La Scena Musicale

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Simone Osborne: Artist In Focus

Simone Osborne: Artist In Focus
The Rising Star Soprano Speaks to La Scena Musicale about her Blossoming Career

by Joseph K. So

When Canadian soprano Simone Osborne won the Metropolitan Opera Auditions in 2008, she was all of 21, an extraordinarily young age to be the winner of such an important competition. When I interviewed her for an article in The Music Scene. I was struck by her bright smile, her personal warmth and most of all, her intelligence, and a certain level-headed quality that belies her age. I commented at the time that with her talent and smarts, she has just the right combination for a successful career.

Now four years later, Osborne's career has indeed blossomed. She is on the roster of Columbia Artists Management, a high power agency that has guided many of the greatest artists in classical music. Still in her last year of the Canadian Opera Ensemble Studio, Simone Osborne has already sung several leading roles to positive reviews - Pamina, Gilda, Ilia, Juliette, and now Lauretta. Her triumphal return to Vancouver (her hometown) to sing Juliette garnered ecstatic reviews. Still only 25, she has achieved more than what some singers do in a whole career. Osborne recently took time out from rehearsals of the COC Gianni Schicchi for a chat about her life and her career:

LSM: I recall interviewing you in 2008 for an article in La Scena Musicale when you won the Met Auditions. Since then your career has truly blossomed! You are now on the roster of Columbia Artists, one of the most prestigious artist agencies. We've heard you in major roles the last couple of years - Pamina, Gilda, Juliette, and now Lauretta. Tell us a little about your experiences with singing these wonderful roles....

SO: That interview we did was actually one of the first that I did after winning the Met competition. It's funny but it seems like a life time ago and just yesterday, in equal measure. I remember sitting in my mothers living room, chatting with you by phone, answering questions, the whole time in a state of shock. It had not sunk in. In a strange way, I feel the same way today about the last few years. So much has changed, so many experiences have been gained, but it's been a busy four years, and I rarely have time to put it all into perspective.

I do however, have very clear memories of all of these wonderful roles you mentioned. These characters came into my own life at very different times. If I look back at the young woman I was while singing Pamina, I barely recognize myself. I think that is because I discover things about myself, about life and about society, through my explorations of these characters.

As for my experiences singing these roles, I have been utterly spoiled with the circumstances in which I made each of these debuts. The teams assembled for each of the particular shows you mentioned were world class and not only could I have not asked for more, but I couldn't have possibly expected how much I would learn and what I would gain on the stage and off as a result of this work.

With Pamina, I polished my sense of Mozart style with the help of the wonderful maestro Johannes Debus and Kevin Murphy. I learned that sometimes less was more when it came to carving out a character. I realized with Pamina that I had an impulse to turn every role I played into a version of myself - and began to fight that impulse.

With Gilda, I learned that I was capable of a lot more than I gave myself credit for. It is a role that is next to impossible to sing without a strong technique, stamina and frankly - guts! I overcame a lot of challenges in the process of putting her together and was just grateful and proud to make it to opening night. I may have learned as much about myself off the stage on this production as I did on the stage.

Juliette was another test of endurance, pacing and focus. I remember scarfing down a banana between each act (that makes five over the course of the night!) and steeling my mind for another round. But there was also the pacing of the character. Waiting to reveal certain facets of Juliette's persona until they were laid out by Gounod in the score. I felt a strong sense of duty to portray this beloved historical figure to the the best of my ability. I must have read the Shakespeare play a dozen times, looking for clues. I was also able to coach the French style with the incredible maestro Jacques Lacombe, coming away with lessons I won't soon forget.

As for Lauretta, I guess we'll have to wait and see...

LSM: If you had to pick one, which one is your favourite?

SO: Oh, come on Jo! That is the closest feeling I know to picking a favourite offspring. Simply not fair. I love them all! Each one is unique and special in it's own way.

LSM: Let's talk a little about Lauretta. It seems to be a role tailor-made for you. And of course she has one of the most famous arias in all opera. Tell us a little about Lauretta vocally...

