Jonelle Sills: “I am choosing not to be lazy but to engage in conversations and ask questions.”

by | Feb 28, 2021 | Featured, Interviews, News

This is the continuation of a new series of Q&As with the artists of Canada’s opera scene. After our “Quarantine Questions” from the spring/summer of 2020, we’re checking in once again with these artists as they share new perspectives on mid-pandemic opera. Next up: soprano Jonelle Sills:

After nearly a year away from a “normal” performance calendar, what perspective have you gained about the worlds of opera and classical music? What is its importance to you, and how does this compare to this time last year?

“The last couple of months have allowed me to gain a revolutionary perspective of opera. I’ve been inspired by my colleagues to challenge traditions and the culture that surrounds opera. I’ve seen that when the art form has been challenged it has released new levels of creativity and engagement in its surrounding communities.

“I’ve always believed that at its core, opera has the power to be revolutionary, and we see that in history books that it was. I think before everything was turned upside down, that the busyness of life and the hustle allowed me to be lazy with what I expected from the opera world. Although it was a draining year for much of opera I think that it has energized me to hold onto the revolution in opera.

“A year later I am choosing not to be lazy but to engage in conversations and ask questions. Especially with all that 2020 brought our way, I oddly feel more focused on the purpose for my singing. 2020 was a mess but ‘mess’ motivates me to do my part and start cleaning what I can.”

Jonelle Sills

Jonelle Sills in a HISAII Jamii Esplanade Pop-Up Performance, Toronto, 2020. Photo by Matthew Bennet.

What do you miss the most about giving and hearing live performances?

“I miss the energy of the audience! I feel that an audience has a certain buzz that I can feed off of. I miss walking on a stage and greeting an audience, with warm bright lights welcoming you on stage like a hug. Depending on the space and how many lights there are it can make the audience feel like one ball of energy, like a single entity. Not sure if that makes sense but I miss that! I even miss live auditions! That surprised me, I never thought I’d say that but recording auditions can be a struggle.

What activities or pursuits have you taken up since last March? Do you have any new interests or passions you can tell us about?

“My two new favourite interests are working out and braiding my hair. I love working out to YouTube workouts by Heather Robertson, a Canadian trainer. I LOVE her YouTube channel and always look forward to doing her workouts. They are short and intense, I feel like I’ve gained so much strength doing her workouts.

“My friends and family know that I am dedicated to my hair. So with the extra time I decided to learn some new styles and techniques for my hair. There are many protective hairstyles that black women have mastered for centuries, and I have started to build my technique with Passion twists and Box braids. YouTube has taught me a lot through this pandemic!”

What advice do you have for your fellow artists, for staying motivated and engaged during such a difficult time?

“Focus on your family, community and faith (anything that you can believe in religiously or not). I think that this has been a big help for me and also helped me find purpose and ground me when everything has been turned upside down. Focusing on growing these three areas of my life has helped me stay motivated in why I do what I do. Take it one day at a time…we’ll be ok.”

Jonelle Sills

Jonelle Sills in a HISAII Jamii Esplanade Pop-Up Performance, Toronto, 2020. Photo by Matthew Bennet.

When performances can resume, what do you think opera can or should say with its output? What sort of platform will it have, post-COVID?

“When performances can resume… I think opera should tap into more of its potential. In my opinion, I think that I’ve limited opera to simply being a form of entertainment and something exclusive. I believe that we all know that it can do more than that. I think we should tap into more of the controversy and revolutionary parts of opera. Let’s keep having conversations and asking questions about what we produce and why we do it. I think that it will allow for progress to keep happening.”

Jenna Simeonov

Jenna is the editor and co-creator of Schmopera. She also writes for The Globe and Mail and Opera Canada. She’s a pianist and vocal coach, and working with singers is how she fell in love with opera.



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