For opera fans, an eagerly awaited event every March is the Metropolitan Opera National Council Grand Finals. Also known as the “Met Auditions,” it’s considered one of the very top vocal competitions in the world.
Canadian singers have had big success over the years at the Met Auditions. The great Teresa Stratas started it all in 1959, and there have been many more over the years — Huguette Tourangeau (1964), Judith Forst (1968), Joanne Kolomyjec (1983), Ben Heppner (1988), Dominique Labelle (1989), Aline Kutan (1995), Tamara Hummel (1996), Isabel Bayrakdarian (1997), Alexandra Deshorties (1997), Mariateresa Magisano (1998), Philippe Castagner (2002), Simone Osborne (2008), Elliot Madore (2010), Philippe Sly (2011), and Emily D’Angelo (2016). By my count, this makes MacKinnon the seventeenth Canadian to reach the podium at the Met Auditions, a most enviable record.
A native of Vancouver, BC, Kirsten MacKinnon studied at the Curtis Institute of Music under the mentorship of Canadian soprano/Professor of Voice Edith Wiens. MacKinnon is no stranger to Toronto opera fans. She made a most auspicious debut as Pamina in Die Zauberflöte just this part January/February. It should not surprise anyone that she made it to the very top at the Met Auditions. I reached Kirsten MacKinnon by phone the next day for a quick chat. She was in great demand the day after of course. Her mum, Heather MacKinnon, flew in from Vancouver to be with her daughter, to witness her triumph. It’s totally understandable that her time was precious, so our conversation was quite brief. With some follow-up, we managed to cover a lot of ground:
JS: Congratulations on your win! How does it feel to sing on the Met stage?
KM: You know, I had a few moments of unbelievable nerves, then I settled down. It was so exciting and special. Nothing beats singing on that stage with orchestra!
JS: How was the overall experience, working with the Met coaches and meeting the other contestants?
KM: It was a very amiable group. Everybody was friendly. It was a pretty strong year. The coaches were very supportive and details-oriented which is what you want. One of the coaches is a friend of mine who has coached at Curtis before, so it was nice to see a few friendly faces.
JS: Was your family in New York to witness your success? Your parents? Your teachers?
KM: My mum was here with me for the semis and the finals and it was very cool to have her there. She was my partner in crime for all my university auditions a decade ago and we really hit our stride with those! This time around it was like a great reunion, a trip down memory lane. We are a well-oiled machine. I’m lucky to have her on my team! I do the majority of my auditions and competitions alone now, but it’s always good to have someone who loves you to be there with you. That’s a special kind of support.
JS: Just curious — how do you intend to spend your prize money of $15,000 USD from the Met win?
KM: The prize money will go towards lessons, coaching, health and travel expenses, housing, and performance attire.
JS: What are your immediate plans?
KM: I’ll be singing a lot in the UK. I’m doing my first contract with Garsington Opera, a production of Marriage of Figaro and I’ll be Countess Almaviva. Any time I get to sing Mozart I’m excited, I love Mozart!
JS: Would you say Mozart is your favourite composer?
KM: It’s a tie — I love Mozart and (Richard) Strauss. I have to be patient with how much Strauss I can sing now. I want to be one of those smart singers who thinks about longevity. I don’t want to be too eager. I love Strauss, but I won’t be doing Salome tomorrow! (laughs).
JS: I noticed you’ve already sung Countess Madeleine in Capriccio. Did you sing her final scene, or the whole thing?
KM: The whole thing. It is such a dream role! I love Madeleine! It was the last thing I did with Curtis Opera Theater, my first big Strauss role. It was really memorable.
JS: Let’s backtrack a little bit. Is Vancouver your hometown?
KM: I grew up in the suburbs around the lower mainland of Vancouver. It’s just easier somehow to say I’m from Vancouver in general.
JS: Did you go to university in Canada?
KM: I went straight out of high school to Curtis. And stayed for eight years (with a three-year break in the middle to clear my head and do some growing up)
JS: Wow! Eight years at Curtis.
KM: It ended up being exactly what I needed. I was so lucky to have had it work out that way!
JS: Do you come from a musical family?
KM: I want to say yes because my mom sings a heck of a lullaby! She doesn’t do anything in music professionally. She’s a kindergarten teacher, and my dad is a structural engineer. My brothers, two of them aren’t musical at all, and the third has such a variety of talents. Sometimes music wins out, sometimes not. His path takes him in a number of directions, and I don’t know if music is one of them. I’m the youngest and the only girl.
JS: What was your earliest memory of singing?
KM: My mum tells me I was singing in my crib! My earliest memory was some of those first lessons with my teacher, Lois Weninger. I really lucked out; I was studying with her since I was six. We weren’t doing opera of course, only songs. I remember her being very strict, but I find her very supportive since Day One. She was giving something to feed my musical appetite already. She could sense that I was hungry for something substantial and she totally gave it to me.
JS: You mean you were only six years old when you started taking singing lessons?
