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Simone Osborne on self-preservation, sexism in opera and her Messiah homecoming

Andrea Warner

Acclaimed soprano Simone Osborne returns home to Vancouver this week, adding another massive debut to an already impressive resume. Since winning the coveted Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions eight years ago at the age of 21, Osborne has performed on stages all over the world, earning rave reviews from the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and countless other publications.

Her rise in opera has been swift, but Osborne has purposefully rejected and deferred certain roles as an act of self-preservation. In a candid conversation with CBC Music, Osborne opens up about how the art of saying “No” saved her voice, the sexism and body-shaming in opera, and why Handel’s Messiah lives up to the hype.

We love to celebrate your homecoming shows in Vancouver. Let me offer an early welcome back for your first Messiah this weekend.

I love coming back! When I was home for Rigoletto in the fall, it really felt like the whole city was behind that production and really supportive and all the press outlets, too. There’s nothing like it.

But there’s something bittersweet, too, about a homegrown talent who has had so much international success contrasted with Vancouver Opera’s change to a three-week festival format.

I really hope that the festival format that they’ve come up with will give new birth to the company. I don’t know all the details and I’ve certainly not looked at the books, and certainly every arts organization I’ve come into contact with has had trouble over the last few years with federal grants and support from the federal government. Hopefully with this change, it sounds like the new government is very involved and very interested in supporting the arts. Justin Trudeau has attended events of an arts charity I’m involved with here in Toronto — this is, of course, before he was PM — but I know it’s something that’s important to him and he really did put his money where his mouth was when he showed up.

It’s definitely a difficult time for arts organizations across the board, but I know that they’ve done a lot of research and a lot of work about what will be the best solution and I hope they’re right. I hope it breathes new life into the company. But there was really no sign of anything going all that badly when we were there. The houses were so full and the patrons and the opera guild were so excited about the show and the cast, so hopefully this is the beginning of a turnaround. There needs to be opera in the West Coast and Vancouver, and hopefully this is the format and it will thrive, if not forever, at least for the next little while.

I hope so, too. I can’t imagine Vancouver without an opera company [that programs an entire season].

Yeah. The first operas I ever saw were at UBC and Vancouver Opera. The first big theatre I ever sat in was the Orpheum for my high school graduation, so every time I go and sing with the VSO, it’s a total throwback. But I remember seeing Der Rosenkavalier for the first time, this huge, extravagant, beautiful production at the opera and I remember thinking, "Oh my god, there’s no way I could ever do that but I would really like to do that one day!" (laughs). That’s where I fell in love with opera and the craft of it. I even did their high school program where kids can come and go behind the scenes for a week. I just fell in love with it... I had a pretty rough time in high school and the arts and those outlets, especially the ones that got me out of school and the social dynamic we dealt with in high school, that was my godsend. I found music right at the right time and fell in love with it and dedicated all of my time and energy to that because it was kind of my safe haven.

When you won the Met auditions, people just wanted to talk about your age.

Big time! Trending topic (laughs).

In 2012 you were talking about how you were already booked for things in 2016 and how can you really know whether you are going to be ready to sing a big role that far in the future. What have you learned since then about exceeding your own expectations and your limitations?

Oh my gosh, I was really fortunate in the beginning to know a couple of people who knew a heck of a lot more than me and had a more experience than me help guide me and give me advice. I’m pretty sure I’d have no voice at this point if I hadn’t had a couple of people in my corner. Two of them are from Vancouver: Nancy Hermiston, the head of Voice and Opera who was my teacher from the beginning of my undergrad and is really my opera mom. And the other is Judy Forst who has seen it all and done it all. This is a woman who made her La Scala debut at 68 or 67. I said, ‘I can’t believe they never had you before that!’ and she said, "Oh, they invited me, I just wasn’t interested in the projects they were proposing." (Laughs) I thought, ok, well, if I have someone that discerning in my corner, with that kind of artistic integrity, I will probably be fine. She did a long stint in New York and worked at the Met and she saw a lot of young singers come and go, people who were supposed to be the next big thing turn into a flash in the pan.

If I hadn’t had all of these people guiding me and supporting me and telling me to say no, I would probably be in big trouble. I started having these big roles offered to me when I was 23 and 24 partly because people didn’t even know I was under 25. I started so early and my resume doesn’t say my age and I still look about 15, they would see all these roles and they would see, okay, she’s been singing for a certain amount of years professionally, she must be ready for this or that. What I didn’t realize at 21 — I was really excited about all of it, obviously — but the people around me made it very clear that there were things that I couldn’t even imagine at that point that were normal or that would come over the course of the next 10 years and that was so true. Until you’ve spent 10 to 11 months of the year on a plane every two weeks, flying from continent to continent, back and forth, you don’t understand what that tired feels like. You don’t understand how easy it is to pick up a sickness. How sleeping in a different bed all the time that is not your own, different hotels with different heating or air conditioning, different allergens in the air in different cities you’re in at different times of the year — there are so many outside influences that you can’t control.

