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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

INTERVIEW | Emily D’Angelo: "Stay grateful and remember that it's not about me"

By Joseph So on March 19, 2016

The fast-rising Canadian mezzo Emily D’Angelo shares her thoughts on being true to her music and herself.

Emily D’Angelo (Photo: Michael Cooper)
Emily D’Angelo (Photo: Michael Cooper)

How does it feel to be all of 21 and on top of the opera world?  Just ask Canadian mezzo Emily D’Angelo. At an age when most young people are still unsure of a career path, D’Angelo has already had a blazing start in her chosen profession. The past twelve months have been hugely significant for her, with an extremely impressive list of achievements.  She won First Prize at the 2016 American National Opera Association’s Carolyn Bailey and Dominick Argento Vocal Competition, as well as second Prize at the 2015 OREL Foundation Ziering-Conlon competition. She was also awarded Encouragement Grants at the George London Foundation Competition (2016) and the Gerda Lissner/Liederkranz Foundation Competition (2015). Closer to home, she won the 2015 Norcop Prize in Song at the University of Toronto, where she’s finishing her studies. And she won both First Prize and the Audience Choice Award at Centre Stage, the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble Studio Competition.  D’Angelo will be joining the COC Ensemble next season.

As if that’s not enough, on Sunday, March 14th, on the stage of the Met, D’Angelo was chosen as one of five winners of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions Grand Finals.  She receives a prize of $15,000, plus the huge exposure that comes with such as prestigious win. I caught up with her the day after for a chat by telephone.  Still exhilarated by the incredible experience, D’Angelo fielded my many questions with well-considered, articulate answers, tinged with a mix of youthful enthusiasm and level-headedness:

JS: First of all, congratulations!  How does it feel to be in the winner’s circle? 

ED: It was absolutely thrilling…I don’t think it has quite hit me yet. To sing on that stage, a huge, beautiful hall where so many amazing singers have performed. It was unlike anything I could have imagined…a real honour.

JS: I understand your teacher, soprano Elizabeth McDonald, was there to witness your success. Was your family there as well?

ED: Yes, Elizabeth was there and also my coach Jo Greenaway, and my parents.  Elizabeth and Jo and I have been working together since I was in Grade 12, and throughout my undergrad at U of T. It was a special moment for sure…they were all so thrilled. My parents were even happier than I was!

JS: Was there a particularly moment in the competition that sticks out as being particularly memorable?

ED: I would say the first rehearsal with the orchestra was definitely the most memorable. Just to sing with that orchestra, and feel their support and their musicality, what a huge privilege it was.

JS: How did you feel about your own performance?  I’m sure the jury and the audience loved you, but how did you feel?

ED: I felt that I had given everything I could to the music and to the character (I was singing). I felt I was true to myself…what more could I hope for?  At that moment, I wasn’t thinking about my technique, or whether the judges were going to love me.  It was all about the music, to do it justice.

JS: You’ve been extremely successful at competitions – I was at your win at the COC Ensemble Studio Competition, and I’m coming to your Jim Norcop scholarship concert. Tell me, what’s the secret of your success in competitions?

ED: I don’t know (laughs)!  I just treat it like any other performance – I don’t think of it as being in a competition. I’d say I’m not thinking about showing what I can do. It’s not about me – it’s always about the music, always about the character.  To me that’s not a secret, to perform and be yourself and don’t think about what other people are going to think about what you’re doing. I see a competition as an amazing opportunity to perform on these great stages, to audiences that really want to hear you.

JS: What are you planning to do with your prize money?

ED: (Big laughs) I haven’t gotten that far yet!  I would say…there are costs for coaching, for flights, to get to other competitions and other engagements. Probably it’ll go into lessons and the normal professional expenses.

JS: Now let’s backtrack a little bit – tell me about your upbringing. Do you come from a musical family?

ED: I do. There’s one professional musician in my family – my grandmother is a pianist. She’s very talented musically and has always been a big inspiration to me. When I was a baby, she made a recording of lullabies for me. There are others in my family who are also musically gifted.  My dad Anthony plays the guitar, and my mom Catherine sings in a choir. They both have very nice voices. My sisters, Lauren and Naomi, have wonderful voices!

JS: What was your earliest memory of singing? 

ED: Hmmm… I can remember being put down for a nap, and all I was doing was sing. My parents told me to go to sleep, and I would just sing to myself.  My mom says I sang before I spoke. I was maybe three…

JS: Do you remember the first time you sang for people? Either on a stage or just getting up and singing for family and friends. Do you have memories of that? 

ED: I have a memory of being at my grandmother’s house, and she’d play the piano, and my aunt would take out her violin and my sisters and I would sing together.  I played the violin at the time, and we would all have a (musical) moment.  I do remember singing “Bist du bei mir” for some family friends who were German. They were so taken by it that they were crying…

JS: Wow, that must have been a special moment!  You sang it in German? I noticed that your only German piece in your repertoire list is Frauenliebe und Leben. I can really see you as Octavian and the Komponist …

ED: Oh I would absolutely love to sing Octavian! Those are two of my dream roles.

JS: When did you take your first voice lesson? 

ED: I officially started when I was 15, although I had a lesson before that. I was in the Toronto Children’s Chorus for nine years where I learned to sing in German and other languages, and learned to read music.  Jean Ashworth Bartle for five years and then the last four years it was Elise Bradley. We went on international tours, sang in the Musikverein, Koerner Hall, and Roy Thomson Hall.

