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Westben’s Donna Bennett and Brian Finley

Westben

Photography by Daniel Vaughan

Making beautiful music together

Soulmates somehow know from the outset when they first meet each other, and the icing on the wedding cake is when they share the same love outside of the joining of their hearts.

Opera singer Donna Bennett, born and raised in Campbellford, sang in three Gilbert and Sullivan operettas in high school and fell in love with performing on stage. Pursuing her dream, she enrolled in the University of Toronto’s Bachelor of Music Education and Performance program. Brian Finley entered the faculty that same year in piano performance.

“We really didn’t talk until we both graduated,” said Donna. “He was so outgoing, and in theory class the professor one day said, ‘Oh Brian, you don’t have to come anymore. You know it all.’ That made me think, who is this guy? It’s ironic as soon as we did speak to each other, I fell in love with him immediately.”

One day, in the second year, Brian the gregarious ambled over to Donna. “The first thing he ever said to me was, ‘Hey, if you and I got married you would have the same name as my sister.’ I just got up and walked away,” Donna laughed. “I came from a small town and I was very reserved. I believed in slow and steady and modest. He was so different from other guys I knew, so, just…” She ended the sentence there, but her heart had already spoken.

Brian felt the same. “We were meant to run into each other. I approached her because first of all, she is the most beautiful woman I have seen in my entire life, and I was really drawn by her angelic voice. One of my most favourite things is to play music with Donna; a great place to be.”

That last line echoes lyrics from a Billy Joel song titled, You’re My Home. When you look into my eyes, whenever we’re together, that’s my home.”

Brian was born in Montreal but his formative years were based on a west coast upbringing: “My family flopped around a lot. My father was an emergency physician and pediatrician. When I was three years old, we moved to Los Angeles for eight years with a year in Kenya where Dad set up a medical school. After the 1971 Los Angeles earthquake, we moved to Calgary where I spent my high school years and did a variety of music schools, then to U of T,” and destiny.

The couple dated for six months before Donna left on a two-year scholarship to study for a master’s Degree in Voice Performance in Munich, Germany. “We wrote letters every day,” said Donna. “We have boxes of letters; there was no email back then.” Brian stayed behind to complete his Masters at U of T, but proposed halfway through her studies.

The harmonious soulmates were married within six months of Donna’s return. For four years, Toronto became their home base, where she joined the Canadian Opera Company and occasionally travelled to New York for singing lessons. Meanwhile, Brian soloed in international competitions from Washington to Moscow.

Needing a bigger place to expand their careers, the couple moved to London. “We lived in Wimbledon,” said Donna. “We could hear the tennis balls going back and forth, but couldn’t get any tickets so we watched it on television and left our windows open.”

Donna attended the Royal College Opera School on a full scholarship and garnered professional experience playing in many of the surrounding choral groups. In addition, she landed a part in the British premiere of Leonard Bernstein’s A Quiet Place, and toured Germany and Italy. Brian continued to dazzle the world in Beethoven and Mozart competitions.

Approaching their first year away, Donna aced a gruelling six-hour audition for Christine in Phantom of the Opera in Germany, all in German: “I got the part, and excitedly phoned Brian to tell him, but I felt really sick and couldn’t wait to get back to London. I returned to find out I was pregnant.” After five months, lonely for home, they returned to Campbellford to have the baby while staying at Donna’s parent’s Westben farm.

The couple soon became embedded in the community, teaching in the area, and acting as musical directors at local St. John’s United Church. For the first time ever, they started doing concerts together – their debut a fundraiser at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Campbellford: “We joked about it,” said Brian. “We said it was our first date – in front of 300 people. We ended up touring as a duo across Canada and the U.S. for the next five years. I think we are really lucky to be able to work as a couple, having careers that fit so well, and we love being together. We are greater than the sum of our parts.” Donna added, “I feel free, like I can fly, because Brian is there with me.”

After six months on the family farm, they bought a house in Meyersburg. Sadly, in 1993, Donna’s mother passed away. Her father offered to sell them the farm. “It was a big decision for us because we still thought we might go back to Europe,” recalled Brian.

Fate intervened. “We did recurring summer shows in the Olympic Music Festival outside Seattle in a turn-of-the-century barn, and we were blown away by the experience; it was so natural, comfortable, high quality, and we wondered if we could do this. It was so nice to make good music with no pretention. People in t-shirts, just music and nature.”

The thought germinated until one day the couple met with a group of friends from St. John’s United where Donna schooled 55 kids in their youth choir. “My friends suggested we put on Jesus Christ Superstar. We did, and sold out 2,000 tickets in all.”

In 1997, after the Superstar success, Brian and Donna met with the core group to talk about forming a sustainable organization. “We had the property, and the community just blossomed around it,” said Brian.

They held their first fundraiser in 1998, at St. John’s United with 55 nuns performing in the Sound of Music. The next year, a bulldozer carved out the family cornfield, and they built a new barn – an inviting 400-seat theatre which opened Canada Day 2000 with a full symphony orchestra extravaganza with chorus. The show included Brian’s cousin Gerald, the internationally famous opera singer.

Seats were sold out even before the barn was built. “It rained that day,” said Donna. “The parking lot was soup, and we had people leave their cars in the industrial park, while we bused them in.”

Westben did four weekend shows that summer. Today, they stage more than 60 events a year with the support of some 200 volunteers.

“With such a huge community involvement, for us, it has been an amazing artistic playground, but the real thrill of this organization is the bringing together of people,” said Brian.

Donna added, “When new people come to town, folks suggest they volunteer at Westben because they will meet a lot of the locals. It has become a meeting place. I want everyone to feel like they are a part of making this happen.”

One day, after passing the vacant former post office building on Front Street for the umpteenth time, Donna dropped in on Trent Hill’s municipal planner Jim Peters and said “I have an idea. Why not hear music coming out of the building? Jim said he and Brenda Otto had the same idea. Without them, the Clock Tower Cultural Centre would never have happened.”

Over the next few years, a plan was established to refurbish the edifice. Two years ago, Westben moved in, renting space for their youth choirs, concert band, singing circles, and comedy improv soirees.

“As artists, we try to involve the world around us, to blend them into what we are doing. Westben’s mission is to create this beautiful, explosive community,” explained Brian.

That resonating spirit transcends the couple’s very own love story. “I love Brian’s intelligence and attention to detail,” said Donna. “He is such a compassionate and kind person.” Brian obviously shares her philosophy of, “Keep moving forward. A life without music is not possible.”

“One of Donna’s finer qualities is wisdom that cuts through the riff-raff. She has these beautiful truths.” His own take on life and Westben is to, “Nurture the ability to make the best of a situation and revel in it. Believe in the people around you. It feels like we have stumbled across this remarkable way of life that is profoundly natural, beautiful, enriching and optimistic, full of sunshine, and a joy to be around. We really appreciate everyone here.”

“At every show, we plant a pocket of joy,” smiled Donna. “On a hot day, volunteers offer little packets of ice to place on the back of people’s necks. Our groundskeeper always mows around the daisies, and there is the joy of butterflies coming through the open doors. When you put music into a person’s life, it is transformative. I hope Westben goes on and on forever after us.”

How fitting, the inseparable twosome has recently been appointed to the prestigious fellowship of the Order of Canada on its 50th anniversary, “For their dedication to fostering the performing arts, musical education, and community building in rural Ontario.”

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