For mezzo Charlotte Burrage, May 15th 2015 is going to be a special day, a sort of a rite of passage. It’ll mark her COC main-stage debut in a lead role, as the spunky and mischievous Rosina in The Barber of Seville. “I’ve never sung any Rossini before, in fact this is my first coloratura role. So everything is new for me!”
Her folks will be coming in from Southwestern Ontario to be at the Four Seasons Centre, among an already sold-out audience cheering her on. Burrage will be on stage with her boyfriend and fellow Ensemble colleague, baritone Clarence Frazer as Figaro. I was at the Ensemble Studio Barber preview a few weeks ago, when they sang a sparkling “Dunque io son.” There is no doubt in my mind that these two young singers are ready, willing and able to forge a career in the opera world.
Born and raised in tiny Sweaburg just outside Woodstock, Ontario, Burrage was chosen to join the Ensemble Studio after winning Third Prize in the COC Ensemble Competition in 2012. I recall a very cute Dorabella in Act 1 Cosi fan tutte in her first year, but this season Burrage has really come into her own. She sang her first Wagner as Grimgerde in Die Walkure last February, and now ends her tenure in the Ensemble on a high note as Rosina.
I recently met up with Burrage for a little chat near the opera house. She had just come from a Barber rehearsal: “I was able to spend two hours with maestro Rory Macdonald for a one-on-one. We worked through a lot of my music – it was wonderful. This is my first bel canto role and it’s been a very steep learning curve. I had to learn the coloratura technique in less than a year. It has helped my other pieces so much, just the flow of breath alone. And I learn so much just watching Serena (mezzo Serena Malfi, the first cast Rosina) in rehearsal – she’s incredible! Listening to her, my recits have gotten so much better.”
JS: Let’s back track a little and tell us how you got started. Have you always sung? Was there music at home?
CB: My parents started me in piano when I was seven, and took my first singing lesson at eight. I was in choirs and took theory lessons. My first voice teacher was Beth Faulkner, then I studied with Vicki St Pierre. Like Andrew (Haji), I sang in the Amabile Choir, and in the choir at the United Church. We had a piano at home and my mom would play Christmas carols. I also did a bit of percussion and clarinet in high school…nothing serious.
JS: When did you decide to study music seriously?
CB: When I finished high school, I only applied for music in university. I had wanted to be a marine biologist, but when I started theory, piano, and choir, it became so all- consuming, and I really loved it and decided to keep going.
JS: Do you recall your first opera experience?
CB: When I started studying voice with Vicki St Pierre, she introduced me to the voice of Maureen Forrester on a CD singing Handel Arias…I was 14 or 15. My very first live opera experience was actually in Paris, France – I won a trip on 96.3 FM to Paris! It was Boris Godunov at the Bastille. I absolutely loved it! But I don’t remember ever thinking that I wanted to be an opera singer. That would be a weird thought to have, since I’m from Sweaburg, a very small town with no opera…
JS: What made you decide to choose University of Toronto’s music program?
CB: Vicki St. Pierre was a student of Darryl Edwards at U of T; Darryl is actually from Woodstock. I went there for six years, for my undergraduate and masters. I was mainly in the chorus for the first four years, and then all art songs for my masters. Andrew Haji, Adam Luther, Aviva and I were all in the same class.
JS: Did you do much opera at U of T?
CB: I didn’t do any, only art songs which I love. I was so used to being a recitalist, getting on the opera stage was nerve-wracking at first (laughs). It was fine when I stood and sang but the second I had to move… I’m getting much better at it now. You just have to challenge yourself.
JS: So singing Rosina is going to be a departure for you. What do you think of Rosina as a character?
CB: She’s feisty and a little mischievous, always one step ahead and wrap you around her pinkie. When I want to get into the mood of playing her, I think of my little sister Alana. She’s four years younger than me and she’s feisty, smart, sexy. There’re just the two of us in the family, no boys. We grew up experiencing the same things; she was in Amabile Choir as well. She’s artsy but more in the visual arts, in graphic design.
JS: You got into the COC Ensemble Studio after winning Third Prize in the Competition. Have you done a lot of competitions?
CB: No, that was my first. I never considered myself a competition sort of singer. Recently I auditioned for Belvedere (34th International Hans Gabor Competition) and I made it to the next round. It’s being held this year in Amsterdam and I’ll be going there at the end of June.
JS: Wow, that’s great news! This is a very important competition. Do they pay your way to go to the finals in Amsterdam?
