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Lara Ciekiewicz: 5 pieces that changed my life

Robert Rowat

"At the core of my being there is a constant state of grateful bliss at having the opportunity to sing this remarkable role with such tremendous colleagues."

Soprano Lara Ciekiewicz is evidently over the moon preparing for her role and company debut as Tatyana in Calgary Opera's production of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, opening Feb. 3. It comes just months after another big first for the Winnipeg native: singing the title role in Janáček's Jenůfa at Pacific Opera Victoria.

Both roles mark a gradual transition to heavier repertoire for Ciekiewicz. "I certainly have some spinto cut in my sound, but most of my rep is pretty firmly lyric at this point," she tells us. "But whatever the case, both roles came to me at the exact right time and feel so right, which is the most important thing for me."

Ciekiewicz is a graduate of the University of Winnipeg and McGill University's Schulich School of Music. She completed her master's degree in opera performance at the latter, studying under Joanne Kolomyjec, who, incidentally, was Calgary Opera's Tatyana the last time they produced Eugene Onegin, back in 1996.

We pulled Ciekiewicz from rehearsal and asked her for five pieces that changed her life.

1. Antonín Dvořák: Symphony No. 9 in E minor, 'From the New World'

Many parents play Mozart for their babies, but Ciekiewicz's played Tchaikovsky and Dvořák in her nursery. "I like to joke that if you wish your child to be smart, play them Mozart," she muses. "If you wish them to be an opera singer (and smart), play them the Slavic Romantics!"

Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 has stuck with her. "It's always on my iPod, especially when I'm on the road. I never pass up an opportunity to hear it live. It moves me every time. More importantly, it always links me to my parents and my sense of home, grounding me all the way back to my earliest years."

2. Charles Villiers Stanford: Three Motets, Op. 38

"Manitobans are lucky to have such a rich and varied choral tradition in their province," says Ciekiewicz, who began singing in the choir at Immaculate Conception Church in Cooks Creek, Man., and belonged to community and school choirs before eventually joining professional ensembles like the Winnipeg Singers. "Choral singing is such a joyful experience and it indelibly shaped the kind of musician I am today. It brings us closer as people, as we unite the vibrations of many single voices into a glorious whole."

Of Stanford's Three Motets, Op. 38, "Beati quorum via" is her favourite. "My husband and I had it sung at our wedding. I still get chills when the major/minor shift happens in the middle of the piece. Once again, it is a piece that connects me to my past and the joy of making music as a community."

3. Stephen Fearing, 'Dog on a Chain'

Ciekiewicz first heard Stephen Fearing at the Winnipeg Folk Festival. "He was playing on a tiny stage, in the blazing heat, just him and a guitar in a workshop full of amazing artists. I remember how much I loved his voice, how beautifully he could make his guitar sing, and how much his songs connected to the audience," she recalls. "He, and artists like him, were responsible for setting me on the path that eventually brought me to opera. I wanted to make music like that — music that would connect me to people."

She loves "Dog on a Chain/James Medley" because of its "haunting lyrics and the way in which it showcases Stephen’s ability on the guitar."

4. James Ehnes and Andrew Armstrong's Canadian tour and album

"I am admittedly pushing the parameters with this choice, but it was too strong a moment in my musical life to gloss over," says Ciekiewicz, referring to the cross-Canada concert tour and companion album by violinist James Ehnes and pianist Andrew Armstrong in 2016.

"The concert is what marked me; the album is my memory of such an enchanting evening and also worthy in its own right," she continues. At the time, Ciekiewicz was working at Pacific Opera Victoria on her first big Verdi role, Amelia in Simon Boccanegra. She caught Ehnes and Armstrong on the West Coast leg of their tour.

"This concert ended up being the perfect way for me to refill my own artist’s well. I will never forget their stunning level of music-making that happened that night and their ability to reach out and truly connect to the audience. I wept through most of that concert from pure joy and a healthy dose of Manitoba pride!"

Watch Ehnes and Armstrong's full recital here.

5. Janáček: Jenůfa

"I've been fortunate to have people around me who saw things in me before I could see or dream of them myself," says Ciekiewicz, reflecting on her debut in the title role in Janáček's Jenůfa last fall.

"Before Pacific Opera Victoria approached me about singing the title role, the show hadn’t even been on my radar as something I might do. I had never taken on a Czech role and it represented an introduction to slightly heavier repertoire." But after careful consideration, Ciekiewicz accepted.

"What a treat of a role," she continues. "Jenůfa was a signature role of one of my mentors at McGill, the amazing Joanne Kolomyjec. How special not only to work on one of your teacher’s roles, but to get the opportunity to work on it with them. Coaching this piece with Joanne, as well as the fabulous coach Esther Gonthier, was a joy and a privilege."

Ciekiewicz points out that opera is teamwork. "I was surrounded by a tremendous group of colleagues, including conductor Timothy Vernon, director Atom Egoyan and the entire team, cast, ensemble and family at POV. They lifted me up with their talent and hard work every day; their spirit kept me going on the days when I thought I had nothing left to give; their generosity allowed me to be the most vulnerable and present I have ever been as an artist."

In addition to her colleagues, the opera itself was an inspiration for Ciekiewicz. "A life lesson, learned in opera land, thanks to a rosy-cheeked Czech girl named Jenůfa. She taught me so much, gave me such joy, allowed me to connect not only with my colleagues, but our audiences, and forever stole a piece of my heart. I am a better artist for knowing her and I hope we meet again."

The closing scene of Act 2 from a Liceu Opera Barcelona production of Janáček's Jenůfa.

For more information on Ciekiewicz's performance in Calgary Opera's production of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, head over to their website.

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