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This article was published 8/4/2016 (1013 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
FLIN FLON — It’s Saturday morning and director Crystal Kolt stands at the bottom of a tiered room, leading the Flin Flon Community Choir through vocal warm-ups.
"Ma, me, mi, mo, mu," the members hum as Kolt shouts out, albeit kindly, technical corrections. "Tacca, tacca, tacca, he, ha, he," they continue.
Despite the low-key rehearsal setting — a local elementary school — and the group’s understated name, this is not an informal gathering of friends with a common hobby.
This morning, more than 35 singers (ranging in age from 16 to 89) have gathered to rehearse Morten Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna, a monster of a piece, full of tricky harmonies and finicky crescendos — one of the most challenging works the choir has attempted to date.
As the vocalists work through a particularly difficult passage, the focus on getting it right is palpable. After all, the next stop from this northern Manitoba mining town doesn’t get much bigger: the choir has a June date at Carnegie Hall in New York City.
This is the third time the choir will appear on an iconic New York stage (having graced both Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts), and the second time the group has been brought to the Big Apple by Distinguished Concerts International New York, a company that offers similar opportunities to choirs around the world.
"We go there, we collaborate with another group and get this amazing musical experience," says city solicitor Mark Kolt, Crystal’s husband and the choir’s pianist.
Twenty-five vocalists went on the first trip in 2002, while 70 past and present choir members travelled in 2013. Though only 35 singers will be making the trip to Carnegie this time, the number of choristers in Flin Flon remains strong.
"We started the Flin Flon Community Choir and we moved up from 40 people to 50 people to 60 people to 70 people to larger," says Crystal, who is also the cultural co-ordinator of the Flin Flon Arts Council, noting the theatre troupe, chamber choir and the Northern Visual Arts Centre as other important cultural fixtures in the community.
"We could just see all these under-the-surface arts organizations that were just waiting to be nurtured, and then it just flourished."
To understand the journey to the Big Apple, to understand how Flin Flon became a northern arts and culture hub, one must first discover this isn’t an ordinary one-industry town.
Though it’s only an hour’s flight north of Winnipeg, Flin Flon is a different world. There is grittiness etched into the landscape and architecture. The land is rough and wild, with rocky hills jutting into the skyline and houses perched precariously on steeply inclined streets.
Those living at the highest points in town possess views to be envious of: sweeping vistas overlooking deep valleys, fiery sunsets over nearby lakes.
The Saskatchewan-Manitoba border runs through Flin Flon — with Flin Flon on the Manitoba side and the community of Creighton on the Saskatchewan side.
And with that comes quirks.
Provincial laws, policies and political candidates can vary literally from one block to the next. (There’s a baseball diamond near the border; because Saskatchewan doesn’t participate in daylight saving time, the locals joke, kids can hit a foul ball and it’ll be caught an hour later.)
As it was more than 80 years ago when it was founded, Flin Flon remains a working-class town. Most people live a modest lifestyle that oddly juxtaposes the abundance of riches sitting just below the Earth’s surface — not only the copper and zinc deposits the city was built on, but also the vibrant arts scene that has been an intrinsic, yet largely hidden, part of Flin Flon’s history. Much like the ore, you wouldn’t know it was there unless you took the time to do a little digging.
From the recent Culture Days — a weekend-long festival celebrating arts and culture in communities across the country, during which Flin Flon played host to 80 of the 345 events in Manitoba — the community choir and the pantomime-turned-theatre troupe Ham Sandwich, to the earliest days of settlement nearly nine decades ago, the arts have been a vital part of the community’s identity.
And it all started in the most unlikely of places: a mine.
The discovery of Flin Flon’s ore body has been credited to two men: David Collins and Tom Creighton. In 1914, Collins, a Métis trapper who had a camp east of present-day Flin Flon, showed Creighton, a prospector, the outcroppings of the ore body which were later found to include copper, zinc and a little gold. It ultimately led to the development of a mine in 1927.
It was at that time the Whitney family of New York became involved, investing approximately $30 million into the mine’s development and a hydro-generating station at Island Falls, with Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney becoming a founder of Hudson Bay Mining and Smelting Co. Limited, a variation of which is still present in Flin Flon today under the name Hudbay Minerals.