I was really lucky, I had good teachers and a pretty solid technique for a 21-year-old, but that doesn’t mean anything. (Laughs) A pretty solid technique for 21 is great until you’re about 25. You’ve gotta re-work things, your voice changes, your body changes, and you need to keep working. And the mental preparedness and strength and the personal side of the coin. I’m just this little kid from Vancouver who, even at the Met auditions, I hadn’t had the great diction coaching and special musical preparation from Juilliard or Curtis or all of these incredible conservatories. What I had was wonderful, but you can certainly start feeling less than other people. There’s also that big mental battle when you have to get up in front of thousands of people all the time. Sometimes there are things going on in your personal life and you can’t control but you still have to get up there and you still have to sing. When singing is very close to who you are and it’s the one good thing in your life, it’s tricky to separate that when other things aren’t going so well. Those are the kinds of things that have taken these eight years since I won the Met. It wasn’t so much the vocal piece, it was all of the other stuff.

It’s so important to have people looking out for you. You should make some small book to hand out to child stars or something. Can you imagine where Lindsay Lohan would be if she’d just had a few people in her corner?

Exactly! And there are so many singers I meet who totally lose themselves in it. I keep saying, "Guys, we’re not curing cancer. We’re making music here. You don’t have to have just the red M&Ms delivered to your dressing room." It’s dealing with the stress and dealing with an instrument that’s not always gonna show up. You can have the greatest technique in the world, but if you get a cold, there’s not much you can do about it. Not being thrown right into the biggest spotlights we have really saved me and elongated my career by about 30 years. I know that I wouldn’t be singing today if I’d jumped out there at 21 when all of that stuff happened for me. Winning the Met at that age made me look at the world through a different set of glasses for 5 years. I was always wondering whether it was good enough every time I opened my mouth. That’s not an easy additional pressure to put on yourself. But I’m glad I dealt with it then, because I have found tools to cope with that attention or pressure. Now I’m kind of ready to take on the world.

Last year there was a big uproar about sexism in opera after the critics at Glyndebourne Opera Festival made terrible remarks about the physical appearance of the female lead, Tara Erraught. Have you experienced sexism in your opera world?

I will say definitely that the whole image and weight situation affects women much more than it affects men. Not to say that it doesn’t impact men’s careers, but if you walk into your audition and you’re 50 pounds over your optimal weight, whatever that means, it’s much less likely that the women will get the job and it’s much more likely that the costume designer will say, ‘Oh, we can figure that out,’ for the man, or the director will say, "Oh, I can make that work." Partly, it’s just thanks to the kinds of roles we sing. A lot are young girls and you have to be able to flit around the stage, especially nowadays do a lot more movement and real acting and becoming of a character. I do think that affects women more than it affects men. I don’t think it’s right. Personally, when I go to the theatre, I don’t care what someone looks like as long as they move me, and I think most people would agree with that. I have, however, been in the audiences for friends of mine for wonderful performances, where I can’t even speak after they were so beautiful, and I hear someone as we’re leaving the hall go, "Oh, it’s a shame about her weight." Some people can’t see past it, but that’s a reflection on them. If we start pandering to that mentality then we’re only going to get in our own way and we’re only going to regret it when great voices are lost or never heard of because they happen to be bigger than a size two.

In fact, this week there was this uproar online because of a smaller American company said in their audition notice that casting would be appropriate appearance, basically look and weight, and people were furious. I don’t care if La Boheme is sung by four runway models, I want La Boheme to be sung. Beautifully. I’ve struggled with maintaining a consistent weight on the road and just as a young woman changing everything, but it’s easier for me to do the travel when I’m at a healthy weight and really feeling good. It’s not easy for me to sing when I’m at the lowest weight that I’ve been. I’ve lost weight for productions before, seeing costume sketches, and I get way down to as little as I can be, and I have a hard time supporting the sound because I’m used to a little bit more that will just drop down and help with the support, with the breath just pouring in right away without me having to exert just to inhale. It’s a balance, but for me the voice does and will always come first. I could care less whether they’re a size 4 or 14 or 24. If they’re a great actor, I just don’t care. I’ve heard some pretty mediocre singing over the world’s great stages over the last 10 years and I hope that changes. It’s rarely from the bigger girl on stage, it’s often from the one who looks like a supermodel.

So you’re coming to town for your first performance in Messiah. Is there real substance behind all the hype? Is it truly as good as its reputation insists?

I have to admit, the first times that I heard Messiah, I didn’t really get it. I understood that it’s beautiful music, of course, and it’s Handel, how can you not like Handel? But over the past few years of listening to it and hearing the arias, sitting in the audience, and not expecting anything from the choir or the soloists, just going in with a totally open mind, it is the most beautiful, overwhelming, glorious music. In this production, we’ve got over 100 choir members singing their hearts out, these beautiful, reverent melodies, and four part harmonies and really fantastic soloists. If there was ever a time to see Messiah, this is it... It’s not the same on a recording, you have to come to the theatre and feel the sound from 100 people with open hearts and open voices singing in complete harmony. You have to hear that live.

There have been minor edits to the original article for clarification purposes regarding the Vancouver Opera's new festival format.

Hang out with me on Twitter: @_AndreaWarner

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