SO: Singing Lauretta feels like slipping on an old glove. It is a new role for me but it seems to fit just right. The aria is relatively indicative of the whole role, if perhaps a bit more delicate (when sung as it is written in the score - and less like a grand diva encore or party piece). In terms of nuts and bolts is essentially a lyric role with an optional high Db in the finale (which I prefer to think of as a C# - slightly less daunting!). It requires a solid middle voice which has enough cut in it to fight thick orchestration and doubling - like all Puccini soprano roles. That is why Lauretta is one of the only Puccini roles I feel comfortable touching for some time. The reason being that although there is indeed a Puccini sized orchestra beneath you, Lauretta is supposed to be young and much of the orchestration under her music reflects that. Not to mention - it's short! It's a short piece for every one of the major roles, but especially for Lauretta. I think the longest chunk I sing at one time is about 8 minutes. That's a walk in the park compared to Gilda, in a production that went straight through Act 2 to the end without me leaving the stage! It certainly helps to have a maestro like Sir Andrew Davis leading the way and taking care to bring out the best in each of us. And luckily for me, one of the greatest stage creatures of our time, Catherine Malfitano, tackled Lauretta early on in her career and is full of advice and encouragement.

LSM: How do you approach her character (Lauretta) ? How do you compare her to the other women you've played - Gilda and Pamina, for example?

SO: Lauretta is young and head over heels for her first love. And she's a soprano to boot - look out world! But seriously, Catherine and I had discussions early on about how we see her. Our Lauretta as innocent, but smart. In singing the aria she is sincere rather than just working as a master manipulator to get what she wants from her father. However, she is a spunky little thing and is determined to live happily ever after with Rinnucio. I'm grateful Catherine took the time to piece together this layered personality because Lauretta has a much shorter time, less music and text to reveal herself to the audience than say a Gilda or Juliette. Even Pamina has more material to work with. All this means is that I must work hard to create an interesting, three dimensional human being on the stage - rather than a simple caricature.

LSM: What other roles are you working on? Do you have a dream role?

SO: I am working on a lot of Mozart these days and looking forward to singing lots of it in the near future. I am dusting off the cobwebs on things like Susanna, Ilia and Zerlina - all of which I have performed before, and am looking forward to singing again soon. I am also preparing Melisande and two new (light!) Verdi roles for the near future.

As for dream roles, things like Manon, Violetta and Mimi are at the top of the list. However, I'll have to wait on each of these for a little while. In fact, I promised my boss at the COC, Alexander Neef, that I would lock my Boheme score in a drawer somewhere and "just forget about it" for a long time...

LSM: What upcoming assignments can you tell us?

SO: Well, after Schicchi closes at the COC, I will spend the summer in Japan, singing all of the soprano roles in a Arthur Honnegar piece at Seiji Ozawa's summer festival in Matsumoto. After that, I come back to Canada for a return to Gilda in a run of Rigoletto performances. Then it's off to Dubai to start a cruise of the Seychelle islands on board a Stella Maris cruise ship where I will represent the COC in a competition featuring young singers from La Scala, the Met, Covent Garden, among others. Following the cruise, I head to Zurich as a soloist in a new production at the 10,000 seat Hallenstadion amphitheatre, called Viva Verdi. And then, it is back to North America, and a return to Carnegie Hall for a gala concert early in the new year.

LSM: Given that you've won the Met Auditions, you've "reached the pinnacle" so to speak. Are competitions behind you now, or would you still want to try your hand in the future?

SO: I don't know about that! I feel as though I'm reaching for the pinnacle every day, with every practice session. And let me tell you - that pinnacle seems quite far in the distance! The Met was an incredible experience that changed the course and speed of my career trajectory in a big way. I am extremely grateful for the support of the Met and for all of the doors that winning that competition opened for me. That is why I want to continue to make choices that allow me to grow as an artist. That way I will hopefully make all of the people who got behind me early on, proud one day! I'm sure some people in a similar position might put competitions behind them, but I prefer to remain open to any experiences that might mean growth or new lessons learned.

LSM: At 25, you are still incredibly young, considering how far you've already gone in your career. Where do you see your voice going in the next 5 or 10 years?

