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Karen Santos is pure art

2020 DFOM graduate Karen Santos brings a whole new meaning to performance art

June 12, 2020 — 

NOTE: We in the Desautels Faculty of Music are incredibly proud of our students. While COVID-19 is sidelining in-person commencement ceremonies around the globe, we want to find alternate ways to celebrate our graduates and give them the recognition due to them. Until we can gather together to properly applaud the years of study and practice that have led to this milestone, please join us in congratulating our 2020 Desautels Faculty of Music graduates.


Today we celebrate Karen Santos!

For someone who has walked away with so many awards and accolades, 2020 DFOM graduate Karen Santos arrived on the scene surprisingly late. However, creativity and art run through her veins.

While she sang as a child, she did not begin formal lessons until she was 16, and when she left her hometown of Mexico City, Mexico to pursue a university education at the University of British Columbia, she chose to study visual arts. There, she became an impressive artist, with beautiful works spanning everything from landscapes to mood exploration to portraits.

However, while at UBC, Santos was moved by a different art.

“I joined a choir and I was hooked, so I decided to study opera next!” she says of the music that led her career as an artist in an additional direction.

After a successful audition for the Desautels Faculty of Music’s Master of Music program, rather than eschewing other art forms, Santos, a soprano, simply added it into her musical work, and used it to enrich her craft.

We say simply not because it is an easy feat, but because Santos makes it appear so!

“I am certainly convinced that when God was handing out talents, Karen just kept standing back in line,” says Monica Huisman, vocal instructor in the Desautels Faculty of Music, and Santos’ major practical study instructor.

“Not only is Karen an incredible singer with a gorgeous, lush soprano voice, she is an amazing visual artist as well. Both of her recitals contained paintings, sculptures and other artistic elements that Karen uses in a way to bring all of her worlds together,” she says.

“She’s a singer where not only does poetry matter, but the subject matter behind the poetry – world events, history, and in particular for this last recital, the power of women,” adds Huisman.

“She has painted portraits of fellow students to use in her recital, as well as a sculpture,” adds Desautels voice instructor Tracy Dahl, who also worked with Santos in the faculty.

“She once painted a piece of art while performing her dress rehearsal and then made a gown to match,” marvels Dahl of Santos’ diverse and simultaneous talents.

Santos remains a prolific painter, and accepts commissions. Her full body of work can been seen on her website, HERE.


A new definition of performance art

Santos has been an integral part of the Desautels Faculty of Music’s opera productions, performing in both the Opera Theatre and Desautels Chamber Opera Group ensembles. No artistic challenge has been too great for her, and she has explored many offbeat and surprising roles. Her talents earned her the title role in the Desautels Chamber Opera Group’s production of G.F. Handel’s Rodrigo.

The performance marked the Canadian premiere of the work, and Santos’ portrayal of the corrupt king, her performance, and stage presence were remarkable.

“That was such a great challenge because I had to act like a king who is overusing his power,” says Santos, who was a Marcel A. Desautels scholar throughout her time in the faculty.

“What a joy to have Karen around,” says voice Mel Braun, who, with Opera Studies Coordinator Katherine Twaddle, helps to lead the Desautels Opera ensembles.

“Her endless curiosity and enthusiasm, along with her willingness to take on the hard personal questions and to do the work necessary to grow as a singer made her an invaluable part of the Desautels community. Add to that her already burgeoning career as a painter and you have somebody ready to take on the world and make it a better place,” Braun adds.

This past year, Santos also portrayed a siren in Ana Sokolovic’s marvelously avant-garde Six voix pour sirènes, performed with the University of Manitoba Opera Theatre. The scene opens on a group of mythical women silently eating Jell-O, and then crescendos further into weirdness as the women onstage cacophonously find and use their unique voices.

Also this past year, Santos was one of the winners of the Desautels Faculty of Music’s concerto competition, which earned her a place performing as a soloist with the University of Manitoba Wind Ensemble under the baton of Desautels Director of Bands Jacquie Dawson.

“I was very happy to have won in the Concerto competition and then to perform with the U fo M Wind Ensemble,” she says.

“We performed two Spanish pieces by Matthew Tommasini that Jacquie chose. It was so moving to perform in my native language and the Wind Ensemble was so amazing!” she says of the experience.

Santos has also been very active in the greater music community, performing with both Manitoba Underground Opera and Flipside Opera, even performing dual roles in a single piece for Flipside’s Opera Fright Night in 2019.


Credit Recital

Due to the disruption caused by COVID-19, the Desautels Faculty of Music had to cancel all of its remaining events for the 2019-2020 season. In addition to final ensemble performances, about 40 student credit recitals were cancelled, including those of graduating students, whose final credit recitals serve as a sort of capstone project showcasing what they have learned throughout their studies. Unfortunately, Santos’ recital was among the cancellations.

She had planned to perform a diverse repertoire, including Vado, ma dove? and Tiger, wetze nur die Klauen! By Mozart, Die Lorelei by Liszt, Lia’s Aria by Debussy, Poema en forma de canciones by Turina, Op. 83 “Love Songs” by Dvorak, and Touch me by Cipullo.

Her recital would have also included the piece that has became her favourite in the faculty, and one that she hopes to recycle again and again.

“One of my proudest achievements is to get to work on At the Statue of Venus. It is a very touching musical scene that is 25 minutes long. I was even allowed to put it in my recital! I hope I get to perform it lots of times in my life!” she says of the soaring piece by Jake Heggie.

Fortunately for all of us, Santos has found a way to perform her Master’s credit recital during the pandemic. On Sunday, June 14th, she will take the virtual stage for Opera Nuova’s Coast-to-Coast series of opera performances. You can find more information about her upcoming performance HERE.

When it comes to next steps, Santos is not discouraged by the current pandemic.

“Unfortunately some performances have been canceled, but the plan is that I will continue to teach in the fall. I am also looking to study a doctorate in Vocal Pedagogy,” she says.


Faculty mentors

Did Santos have any faculty mentors?

“Obviously all of them, but the ones I worked most closely with, who basically changed my life were Monica Huisman, Laura Loewen, Mel Braun, Tracy Dahl and Katherine Twaddle,” she says.

Her faculty members very clearly feel the same about her and are effusive in their praise of her.

“I loved my lessons with Karen, as she always brought an amazing positive energy, and an incredible thirst for knowledge into the room every time,” says Huisman.

“No detail was too small, and her work ethic is second to none. Having not only mastered English, with Spanish as her first language, she has mastered French, Italian as well as Czech this year! The sky is the limit for this amazingly talented young professional. I have no doubt she will have success wherever her many talents take her. I will miss many things about working with her, not least of all her phrase ‘otro mas‘, which means ‘another one’. Try again, until you get it! This is her philosophy, and I can’t wait for what she will ‘try again’ until she blooms into yet the next chapter of her artistic life journey,” Huisman says.

“Karen is truly a unique student in our faculty,” says Dahl.

“Her talents are many, her generosity is large, and her work ethic is second to none. She is a renaissance woman with all her artistic gifts. She is a creative human being. She has a tremendous curiosity. The depth with which she explores all facets of music is awesome. I love that she is interesting to me. I want to know what she will bring to music. It is a lovely marriage of her passion for music and her own personal energy that engages the teacher or the listener and makes us excited to work more intensely or as an audience member to hear her perform again. I am excited to see where her career will take her,” Dahl adds.

Karen Santos is a force to be reckoned with, and we can’t wait to see what she does next. Whatever it is, it will exponentially expand the worlds of art and music, and make the universe a more exciting and beautiful place.

Congratulations, Karen!

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