‘Diligence and determination’: The first Black woman conductor in Canadian opera history will lead an all-Black orchestra in Toronto

The globally acclaimed Panamanian-American conductor and violinist will be the first Black woman conductor in Canadian opera history (Courtesy: Kalena Bovell)


There’s nothing quite like the sound of classical music being played by an orchestra and anyone who has ever had front row seats to a live show can attest to this.

Now, imagine standing face to face with the various instruments, and those playing them, and having a say in how those beautiful multi-layered sound waves carry across the room.

That’s the reality of Kalena Bovell, an orchestra conductor already breaking barriers in Canada after recently stepping foot in the country’s largest city for the very first time.

The globally acclaimed Panamanian-American conductor and violinist will be the first Black woman conductor in Canadian opera history and will lead the first all-Black orchestra for the nation’s history in Toronto this summer.

The all-Black orchestra will take centre stage at the Bluma Appel Theatre in the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts from Jun. 6 to 17, courtesy of TO Live, Luminato Festival Toronto, and produced by Volcano in association with The Canadian Opera Company, Soulpepper, and Moveable Beast.

For Bovell, representation is everything and growing up Afro-latina, she understands the weight she carries in representing two major demographics that seldom get the spotlight to shine in her field.

Bovell credits her success to her “diligence and determination.”

“There is no one path. You have to find your own journey and be persistent in pursuing that journey,” Bovell told Now Toronto in a phone interview on Friday.

Bovell’s journey began at the age of 11 when she picked up the violin for the first time, which she said was a late start compared to violinists who tend to start as toddlers and have private teachers.

Still, she worked her way up and made a name for herself in the industry.

At a basic level, a conductor is the glue that keeps an orchestra in perfect unison, on time and together.

Essentially, Bovell takes any given music sheet and brings it alive through gestures and emotions.

In a few months, Bovell will bring to life the musical reimagining of Scott Joplin’s “Treemonisha” the story of a young female freedom fighter.

The opera was set soon after the abolition of slavery.

The sounds will merge European classical music with ragtime, folk, and gospel to “create a thrilling and distinct sound.”

“I think the one thing that people may not expect is how relatable it is,” Bovell said.

“[It’s about a] Black leader who brings two different communities together. And so the underlying story tones of opera have to do with classism, and education, and just kind of also look at your cultural experience.”

You can purchase tickets to the show here.



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