SO: I think I'll let it lead the way. I would love to sing lots of Mozart roles for now and use a young Mirella Freni's repertoire choices as a general guide for my own. Taking things one step at a time, moving like a tortoise rather than a hare, and allowing for a long, fulfilling career as a result would be the dream. I plan on listening to my instrument itself, being vigilant about study, vocalizing, practice, and consistent work with a technician I trust. I think there is a lot of Italian and French repertoire in my future. Looking down the road, there are things like Susanna and Adina today, then the Countess and Manon, Lucia and Violetta down the road, Mimi and Marguerite even further along and then who knows? Tatyana, Marshallin, Butterfly? A girl can dream! But for now, I'll listen to the incredible team of people that I call my trusted "board of directors", follow my gut and listen to my voice. I'll continue to put one step in front of the other, turn down opportunities that may be too much too soon, and keep my eye on the prize - a career and artistry that I am proud of, based on hard work, honesty and respect of this incredible art form.


Sunday, 15 April 2012

Review: Opera Hamilton's Il Trovatore

(top) James Westman (Count di Luna); (mid.) Richard Margison (Manrico) and Joni Henson (Leonora); (low) Emilia Boteva (Azucena) Photos: Peter Oleskevich

Verdi: Il Trovatore

Opera Hamilton
Dofasco Centre for the Arts / April 14, 2012
Richard Margison (Manrico)
Joni Henson (Leonora)
James Westman (di Luna)
Emilia Boteva (Azucena)
Taras Kulish (Ferrando)
Mia Lennox Williams (Inez)
David Speers, conductor
Valerie Kuinka, stage director

by Joseph So

Warhorse, potboiler, over-the-top – words often used to describe Verdi’s Il Trovatore. One of the most parodied of operas, the Marx Brothers had a field day with it in A Night at the Opera, as did Gilbert and Sullivan in The Pirates of Penzance. Il Trovatore is one of the three most popular operas in Verdi’s “middle period”, the others being Rigoletto and La traviata. Based on statistics from the Operabase website which maintains attendance figures worldwide from 2005-2010, Il Trovatore ranks 5th in popularity among 29 operas by Verdi, who in turn tops the list as the most frequently performed opera composer with a totally of 2259 performances, beating out Mozart, Puccini and Wagner. Detractors of Il Trovatore love to poke fun at its outrageously improbable plot, “oom-pah-pah” orchestration, stand-and-deliver principals and one-dimensional characterizations. Indeed Il Trovatore has everything but the kitchen sink – a love triangle, mistaken identity, kidnapping, filial piety, revenge, murder, poison, suicide, burning at the stake, beheading – you get the general idea! So, a performance of this opera is really a fun night at the opera. On the opening night of Opera Hamilton's stab at this piece on Saturday, I think the audience had a lot of fun, judging on the enthusiastic reception at the end.
Typically for a regional opera company, the set is basic but effectively enhanced by projections and judicious lighting. The traditional costumes from Malabar in Toronto are quite handsome. If one were to quibble, the head dresses of the nuns make them look more Islamic than Catholic. Il Trovatore has gorgeous music and it requires gorgeous voices to bring it off. It partially succeeded on opening night. Top vocal honours went to baritone James Westman in his first-ever Count di Luna. He sang with resplendent tone and a particularly generous top, at one point he even threw in a couple of interpolated high notes. Vocally, di Luna suits him like a glove, even if dramatically his wasn't a particularly nuanced portrayal. As Azucena, Bulgarian mezzo Emilia Boteva was certainly up to the task. Her big, gusty and somewhat metallic instrument has what it takes to be an idiomatic Azucena, even if her top notes were a bit wild on opening night. Joni Henson has a big, spinto soprano, with the right vocal weight for Leonora. She sang well except for the top register and some of the coloratura passages in the cabaletta that follows "Tacea la notte placida" and the higher passages of "D'amour sull'ali rose." More suitable for her is Miserere which she sang very nicely. After two decades of singing some of the heaviest roles in the repertoire, Richard Margison's dramatic tenor is showing signs of wear and tear. But he husbanded his resources wisely and sang with a vital sound, only occasionally suffering from a slow vibrato in sustained high passages. David Speers was the ever-considerate conductor in his unswerving support of the soloists. The male chorus sounded a bit threadbare, especially in the more dramatic moments. While this wasn't exactly a Il Trovatore for the ages, it was an entertaining evening in the theatre.


