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Wallis Giunta: 5 pieces that changed my life

Robert Rowat

Opera directors must love working with Wallis Giunta. The Canadian mezzo-soprano backs her beautiful voice with serious acting skills, a chameleon-like ability to transform herself and a desire to completely inhabit her roles.

"Giunta was superb," wrote Robert Harris in his Globe and Mail review of Opera Atelier's October 2016 production of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, "dramatic, mesmerizing, with an expressive mezzo voice, fully in command of her character every moment she was onstage."

The Ottawa native is currently on the roster of Leipzig Opera in Germany, where her recent roles have included Cherubino (Le nozze di Figaro), Angelina (La Cenerentola), Rossweisse (Die Walküre) and Siebel (Faust).

Giunta — a graduate of the Glenn Gould School, the COC Ensemble Studio, Juilliard and the Metropolitan Opera's Lindemann Young Artist Development Program — is in Toronto this week to perform in a semi-staged production of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's The Seven Deadly Sins with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra under Peter Oundjian, directed by Joel Ivany. (Full details here.) It's a work perfectly suited to an artist of her temperament.

We got in touch with Giunta and asked for five pieces that changed her life. Not surprisingly, she began with Weill.

1. Kurt Weill, The Seven Deadly Sins

"It's been quite the journey with this piece for me. I first encountered it while in undergrad at the Glenn Gould School 10 years ago. At that time, I worked at the music store at Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto, and during our shifts, we were allowed to go in and watch the symphony if there were any empty seats. I slipped in one night to see the German singer Ute Lemper doing this incredible Kurt Weill cabaret masterpiece, and I was completely blown away. I'm been borderline obsessed with this work, and Weill in general, ever since, and have been actively cultivating opportunities to perform as much as I can.

"I've done [The Seven Deadly Sins] four times in recital with piano, and have often used excepts in concerts. Then, a miracle happened: a couple of years ago, after I'd just made my debut with the TSO in another work, I was chatting with their artistic team and they asked what kind of repertoire I'd be interested in performing with them in the future. My heart jumped, and I immediately said 'Kurt-Weill-Seven-Deadly-Sins-please!' They were like, 'Well, we have a 20th-century decades project coming up and this would be perfect for the '30s.' Et voilà! I've come full circle, and this month will be performing the Sins for the first time in it's complete, orchestrated version, on the very stage, and with the very orchestra that got me hooked!

"And it never rains, but it pours: After 10 years of waiting, I have not one, but two productions of it in the next month. Right after Toronto, I do another new production with the Real Orquesta in Seville! Total coincidence."

2. Benjamin Britten, A Midsummer Night's Dream

"This was the first opera I totally fell in love with. I've always loved the play, and at age 20, when I first got the chance to perform the opera (as Hermia), it was a major turning point for me, artistically. I got lost in the magical, fairy world of Shakespeare's play, and I was completely entranced by Britten's incredible gift for text painting, and the freedom that allowed me as a performer. Before that, I'd only sung opera in foreign languages, and had really only been exposed to traditional pre-20th century classical repertoire. This was my first modern, English opera. As a young, inexperienced opera singer, it allowed me to delve much further into the dramatic potential, and use my voice in a new, free way.

"I find Britten writes music that allows the singer to communicate almost effortlessly. There is no stylistic barrier — not that stylized singing isn't often sublime — but there is an immediacy to Britten that really appeals to me. I've been able to perform the role again since then, along with many other of his works. I always consider it the greatest pleasure."

3. Jeff Buckley, Grace

"I know it's cliché, but this album has changed my life. Buckley is one of those artists that defies classification, and breaks all the rules in the best possible way. This album showed me that an artist is an artist. Period. Each song is better than the next, and what a range — from covers of 'Hallelujah,' 'Lilac Wine' and Britten's Corpus Christi Carol to originals like 'Last Goodbye' and 'So Real.' There is, literally, not a dud on the album, and that is a very rare thing for mainstream music. Every time I listen to it, I am reminded of how there is a real strength in being a diverse and multi-faceted artist, and I'm inspired to explore all the wild and wonderful types of music that interest me. It's like Jeff gave me the permission to be as creatively free as I want to be, and never let anyone put me in a box."

4. Gaetano Donizetti, 'Regnava nel silenzio' from Act 1 of Lucia di Lammermoor

"When I was about seven years old, my father, in a rare break from the constant stream of classic rock that blasted through our house, put on a Maria Callas 'best of' album. I still remember standing in the living room, and with no one listening, imitating her rendition of this aria over and over. I also clearly remember the thrill of realizing, in a totally untrained and childish way, that I could actually do the things she was doing with her voice. I could hit the notes, clearly sing the coloratura, match the pitches. The feeling was mysterious and wonderful, and I loved it.

"For quite some time, this aria was for me the holy grail of opera singing ... until, early in my undergrad (when I still thought/hoped/dreamed I might be a dramatic soprano), I was devastated to finally realize that I would never sing this role, or anything like it. It's all worked out for the best in the end, as the characters I do sing are much better suited to my personality! I'm just not leading lady, diva material. But I'm a really fantastic pubescent boy."

5. Lauryn Hill, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill

"In high school I was really into (good) hip-hop. De La Soul, Common, that kind of thing. Lauryn Hill just totally rocked my world. I listened to this album on repeat for days on end. And without realizing it at the time, the way she structured it had a huge impact on the way I conceive of, and plan, recitals. The idea of a thematic collection of songs, with spoken word linking them, and a dramatic arc — that's how I like to program my concerts. I know she was not the first person to create an album this way, and I'm certainly not the first singer to break up the recital format, but I remember being in school and being told one had to do groups of songs and a nice balance of languages and styles and musical periods, and to stay away from too much contemporary and to always include Schubert, etc., and I just felt like no, that's not for me. Sorry. I need something more. I need to tell a story. I need something that I can really sink my teeth into.

"So for the most part when I do recitals, they're a lot like this album in the way I put them together. I choose each song for its individual merit, and I never sing something because it's just part of a cycle. I use spoken poetry if I feel it helps the flow, I sing a cappella sometimes, I do the occasional song on the guitar, I often break outside the classical genre. If a song doesn't get me jazzed, it's out. My programs are usually comprised of individual songs, but they have a linking thread and a total investment in the dramatic through-line. And each song is as good as the next. Thanks, Lauryn."

More to explore:

Charles Richard-Hamelin: 5 pieces that changed my life

Jon Kimura Parker: 5 pieces that changed my life

Avan Yu: 5 pieces that changed my life