“It was the most exhilarating moment of my life, my dear! Stepping onto the Orpheum Stage for the first time. There was a huge orchestra. I was so nervous, shaking and shaking and feeling ill. I looked up into the lights and saw about 3,000 people. The violin started to play, and this incredible sea of music washed over me. I opened my mouth and started to sing. The nervousness was gone, but the adrenalin was like a high. It left me with this feeling: I have to do this again. Again and again and again.”
The 75-year-old Orpheum Stage is located in Vancouver and is known as one of the largest and most opulent theatres on the Pacific Coast. A moment on that stage would be a milestone in any performer’s career. But what makes this experience even more remarkable is that opera singer Dustin Lee Hiles is speaking of his debut performance, as a tenor soloist in Handal’s Messiah. The talented singer was only 14 years old.
It’s been six years since that experience and, in that short time, Hiles has performed across Canada and the USA as well as in Europe and Mexico. Still, he says, that night on the Orpheum Stage stands out as the highlight so far.
Hiles hails from Mission BC, a mid-size town of 35 000 overlooking the Fraser Valley. Hiles says he still “adores” the small town that has celebrated the young opera prodigy.
“Oh yes!” The young singer exclaims. “Wherever I go, I always miss Mission. Mission is a quaint little town where you can just go and think. It’s the scenery and the people. All my family and friends are there but when you’re like me, you meet lots of people so it feels small and comfortable.”
Perhaps as the result of the company that this young opera singer keeps — professional opera singers across Canada — his language is peppered with “yes dear’s,” and the elevated, fatherly tone of sophisticated senior artists.
Hiles is currently training with one such opera legend — soprano Maria Pellegrini, in Ottawa.
“Maria is awe-inspiring! She’s a well of operatic wisdom and knowledge. Having a teacher who has sung leads next to Franco Corelli, Luciano Pavarotti, and Birgit Nilsson — the great legends of opera — it really makes me feel as though I’m part of a living tradition.”
One wonders if Hiles, who identifies as bisexual, finds the world of opera isolating as a young queer person. This is something he acknowledges and fights to change.
“It’s when I’m out at a bar that it’s interesting. I’m young, and I like to party. I’ll be out at a bar, and it will come up — people will hear that I’m an opera singer and they’ll ask me to sing for them.”
Hiles demonstrates. He sings — the elevated voice seamlessly moving into the depths and volume of the singing tenor soloist, Latin rolling effortlessly off his tongue.
“Then they’ll ask me about it. I get so many questions! There are all these assumptions about opera being a thing of the past. That has to change.”
As part of that effort to connect youth with art, Hiles sings whenever and wherever possible, even at nightclubs and quite often in support of his favourite political party.
“I’m very involved with the Liberal Party. I’ve organized events at friends’s clubs. I’ve volunteered on campaigns. I’m passionate about politics. In fact, if I had a dream.”
Hiles pauses pensively.
“Well, I love my art.” He confesses. “Art is where I see myself going. But I do see myself running for Parliament.”
“But, of course, my dear,” Hiles continues, surety back in his voice. “That would only be after I’d made a space in the opera scene! Perhaps Tosca at La Scala in Milan, or The Metropolitan in New York!”