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St. Mary’s success stories help drive Virtual Concert

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Every school concert carries the promise of seeing a star in the making, but you can’t help but think back to past productions from St. Mary’s School when watching this weekend’s Friends of McCoy Virtual Concert.

Not only did the majority of singers and musicians involved in the fundraising venture go to the Medicine Hat junior high school, many have parlayed what they learned there into careers in the entertainment business.

“I think I definitely appreciate it more now, but even at the time I sort of knew that I was lucky to be in the fine arts program and take everything,” said opera singer Jacqueline Arthur. “Normally I would have had to choose just two fine arts options, whereas I got to do band, and choir, and the musicals, and art, and dance, and that was really wonderful.”

Arthur sings an art song, Lydia by Gabriel Faure, in the Virtual Concert, which is available from 7 p.m. on Friday, April 30 until midnight on Sunday, May 2 at www.mhcbe.ab.ca. The concert is pay as you please, with funds going towards building a theatre at Monsignor McCoy High School.

In Arthur’s time at St. Mary’s alone there were a handful of future professionals: Keri Kelly returned home to perform in sold-out shows of the musical We Will Rock You in 2020, while Sydney Frelick has similarly traveled the world singing and is now faculty at the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s School of Music.

“It looks like a decent amount of us have pursued the arts as a career, and it’s kind of shocking that we all kind of went to the same program growing up,” said Kelly, who sings Heart of Stone from the musical Six in the Virtual Concert.

St. Mary’s vice-principal Brad van Middelkoop points out that those success stories don’t tell all of what makes him proud as an educator.

“We’re proud of those kids,” said van Middelkoop. “It doesn’t matter if they end up being a professional fine artist. Just the other day I got an email from a boy who’s just about to finish up his Grade 12 year and said ‘I don’t plan on pursuing music any further but thanks for everything you did, it taught me good work ethic, not to give up when things got hard.’”

The program gives students a chance to try everything — a third of their class time is devoted to the arts. Their teachers are exceptional, too: Van Middelkoop has a master’s degree in choral conducting; Kayla Lukacs is trained in drama; Christina Remeikis is “a bona fide true artist;” Braydon Gordon’s background in show band is invaluable.

“You’re getting a working professional delivering this,” said van Middelkoop. “We think that’s a positive thing.”

It sure made a difference to Kelly, who moved to New York City when she was 20 and has since traveled the globe performing.

“It’s mind-blowing to think, if I didn’t have these teachers putting in those extra hours, putting on those musicals, spending time with us at lunch… would I have pursued this? I don’t think so,” she said.

Arthur discovered opera at a summer camp at Medicine Hat College and credits her junior high for getting her on a stage early and often, among other things.

“I loved it, it was really good for my self-confidence as well,” she noted. “I became a much better student while I was there; so it was an excellent thing for me academically and personally.”

The Virtual Concert is a chance for them all to come together for a project, the sort of which has been rare during the past year’s pandemic. Kelly just moved from Medicine Hat to Toronto this week, where she knows she needs to be to audition for the musicals inevitably coming.

“I’m hopeful and I’m looking forward to a time I can work again in Canada,” she said. “I missed having a live audience for sure, and performing in general.

“Theatre will be back, it will never go anywhere. If anything it will just make it that much more of a vibe when we can all be in the same room.”

That goes for current students at St. Mary’s as well. They have two performances in the Virtual Concert, but last year’s school-wide production of Frozen was two weeks away from opening when COVID-19 changed everything. An unannounced production they’ve worked on this year might meet the same fate, although van Middelkoop notes they might find a way to keep it alive for 2022.

“There is always a plan in the works, a contingency plan and a backup plan,” he said.

That’s because St. Mary’s always puts the interests of its students first.