Interview: Measha Brueggergosman-Lee of Opera Atelier's ALL IS LOVE

Canada's superstar soprano talks love, risk-taking, and the Governor General's Lifetime Achievement Award

By: Apr. 08, 2024
Interview: Measha Brueggergosman-Lee of Opera Atelier's ALL IS LOVE
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Interview: Measha Brueggergosman-Lee of Opera Atelier's ALL IS LOVE

From April 11-14, Opera Atelier presents ALL IS LOVE at Koerner Hall, starring Artist-in-Residence, superstar soprano Measha Brueggergosman-Lee. A celebration of all things love, hope, and art, featuring a full corps de ballet and music from the 17th through 19th centuries, the production originally premiered in 2022 as one of the city’s first post-lockdown productions but faced a host of obstacles on its only night, including the shutdown of the area during the Freedom Convoy protests and a snowstorm.

Co-artistic directors Marshall Pynkoski C.M. and Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg C.M. are bringing back the production, which features tenor Conor Ainsworth, sopranos Karine White, Meghan Lindsay, and Cynthia Smithers, mezzo-soprano Danielle MacMillan, bass-baritone Douglass Williams, and baritone Jesse Blumberg, in a renewed and revised version.

BroadwayWorld Toronto spoke to production star Brueggergosman-Lee about her love for the show and the company, the importance of taking risks, and how her upcoming Governor General’s Lifetime Achievement Award is really an encouragement to keep creating.

BWW: So first of all, I wanted to congratulate you on the news that you're receiving a Governor General's Lifetime Achievement Award--a lifetime achievement award when you're still in the prime of your career! How are you feeling about the honour, and what are you most looking for to about the ceremony on June 8th?

BRUEGGERGOSMAN-LEE: Well, it's one of those things that you know you need focus on enjoying. It still sort of feels a bit otherworldly. At 46, I am the youngest recipient of this lifetime achievement award—and, I mean, I'll take it! I'd like to think of it as an encouragement to keep going. I think it’s even more significant that it represents the first Black recipient of a lifetime achievement award in classical music. It’s not lost on me how many people have gone before making it possible for me to be positioned in this way.

So I'm terribly grateful, and as soon as I was told I'd be receiving it, I just set to dotting i’s and crossing t’s on every single project that I wanted to start or had started. Sometimes you just need a little push to finish things, and I committed to finishing albums and putting out Zombie Blizzard, and we had Known to Dreamers with the Canadian Arts Home Project and on the seventh we’ll release the double album called Laureate to celebrate this incredible unique thing.

I'm with Opera Atelier this month, and then I'll be at the Luminato Festival. So I just wanted to do some things on home turf where I could really keep present in the market, and be able to communicate my gratitude as much as I can. It’s been really mobilizing. Inspiring. You don't always have a machine like the Governor General's Awards behind you, so it can really be a catalyst for people to have an understanding of what your artistry actually is.

I also wanted to release a podcast called Common Ground where we have conversations about God, because I think that's the most crucial conversation they have, but we're not really skilled at having conversations right now, instead focusing on finding ever-increasing ways to be insulted or offended.  I think the art of conversation is, is precisely that, an art.

BWW: There are two ways to react to a lifetime achievement award, and one is to rest on your laurels and another is to try to achieve even more, and it sounds like you're really taking the second route.

BRUEGGERGOSMAN-LEE: (laughing) And then I'll retire in August. I still have to tell my calendar that.

BWW: So, onto ALL IS LOE with Opera Atelier, which is your upcoming project next weekend. Let’s start with a simple question. What do you love about this show?

BRUEGGERGOSMAN-LEE: You know what I love? That Marshall (Pynkoski) and Jeannette (Lajeunesse Zingg) knew what a gem they had and wanted to give it its proper placement in the market. The last time we put it up, it was a total pandemonium intersection of horror after horror. The downtown was shut down with a massive protest and subways were shut down, and then, on top of that, the heavens open and dumped down a huge, torrential snowstorm.