This Week in Toronto (Apr. 16 - 22)

Russell Thomas (Hoffmann) and Lauren Segal (Nicklausse) in COC's Tales of Hoffmann (Photo: Michael Cooper)

The first of the Canadian Opera Company's spring presentations opened on April 10, with Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann. Given the inherent fantasy of the piece, Regieoper directors often dream up all sorts of crazy mise-en-scenes, but not this Vlaamse Opera (Antwerp) production directed by Lee Blakeley. It's essentially traditional, but with enough of a twist to make it interesting. The audience loved it and so did I, particularly the singing. On opening night, it was an evening of vocal standouts. I was very impressed with American tenor Russell Thomas, whose voluminous, warm sound was totally secure from top to bottom, tireless in a very long role. Canadian mezzo Lauren Segal shined as Nicklausse, a role tailor-made for her voice and personality. Given this version that opened all the cuts, Nicklausse has more music to sing than any of the women. To my eyes and ears, Segal gave the performance of her still young career. Canadian bass John Relyea made his very belated COC debut as the three Villains in a performance the recalls James Morris in his prime. His imposing vocal and physical presence was certainly one of the evening's highlights. Erin Wall's ethereal soprano with its lovely high pianissimi was ideal as Antonia and Keri Alkema's plummy mezzo-turned-soprano was shown to advantage in the Barcarolle. Johannes Debus brought out exciting sounds from the orchestra. All in all, it was a wonderful evening at the opera and well worth seeing. Performances on Wednesday Apr. 18 and Saturday Apr. 21, both at 7:30 p.m. at the Four Seasons Centre.

Two important musical events at Roy Thomson Hall this week, the first being the visit of the National Arts Centre Orchestra led by its music director Pinchas Zukerman. He has announced his intention to leave the NAC Orchestra, but not until 2015, so Canadians still have time to savour his tenure here. One performance only, on Saturday April 21 7:30 p.m. The program includes Antinomie by Canadian composer Jacques Hetu; Telemann's Viola Concerto with Zukerman as soloist; Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 and Schubert's Symphony No. 3. Eric Friesen is host. It's part of the Casual Concerts series so there will be a party in the lobby after the show.

Also this Friday April 20 8 p.m., the reigning American prima donna Renee Fleming is returning to Roy Thomson Hall for a song recital with Hartmut Holl as collaborative pianist. It's a very interesting program of Zemlinsky, Schoenberg and Korngold in the first half, followed by Duparc, Dutilleux and Ricky Ian Gordon in the second half. The program is perhaps a little short but there will be plenty of encores for sure! For program details,

Another famous American soprano is in town this week. Dawn Upshaw, known for her championing of contemporary music, is appearing with the Australian Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Richard Tognetti at Koerner Hall on Sunday Apr. 22 3 p.m. Upshaw is singing Morning Winter Walks, a song cycle by Maria Schneider. It will be the cycle's Canadian premiere. The first half is a challenging program of works by Anton Webern and George Crumb. The second half is in more familiar territory with songs by Schumann and Schubert. The centerpiece is the chamber version of Schoenberg's Verklarte Nacht, an exquisite post-Romantic work.

Opera Hamilton's Il Trovatore continues at the Dofasco Centre for the Arts in downtown Hamilton, a 55 minute drive down the QEW. I attended the opening on Saturday and it was an entertaining show. I particularly enjoyed hearing Canadian baritone James Westman as Count di Luna, showing to all that he is indeed a Verdi baritone. Tenor Richard Margison is Manrico, soprano Joni Henson sings Leonora and Emilia Boteva is Azucena. David Speers conducts. Performances on April 17 and 19 at 8 p.m., and a matinee on April 21 at 2 p.m.