permanent engagement with the prestigious Nürnberg Opera. She has held numerous appointments as voice teacher, and as stage director at the Meistersinger Konservatorium, Nürnberg, and the University of Toronto Opera and Performance Divisions. She was appointed to the UBC faculty in 1995 as Coordinator of the Voice and Opera Division.

How does your work intersect with language sciences?

My work and research have been as a professional singer and a professor of Voice and Opera at the UBC School of Music. I am Head of the Voice and Opera Divisions and teach singing, acting, opera staging and I am the stage director for the UBC opera productions. Regardless of which type of repertoire a singer is performing, languages play a major part of their art and indeed their lives! Learning and performing in our own language and those that are foreign to us is an absolutely essential part of our career. The standard languages that a singer must master on the concert platform or the lyric stage are French, Italian and German. However today Czech and Russian are also standard languages that one should know in the operatic repertoire and Spanish, Polish, Hungarian and several other European and Asian languages are also becoming more a part of the ‘standard’ languages use in vocal performing arts.

As we are communicating the text of the repertoire, whether it be art song, oratorio, opera or pop songs, languages are of utmost importance for performers. In all of these genres physical and emotional presentation of the text can only be truthfully conveyed if the performer sings the language with excellent pronunciation using the proper flow and phrasing of the language but also must truly know what they are saying and convey the story of the work they are performing. One must know every word that they are saying but they must also know the ramifications of that word and all of the different meanings of it as a native speaker would know. In opera you must know what you are saying but what everyone else, all the soloists and the chorus, are saying as well. Only then can you portray the character, know who that character is- often finding clues in what others say about you – and act and react to those singing actors with whom you are communicating and performing. But the complexity does not stop there. We have two languages we are responding to, communicating and portraying.  The language of the music and the language of the text that we are singing or at times speaking. We must communicate both ‘languages’ and also integrate the relationship between those two ‘languages’ in our acting.

This complicated scenario led me to a more scientific side of my research. I questioned how we were doing all of this plus interacting with our colleagues, moving and dancing on stage, dealing with different props, ( dishes, luggage, weapons, brooms absolutely anything) costumes that can be extremely heavy to wear,wigs, makeup,(false noses- chins, partial masks – you name it) staircases, doors, furniture, listening to the orchestra and watching the conductor without letting our audience know we are. How are we doing all of that at once and learning and performing all of these languages and retaining that knowledge as we move in our career from singing one role after the other several times a week sometimes in a different language every day. Or singing in a recital where several languages will be performed within an hour and a half. I also noticed that those students with learning differences who at first seemed to struggle with this complicated process were steadily improving in a time frame that I felt was quite remarkable.

That observation was what led me to try to find out how we opera performers were doing what we do. What was our brain doing to accommodate all of this simultaneous activity? How were we learning all of these languages and able to integrate them into our production to facilitate an authentic performance. Was there a change in brain function in those students with and without learning differences. This led me on a fifteen-year quest to find research partners who were also curious as to what was happening with the brain function of opera performers.

This quest led me to Dr. Marion Porath first for a research project call Libretti of Learning and then a few years later to Dr. Janet Werker, Dr. Lara Boyd and our two wonderful Postdoctoral Fellows, Dr. Anja-Xiaoxing Cui and Dr. Negin Yeganeh as we began our research for the Wall Opera Project.

What is a project you've worked on within the last few years that you're particularly proud of?

Throughout my time here at UBC I have had the good fortune to attract excellent students to UBC and have been able to present productions of a very high standard with them not only because of their talent but also because of their intellectual curiosity and the openness to investigating the powerful medium of opera in many different ways.

Many operas like La Boheme, the Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, (Italian)  and countless other operas, in which many of the characters are the same age as our students, have been met with great success. However, we have produced many operas with accompanying symposia in collaboration with a variety of other faculties that resound with current social and cultural issues which the students and our audiences have embraced.

For example: The Pilgrim (in English)– an opera centered on Mental Health and Wellness; Louis Riel, ( French and English) an opera centered on one of Canada’s most prominent and controversial historical figures depicting the injustices he, his people and First Nations people suffered because of Colonialism; The Consul, (English) produced during the Syrian Crisis portraying the plight of refugees who seek escape from their country to save their lives and that of their families;

Silent Night an opera highlighting the horrors of war and the moment of humanity found during the Christmas Truce in WWI amongst the troops of France, German and the Scottish Regiment of the British Army -seeing each other – face to face as human beings not enemies. The production of this opera also led me to a colleague, Dr. Marv Westwood, co-founder of the UBC Veterans Transition program and researcher in trauma and PTSD. Through Dr. Westwood we were able to have real veterans with us on stage as well; The Passenger (German, Polish, French, Russian, Greek, Italian, Latin) an opera centered around the Holocaust and showing the architecture of genocide.

These productions, particularly the later ones figured prominently in the research of the Wall Opera Project which aims to discover if opera training and education sculpts the brain in ways which promotes better learning. Independent reviewers have suggested that if this is indeed the case it could have great implications for the education field and in particular those students with learning differences. The data results could also have be beneficial to research and treatments for several neurological diseases. We are only able to scratch the surface of this research but are hopeful our findings will lead to a much larger scale project.

What inspires you to pursue your line of work?

What inspires me on the opera side is the beauty, inspiration and power of the Music. The possibility of the power of opera as an element for healing not only PTSD and other mental health and wellness issues and general well- being but many medical conditions is incredibly inspiring.

Using opera as a medium for discussion of urgent social issues is incredibly inspiring for me.

The Wall Opera Project is dear to my heart and inspires me because education is so important to me. Every student that comes to me should have the opportunity to realize their full potential. I may not be able to achieve that all the time but the inspiration my students give to me make me do all in my power to try and help them realize their full potential and career goals. Particularly in the case of students with learning differences I am inspired to find out the way they learn and adjust our teaching for them in a way that allows them to demonstrate their gifts. Frequently they are some of the most inspiring performers and despite often having had to navigate a system which did not or does accommodate how they learn, they deliver some of the most moving performances that I experience. That inspires me! I have to say my students inspire me! In my role as University Marshal I have met so many students from all faculties who have absolutely kept reinforcing for me how important education is and how important our universities are to our society. They too inspire me!

If you had to choose a different career path, what would you be interested in exploring? 

I probably would not choose a different career because I have loved what I did as a performer and I love my teaching as a professor. BUT if I had to choose another career, it would be either a researcher in Education for students with learning differences, or Music Therapy because I think it is a field that is also so inspiring and will play an even bigger role in society in the future.

How do you like to spend your spare time?

I don’t have much, but I like traveling to different countries particularly with some good friends. We love to learn about the culture of the country, meet the people and of course go to the operas and other musical events. However, what I really like to do is go to what I call my ‘refuge,’ which is the home my Grandfather built in a little village of 700 people called Warkworth. It is beautiful, peaceful, the people are interesting, kind, accepting and just plain folks.

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