Opera and outreach

Musician Breana Stillman credits the Italian community in Victoria for inspiring her love of opera. A talk about a music festival in her adopted town of Todi (Umbria) and OperAffinity’s commitment to bridge cultural gaps

Tell us about your background in music and management that led to the founding of OperAffinity.

My love for music surprised my family. They were not musical. I started playing the piano at the age of 6 and then took up the flute and saxophone, but singing filled my heart with joy. I was extremely fortunate with all my music teachers, who played a big part in my wanting to inspire younger generations and pass on the wonderful experience that music gave me at a young age. After completing my education in Australia and the UK, I participated in opera studios and performed in Germany, New York, and Italy before taking a contract at the state opera house in Kassel, Germany. When I first moved to London, I also took a job in private equity that I continued throughout my studies and in between singing contracts. I worked for a firm that supported my operatic career and provided me with a wonderful experience in fundraising and business that has come in handy in my work with OperAffinity.

Breana Stillman

How did OperAffinity come about, and what is its main mission?

Music had such a powerful impact on my life when I was younger, and I knew how important music is for African culture, so I thought I would bring a group of musicians that I had worked with in Europe to the poorer areas of Kenya and try and make a difference through music. The workshops were so successful that we worked with 6,000 children on our first visit. I felt I had found my calling. I was so lucky to be given the gift of learning music when I was a young child, and I wanted to pass on this gift to younger generations, no matter their background. In 2019, I founded the association OperAffinity, and since then we have set up workshops in Kenya, the UK, Germany, and Italy for the benefit of all children. This includes working with children with disabilities and those from refugee communities, giving children from disadvantaged backgrounds the opportunity to learn music and even perform internationally. Our mission is to bring opera and classical music to a wider audience regardless of their background and use music as therapy to inspire and educate.

Breana Stillman leading a music workshop for disabled children

Why do you think music, and opera in particular, connects people from all walks of life?

When I first decided to bring opera and classical music to Kenya, I was unsure how children from a different cultural background would react. I don’t think I could have ever anticipated its impact on all of us. I think music is a powerful force and a universal language that breaks down barriers between different cultures and religions and unites us all as humans. There is something about music that connects us at an emotional level and transcends any differences.

Breana is taking opera out of the opera house and into the streets

You are currently preparing for the inaugural Todi Musica Festival. What can visitors expect from this festival?

We wanted to create top-quality performances and unique experiences for the local community and visitors in one of Italy’s most beautiful and culturally renowned towns. We wanted to open the masterclasses and involve the public in giving young artists as many performance opportunities as possible.

What do you hope audiences and residents of Todi will take away from the festival?

So much of my operatic journey was shaped by my connection with Todi. It is an internationally-renowned destination with a strong expatriate and local community which has a love for the arts. I always dreamed of creating music events that would attract world-class musicians to Todi.

Todi Piazza

In addition to Todi Musica Festival, OperAffinity is involved with some incredible causes. Can you tell us about those and some of your recent work?

Through OperAffinity, I have had the opportunity to work with so many amazing organizations that are doing similar work to us. I think finding ways to work together to have a greater impact is incredibly important. Through a remarkable organization in Kenya called Ghetto Classics, we worked with hundreds of children in Nairobi over the last 12 months. We gave a young tenor from the slums in Korogocho, David Mwenje, the opportunity to sing in Rome at the 50th anniversary of relations between the Vatican and Australia.

Ghetto Classics workshop

It’s been a remarkable year for OperAffinity. What are your hopes for the future?

I hope the organization can continue to grow and have a positive impact. Using my network of musicians and educators, I have worked to create events and programs that inspire new generations, which is an absolute dream come true. I hope to continue to grow the festival and find ways to involve the community in the outreach work I do with OperAffinity so as to give young musicians performance and educational opportunities.

Cover: Breana Stillman bringing opera to children in Kenya
Images provided by Breana Stillman