Interview: Soprano Simone Osborne Talks ELIXIR OF LOVE at the COC
Marilyn Horne mentored her. In 2008, she was one of the youngest singers to ever win the MET Opera National Council Auditions at age 21. Canadian soprano, Simone Osborne is a talented young artist, making waves in the opera scene.
A graduate of the Canadian Opera Company's Studio Ensemble program, Osborne recently wowed audiences in the COC's production of Louis Riel. Returning to the COC as Adina in Donizetti's beautiful L'elisir d'amore (ELIXIR OF LOVE), Osborne is primed to wow us all over again.
BroadwayWorld's Taylor Long sat down with the soprano, to chat about her career, her roots and her excitement in bringing ELIXIR OF LOVE to the stage.
PROFILE: Simone Osborne
Zodiac Sign - Virgo
What are you reading? Little Bee by Chris Cleave & The Hopefuls by Jennifer Close
What are you listening to? Not ELIXIR. Singer/Songwriters, 90s-pop running music.
Pick one bel canto soprano - Right now, Mariella Devia
I want to listen to everything once, but I can't get attached to any recordings. So, I stopped listening to Elixir recordings probably a year ago. Marilyn Horne, who was my teacher for a long time, she'd say, "you don't realize that you're doing it, but if you listen to recordings, you will start to mimic them."
Why do you sing?
I've told this story before, and it sounds ridiculous! When I was a little girl, I used to watch those World Vision commercials on TV. My poor parents, they were university students at the time, so it wasn't like we were living large or anything. But I just didn't understand why we couldn't sponsor all of the kids on each program. At that time, I also didn't know that becoming a humanitarian was a possible job and that you could just do that - work for the Red Cross, for example.
I was always making noise as a kid. I always sang. I think my parents just thought that was normal - but I never stopped. I had an elementary school teacher, Mrs. Piper, and she used to get me out of other classes so that I could be in both choirs. So, I was in the junior choir and the senior choir. I'm sure you can't do that anymore. But I used to spend a full afternoon on Fridays, I remember, just in choir - and I loved it.
When I was in High school, I realized that maybe I could make more of a difference in the world, using my voice. The only way I figured I could increase my notoriety was to become a singer. Fortunately, I fell in love with classical music - the challenges of it and the incredible beauty of it (that I didn't quite understand at that age) - I just wanted more, and more, and more.
It started as a thought that I could bring these two things together (humanitarian work and singing), and of course now, it's the great love of my life - figuring out this instrument and trying to make music that moves people. Hopefully one day, that humanitarian side can come in, in a bigger way.
I think that humanitarian side came into play with Louis Riel, in a way? That piece was educational, eye-opening and definitely started a conversation -
Yeah. First of all, personally, by being part of that project and singing such a contentious part of the opera. I had never been exposed to the amount of important conversations and real conversations - not filtered conversations - direct conversations with people of, in this case, the Nisga'a Nation. About what music means to them, what their music means to them. Talking about their history and talking about their ancestors. It was very enlightening and educational for me.
But, I have also not had a fraction of the conversations that we had over that six-month period while we were in performances of Louis Riel. It was incredibly important. All of Toronto was talking about it, and then all of Ottawa, and then all of Quebec City. It was a really important thing for the COC to have done, and I feel really grateful to have been a cog in the wheel of that process.
It was quite life changing in a lot of ways and it even changed the way I approached the stage. It was such an exposed piece for me, particularly that opening scene. I was able to remember the big picture, because this piece was so important to a couple of people who were sitting in the audience. It reminded me of how fortunate I am to be up there, on any given piece.
I think the conversations will continue. The fact that it was happening in conjunction with Canada 150, just heightened the amount of awareness and exposure that people had. My story-line with it is not over. I fully intend to do some work in the future and continue to try and build bridges - and use music to do that. I think that's one thing that music can really do - it can connect people that have had trouble understanding each other's vocabulary. One thing that can bridge that gap is music - it's the universal language.
When did you know that you were going to do this for the rest of your life?
I had a point in my life where I knew it was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I think as any good Canadian, I have a good amount of - not self-doubt - but just of, "Really? Could it really be me?"
I was in a singing lesson in high school and my singing teacher handed me "O mio babbino caro". I had only been doing art songs and Canadian folk songs up until this point, I was seventeen. She said, "Okay, you're going to sing your first opera aria." She started playing it for me, and she was sort of singing it an octave down (she was a mezzo). I had never sung anything in Italian, I had never sung anything lyric, like Puccini, and I just thought - if I could sing things like this, forever, I would be happy.
In my third year of the young artist's program here (COC), I was cast as Lauretta in Gianni Schicchi. So I got to sing the whole role, and then I found out that is was Catherine Malfitano who was going to direct, and as a young music student I had seen a million things she had done on YouTube, so I was blown away by that. And then, I found out the next week that Sir Andrew Davis was going to conduct.
