• The Sopranos of Winnipeg
● Saturday, Nov. 7
• See mbopera.ca for details
Manitoba has always been the "singing province," boasting an impressive galaxy of global opera stars.
Local audiences will get to hear a stellar group of seven vocal artists when Manitoba Opera opens its 2020/21 season with The Sopranos of Winnipeg. The powerhouse lineup includes Andriana Chuchman, Lara Ciekiewicz, Tracy Dahl, Monica Huisman, Andrea Lett, Lara Secord-Haid and Lida Szkwarek.
The 75-minute concert recital, being livestreamed tonight at 7:30 p.m., includes a 40-piece Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra led by Tadeusz Biernacki, with online tickets (only) being offered for the company’s first show performed exclusively for an off-site audience.
"We recognized that we have so many great women singers in our community, so it was not a long stretch to build a concert around them, and particularly around the soprano voice," MO general director and CEO Larry Desrochers, who also hosts the show, says over the phone.
The Free Press reached out to the singers (listed in alphabetical order) to ask about performing in their hometown, how they’re faring during the global pandemic and what makes their hearts sing.
Hailed by the New York Times for her "vocal brilliance, physical agility and vintage calendar-girl looks," Andriana Chuchman has lit up stages around the globe. She’ll be treating listeners tonight to Caro nome che il mio cor from Verdi’s Rigoletto.
FP: What is your favourite musical memory of growing up in Winnipeg?
AC: Singing Pamina in The Magic Flute with Manitoba Opera back in 2011. About 90 per cent of our cast was Manitoba-born, with Winnipeg-born Michael Cavanaugh directing. We had a ball! And it was extra special to share the stage with young Anton Dahl Sokalski as one of three spirits, who is Tracy Dahl’s younger son, after having been his babysitter/nanny for many years prior.
FP: What do you hope listeners will remember most from this "made-in-Winnipeg" show?
AC: As Winnipeg audiences (and beyond!) listen to me and my fellow sopranos sing alongside the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, I hope this concert reminds listeners how necessary the beauty and soothing nature of music is, and to take a moment to escape whatever may be troubling them during these unprecedented times.
MO audiences last saw Lara Ciekiewicz November 2019 as the lead role in Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah, which was penned during the dark days of the McCarthy witch-hunts in the 1950s. She’ll be reprising The trees on the mountain from that same composer/librettist’s gripping opera, still in step with the times.
FP: What would you like your listeners to feel during your performance?
LC: The piece I’ll be singing is sung by the character to self-soothe. That seemed appropriate in this moment in which we are all seeking a way to best navigate pandemic life. First, it’s a beautiful melody. Second, it’s one of the pieces I sang every so often at the beginning of the pandemic, just to sing for myself. I hope listeners can take whatever they need in the moment from this piece.
FP: Why is singing so important to you?
LC: I feel most "whole" when I’m singing. It’s like singing simultaneously shields my most vulnerable self, and allows me to expose those same vulnerabilities… I think singing ultimately makes me a better human. If I can be a better human, maybe I can do a little more good in this world.
Tracy Dahl continues to wow listeners with her stratospheric, three-octave voice and has been beloved for her effervescent performances since marking her 1982 MO debut as Barbarina in Le nozze di Figaro. The die-hard Winnipegger performs Je suis Titania la blonde from Mignon.
FP: Why do you think Winnipeg has given rise to so many world-class singers — particularly sopranos?
TD: This is an excellent question. Some people theorize that it must be in the water or perhaps the long winters! But we Winnipeggers do want to get out and do things and music is wonderful medicine for a long winter. There are choirs, singing lessons, music festivals, outdoor music festivals. Music is around us all year round. So I think the answer is community.
FP: Singers have been particularly hard-hit by the pandemic, with the act of singing now considered risky and potentially even lethal. How do you feel about that?
TD: I have found it very hard emotionally to think that the thing I love to do the most is considered dangerous. I have tried to offer music where I could. I made some recordings for online events. One even featured my dog in Old Mother Hubbard (wfp.to/hubbard). I have sent a few people recordings of hymns for their parents’ memorial services. I try to hold onto the belief that music is meant to heal not hurt.
FP: What would you say to your younger singing self?
TD: Enjoy this ride. You are in a sweet time for opera and the arts. Be generous. Listen and observe the talents of those around you. Be curious about those who support the arts — they make it possible.
Monica Huisman has enthralled listeners from Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw to Guatemala City for her operatic and concert repertoire performances. She has sung with every major Canadian orchestra. She’ll be performing Dvorak’s luminous Song to the Moon from Rusalka.
FP: What does it mean to you to be a "soprano of Winnipeg?"
