by Deirdre Kelly
photography by Alexander Vlad
Up-and-coming lyric soprano Jonelle Sills (BFA ’16, BEd ’16) is on her way to putting her mark on Canada’s thriving opera scene. One of York University’s Top 30 Changemakers Under 30, she is one of only a handful of Black women performing in the rarefied world of opera – a situation she hopes to change by becoming a trailblazer in the field.
“Representation in the arts is important,” says the youngest of five children born to British-Guyanese immigrant parents in Markham, Ont. “My hope is that other Black singers see me and know that it’s possible to push ahead and get noticed. It’s the work that counts.”
As Sills is quick to point out, there are no overnight sensations in her profession. The road to success is long and arduous, requiring a dogged sense of commitment to complete the journey. Her own experience attests to that. She grew up singing in church and, after showing promise as a child, her mother enrolled her in Toronto’s Bach Children’s Chorus at the age of 12.
Following years of private coaching with Barbara Fris, the teacher who told her she had what it takes to become a professional singer, Sills went on to study voice at York University with Stephanie Bogle, an acclaimed soprano with extensive operatic experience on the world stage. Bogle took Sills’s raw talent and made it soar. “I was pretty rough when I arrived at York,” she says, “and I experienced a lot of failures. But I set a series of small goals for myself, and I didn’t give up. I’ve been given a gift from God, and I knew not to waste it.”
Post-graduation, at Bogle’s recommendation, Sills enrolled at The Royal Conservatory of Music’s Glenn Gould School, where she took master classes with soprano Adrianne Pieczonka and Canadian Opera Company veteran Liz Upchurch. The warmth and power of her vocal line established Sills as one to watch by the time she left the program in 2018. After a couple of years performing roles in works such as Benjamin Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia, Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro and more. Doing community engagement work with Jamii, a community based arts organization with links to Canadian Stage, Sills landed her first major contract, a 2019 production of Claude Vivier’s contemporary opera Kopernikus. Staged by Toronto’s celebrated Against the Grain Theatre company, the show went on to earn a Dora for best ensemble performance, an auspicious beginning for a singer on the rise.
Other opportunities soon followed. In 2019, Against the Grain cast her again, in a lead role this time, for a touring production of Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème, which it presented in dive bars across Canada. She performed Mimi, opera’s most famous consumptive heroine, and loved every minute. “That was a dream role,” says Sills, whose stellar performance as Mimi earned her a position on Canada’s 30 hot classical musicians under 30 list, published by CBC Music.
During the pandemic, when theatres were closed, Sills remained busy. She participated in online performances and performed with the National Arts Centre Orchestra under the baton of Alexander Shelley. She also moved out West at this time to become a member of Vancouver Opera’s Yulanda M. Faris Young Artists Program.
Her roles since joining the organization in 2021 have included Masha in Richard Wargo’s chamber piece The Music Shop and Micaëla in a scaled-down production of Georges Bizet’s Carmen. Sills performed these works with “glorious soprano finesse” and “sure technique and gracious stage presence,” to quote the critics. This year, the now-30-year-old soprano made her mainstage debut, performing the role of Helena in Vancouver Opera’s production of Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which opened in February. “I just keep telling myself to keep going, to keep moving forward,” Sills says. “The goal is to be the best singer I can be.” ■