So it was less than 10 years from that singing lesson, to me being in the orchestra rehearsal for this. I remember looking at maestro and just thinking - this is surreal. We got to the opening night, and there's these big chords that come before the aria, and he wanted me to take a little moment of breath. I took the breath, I looked at him and all around me were the five rings of the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. And I just remember thinking - I did it. I can die now. And I almost forgot to sing.
What has been the most surprising aspect of pursuing a career as a professional singer?
I think the amount of other work there is. I was lucky, I was sort of musically raised by a teacher who had had a long career, for many years - she had toured and been at the COC. She really prepared me to be alone a lot, to be on the road a lot, to give up a lot for your career.
The amount of time spent on time spent on websites and emailing - correspondence, auditions, preparing trips for said auditions.
Creating your brand?
Yeah, the brand side. Which, I have to say, as a young singer, I think I was probably better at it than a lot of people, at the self-promotion stuff. But, in a way, for me, it became a little bit overwhelming. Especially as someone who got quite a bit of attention thrown on them, after I did some competitions quite young, and did well in them.
"Some competitions" - Just some little competition. (Me teasing Osborne for being so humble about the MET National Council Audition)
I'm a Canadian - what can I say!
I wasn't really prepared for the attention. People kind of warned me about it - I had an old pianist who I worked with as a teenager, and she asked me not to do the MET competition when I was 20. I just didn't understand what she was saying.
And then of course, I ended up going all the way and I now understand what she meant. I wouldn't change any of it, but that's a lot of pressure and expectation to be put on someone that is just starting their musical journey. At that time, I thought I had so many convictions and I thought I knew how this music should be sung - bless my heart - I had no idea.
The combination of that pressure and then all of the work that goes into promoting one's self. I almost was spending as much time on that as I was in the practice room. And that is dangerous. It's great to know and be cognizant of the fact that you're a business person and you have to sell yourself, but at the end of the day, if the product suffers...
The really tricky part for me was seeing myself as a product. If you spend half of your day or even a third of your day, sending emails and talking about yourself, responding to interview questions about yourself, getting glamour shots done - when you get in the practice room, it can be tricky to forget that and strip it all away and really just work on the notes on the page and the way that you're singing them. Having that be as true and authentic and gritty as it can be, can be tricky, because you've spent a third of your day making everything glossy.
I think that's one thing, when I talk to young singers, I say - just be prepared that a lot of your time is going to be spent on non-singing stuff. The base of it all is really good work, really hard work and making sure that what you're presenting, is really meaningful. At the end of the day, you have to be you, and you have to be true to the artist that you are.
That's a very long-winded way of saying that finding the balance of being a business person and seeing yourself as a product, and maintaining artistic integrity - as a young singer, I found it challenging to be both in one day.
I feel like the discussion of vocal health has really progressed over the past few years - but it's still a pretty taboo topic, especially in opera. How do you keep your voice in good health? And, how do you think the opera world can be more open with discussing it?
It's really interesting. I think because the vocal cords are something that you can't physically see, and the sounds that singers make are so - you know, people are very opinionated. It's not like a dancer, where they have an injury and then they come back from said injury and they're dancing better than ever and so, the proof is in the pudding, that person is obviously better.
It's interesting to me because, one of my best friends is a principal dancer with the National Ballet and they talk about it all the time! Everyone knows when someone is injured - people get injured all the time. They have steroid shots, they add this, change their whole diets and lives. They work so incredibly hard to stay injury free. But everyone gets injured and everyone knows that - because they're elite athletes.
Well - so are we - except you can't see our muscles. You can't see what makes the sound. So I think that's why people are very reticent to talk about it. I remember when Simon Keenlyside came out about having stuff going on with his cords, and the pressure for that next MET debut that he made, was so incredibly high, because everyone knew that he had been through something and everyone figured that they could hear whether it was the same as before or whether it was not.
There are so many things unknown about how we produce the sound that we produce. There are a million factors that come into that - so I think people are scared to talk about it. I had a friend who had to cancel a couple of important gigs because they sang on allergies. And I know for a fact it was allergies. Allergies can be super serious. You want to be professional and you want to go in and do your job and do performances, but if you sing on that kind of swelling, you could be fine, or you could have major problems. And the vultures came out - they ripped this person apart, saying it was their technique and saying it was their schedule, it was their agent. So I totally understand why people don't want to talk about it.
I'm pretty honest with young singers. I mean, I've had stuff. I've never had anything major, but it feels like the end of the world when there's something going on. And the problem is, you can't see it leading up. Stress can attribute so much to a lot of the problems that singers have. I'm honest about it with them, because I don't want them to think that they're alone. And I don't want them to think that it's something inherently wrong with their technique - that if they're singing a new role every day and they get tired by the end of the week, that there's something wrong with them.