The Whitneys were famous in the United States for their business enterprises and their philanthropy. Familiar with the mining industry, the family sent Cornelius (more commonly known as Sonny) north to Flin Flon to investigate the ore discovery. Not long after, construction on the mine began, and Sonny remained chairman of the HBM&S board until 1964.
The Whitneys had a vested interest in the town. They had a home there, built a community centre and an indoor hockey arena and offered programs and lessons ranging from hockey and curling to dance, theatre and music to children of all ages for minimal fees. Generally speaking, the company took care of the people who worked for it — at one time, counting more than one-third of the town’s population of 14,000.
Today, Flin Flon’s population has dipped below 5,000, and Hudbay employs 1,400 people between its Flin Flon and Snow Lake operations.
During the Great Depression, HBM&S was one of the few places actively hiring, and many men made the trek from all over the globe. As with many melting-pot communities, the influences from each culture began to mix, and, in a lot of cases, music acted as the universal language and a way to be involved with the community outside of work.
"What you have to keep in mind is the people who came here first, they came to an area that was not a town," says Graham Craig, 85, former mayor of Flin Flon. "They had no schools, no roads, they had no churches, they had nothing. They had to put a community together, bring their families, build homes, and get together.
"These people were coming from all aspects of life, all the way through areas of Depression times, it was difficult, but they got together and enjoyed each of their different cultures. They learned to put those cultures together and make it a unit. A unit that ended up being Flin Flon."
"We were cosmopolitan, really, when they came to work in the mine," says Marilyn Reader, who has lived in Flin Flon since she was born in 1935 and still sings with the community choir. "We had Ukrainians, we had Polish people… they brought all the dance routines and all the music with them and they shared them.
"We had every opportunity here. (Despite Flin Flon’s remote location), we still had everything."
The relationship between HBM&S and its employees wasn’t always rosy — there were numerous strikes — but despite contentious labour battles, the company remained an important fixture in the development of the city’s artistic identity.
"It sprang out of the company actively encouraging people in the arts to come up to Flin Flon to work," says Murray MacDonald, who joined the Flin Flon Glee Club in 1964.
"We used to tell a joke, you know, if they needed a chemical engineer and two guys applied and one guy played the banjo, he got the job... When I was hired, one of the things that came up was, ‘Do you play music at all?’ That was a plus on hiring me. I, at the time, didn’t even think of it but it was."
The churches, too, played a large role in the cultivation of musicians. In the early days, there were as many as nine churches with separate choral groups. The abundance of vocalists was the catalyst for one of the most important developments in the local music scene, the Flin Flon Glee Club — an organization that quickly became a community staple and remained that way for more than three decades.
"Church choirs were huge. I know our United Church had a lady’s choir, a men’s choir, a young people’s choir, and I’m sure the other churches had similar," says Linda Allen, 73, a born-and-raised Flin Floner who has been with the local arts council for 22 years.
"There’s always been so much talent in this town, and everybody’s uncle, brother, whoever played some instrument, be it the violin, the fiddle, the accordion, whatever. There was music all the time."
The glee club was ambitious from the start, beginning with a selection of Gilbert and Sullivan musicals (The Pirates of Penzance was its first production). It has continued to churn out professional-quality renditions of some of the most famous productions of all time, including a fondly remembered version of Fiddler on the Roof that was taken on the road to Thompson in 1972.
"Of course, the famous, maybe even infamous, Jon Vickers was one of the first tenors that sang with the glee club. Assistant manager at Woolworths at the time, and he did rather well for himself," MacDonald says of the heldentenor who went on to become one of Canada’s most famous operatic voices.
"It just grew from there... When I was involved, at any given time, they could call for a choir to get together and the meeting could have 125 voices. We actually did a 125-voice male choir, which kind of blew me away.
"The interesting thing about it was the glee club shows, for example, the whole spectrum of the people involved was right from top management to the guy who swept the floor in the zinc plant, with no social distinction between them," he says.
"You were part of the show, that was it. The musical director was the general manager of the company at one time. The director of most of the shows, she was the wife of a draftsman."
The glee club, as it was known in the 1940s to ‘70s, no longer exists. There was a period in the 1980s when those who held leadership roles in the community moved on or passed on, leaving those left behind feeling a little scattered. There was still music — in the form of more rock- and pop-focused groups — but it lacked direction.
"We always had talent here, but without leadership, things just don’t happen," says Allen.
Everything changed when the Kolts arrived.
