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Ambur Braid: 'I need space to be a bit bonkers'

Robert Rowat

An adjudicator at a singing competition once put her hands on Ambur Braid's torso and said, "It's a shame your ribs are so narrow, you'll never have a big voice."

Fast-forward to 2017 and Braid's agenda is filling up with engagements at opera houses not only in her native Canada, but also abroad. "I sort of wish she could come to The Magic Flute in January," she says of her one-time adjudicator. Braid's voice will fill Toronto's Four Season's Centre for the Performing Arts with the Queen of the Night's famous high Fs in the Canadian Opera Company's production, which opens Jan. 19.

'You have to be so zen': How soprano Ambur Braid hits the high notes in her new performance

An iconic role, the Queen of the Night is one of opera's best examples of musical characterization. (The film Amadeus playfully connected the Queen of the Night's rage to the high-pitched hysterics of Mozart's mother-in-law.)

It's currently Braid's signature role. In the past year alone, she has sung it with English National Opera, Calgary Opera and Frankfurt Opera. "Each time one sings the role, it's a different beast," she told us, referring to the wide stylistic range of productions she's done. "You could be flying, coming from a trap door, rolling in a wheelchair. Oddly, just standing still is the hardest for me!"

In 2016's production at English National Opera, she played the role in a fatsuit. "New conductors and directors help keep the role fresh. It's quite different each time that I sing it."

As Braid undertakes her ninth production of the opera, one wonders if the role is becoming too easy for her. "It matters so much to me, so it's never easy," she cautioned. "While hitting the notes themselves is not difficult, it's always a mind game. Playing the villain is always exciting. You get to bring out your naughty side!"

Ambur Braid sings 'Der hölle Rache' in Calgary Opera's April 2016 production of Mozart's Magic Flute.

Braid was born and raised in Terrace, B.C., "a gorgeous town in the Pacific Northwest surrounded by snow-capped mountains. It's pretty incredible there," she said. "I enjoyed Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 as a child, but hadn't experienced much else. Musical theatre was more my thing growing up, but mainly because it was all I was exposed to. It wasn't until high school that I started listening to opera and it blew my mind. The bel canto repertoire was just so much fun to me."

The allure of a career in opera led her from B.C.'s breathtaking scenery to Toronto for serious training. After studying with Donna Sherman at the Royal Conservatory of Music's Glenn Gould School in Toronto, Braid was accepted into the Canadian Opera Company's Ensemble Studio, where Wendy Nielsen was her mentor. Braid also credits her family with helping her get where she is today. "They support me, yet know that I need space to be a bit bonkers and do my job."

So far, she's been sticking to the dramatic coloratura repertoire, with an emphasis on dramatic: Vitellia in Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito, Elizabetta in Donizetti's Roberto Devereux and Violetta in Verdi's La Traviata, on top of all the Queens of the Night.

But lately, Braid has been working with the great Romanian/Greek soprano Marina Krilovici in Athens. (Canadian opera fans may remember Krilovici as the first prize winner at the 1967 Montreal International Music Competition and for her Tosca in Toronto the following season.) Without divulging specifics, Braid hinted that her association with Krilovici is a sign of bigger, heftier repertoire to come.

"I'm not exactly a coloratura soprano. I do sing the dramatic coloratura repertoire but I've been everything from a mezzo to a spinto, based on certain people’s opinions," she reveals. "I have a big role debut next season, so we (my team) will be working on that in Toronto and Athens.

"2018," she adds. "It's a whole new world."

Braid sings 12 performances of Mozart's Magic Flute with the Canadian Opera Company, starting Jan. 19. In May, also in Toronto, she sings the title role in Tapestry Opera's production of Oksana G.

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