MH: This has always been home for me, even when I moved away to study and do young artists programs. I made my debut with MO in Hansel and Gretel in 2000, and my debut with the WSO with Bramwell Tovey in 1999, so I feel very fortunate to share my life’s work with my hometown. Tracy (Dahl) has also been my dearest friend forever and Andrea (Lett) is a former student of mine, so it’s very special to share the stage with both of them, in addition to the rest of these amazing women!
FP: What made you choose this particular piece?
MH: I chose the aria for my mom. It’s her favourite and due to COVID, this is the first performance in 20 years, she (wouldn’t have been) able to come see. I would like listeners to be transported away, and to feel the balm for the soul that music is, and invigorated and optimistic about what our life will look like after this pandemic.
FP: What else do you like to do whenever you’re not singing?
MH: I’m a big golfer, along with my husband. I’m also a gardener, as well as a St. John’s Ambulance Therapy dog team with my beautiful golden retriever, Lola.
Last seen on the MO stage during its April 2019 production of The Barber of Seville, Andrea Lett’s performance during the 2018 WMC McLellan Competition finals will live in this writer’s memory. Lett took home top prize on no sleep after travelling all night through an ice storm from New York. One of her signature arias, The Doll Song from Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann, will showcase her sparkling colouratura voice.
FP: Tell me about your aria…
AL: The Doll Song is a "party piece" and is very performance-centred. It involves movement, comedy, some fun shtick, lots of high notes, and an ‘80s prom-theme esthetic.
FP: What’s it like being a "Soprano of Winnipeg?"
AL: I am not originally from Winnipeg (Lett grew up in Saskatchewan), but this city has quite naturally become my home. To be called a "Soprano of Winnipeg" is a huge honour. I have felt so accepted by this community, and am always very proud to be part of the wonderful musical culture here.
I have also had some powerhouse teachers, including Monica Huisman, who gave me the tools and the drive to pursue singing. She is an incredible teacher; I feel extremely lucky to have studied with her.
Lara Secord-Haid has been garnering critical acclaim for her international performances including Nashville Opera, the Jeonju International Sori Festival in Korea, the Opera Helikon in Moscow as well as a 15-city concert tour throughout China, among others. This rising Canadian star will perform Verdi’s iconic Sempre libera from La Traviata.
FP: What’s your favourite musical memory/performance?
LSH: It’s a three-way-tie between singing in Werther with Manitoba Opera, performing with the Chai Folk Ensemble for Folklorama, or sitting in at Jam Sessions at the Old Freehouse.
FP: How do you think music can heal the world, and particularly during a global crisis?
LSH: Music alone can’t heal the world. That’s a lofty goal. But we deeply need to learn not to be in judgement of others and of ourselves. We deeply need to heal in small and large ways. Music is a vehicle of transformation — it evokes catharsis, gives pleasure, asks us to take time and space for contemplation. It is a tremendous tool for consciousness-altering. We need that now and always.
FP: What is on your iPod?
LSH: A little Mel Tormé, Tom Waits, Maria Callas, Dawn Upshaw, Sara Vaughan, a samba playlist, Brahms piano quintet in F minor, Tchaikovsky violin concerto in D and, I can’t stress this enough, Side Pony by Lake Street Dive. It’s a party in there.
Lida Szkwarek marks her MO debut tonight — eight months in the making, after her performance of Micaëla in the company’s spring production of Carmen became another COVID casualty. She will perform Ontario composer John Estacio’s Storm Aria from Filumena, which she also performed with Calgary Opera in 2017.
FP: Favourite musical memory/performance?
LS: That would be my very first public performance at the Winnipeg Music Festival. It was the art song class and I actually won. I remember being extremely nervous, with my knees shaking the entire time, and I had no idea what I was doing, since it was my very first performance ever! I remember being announced the winner and was equal parts shocked and thrilled. This experience encouraged me to keep performing and singing and I’ll remember it always.
FP: Tell me about your wholly contemporary piece.
LS: I chose the Storm Aria because the role of Filumena holds a very dear place in my heart. My experience performing Filumena in 2017 with Calgary Opera will always stay with me. I also wanted to share this incredible piece with Winnipeg. It is so important for audiences to be exposed to Canadian opera and to realize what an incredible talent we have in John Estacio.
FP: Do you have any backstage rituals before going onstage? How about stage jitters?
LS: I absolutely still get nervous when I sing! However, those nerves that I get before going onstage also really help me get pumped up and ready to go. Part of my pre-show ritual is to absolutely arrive early. I can’t relax until I am in the performance space, which gives me a chance to settle, warm-up, meditate and just enjoy getting ready to go out there and kill it.
The Sopranos of Winnipeg will be performed via livestream Saturday, Nov. 7, at 7:30 p.m. For further information, visit mbopera.ca.