CB: No, unfortunately. I have a wonderful patron in Margaret Cameron, and she’ll be going there with me to give me support. Sixty-one countries are represented at Belvedere. When I auditioned, Canadian conductor David Agler was on the jury panel. I did my first Dorabella with him. He said most of the opera houses are represented at Belvedere and it’ll be wonderful exposure.
JS: What arias are you going to sing in Belvedere?
CB: Sara’s “All afflitto e dolce il piano” from Roberto Devereux is my starter aria; and the Composer’s Aria from Ariadne auf Naxos of course – I love singing that! It’s my bread and butter.
JS: I enjoyed hearing you sing these two pieces. Sara’s aria shows off your legato, and your high register sounds great in the Ariadne. Have you always been an alto? What’s your vocal range?
CB: I’ve always been a low voice, but it was much lower before. I used to sing the Menotti Lullaby (from The Consul). My range was from a low G to a F. Now I have a performance high B/B flat. In my repertoire I don’t have to sing lower than a low A, although Suzuki is a little low – I’ll be doing that in Saskatoon Opera in June.
JS: Now that your time in the Ensemble is coming to a close. What was your experience like these past two years?
CB: It’s been amazing for my artistic development and my personal life. It’s been a privilege and an honour. The transition from university to a career is tough. Every day for the past 2 years, I’ve had the comfort of knowing that “I am worth it.” Experts in the business have invested time and money in my development. You need so much more than just passion to make a career in opera. My experience in the Ensemble Studio has changed my life and I’m eternally grateful.
JS: What are your plans after the Ensemble?
CB: After I finish the Ensemble on May 23rd, I fly to Saskatoon the next day for Suzuki in Madama Butterfly. Then I’ll come home for a couple of days before going to Amsterdam for the Belvedere Competition. I’ll be doing Rosina again in the summer for Brott Opera, semi-staged with orchestra. Then Yeoman of the Guard in September, and I’ll do the COC school tour with the Dean Burry opera. I really enjoy singing for the young kids. The COC has hired me to sing Mercedes in Carmen next season.
JS: Any plans to go auditioning in Europe?
CB: Absolutely. I’ve talked to (COC General Director) Alexander Neef about this. I want to stay in Canada this year. My goal is to learn German and go to Europe to audition next year. It would feel really rushed if I go right from the Ensemble…I’m not ready to leave Canada yet, but it’s definitely in the works. There’s something about the German language that fits so well for me. Italian I have to work harder, the placement is more forward.
JS: Any dream roles?
CB: Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier is at the top of my list…and I’d love to do the Komponist in Ariadne auf Naxos. I’ve actually never done a pants role before! I’ve sung Dorabella and Cendrillon and now Rosina. I really like the German rep which suits my voice.
JS: I’ve noticed that recent articles about you talk about your personal life. I gather that you and baritone Clarence Frazer are an item? How does it feel to sing together on stage?
CB: It feels incredible – we have a very supportive relationship. I had always been wary about dating a singer, but opera consumes your entire life and it’s hard to be with people who don’t understand the business. It’s hard to explain to someone that you go contract to contract…
JS: What about having two egos in the family?
CB: Yes, absolutely. But we haven’t experienced that yet – we’re very supportive of each other.
JS: What do you do in your spare time? I read that you are a competitive swimmer?
CB: I haven’t swam in a long time. (Laughs) I do run in the summer. I don’t like gyms – I’m from the country…we’re surrounded by farms. We don’t have a lot of free time as the ensemble takes up a lot of my time – we have one day off a week. We love to entertain, food and wine, sports, family, long walks in the city. We both enjoy cooking a lot. Clarence makes a very delicious mushroom risotto. We do Korean dishes like bibimbap, and I cook Jamie Oliver a lot. My favourite time of the day is us sharing a meal, especially now that we’re on the same schedule. We love spending quality time together.
JS: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
CB: Hmmm…let’s see. I’m very analytical, and sometimes you just have to let go -“There’s no such thing as a perfect performance,” Darryl Edwards tells me. Tom Diamond likes to remind me that no one will die if I make a bad artistic choice – in other words, keep things in perspective and take risks. And this quote from Mark Twain – “Twenty years from now, you’ll be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the things you did.” You need to say ‘yes’ regardless of doubts and fears.
Correction: May 14, 2015. A previous version of this article misspelt Charlotte Burrage’s first voice teacher’s name as “Bess Falconer.” The correct name is “Beth Faulkner.”