"When the Kolts came to town, it was the most interesting time," says Susan Lethbridge, a vocalist who has spent much of her life in Flin Flon with her husband, Brent, who also is a musician. The pair has been performing together in various capacities for 45 years and have been married for 38.
"They really do believe that Flin Flon is a gold mine and they’ve been able to extract a lot of treasure out of our music and artistic pool."
Both Mark and Crystal Kolt earned music degrees from the University of Manitoba and spent time training in New York. Mark went on to work as an accompanist for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and the Contemporary Dancers, as well as attending law school. He was lured north when he was offered the job as Flin Flon’s city solicitor. Once the local artists got word of Mark’s background in music, however, all bets were off.
"Within 48 hours, I’d been recruited by Brent and Susan Lethbridge to play in a country-rock band, and another 48 hours after that I was playing music for two different churches," Mark says with a laugh. "Basically, there’s never been a dull moment. It wasn’t really something I expected."
"I think it was just ready, it was just ripe," says Crystal, recalling the arts scene when she arrived a few weeks later. "The people who are our peers, like Brent and Susan Lethbridge, Susan remembered the glory days of the glee club but she was too young to take part in it.
"So people like her generation were so excited that it could potentially be rekindled... and there were people in the mine that had all this knowledge and technology that were willing and wanting to really invest and share their knowledge."
The Kolts have unanimously been credited with the revival of the arts community in Flin Flon and, looking at all of the projects they have accomplished in the last 22 years, it’s easy to see why.
Their first production, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, resulted in lineups down the block to buy tickets. A few years later, Mark composed an original work called Bombertown, a musical exploration of 1950s Flin Flon with period sound styles and a love story set against the backdrop of the Flin Flon Bombers’ Memorial Cup victory over the Ottawa Canadiens. In 2015 — after attempting to get the rights for the show for more than 10 years — they produced Les Miserables.
"There was great support both in terms of the performers and from the community and when that happens, people feel good about investing lots of time into doing something of the greatest quality possible," Mark says.
"I think that was an important thing that we really wanted to do ourselves: to spend the time trying to offer our community in the north professional-quality production, as best as we could do it," Crystal says.
"And so what we learned is that perhaps a professional organization can do a product in a month or a month and a half, we might need four or five months to be able to do it but that’s OK. We don’t mind investing that time in it... Why can’t northern Manitoba have that same opportunity to be able to experience professional quality product?"
The community choir has been the anchor of the artistic community since the Kolts arrived but Crystal has also worked tirelessly to create a space for all types of artistic expression, including an artist co-operative — the Northern Visual Arts Centre (NorVA) — that opened in 2012 as a studio and gallery space for artists in town looking for a place where they could create.
"It’s a bit of a catch-all, I guess. Flin Flon is a small place, we don’t have the population to support the types of artists-run centres, the really focused things you see in Winnipeg," says Mike Spencer, 30, manager of NorVA.
"We do a bit of everything. It’s a gallery and studio, so there’re artists who rent space here to produce their work, and that’s either through an affordable rental price or through volunteer work with the centre."
"We show and sell local art, we have travelling exhibitions we bring through, and we provide classes for everybody, all ages and skill levels," adds Karen Clark, one of the founders, who credits Crystal with helping to get the project off the ground. (It was grant money she applied for that funded the beginnings of NorVA.)
"NorVA has begun playing a pretty important consultation role with the schools, for sure, and other organizations who are interested in incorporating the arts into what they’re doing," says Spencer.
"It’s a snowball effect... It’s got staying power, and that attracts people who are tangentially connected or vaguely interested in the arts, and then it stays there and it stays there. And now, (in) year 5, we’ve become a staple in the community, we’re a resource now for people… we’ve become a stop on the tour."
Johnny’s Social Club, an 85-seat, live-music venue attached to NorVA, is one of the newest additions to the cultural scene. It has been used for regular cabaret nights (dubbed the Wood n’ Wire series) that are volunteer-run and well-attended.
Typically, the cabarets have an inoffensive theme (April’s is the Beatles) but things took a saucy turn one Saturday night in March. "Salty Songs: Unusual Fodder for Unsavoury Folk," proclaimed the flyer, complete with an 18-plus age recommendation.
And for good reason: only a few minutes into the first set, a collection of f-bombs sang into the microphone elicit shocked giggles from the packed crowd, who paid $25 a head for dinner and the show.
