Alexandra Babbel leads a joyful and inspired life, complete with tragedy and revelation, a rich family history, some deep, genuine belly laughs, and adventures both across the globe and into the figurative unknown.
Her latest adventure combines a lifelong passion with more than two decades of professional success and a dream to redefine opportunities and possibilities for operatic arts in the Okanagan.
As Opera Kelowna’s founding artistic director, Alexandra is determined to see lives changed through the arts.
“Opera is the perfect vehicle for bringing arts together, and it’s for the average Joe. Even if you can’t relate to the sounds, maybe you can relate to the costumes or the hair or the makeup. You will walk out of the show feeling filled.”
She learns, she shares, she teaches – and she can belt it out with the best of them from the highest mountain tops around the world. A lyric soprano with a list of credits and credentials that rivals most Hollywood actresses, Alexandra admits starting her own non-profit organization has been the biggest challenge yet.
“I had a very unique upbringing and the whole perspective on life was that you can make it if you go for it. If you don’t know what you want to be, just keep getting educated,” says Alexandra, reflecting on the wise words of her parents.
“I think I’ve had more education in the last year than all of my post graduate studies combined,” she laughs.
Opera Kelowna’s inaugural season, aptly named Primo Respiro, or First Breath, serves as an intentional metaphor for her journey in more ways than one.
Alexandra is the youngest and first American-born member of her large German-Ukrainian family. Growing up, she always knew there was something strange about the way she perceived sound.
“I had this habit of lying in bed and making every noise I could think of. It was like sounds came to me in colour,” she says of those unusual first sensations she later learned were a form of synaesthesia.
“Sounds and colours came to me in a way I could not explain.”
Although she grew up around music and shared in the booming, jubilant delivery of traditional European folk songs with her family, it wasn’t until university that she first discovered her own voice and her love of opera.
“I went to my first opera at 17 and I bawled the whole time. The music is emotional and it’s the moving breath that gets visceral for me. When someone is spending their breath to give me a sound, it moves me,” she says.
Kelowna’s first opera company is in many ways a symphony of firsts, not the least of which include making world class classical music accessible to the public and tangible to young artists in the Okanagan.
Alexandra says her father always encouraged her to pursue teaching, but she was a performer at heart in the early days of her career. Now, ironically, she says her greatest reward comes from watching her students succeed.
“These kids can go on auditions with the experience of saying they sang or performed in a top level show with a full orchestra. They are paddling upstream to be classical singers, so that’s huge for them.”
The next step is to continually elevate the calibre of education at Opera Kelowna. Her mission, she says, is to recruit the world’s best talent to train with her students.
On her hit list of prospective instructors is Barbara Bonney, an American-born soprano who now teaches at the Mozarteum University in Salzburg. Bonney is generally considered one of the greatest sopranos of her time.
For students to be able to say they trained under someone like Bonney, Alexandra says, is an incredible opportunity.
The ultimate goal, at least for the short term, is for opera to become a regular fixture in the Okanagan arts scene. Alexandra says she wants to see a main stage opera production passing through Kelowna at least once a year.
“I want to bring something to Kelowna that lifts the community up. It’s good for us spiritually to have these life giving and life bringing events in the community. Why not the Okanagan? We can have the best of the best here.”
For more information on Opera Kelowna and its upcoming productions and educational programmes, visit www.operakelowna.com
Alexandra Babbel: Changing Lives Through the Arts
Story by: Melissa Ligertwood
Photos by: Darren Hull