And people still came. And it was by no means as well-attended as we’re praying it will be next weekend. So I love that it represents the tenacity and the perseverance that really do characterize Marshall and Jeannette. In addition to the repertoire being so strong, and the programming choices, and even just the style of having a thematic program offered by an opera company—I think it's really innovative and so I love it. It represents so many different ways for people to experience theater.

This piece that opens ALL IS LOVE, which is called "All Is Love," but it's a composite of Reynaldo Hahn’s À Chloris, his love song where he discovers that the woman that he's in love with also loves him back. And then Purcell’s "Sweeter than Roses," which is of course about the first kiss. And how “what magic has victorious loves.” And so this is a wonderful representation of the willingness Opera Atelier has to try new things, even under the umbrella of the traditional to be innovating and trying new things. They’re using the theme of love, which is in no way controversial, to enact a program that will challenge people to try things in a new way. I just think it's nothing short of brilliant, frankly.

BWW: You’ve been performing with Opera Atelier since 2008, and recently completed a term as their Artist in Residence. What keeps you coming back to work with the organization?

BRUEGGERGOSMAN-LEE: You know, they’re coming around to the fortieth anniversary season. That’s no small accomplishment. It is so inspiring. I was like a super fan girl watching the Opera Atelier Productions when I was at the University of Toronto, saying “Total #Goals.” You have to aspire to something, and I would really aspire to be a part of the Opera Atelier family. I'm deeply honored, that, especially in COVID, when everybody was shutting down, they brought me on as Artist In Residence, when nobody had any money to do anything. And we just innovated and made Making of an Opera modules for music teachers who were scrambling for content, and they really inserted themselves in the market where it was most needed. You could either mobilize or rest on your your laurels, and they completely mobilized. 

I am very loyal to them for a lot of reasons, but that just adds to the pile of reasons that I love being a part of and collaborating with them. I performed in La Clemenza di Tito. I’ve done Idomeneo, and I’ve done that role pre-kids and post-kids, which is not the same.  And then, of course, most recently as the sorceress in Dido and Aeneas, which was so, so deliciously evil and incredibly fun.

What keeps me coming back? We as musicians get the rehearsal process. The rehearsal process belongs to us. We're experiencing it, we're finding it, we're taking direction, we're figuring out how to do things while running and emoting into the floor. That for me is the best part, and their process is very intense and focused, and directed towards telling the clearest, most honest and authentic story. And that is such a privilege. So I keep coming back because of the movement aspect, in the gestures. The believability of putting it in my own body has reverberated into pretty much every corner of my artistry.

And so for me, who kind of has a “park and bark” tendency—I came up with Mary Morrison and I continue to check in with my 96 year old Mary regularly—but she taught a technique that was about longevity, about surviving this career for decades. This meant making the sound as simply and easily produced as possible. And to also infuse everything that you desire to do musically into the sounds so that you don't distract with physicality. Which is pretty much the polar opposite of how Marshall directs.

Both are equally valid, and I am tremendously grateful. And I praise God for the fact that I had both the capacity to stand immovable and have the voice create all of the colors encapsulated within my technique, and the ability to be thrown around the stage running at full speed, or walk in doing gestures. To have the capacity and people who took the time to teach me both has been a real blessing. I couldn't have planned it. I couldn't have known that I would have wanted that, and I wouldn't have aimed for it.

My father told me, whatever you do throughout your whole life, remain teachable. If you remain stuck, if you think you know so much about your own singing and what you need on stage, if you develop that kind of a prideful spirit, you're going to miss out. And I would have missed out on having my physicality so closely connected to my technique. That sounds simple, but it’s very hard. As singers, we desperately want to stand still because what we do is hard. But what I love about Marshall and Jeannette and their approach is that they know full well that we can do more. They trust that we want more, and we trust them to get us to more. To have that gift of somebody forcing you to move? It’s both a nightmare and the very best thing for you.