"We warned you," says the host for the evening, Noelle Drimmie, smiling both with happiness and, seemingly, a touch of embarrassment, before launching into a similarly salty duet with NorVA manager Mike Spencer.
And so it continued, men and women of all ages throwing inhibition aside, hopping up on stage and confidently crooning some of the raunchiest tunes ever written. Of course, skill levels vary, but support did not, as each performer is ushered off the stage with a hearty round of applause coupled, most times, with uproarious laughter.
Many faces in the audience and on stage were familiar — they were the same people at that morning’s choir rehearsal; the same people who attended a house concert the night before; the same people who are part the writer’s guild; the same people at the theatre rehearsal the next day.
"It goes right back to the beginning of the town. You had to have some form of entertainment to keep people here," MacDonald says the morning after the cabaret (he also performed at).
"It became such a tradition, and I used to say we had one of the most knowledgeable audiences in the country because they had seen such good productions for so many years that you really had to do your stuff well to impress them.
"The community hall at that time, we could seat 1,000 people in there, and we did on a regular basis. The town isn’t big enough to support that anymore, but the shows that go on now, they fill the place and that’s gratifying.
"Flin Flon just had a lot of talent, and encouraged it, and it’s still that way. Those young people just blow me away."
It was clear from the beginning the remoteness of the community was something the locals were determined to turn into an attribute.
“Flin Flon is appreciative musically as any other town, maybe more so, due to its isolation.” — Flin Flon Glee Club founder Ron Price, in November 1946
"You have this little, closed centre, especially back in the day; a mining town really on the frontier. It was really the end of the road for a long time. So I think Flin Flon, in a lot of ways, developed a unique culture because it was so separated from the rest of the country," says Brent Lethbridge. "It was a closed system, we learned our own thing, and we developed as we thought it should go, not necessarily around anyone else’s template."
Adds Susan Lethbridge: "I just know growing up we always had many things. We had the music festival, the whole school division was involved in, and it wasn’t just singing, it was spoken poetry… there was always a lot of musicians here. We started going to family dances or weddings when we were three or four and seeing bands and it was pretty exciting for us. And, I don’t know, there’s nothing to do other than sing or write or perform."
It is universally acknowledged — both by locals who moved away only to come back a few years later, such as Susan and Brent, and non-locals — that Flin Flon’s northern magic is unique.
"They’re really something special, and I’m not just saying that," says Jason Melnyk of Distinguished Concerts International New York, who has been working closely with Crystal to bring the Flin Flon choir to the Big Apple.
"They’re just really good people and really passionate about what they do. Getting to know Crystal over the past few years and her sharing with me all the work she’s doing in her community, between culture days and a lot of the initiatives that she’s doing, it’s pretty amazing.
"What they’re doing, especially being such a northern community, kind of putting Flin Flon on the map as a cultural destination, I’ve always thought is just really cool."
Despite the accolades, there is an underlying fear about the city’s future. The city’s flagship mine, 777, is anticipated to be depleted of ore by 2020, and no one knows what will become of Flin Flon if it closes.
Also, there is a lingering doubt about what would happen to the arts community should the Kolts ever decide to move away.
"Flin Flon is home, that’s probably the best way to put it," Mark says. "I think that everybody in Flin Flon lives in the shadow of things that can happen in the mining community in terms of changes in the world metal markets and that type of thing.
"It’s very difficult to say never, but certainly this is home, this is where our friends are, this is where all of our big projects are involved with and I think the plan is to continue here for the foreseeable future."
The future is something Crystal thinks about a lot — she is in the process of working on a feasibility study to create the North Central Canada Centre for Arts and Environment, that would support and enrich art in northern communities.
"Right now, it’s this explosion of talent and it needs to keep growing," she says. "What I really hope is, this area is already a centre, a hub for the arts, and I have such a passion for expanding it so that we can hopefully be a catalyst to share and support the arts in surrounding regions. And to give voice to north-central Canada, and northern Canada as well.
"We’ve learned a lot... we know how to do a lot of things. We know how a small community can become very, very vibrant, and how a small organization can be vibrant with very minimal resources. It’s all possible, it can all be done."
Erin Lebar is a multimedia producer who spends most of her time writing music- and culture-related stories for the Arts & Life section. She also co-hosts the Winnipeg Free Press's weekly pop-culture podcast, Bury the Lede.