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Alumni Spotlight: Jonelle Sills (BFA/BEd ’16)

Alumni Spotlight: Jonelle Sills (BFA/BEd ’16)

York alumna Jonelle Sills (BFA/BEd ’16) credits York University with playing an integral role in her success.

“I can confidently say that if I didn't have a York experience I would not be where I am today,” says Jonelle, a lyric soprano whose performances led her to be on CBC’s list of Canada’s 30 hot classical musicians under 30 in 2020. “When I started studying at York I had zero understanding of what it meant to have a career as a professional musician but working with the solid music faculty helped me to build the foundation that has set me up to be a professional.”

York U alumna Jonelle Sills

A 2019 Dora Award winner for outstanding performance of an ensemble in Claude Vivier’s Kopernikus with Against The Grain Theatre, Jonelle attended the Department of Music at York’s School of the Arts, Media, Performance & Design, where she focused on classical voice performance. Upon graduating, she was accepted into the Glenn Gould School, the Royal Conservatory’s internationally recognized centre for professional training in music performance.

She has since performed with the Toronto City Opera, the Nathaniel Dett Chorale, Against the Grain Theatre, Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, the National Arts Centre Orchestra and the Vancouver Opera, where she was recently a member of the Yulanda M. Faris Young Artists Program which engages, enriches, mentors and trains rising young Canadian opera artists.

“During my time at York I felt really grateful to work with some of Canada’s best musicians such as Catherine Robbin, Stephanie Bogle, Raisa Nakhmanovic, Dr. Lisette Canton, Norma Burrows and Doreen Simmons who all invested so much into helping me to continue working on my craft. I am so grateful for these women who continue to encourage and support my career.” 

The winner of the City of Markham Black History Month Award, Jonelle regularly receives accolades for her performances (e.g., Opera Canada, CBC) and is in demand in opera and as a soloist with orchestras. In addition to her ongoing work with the Vancouver Opera, she was recently the featured soloist with the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir in Ein deutsches Requiem by Johannes Brahms.

"It is my hope that as an artist I can be a welcoming figure to historically excluded communities to experience the beauty of opera and classical music."

Jonelle hopes to use her art to break down barriers and make classical music accessible to a wider and more diverse audience.

“Art has the power to unite and bring people together, but unfortunately art forms such as opera have built exclusive walls around their cultures,” she says. “It is my hope that as an artist I can be a welcoming figure to historically excluded communities to experience the beauty of opera and classical music. I am grateful that I have been able to partner with organisations such as Opera InReach and Jamii Esplanade to help break down some of these walls.”

In the future, Jonelle dreams of performing around the world while also making positive contributions closer to home.

“In the next five years I see myself expanding my singing career internationally to the states and/or Europe,” she says. “I also hope to continue to foster relationships with local Markham and Toronto community-based organisations that work to make art more accessible to all communities.” 

As for advice for current York students, Jonelle says it’s important to make the most of your time at university.

“Take advantage of this time and the plethora of resources that you have at your fingertips. One of the best resources are the faculty who are devoted to their craft and mentoring the next generation.” 

Jonelle was named one of York University's 2022 Top 30 Alumni Under 30. Learn more about the program and the impressive young alumni on the list.