BWW: What sort of movement is involved in this production of ALL IS LOVE?

BRUEGGERGOSMAN-LEE: Right? Praise God, it's pretty light. I come down a staircase. I do some gestures. I'm singing, I'm communicating, I’m emoting. Then I cross the stage, I go over to the piano. I love on the piano.

They've got a corps de ballet. I'm your lifetime achievement award singer, okay? I'm there, standing grand in the glorious dress, the voice doing all the work. We’re moving enough to make it interesting. You know what I mean? When you get to a certain point in being comfortable in your skin, you can then create motivators, drivers, that have you moving across the stage with purpose. At this point, we're like, "hey, I've just thought a thought, and that thought makes me go over there." I so love it because we watch it. We see ourselves or we see these productions, now that we know the secret to the beauty of movement and how much we crave it as both watcher and performer.

I think it's important to mention also that there's such beauty to the dance element. When people come to Opera Atelier, they see that beauty, that movement, that grace, that excellence. I'm always so impressed by how they always give us something to look at. And there’s the acknowledgment to not over-intellectualize it because it's it's a visual medium, for goodness sakes. So I just love being a part of it.  I'm really grateful to be there.

BWW: It’s love, right? Love is about not overly intellectualizing and engaging all of your senses.

BRUEGGERGOSMAN-LEE: The magic is in being motivated to go to this place and make it look like you're leaning on the piano to save your life, like the composer planned it that way. Like Reynaldo Hahn wrote in his score, “Lean on the piano for all its worth and sing to the pianist like he's Chloris himself.” It’s so fun for me, because I happen to mean it. I also have to know what it means for you to focus on me and know that I know exactly what I'm doing and where I'm going.

BWW: The intention is key.

BRUEGGERGOSMAN-LEE: Isn't it so comforting as a viewer? To have total confidence that the person you're watching and hearing is totally occupying the space they're in. Now you can just relax. That's my job.

BWW: It's an incredible tightrope wire to walk when you have to inspire the confidence that you know exactly what you're doing, but at some at the same time project that air of discovery, like you're just figuring it out as you're singing.

BRUEGGERGOSMAN-LEE: That is true. We have to portray it like it’s the first time we’re doing it, with freshness.

Also, don't forget I am simultaneously terrified that this will be the performance they figure out that I'm a big fat phony. And that I'm up here in these mean streets still figuring out my technique. But I’m always still challenging myself to find these consistencies, these dynamics, these word paintings. There's always something new because the music is so good.

BWW: Speaking of the music, I know that ALL IS LOVE features French Baroque music, which is really the era that Opera Atelier is known for staging. But, as you said, it also features pieces from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. So we have music from George Frederic Handel, Henry Purcell and Jean-Philippe Rameau, to Claude Debussy and Reynaldo Hahn. In particular, I know you’re singing the title song, a “mix of Henry Purcell and Reynaldo Hahn,” which mixes Baroque and the 19th century. What sort of conversation do you see these pieces as having across these different centuries?.

BRUEGGERGOSMAN-LEE: When Marshall and I were talking a couple years ago about the programming for ALL IS LOVE, what songs could be included, what repertoire could possibly be explored. I said well, listen, In my mind, I do hear a similar gesture in the bones of "Sweeter Than Roses" and in the bones of "À Chloris." The significance is I know Marshall loves both of them. And then I said, well, why choose? We can do whatever we want. If we know it's going work, let's just do it.

At this point in my career, I know my faith is my principal driver. So I don't feel handcuffed by anything but having to put on the record for eternity’s sake the fact that I knew that these things will go together. Even if there's a system that says they can't or shouldn’t, I don’t care.

There is a certain rank that comes with endurance. If you're the last one standing, you win. When I look at my own career, there's this life that I live that reflects my faith and my priorities, and when it comes to Opera Atelier and their placement within history and what they did and what they contributed, I think they will be seen as having taken risks that were so in keeping with the aesthetic, while also pushing the envelope of what we have been told opera can be.

