Emma Pennell remembers the day the email arrived, bringing big news.
It was a moment, Pennell, a two-spirit Mi’kmaw of Ktaqmkuk, had been dreaming of since arriving at Western four years ago.
A double take at the casting list confirmed it was finally happening.
They’d be performing as Alice Ford, a principal role in Opera at Western‘s production of Falstaff.
“The minute I realized I got the part, I squealed, because I wanted it for so long,” Pennell said. “I’d seen others sing these roles for the past four years. I knew I wanted to be in that moment, on that stage, with the light on me, in costume.
“I started crying, did a little happy dance, and I called my grandma right away.”
It was Pennell’s grandmother, a singer and fiddle player, who cultivated their love of music growing up in South River, Ont.
She took Pennell to sing at all the county fairs – and to audition for “Sundridge Fall Fair Idol” when they were 10 years old.
Pennell, excited to make the cut, sang out “one big Hallelujah,” as they exited the building.
The celebratory outburst brought the judges running.
“They asked my grandmother if she had sung it. When she told them it was me, they made me come back in and sing parts of the Hallelujah Chorus. One of the comments written on my adjudication sheet said I should seriously consider classical voice and opera.”
It was a notion Pennell put away as they competed in Kiwanis music festivals and took part in choir and band as a teen. It resurfaced only after they enrolled in the music program at Cambrian College, at the encouragement of their high school music teacher.
Heading to the first day of classes, they were expecting to sing pop songs. That all changed when they heard a classmate sing in an operatic style.
“I had never heard anyone sing with such grandiose before,” Pennell said. “I was equal parts amazed and terrified. I caught the bug for opera that day and started lessons that week. I fell in love with the genre, and it’s been an incredible journey ever since.”
With their advanced diploma in vocal performance in hand, they felt ready “to study opera seriously.” They chose Western, where they’ve studied under operatic tenor and lecturer Torin Chiles.
Here, they raised their voice – not only as Alice Ford in Falstaff – but in advocating for increased Indigenous visibility and inclusion.
Performing in the opera as Ford was “the absolute pinnacle” for Pennell.
“There is something so special about this art form. You put in the time and make all these close friendships with people in the cast. You get to know the characters so deeply, come to love the stories and there’s a certain point where you’re so excited to tell that story to the audience.”
One special audience included Pennell’s grandmother – and grandfather, who is in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s disease.
“After the show, my grandfather looked at me and said, ‘You sang today, right?’ I want you to know, I am so proud of you.’ It was the most lucid I’d seen him in two years. He knew who I was and was proud of me in my first lead operatic role. I will carry that with me forever.”
‘Loud and proud’
Family is important to Pennell, as is their Indigeneity, something they explored more deeply at Western.
“I wanted to learn more about myself and the community around me,” they said.
They took an introduction to Indigenous Studies course taught by professor Diana Lewis, who left a lasting impression.
“She made such a huge impact on me. She inspired a lot of my writing, research, and even my music. Her willingness to talk about uncomfortable things and make space for dialogue and questions moved me to choose Indigenous studies as my minor. I wanted to continue to learn from scholars like her.”
Unlike their college experience closer to home, where Pennell was surrounded by Indigenous musicians, they felt somewhat alone arriving at Western.
They sought out connections through the Indigenous Student Centre and later, at the Wampum Learning Lodge. They also became more intentional, presenting themselves fully, at every opportunity, within their faculty.
“I made a point of telling people who I am, so they would be comfortable identifying themselves, too. I’m not just Emma, a musician. I’m Emma, an Indigenous musician. I’m a package deal.
Studying music, with a majority of white students, I wanted to be in the room, loud and proud of who I am.”
The approach worked. They began connecting with other Indigenous students in their program, and more broadly, through their role as head soph for the Don Wright Faculty of Music.
As vice-president of communication of the Faculty’s choir council, the music students’ council, and as the founder and coordinator of the Faculty of Music Indigenous Leadership Initiative, they spoke up about the importance of inviting Indigenous artists and performers to the Faculty.
“There’s a community of Indigenous opera singers and musicians who love what they do and their identity and culture too,” Pennell said. “I wanted to talk to them, learn from them and hear how they got there.”
Their efforts paid off, leading to another memorable moment – a day shadowing Canadian/Indigenous (Métis) mezzo soprano Rebecca Cuddy, BMus’15, and joining her backstage at the National Truth and Reconciliation performance at Koerner Hall, in Toronto.
“That was a turning point for me. I advocated for something Indigenous, and it finally came. I got to meet Rebecca, befriend her and get a glimpse into her world. It helped me see I want this life. It was incredibly important to me.”
Leaving on a high note
This August, Pennell will take part in the Canadian Opera Company’s Summer Opera Intensive, along with four other singers and one pianist from the Don Wright Faculty of Music.The one-week, tuition-free program is designed for advanced singers and collaborative pianists, offering world-class training, group classes and private coaching.
Come September, Pennell will pursue an artist diploma at The Glenn Gould School, The Royal Conservatory of Music’s internationally recognized centre for professional training in music performance at the post-secondary and post-graduate levels.
The program is highly competitive. Out of the 130 students in the course, Pennell, and Western classmate, Sophia Daunt, are two of the only three voice students accepted. (Daunt will be studying with Western music graduate Adrianne Pieczonka, BMus’85, DMus’12.)
While standing proud of who they are, when reflecting on their success, Pennell is happy, but humble.
“Even though I’ve worked hard, I always say I’m ‘stupidly lucky’ and in the right place at the right time. I know many people growing up who could have taken my place here but couldn’t afford to. I don’t take that for granted.”