I think the answer to the question is - with a dancer, it's clear that someone has gotten over a problem. With a runner, or a basketball player, you can see - if they can dunk the ball and they're not wincing in pain, they're back. With a singer, you can't see that. A perceptive teacher can hear it, but the audience is different. And it's like anything, as soon as you drop a little bit of information, everyone is an expert.
I had really bad acid reflux as a young singer, it was partly just, lots of stress and putting big expectations on myself and eating late at night after rehearsals. I just didn't know. I didn't know that you shouldn't go out and have a steak at the Keg after opening night. And sure enough, I went to an ENT, and they said, "oh, all you have is this and this is what you take." I called a friend in tears, and she was a much more successful singer than I was at that time, and she said, "Oh, honey, every young artist I know is on some sort of acid reflux medicine!"
I don't blame singers for not talking about it publicly, but I think we should be honest with each other, in the industry, so that people know that they're not alone.
The way I take care of my instrument is that I have an incredible ENT in Toronto. She can calm me right down and explain exactly what's happening. She knows how hard what we do is, and she reminds us of that. Just having someone who can see what is going on, is really helpful. I avoid loud restaurants. I can do almost anything except going to a loud restaurant after a show. Getting enough sleep, hydrating. Trying not to think about getting sick - because as soon as you start worrying about that stuff, it creeps in. I try to have a balanced, calm life when I'm in shows. Everything is about the run at that point. I really am pretty dedicated to my performance rituals and taking care of myself in that time. It's my responsibility to myself, to the audience and to the company that I'm working for.
Renée Fleming will performing in Broadway's Carousel this year. What are your thoughts on cross-over work? Do you think it has the potential to make opera seem more accessible or less intimidating?
I think a lot of people came to the MET to see Kelli O'Hara in the The Merry Widow. And I think Merry Widow was a great opening opera - introductory opera - just like ELIXIR would be!
I am all for it. I think that if you're an opera that can do karaoke really well - you might consider it.
There are two types of opera singers. There are opera singers who are incredible at classical music and then there are opera singers who came to it from some other realm and are good at that kind of stuff. I'm thinking of someone like, Isabel Leonard, who is an incredible classical artist, but was a dancer and did musical theatre stuff in high school and has expressed interest in doing crossover stuff.
I think it's great. I love musical theatre. I wish I could dance, so I could do more of it. I totally think crossover is fantastic. Any way that we can get people into the opera, without them feeling overwhelmed or insecure about walking in the doors - because that's what usually happens. If people hear Renée Fleming and then come see her in something at the MET - great! So, I think it's fantastic, if you're really good at it. And I think these worlds are a lot closer than we realize.
If opera was more engrained in culture, people would be able to come freely, with no fear and just enjoy it for what it is. You don't have to know everything about opera to enjoy the show. Just come to the right one - like, ELIXIR OF LOVE.
Tell me something exciting about James Robinson's ELIXIR OF LOVE.
For Toronto audiences, what is kind of fun, is that three of the four lead characters are sung by artists that have been trained in Toronto and sort of grew up musically here - myself as Adina, Andrew Haji as Nemorino and Gordon Bintner as Belcore. So that's kind of fun - the fact that people have probably shared the streetcar with one or more of us over the years.
And the fact that a major Canadian arts organization would entrust these three roles to three recent graduates of its young artist program and really kind of, give us the opportunities and be sort of hands off and let us go and create these roles here, on the mainstage, is something that we're very grateful for. It means a lot to us.
There's a special sort of camaraderie with this whole cast - there are only five characters in the cast and everyone gets along extremely well. I also happen to be married to Gordon, who is singing Belcore, and he and Andrew are very close friends. We're really close off-stage and it makes the staging process come to life, because you can do anything and try anything - it's a totally free, fun, open rehearsal process. And there's a vibrant energy about a young cast that have never done these roles before.
The production is really charming. I love the theatrical side of what I do, so it's great because this production is updated and different. It's not set in a random Italian town, in the 1800s. It's set in North America, in "any town" Ontario. If you've been to Niagara-on-the-lake or Stratford, it sort of has that feel. It's really easy for the chorus to connect to those kind of characters and they're doing an incredible job of creating this little town. For audience members, you'll just click-in. There's no disconnect between what you're seeing - the kind of comedy being played or the kind of characters being created - they feel like people that you know.
There's a real community vibe and I think the audience will feel that when they come to the theatre. It's an easy, fun, special night at the theatre - I think everyone will really enjoy it.
ELIXIR OF LOVE at the Canadian Opera Company opens October 11th and runs through November 4th at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.
For more information and to purchase tickets, visit http://www.coc.ca/PerformancesAndTickets/1718Season/ElixirofLove.aspx
**This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity**