Ana Sokolović, composition teacher and major international figure in contemporary music, is the new Canada Research Chair in Opera Creation.
Since Ana Sokolović moved to Montreal from her native Serbia in 1992 to complete a Master’s degree in composition at UdeM, big things have happened for her every 10 years or so. In 2001, she received her first commission from the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. Her piece Oro was performed at Théâtre Maisonneuve with Charles Dutoit conducting.
In 2011-2012, the Société de musique contemporaine du Québec (SMCQ) dedicated the third edition of its “Hommage” tribute performance series to Sokolović. Two hundred concerts and activities were held across Canada featuring her work, which already included some 40 pieces at the time.
Now she has been awarded the Canada Research Chair in Opera Creation. “We are delighted to have our first research-creation chair at UdeM, since the chairs are usually only for research,” said Sokolović, who began teaching composition at UdeM in 2006 or 2007 as a visiting professor and has been full time since 2011.
An extension of teaching
Sokolović sees the Canada Research Chair as an extension of her teaching. “In my classes, I deal with the same issues that I encounter in my own work as a composer,” she said. “I work the questions and problems I come up against into my teaching in order to prepare the students for professional life. After all, music is, by default, a collaborative effort, and that is especially true in the world of opera.”
The new chair is also a logical continuation of the opera creation course that has existed for several years at UdeM and has led to relationships with other faculties and with organizations outside the university. “It started with a collaboration with the École de danse contemporaine de Montreal,” Sokolović recalled. “That was the easiest partnership, since dance and music connect naturally.”
That first step has led to other alliances. “For example, this year I’m teaching a course on opera creation which I’m really enjoying,” said Sokolović. “It’s a two-year course and in the second year, the works produced in the first year will be presented at the Opéra de Montreal.” The project consists in research on reinventing opera for pandemic conditions. Sokolović went on to list the people involved: “Professor Olivier Asselin from the film department is teaching the course with us, along with Marie-Josèphe Vallée, a professor of design at the Design School in the Faculty of Environmental Design, playwriting professors Diane Pavlovic and Andrea Romaldi from the National Theatre School of Canada, and choreographer Sarah Bild, who teaches at the École de danse contemporaine de Montreal.” They are working together to create operas that won’t just be filmed in the traditional way but will incorporate virtual reality and augmented reality. “You could say this is the Chair’s starting point, but other activities will certainly be added in the future,” said Sokolović.
Art has been part of Sokolović’s life since her early childhood. She studied classical ballet and took theatre and piano lessons before undertaking university studies in composition, which she completed in Montreal. Her sound is influenced by her passion for different forms of artistic expression, as well as Balkan folklore and its lively, festive rhythms.
The importance Sokolović attaches to bringing opera into the modern world quickly became apparent in the course of our conversation. “In the days of baroque opera, there was no electric lighting, so they worked by candlelight,” she explained. “As technology has changed, so too has opera. So how can we use the technology we have today to produce opera that is still relevant, compelling, and speaks to the audience? That’s what my Chair is all about: exploring what total art can be in today’s world.” She explained that opera is referred to as a total art form because it embraces so many artistic disciplines (voice, visual arts, staging, theatre, costumes, etc.).
Which brings us back to the 10-year cycle in Sokolović’s career. The Canada Research Chair in Opera Creation is the latest milestone and Sokolović sees it as the continuation of her 30-year love affair with Quebec. To keep a love story alive, there has to be effort on both sides, she pointed out, and that has been true in her case: “From the moment I arrived I felt very welcome, because Quebecers have big hearts,” she recalled. “Because I felt at home here and free, I wanted to make an effort on my side by taking an interest in the culture and the people. It all ties together and this honour [the chair] is more than a musical recognition to me. I was recognized in contemporary music circles in my first year here; I got commissions, I made friends, formed relationships with colleagues. But this Chair is broader; beyond the pedagogical component, it involves sharing research with society.”
In addition to teaching at UdeM, Sokolović is an accomplished composer whose works have been mounted around the world. Her opera Svadba has been performed a hundred times. Last summer, Boston Lyric Opera made a film version, directed and choreographed by Shura Baryshnikov (the daughter of Jessica Lange and Mikhail Baryshnikov). It will be released early this year on the operabox.tv platform.
And that’s not all! After winning Juno Awards for her works Golden Slumbers Kiss Your Eyes (2019) and Evta (2020), and picking up two nominations in 2021 (for the composition Commedia dell’arte and the album Ana Sokolović: Short Stories, recorded by Quatuor Bozzini), Sokolović is continuing a three-year residency at the Montreal Symphony and working on The Old Fools, a new opera for the Canadian Opera Company that will premiere this year.