JS: Wow, the Musikverein!  That must have been an incredible experience. How old were you?

ED: I think I was 13. That’s where I got my love for music – I was hooked in the Toronto Children’s Chorus, singing this amazing music.

JS: Do you remember your first stage experience as a soloist, not counting your time in the children’s chorus? 

ED: I had the opportunity when I was 16, to sing with the TSO. I actually sang “Bist du bei mir”!  That was my first big experience as a soloist, with a big orchestra and a huge audience. That was probably the moment!  I remember saying later to a friend – oh my gosh, I want to be a singer! That was definitely an epiphany for me, the moment when I thought – this is something I want to do for the rest of my life. From there I went to U of T. I had already worked with Elizabeth (McDonald) for a year, in Grade 12.

JS: Have you always been a mezzo?

ED: Yes, I sang alto in choirs the whole time…I was convinced I had this low voice. I didn’t go above the stave ever, except in warm up. When I first started taking voice lessons with (my first voice teacher) Heather Wilkie, she said to me – you can sing high even when you are a lower voice. She encouraged me to explore.

JS: What’s your working range?

ED: The lowest in my rep is a low A and the highest is a high C – only in Stefano’s aria (in Romeo et Juliette). I’m most comfortable as Rosina, who goes to a high B. In art songs, it’s very much in the middle. I try not to categorize my voice. My New York teacher Trish (Patricia McCaffrey) just says – you are a singer. We haven’t really thought about categorizing. When you are young, you want to keep your options and your mind open to the possibility of change.

JS: What mezzo roles do you feel are the most comfortable – Rosina, Angelina, or Isabella? 

ED: As far as the Rossini rep, I’d say I’m most comfortable in the middle and high – Rosina and Angelina.  Isabella is a little low. When I was a bit younger, I hadn’t explored so much the top, but now Rosina is very comfortable.

JS: Do you have a favourite composer?

ED: I adore Mozart…I think Mozart has the most amazing music, but I wouldn’t even say I have a favourite composer. I adore new music. I recently did Messaien’s Poemes pour mi. I absolutely adore Messaien. I love singing coloratura but I also enjoy new music – I don’t want to specialize too soon.

JS: Tell me, do you have a role model? 

ED: Just one?

JS: As many as you want…

ED: There are people on the faculty at U of T whom I really admire, especially the women. There are so many people I look up to, and so many have helped me, given me guidance. As far as singers, Elizabeth and Wendy Nielsen have found the balance of having a career and having a family, being down to earth people who live normal lives. I’d say those are values I really admire.

JS: Tell me about the roles you want to sing, your dream roles, besides Octavian and Komponist.

ED: I love Sesto and Idamante…and anything by Handel! I love baroque music.

JS: Have you tried Bradamante? 

ED: Not yet, but I am covering Ariodante at the COC next year.  It’s going to be Alice Coote and she’s another person I really admire, vocally, artistically and as a person. I also like Romeo, in Capuleti e i Montecchi.

JS: What do you enjoy doing in your spare time? 

ED: I enjoy physical activity, but I broke my foot…

JS: Oh yeah!  I remember you hobbling out on stage at the Four Seasons Centre to sing at the Ensemble Competition!  Tell us what happened…

ED: I broke two bones in my foot. It was a silly fall – I wasn’t wearing shoes, I was running, and I tripped, landing right on the side of my foot. It wasn’t a very exciting story. I was on crutches for three months, couldn’t wear shoes for four months; I felt it was a test of my character.

JS: So you enjoy physical activities… Do you like to play sports? 

ED: Yeah, for fun. I play a lot of soccer, but it has gotten to a point where I’m so busy that I haven’t had the time. I enjoy running, hiking, and swimming. But right now most of my spare time is used for learning repertoire. I also listen to a lot of piano and symphonic music. Right now I’m just really obsessed with art song, learning as much music as I can.

JS: Do you have a favourite song cycle?

ED:  I love Messaien – probably any song by Messaien.  I also love Berg’s Sieben fruhe Lieder – I’m going to sing it next year.

JS: Do you sing the Wesendonck Lieder? 

ED:  Oh gosh, I love the Wesendonck Lieder!  I am going to sing it. I also love Schoenberg’s Opus 2 “Vier Lieder”. Anything by Mozart of course – the purest, perfect music.

JS: One final question – what’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?  About your career or your life, as an artist, as a person? Something that’s a guiding light for you…

ED: I would say that one of my guiding values is something that my parents instilled in me from the time I was very young. It’s not about me. In my journey as an artist, it is comforting and inspiring to have a goal and a purpose that involves more than just myself, but to really try to always put the music first and find compassion and humanity in whatever it is that I do. To stay humble, to stay grateful and to remember that it’s not about me.

Joseph So

Joseph So is Professor Emeritus at Trent University and Associate Editor of Opera Canada.He is also a long-time contributor to La Scena Musicale and Opera (London, UK). His interest in music journalism focuses on voice, opera as well as symphonic and piano repertoires. He appears regularly as a panel member of the Big COC Podcast.He has co-edited a book, Opera in a Multicultural World: Coloniality, Culture, Performance, published by Routledge (Taylor & Francis Group).

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