Laura Adlers is a culture manager and producer with extensive experience working in the private, not-for-profit and public sectors in Canada, the United States and internationally. She has been the Executive Director of The Elora Singers and Festival since March 2020. In addition to her work as a culture manager and producer, she is also a published translator and regular contributor to the award-winning Latvian Literature platform, which was established to promote Latvian literature and its distribution abroad. She was a member of the second MMIAM cohort and was the first editor of the MMIAM Journey.
To get to know Laura, please visit her initial spotlight, continue reading for an update on what she’s been up to since stepping down as MMIAM Journey editor, including her work with The Elora Singers.
Wow, I can’t believe how long it’s been since we saw each other in snowy Toronto! How have you been?
I’ve been well! It’s been six years since I finished the MMIAM program. It’s mind-boggling how time has passed! And of course, nothing could have prepared us for the last two years.
You know, I had planned to work with government and foundations, on the funding side of things, developing national and international programs for the cultural sector, and here I am, six years later, working in the field I have been most passionate about throughout my career, but on an international scale, and during a pandemic!
I was working for the federal government, with Canadian Heritage and Global Affairs in Ottawa, and I secured several short-term contracts, but was unable to land a permanent position. I learned a lot and worked on some very interesting projects, for which I am grateful.
While working with the government, I was doing consulting work for several clients in Canada and produced some very interesting events, including Canadian tours for Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds and the State Choir LATVIJA. The Elora Festival, with whom I’d done some contract work, was looking for a managing director for The Elora Singers and for the Festival, so I moved from Gatineau to Guelph at the end of February 2020. Ten days after starting in this new position, we were shut down due to the pandemic! So, my entire tenure has been one part crisis management and two parts innovation and organizational growth!
Wow. How have things been there?
We’re fortunate here. Elora is about an hour and a half northwest of Toronto. Many of our colleagues in larger cities have fared less well because of population density, therefore higher COVID cases and far greater restrictions. Elora is a very small village with artists’ studios, galleries and privately-owned restaurants and shops, a highly entrepreneurial community. It’s a very supportive community as well and The Elora Singers and Festival contribute greatly to the economy. I have a picturesque drive through the countryside on my way to work. In terms of COVID, I think we are at an advantage because we’re in such a small community and it’s about 95 percent fully vaccinated now.
So, at this point we’ve just been catching up, but let’s back up a bit. Will you tell me a little about The Elora Singers and the Festival?
The Elora Singers are one of Canada’s premiere professional choirs, with 24 singers, led by Artistic Director Mark Vuorinen. The choir has a regular concert season between September and May, and then for three weeks in July, the Singers are the ensemble-in-residence at the Elora Festival. They are two separate organizations, but both are run by Mark and me, and governed by the same board of directors.
The Elora Festival is Canada’s only international choral festival, founded 43 years ago. The main concert venue is a big barn that’s used to store salt and sand for our icy, snowy winters for most of the year, but around the end of May, it is transformed into a glorious concert hall. Interestingly, because the last two years have been relatively silent because of the pandemic, I haven’t actually produced a live Elora Festival yet, but we’re planning to return to the barn next summer!
So, let’s talk a bit about COVID and choirs specifically. With the way the virus is transmitted, choirs were originally labeled as super-spreaders. How has that affected the almost two years you’ve been in your role?
By mid-March of 2020, everything was shut down. I had to lay everybody off and it was just Mark and me working through what was possible at that time. The first few months of the pandemic, we had board meetings very regularly, every 10 days or so. Our number one priority was to ensure that we could find a way to engage and employ our singers and to continue creating quality art
Yes, choirs were characterized as super-spreader events early in the pandemic, because the virus is transmitted through aerosols and the act of singing emits aerosols, and in fact there were several incidents around the world of COVID infections following choral rehearsals and concerts.
One of the wonderful things to come out of this pandemic was that the administrative and artistic leadership of ten of Canada’s professional choirs started meeting via Zoom on a regular basis to share our experiences and research and work together to advocate for government guidelines which would allow for the safe return of choirs to singing. We’re such a big country and every province has different regulations, depending on what is happening with the pandemic in their province. So, we were comparing notes and following the science to find a way to move forward and keep our artists employed and creating art. This level of peer collaboration has been invaluable to us!
In August of 2020, we presented a three-day online festival, where we engaged some of the artists who were planned for the original festival. They recorded one-hour performances in the safety of their own homes or studios. The Elora Singers created some videos where everyone recorded their parts from home. By Christmas last year, we’d created a three-concert series, recorded with the whole choir in one space. We rented a former church with a wonderful acoustic value and the singers sang with masks on.
