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Winnipeg-born soprano singing a happy aria

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Get used to hearing the name Lara Secord-Haid.

The 25-year-old soprano from Winnipeg is one of nine emerging opera singers from across the country who have been selected to compete in the third annual Canadian Opera Company Ensemble Studio Competition tonight in Toronto.

Each finalist, chosen from a pool of 155, will perform an aria showcasing their vocal technique and range before an audience and panel of judges. First-, second- and third-place cash prizes -- $5,000, $3,000 and $1,500, respectively -- will be awarded.

The money isn't the prize Secord-Haid has her eye on. Select finalists will be invited to join the COC's Ensemble Studio, Canada's premier training program for young opera professionals, for the 2014-15 school year.

Earning a coveted spot at the studio would be a real feather in her cap.

"It would mean the next level of my training and performance opportunities," she says. "I like the format of the studio; you're still focused on goals for improvement, but you're taking the step to do more professional work."

She's confident about tonight's performance, although she's a bit jittery about the fact that she'll perform in the company of Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright, who is hosting the competition. "I'm a huge fan of his," she says with a laugh. "I freaked out when I learned he was hosting."

While the Ensemble School will doubtless lead to new opportunities, Secord-Haid's CV isn't exactly short on training or performance bona fides. She just completed a master's degree at the prestigious Juilliard School in New York in May; before that, she studied vocal performance at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston.

Recent performance credits include Donna Elvira in Mozart's Don Giovanni (The Banff Centre); Giulia in Rossini's La Scala di Seta (Juilliard); and Suor Genovieffa in Puccini's Suor Angelica (Manhattan Opera Studio).

The fresh-faced grad is calling New York City home these days. She's working on a long list of projects: she's slated to sing Zerbinetta in Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos with Manhattan Opera Studio next month and the titular character in Massenet's Manon with New York Lyric Opera in February. She's also performing in a recital of the music of Fauré and a holiday mounting of Handel's Messiah.

While work is good, finding time to rest her pipes has been next to impossible.

"That's a struggle right now," she says. "I have so many irons in the fire. The best is rest in between things. I'm trying to practise mentally as much as possible, just looking at the music and thinking about what I want to get out of each moment. Thinking about it is almost as powerful as doing it."

The Joseph Wolinsky Collegiate grad didn't grow up longing to be an opera star. That dream came later. "I think for some people it's a quick thing but for me it took years."

She entered music the way many musicians do, via piano lessons, at age five. She credits her late father with introducing her to opera. "I would listen to the Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera with my dad," she says. "But I didn't get interested in singing until I was 12."

She began studying at the Manitoba Conservatory of Music and Arts, but it was a summer program in Spoleto, Italy, that really captured the imagination of then-16-year-old Secord-Haid.

"I studied hard, harder than I ever had, for four weeks," she says. "It was immersive; you're in the birthplace of opera. I felt like it would be an interesting thing to do. I stopped considering anything else."

Secord-Haid speaks fondly about the teachers who helped her realize her potential, particularly vocal coach/Canadian soprano Edith Wiens, whom she studied under at Juilliard.

"Our teachers become important to us, as artists and people. Singing is a very emotional thing, as well; they are our friends, confidants and, dare I say, therapists," she says.

Being an opera singer is demanding, both physically and intellectually. Learning languages, for example, is a hurdle unique to opera. "(Languages) are one of the biggest challenges, but also one of the biggest rewards.

Secord-Haid says navigating the business aspect of being a professional singer is also a challenge.

"It's very different from the performing side," she says. "You're so focused on being technically sound, and working on your acting and learning your languages that the side we forget is the business side."

Based on her current workload, however, it's obvious she understands the importance of taking opportunities as they come, even if that means learning a role in only a week. "Which I hate," she says with a laugh.

"You can't always choose your projects but everything I've been involved with grabs hold. It consumes you and you discover so much. I didn't know how much I loved Handel, for example."

Perhaps this rising star will be the marquee performer in a Manitoba Opera production in the near future. "I would love that," Secord-Haid says. "I knew, living in Winnipeg, that we had a fantastic arts scene, but living outside of Winnipeg, we have a fantastic arts scene. It's wild for a city that size."

Would she ever call Winnipeg home again?

"Why not? At this stage, I'm going where the work takes me. But you can be an artist and live a comfortable life in Winnipeg. Why not?"

jen.zoratti@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 26, 2013 C3

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