KM: I know! Usually, that’s a terrible idea. But luckily she didn’t break me. She’s a tremendous technician. She gave me a very good base to start. I am very grateful to her to this day.
JS: Did you do any church choir singing?
KM: No, I skipped the whole choir thing altogether. I was a soloist right from the start.
JS: Were you always a soprano, from your teen years on?
KM: Yep. I paid a lot of attention to the middle and bottom registers as well. From Day One, Lois had me practicing as a soprano.
JS: You started with her when you were six, until how old?
KM: To this day. Whenever I go back to Vancouver, I check in with her. She knows my voice well.
JS: You also worked with other people, right?
KM: The person I really depend on for technique and also as a mentor is Edith Wiens. She has the most wonderful ear I’ve come across. She’s one of those teachers who doesn’t separate musicianship from technique which I find really helpful. I think the two are definitely connected. There’s no point in making a technically correct sound unless there’s a deep meaning driving it.
JS: Did you work with her at Juilliard? I know she’s on the faculty there.
KM: No. I was lucky enough to study with her when I was at Curtis. They have a wonderful arrangement that if you are really connected with a teacher, it doesn’t matter whether the teacher is on the faculty (at Curtis). She can be an adjunct and Curtis would still support that relationship.
JS: In addition to working with Edith Wiens, do you have coaches?
KM: I have a list of solid musicians that I can count on in each city that I frequent. The next few seasons will involve a lot of travel, and I am starting to build up a base in New York and Toronto, and also Philadelphia and Vancouver.
JS: Looking into the future, the next few seasons, where do you see your home base to be?
KM: You know, the question of home base is so tough because you sort of live where you sing. For the next few seasons, it’s all over the world. I’m extremely fortunate to be able to say that, but it has cost me a stable home. I’d love to say Toronto for the east coast and Vancouver for the west coast. My family is in Vancouver, but my heart is in Toronto.
JS: We’d love to have you back in Toronto! Can you tell us about your experience singing Pamina at the COC? What was it like?
KM: This Pamina was my first! The Flute was an extremely fun experience. I just love this company! I’d happily return anytime.
JS: I really enjoyed your Pamina. In my review, I teased you a little bit about your playing of the pan flute.
KM: It’s a difficult instrument! (laughs) It was also what the stage direction was. Papageno played the ascending scale, and I played the descending. If it’s not completely pitch perfect, that was allowed. It turned out my pan flute skill was really atrocious, but it worked with the stage direction anyway.
JS: Tell us about your dream roles. You mentioned the Contessa at Garsington. Have you sung it before? Any other dream roles?
KM: I’ve sung the Contessa with Curtis Opera Theatre, but this will be my first outside (the conservatory). My current dream roles are the Countess (Nozze), Marguerite, Iolanta, Tatiana, Fiordiligi, and Madeleine (Capriccio). And my “stretch dream roles” include the meaty Strauss heroines, Puccini and Verdi.
JS: You know, I can see you as the Marschallin in 10 years, and Arabella in 5.
KM: Marschallin and Arabella — absolutely. In a heartbeat.
JS: I read somewhere that you enjoy the outdoors and nature. Can you tell us what you like to do in your spare time?
KM: In my free time, when given a choice, I’ll always go running to the woods: camping, hiking, swimming, bonfires, etc. It’s my universal home. I feel so safe nestled in the mountains, in the wilderness. There’s a power to it that is incredibly addictive.
JS: All these years of studying voice, did you have an idol? Maybe idol is the wrong word. Do you have a singer you look up to?
KM: Absolutely, and I met her yesterday! That’s what made this competition so special, a life-changing experience. I’ve had Renee Fleming’s Beautiful Voice CD in my car everywhere I go. I just love everything about her — her style, her musicality. And it helps that she’s flawlessly beautiful. Yesterday I got to meet her at the competition. I was so star-struck, I just babbled and sounded like an idiot. I completely crumbled in front of her.
JS: Awww. You know, I heard her Madeleine in Dresden two years ago, and she was indeed wonderful. Other than Renee, who else do you listen to?
KM: I also listened hungrily to Callas and Tebaldi.
JS: You like both Callas and Tebaldi? That’s unusual.
KM: I like them both for different reasons. I couldn’t possibly choose (laughs)! And most recently I really respect two Curtis grads: Layla Claire and Amanda Majeski. I think they have beautiful voices, with substance to support them.
JS: One last question — what is the best piece of advice you have been given, one that serves you well, as a singer and an artist?
KM: The best piece of advice I’ve ever been given involves taking care of yourself. That means your instrument and your heart. You are a singer, but you are also human. Sometimes what’s good for your heart is equally important for your music. And that’s a tough thing to differentiate between at times. Balance is elusive but worth striving for.
JS: Well Kirsten, all the best to you. Enjoy your triumph. I’m sure there’ll be many more in the future. We hope that we’ll get to hear you in Toronto in the future.
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