This past summer, we had a more fulsome online festival. We presented nine concerts, four with The Elora Singers, and asked several international choirs to send us their pre-recorded concerts. We have gained a lot of experience in filming concert productions! It’s amazing what we’ve learned over the past two years.
In early Fall, we recorded a Christmas CD—Radiant Dawn—with the Singers performing for the first time in two years without masks.
And finally, we had our first live performance with an audience in November! It was the first time The Elora Singers sang in public without masks. It was a very emotional experience for everyone. Audience members, staff, volunteers and artists had to be double vaccinated, and we were doing rapid testing with all artists on all rehearsal and performance days. It is important to note that, throughout the pandemic, none of our Singers or staff have ever tested positive for COVID following any of our recording sessions.
We must never forget the silence we have experienced – two years without live performances in concert halls. This pandemic and the absence of live performances around the world has clearly demonstrated the case for supporting the arts and the value the arts have in our communities.
That’s amazing! So, it sounds like you’ve truly turned your attention online. Do you see that changing?
One of our challenges is that our core audience is 65+, and they’re not often fond of or comfortable with online viewing. We keep this core demographic in mind with all of our planning. They are not only at the heart of our community, but they are also our primary sponsors and donors. We have taken great care to ensure they are able to view concerts online while we slowly return to live performances.
By presenting programs online, however, we are also reaching new, younger audiences, and have also reached a new national and international audience, which has opened many doors for us during this unprecedented time. We have engaged an international manager, Timothy Wayne-Wright, who is based in New Zealand, with whom we are able to share our digital content, which he can then use to pitch The Elora Singers to festival presenters around the world.
We know there is nothing like live performances, but we know that a digital presence will also be a part of our artistic plan going forward.
So, you mentioned earlier that you come to this position with almost 30 years of experience. Would you share something you’ve learned along the way?
The first ten-odd years of my career were volunteer-based. I organized cultural events in the Latvian community in Canada and volunteered for other cultural organizations, while gaining valuable experience working in marketing and administrative roles in the not-for-profit and private sectors. It was essential to understanding the inner workings of the field of arts management, to pulling back the curtain, so to speak. There were no post-secondary or graduate programs for arts management when I was starting out, so I dove in and tried to gain as much diverse experience in the field as I could, until I was working full time as the General Manager of the Amadeus Choir of Toronto. I have also had some very generous mentors along the way, who have been invaluable to me over the course of my career. I would advise anyone interested in a career in this field to do the same — to gain as much experience as possible, either volunteer or paid work, and to find trusted mentors to work with.
The MMIAM program is a great program for those who have been working in the cultural sector for a while, who can bring that experience to the coursework, particularly when learning about international perspectives in arts management.
Ok, so last question: you mentioned that we haven’t covered a lot of choirs. I suspect that people may not know that much about choral music as an art form. If you were going to suggest where to get started with choral music, where could we start?
Choral Canada conducted a national survey in 2017, which revealed that 3.5 million Canadians sing in choirs and that there are 50 percent more adult choral singers than hockey players in this country! About one in every four Canadian children sing in a choir. Choral singing is huge in Canada, and we have many wonderful choirs and choral composers whose works are performed around the world. Multiply these numbers by the many other nations that have rich choral traditions and I think it’s fair to say choral singers are amongst the greatest number of amateur artists in the world!
My family is originally from Latvia, where the choral tradition is an integral part of the national identity. In a land of less than two million people, there are over 300 amateur choirs, and almost as many conductors! The country’s tourism slogan in recent years has been: “Latvia – the Land that Sings!”
Since 1873, Latvians have organized Song Celebrations every five years, even during the Soviet regime, where thousands of singers perform in the amphitheater in Mežaparks, near the Baltic shore. I sang in this choir in 1990, just before the fall of the Soviet regime. It was one of the most powerful experiences of my life. Here is a clip from this concert of Edgars Račevskis conducting Lūcija Garuta’s “Mūsu Tēvs” (The Lord’s Prayer). The look of hope and longing for a free country can be seen on every face in this choir and the lighting of candles was a spontaneous peaceful protest against the regime. This is but a glimpse into the power of choral music, both as an art form and as a powerful force in the history of a nation. It was one of many experiences that made me want to work with professional-level choirs and promote both Latvian and Canadian choral music internationally.
You will find many more videos of the Latvian Song Celebrations and The Elora Singers on YouTube!
*Laura Adlers’ headshot credit: Peter Skoggard.