I do it because my voice is versatile and I was raised in a very strong technique, so I can transfer it to whatever I do in whatever style. And I have this risk-taker’s spirit, especially when it comes to singing because it's a realm in which I feel very confident. Meanwhile, Opera Atelier is in the theater and keeping people engaged by understanding that the visual is just as important as the audio. They can take huge risks and still look like themselves.

So when you're hearing "All Is Love," this seventeenth and nineteenth century mashup, you're seeing Opera Atelier engage in a modern device in their own way. And let's never forget that Rameau to Purcell to Pergolesi, all of these guys were mixing up their works anyway. To quote the author of Ecclesiastes, “nothing is new under the sun.” So it's not like we just thought of the mashup; this has been happening for centuries.

Now, we have to ask ourselves, when did it become so strict? When did it become that things had to be divided this way, the programming had to go this way? Who made that up? And why are we listening to them?

BWW: I love what you're saying about risk taking and nothing being certain because, when ALL IS LOVE premiered in 2022, it seems to me that it was all about taking this leap of faith. Marshall said it was one of the first shows out of the gate post-pandemic, and he was trying to create this atmosphere of positivity versus fear, while trying to reintroduce art into our lives. Then, of course, as you said, on opening it was nearly shut down by the so-called “Freedom Convoy,” and then there was the snowstorm, and every roadblock that could possibly been thrown in your way; very much a love versus hate situation.

Presenting this program two years on, we're no longer coming directly out of a pandemic lockdown. What kind of a place do you feel that the show is coming from now? Is it fueled by those same sorts of desires, or has it evolved for you?

BRUEGGERGOSMAN-LEE: It’s fueled by that same sort of drive to insert positivity into the conversation.

You're always placed somewhere in history. When the biographer comes along, sifting through your life, they ask, what was she saying? What was she doing when the world shut down? When everybody was saying no and giving in to fear. It was real. People were dying, and it really mobilized me. The thought that the most depressed and anxiety-riddled, suicidal generation of all time was now forced into a prison of their own homes. And I and Opera Atelier had to find a way to reach them.

I was thinking of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran reformist in the middle of Nazi Germany who refused to toe the line of what the leadership of his time was telling him. And I was reading a lot about his life and his ministry, and I was thinking that you have to live a life that shows people that you actually care about them. You don’t just say nothing. But if you start singing into a camera, if you started programming, and saying, “I see you, even though we can't be together”--I think I want that as the record of my life more than this period of silence.

I wanted to utilize my gift to uplift and edify and encourage the body of humankind. That mandate doesn't change. And Opera Atelier thought that way too. I found allies with whom I could align. Opera Atelier was one of them. The Heart and Stroke Foundation was one of them. CNIB. National Arts Centre. Luminato Festival. You can find people who persevered.

We’re tired. But I didn't come here to be rested. I plan on going to heaven good and exhausted, okay? If you have that as your driver, it won't matter what season you're in, you're just gonna keep making stuff.

BWW: That's what being an artist is really all about, isn't it? Just keep making stuff.

BRUEGGERGOSMAN-LEE: I think the self-employed could be like, please. I've been poor since this began! We had a common enemy, and how you responded to that was the measure of who you actually were.

The question about what the difference is now: I mean, nothing and everything, right? Because what we'll find out is, is the show good, and are people going to come and see it? Rather than back when it was the only thing you could watch. Remember when we only had two channels?

Of course the show's good. Of course it stands the test if time and now people can come and see it. Because it is a great work of art. It is a really beautiful piece, and it is original to Opera Atelier, and it is a reverberation of their endurance and innovation.

BWW: Well, I am looking forward to it and I think it's going to be a fantastic production. Thank you so much for speaking with me.

Photo of Measha Brueggergosman-Lee by Bruce Zinger




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