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Soaring soprano

Winnipeg-based vocalist set for summer showcase in Italy before conquering Canada

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"I feel like there's been this pressure building in this bottle and the cork has popped -- I'm surfing on some crazy wave -- and I don't want to get off," Kirsch says.

One of Sarah Kirsch's grandest tattoos is that of a large tree with proud branches stretching outwards towards her arms while roots dig deep down her lower back. It's an apt metaphor for her flourishing musical career, as well as her adopted hometown, where the 30-year-old singer discovered her own artistic voice.

"It's there to remind me that I can grow roots wherever I choose," the Cranbrook, B.C.-born musician says over coffee at an Exchange District café. "I hadn't had a home base for so long until I came to Winnipeg. When I arrived here it meant that I could finally become the human being that I wanted to be."

It also meant Kirsch could nurture her own creative vision to become one of the city's most exciting, wholly authentic singers. And her bold performances of contemporary art songs are getting her increasingly noticed both locally and nationally with that all-important momentum that seems to know no bounds.

"I feel like there's been this pressure building in this bottle and the cork has popped -- I'm surfing on some crazy wave -- and I don't want to get off," the irrepressible artist says of her charmed life.

Her most recent accomplishments include winning second prize in the 2014 Women's Musical Club of Winnipeg's McLellan Competition last April. She was also featured during the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra's 2014 New Music Festival, Cluster New Music + Integrated Arts Festival, and in the Groundswell and Canzona music series.

The versatile soprano next appears at the WSO's Music at the Millennium noon-hour series on July 1 when she will perform music by Schubert, Barber, Debussy, John Greer and Joni Mitchell with accompanist Chris Kayler.

One of her growing legions of fans is WSO artistic operations associate James Manishen, who first heard Kirsch sing during the 2012 McLellan Competition while he served as a jury member.

"Sarah is a born communicator in addition to being a brilliant soprano soloist," he states. "Her ability to get under the skin of everything she sings and make it alive for the listener is remarkable. You hear many voices when Sarah takes on vocal roles, and you come away excited and elevated from the experience."

The biggest feather in her musical cap, so far, is taking top prize at the Eckhardt-Gramatté National Music Competition held in Brandon in May. Her significant prize package includes a three-week residency at Italy's Casalmaggiore International Music Festival from July 7-27, as well as a four-week Canadian tour in November and a cash prize of $15,000.

"We were in complete disbelief," Kirsch says of the shock of hearing her name called with Kayler's as the grand prize winner following two gruelling performance rounds. "Being able to tour and do what I love is surreal. It's been very emotional for me."

A self-professed "gypsy," the Calgary-raised singer first arrived here in 2008 with her then-partner after completing a music degree at the University of Colorado in 2005. Filled with intense self-doubt, and disillusioned about fitting into cookie-cutter classical modes, the rugged individualist cold-called University of Manitoba music professor Mel Braun for advice.

Braun immediately saw a diamond in the rough. He encouraged her to apply to the University of Manitoba's Desautels Faculty of Music, where she began her ongoing studies with him, later graduating with a master's degree in vocal performance in 2012. Kirsch credits the popular vocal coach with saving her musical life, and helping her rediscover her voice.

"Mel let me believe I could be whatever singer that I needed to be," she says through tears. "He changed my trajectory and he changed my life."

The relationship between teacher and student is often profound. Braun likewise sings praises for his protégé, calling her a "fearless musical adventurer."

"It's been a real pleasure to see Sarah grow into the deeply centred performer and communicator she is today," he says. "When she sings, she seems to speak for the composers. She also has a huge heart and an infectious joy which always lights up her audiences."

Braun is also keenly aware of the many doors that will open during her fall tour with stops including Toronto, Calgary, Kingston, Brandon and Winnipeg, among others.

"My hope is that national exposure not only brings her many other performing opportunities, but that it also helps her to continue building on the network of composers and collaborators that could sustain her career for a long time," he says.

"In the meantime, she and her audiences are going to have a blast!"

As Kirsch is poised to take on the world one note at a time -- including premièring Michael Matthews' Solò queda el desierto with L'Orchestre de Chambre de Montréal and performing Mozart's Great Mass in C Minor at the American University of Beirut next season -- she clearly knows she cuts a striking figure.

One can't help but notice her newly dyed lavender cropped hair, or the large, scary-looking skull emblazoned on her chest. The latter pays tribute to a late Canadian poet/family friend she calls Manny, who displayed the same image and played a key role in Kirsch's life by encouraging her to blaze her own artistic path.

"I'm not trying to shock people, these are just reminders to fortify my identity and clarity of vision," Kirsch says of her colourful body art that might raise eyebrows in certain circles.

When asked about future dreams, the passionate artist doesn't miss a beat. "I want to be a limitless singer," she says, adding that she plans to remain in the city for the near future. "I want to challenge people to think things that they wouldn't normally think. I want to introduce people to new ideas, or help them resonate with old ideas. I want to make people feel something."

holly.harris@shaw.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 25, 2014 D3

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