When graduating School of Music soprano Chelsea Kutyn decided to film a rehearsal for her graduation recital this spring, she had no idea that it would soon lead to national press coverage as a result of a life-threatening health risk.

As the campus started to shut down in March, Kutyn thought it would be a good safety measure to film herself singing.

“When we heard that countries were going into lockdown, my accompanist and I decided to film something just in case—we thought the building might be closed, but we never expected one of us to get sick,” she says.

Surviving COVID-19

Yet shortly thereafter, Kutyn fell ill. “They weren’t testing for COVID yet, but the doctors and nurses all said it was ‘suspected COVID’ due to my symptoms and the timeline of how it progressed.”

And while the School of Music did indeed close, Kutyn suddenly found herself unable to perform her grad recital due to illness—yet her performance video not only saved the day (“Luckily I passed with flying colours!”) but also helped her win the Victoria Medal, awarded annually to the Fine Arts student with the highest GPA in the faculty.

“I had no idea I had won it until they phoned me,” she admits. “I knew I had good grades, but I really wasn’t expecting to finish at the top of the class. It was a really nice surprise after having gone through such a chaotic end to the semester, and being so sick.”

Describing her as “a committed student who was a delight to teach,” School of Music professor Benjamin Butterfield has high praise for Kutyn—beyond her grades.

“She was always bringing new, challenging repertoire to the table, working diligently in the practice room, always stepping up for master classes and being a friend to all,” he says.

“We were so lucky to have such a bright light for the past four years. She was a model student who exhibited determination, flexibility and a genuine love for singing and learning. “

Media attention

Indeed, the story of the young singer who contracted COVID but still graduated top of her class caught the attention of the media, with interviews appearing in the Times Colonist, CHEK TV, CBC News, Global TV, CBC Radio and even Newsweek magazine (“College Student Who Battled Coronavirus for 29 Days Graduates Top of Class”).

“It was all a bit strange,” she says in retrospect. “I didn’t expect it would gain that much traction. I guess it’s a story people wanted to tell because it has a positive outcome and I’m in the younger age bracket.”

Kutyn had previously appeared as part of the chorus in a number of Pacific Opera Victoria productions, including Il trittico, La traviata, La bohèmeJenůfa and Countess Maritza, and was scheduled to be in Carmen this spring before it was postponed due to the COVID shutdown.

“Chelsea has grown up in the Victoria arts scene through dance and singing,” says Butterfield. “She held a job for some years as an usher at the Royal Theatre before becoming a mainstay in the POV chorus and taking on small parts as she grew in the company.”

Moving ahead

Now based in Winnipeg to pursue her Masters in Music Performance (Voice) at the University of Manitoba—where she is studying with POV regular Monica Huisman—Kutyn continues to deal with the after-effects.

“I haven’t been sick since April, but my lung capacity has been really impacted,” she explains. “I find any kind of cardio activity hard—even just stairs.”

And, as a singer, her illness has been particularly problematic.

“Even after four months, I’m still trying to relearn how to breathe and build back my lung capacity for singing, as well as doing some speech-therapy exercises with my new teacher. We’re just trying to get things working properly again.”

While she’s wary of being branded a cautionary tale, Kutyn does see the value in sharing her story.

“I just hope it brings awareness to others who feel it’s not as much of an issue as it really is,” she says.

“If you don’t personally know someone who has been affected, people seem to assume it can’t happen to them. I would never wish that situation on anyone; it was a really terrifying situation.”

Chelsea Kutyn