Elizabeth Askren & TOA: Transylvanian Opera Academy

With «energetic and precise gestures, a confidence that seduces irresistibly» (paris.fr), Elizabeth Askren «imposes through assurance and genuineness… creating an atmosphere specific to unforgettable evenings» (Faclia). Elizabeth Askren is invited throughout Europe and the United States to teach conducting and the art of leadership, and is featured regularly in the American and European media (PBS Newshour, OperaWire, Radio France Internationale, France Musique…). Currently Conductor-in-residence at the Romanian National Academy of Music “Gheorghe Dima”, she is both an alumna and Faculty Ambassador for the Dallas Opera’s Hart Institute for Women Conductors. Askren holds diplomas in piano and conducting from the Juilliard School, Oberlin Conservatory, and the Conducting Institute of Bard in the United States, and the Schola Cantorum and the Ecole Normale de Musique in France.  Her musical mentors include conductors Marin Alsop and Lorin Maazel, and pianists Byron Janis and Sergio Perticaroli. She was awarded the highest teaching diplomas from both the French Ministry of Culture (certificat d’aptitude en direction d’ensembles orchestrales) and the Romanian Ministry of Education (PhD, magna cum laude).

She is based in both Transylvania, where she resides with her husband and young daughter, and Paris, where she maintains a residence. Eager to contribute to her local communities, she has served on various educational and philanthropic boards, and consults for nonprofit organizations in the US and Europe. Askren is the Founder and Artistic Director of TOA – Transylvanian Opera Academy, Romania’s first opera studio. Since its creation in 2017, TOA has been featured on national television and radio and in the press, and benefitted from a unique observation residency with the National Opera of Paris’ Academy.

TOA – Transylvanian Opera Academy

Good morning, Elizabeth! Thank you for letting us write about TOA, the Transylvania Opera Academy: first question – why the heart of Transylvania? What’s your personal link with this country?

My husband’s family is actually from Transylvania!  We met in Paris and were living there for many years, but Cluj’s vibrant IT scene lured us back to his hometown, after 30+ years living abroad.  It’s been a wonderful opportunity to meet his family members, and to learn about Romania and specifically about the beautiful Ardeal region.

So, how was TOA born?

The idea of TOA was born during a transformative conversation with Alec Treuhaft, one of the mentors at The Dallas Opera’s Hart Institute which I was honored to attend in the fall of 2016. I was eager to create for young, deserving Romanian artists an environment of introspection, growth, and achievement in the heart of Transylvania, which would challenge its participants while allowing them to serve their communities and successfully negotiate the transition from student to professional.  My family decided to create the Perennis Association in 2017, whose purpose is to build sustainable projects which support culture, innovation, and ecology in Romania. TOA was the Perennis Association’s first project.

How will this innovative professional development and insertion program offer performance opportunities to young talents you choose?

Thanks to a series of partnerships with leading local, national, and international institutions, TOA offers its participants several types of performance opportunities, from recitals and masterclasses to showcase concerts and musical encounters with internationally-acclaimed opera personalities.

Would you call TOA an “innovative program”? Why should a young opera singer choose it?

First, TOA espouses a 360° education ethic, offering its participants a holistic approach to training.  We don’t stop at the art of the craft – we also address the human behind the artist, with additional training on stress management, leadership, health and nutrition.  We also believe in giving back to the community. We believe that the artists of today must initiate the public of tomorrow. Outreach programs are a crucial part of training, and their results are life-changing – for everyone. Finally, our program encourages critical thinking, group synergy, and artistic independence. Thanks to our hybridized online/in-person structure, we are more international, inter-generational, and inter-disciplinary. TOA is more than a young artists program – it’s a movement

You will incorporate several backstage craftsmanship specializations into TOA’s fellowships: you were inspired by the French academy backstage-onstage model, but TOA adds also conductors, stage directors and non-profit administration and development. How come this last choice? How would you describe and teach this kind of bureaucratic job in nowadays’ theatre world?

Although COVID has delayed our expansion plan to include stage directors and craftsmen, we have incorporated conductors and our first administrator.  In order to effectuate lasting change in a field, one must address all of the players, regardless of their particular position.  Forming nonprofit leaders, both executive and artistic, is essential for the future of the arts.  

TOA touches every aspect of opera production: backstage, office, and onstage collaborate to make music together – how can a student apply to the program?

TOA’s current season is offering several opportunities to get involved! We will hold our second edition of the TOA Summer Academy, running from May 31st to June 11th, and are opening our webinars to auditors from the public. TOA young artists  will also be featured in this year’s TEDxCluj , as well as European Museum Night.  For more information on these events, auditions, and our program, please contact us at: toa.education@gmail.com .

Your partnerships include extraordinary names in the field of Romanian operatic realities but also international institutions such as Opera for Peace and Philarmonie de Paris: will TOA become also a big European landmark? We wish you great success! Toi toi toi!

Thank you so much for your support!  

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