For avid fans of the COC Ensemble Studio, it’s a real joy to follow the careers of former young artists who have gone on to forge successful careers. And when they return as established singers to take on leading roles at the COC, it’s a real cause for celebration.
I’ve been following the careers of soprano Simone Osborne and bass-baritone Gordon Bintner for quite a few years. I first met Osborne just after she won the Metropolitan Opera Auditions in 2008, at the incredibly young age of 21, one of the youngest winners ever. And I heard Bintner for the first time when he participated in the 2011 Toronto Summer Music masterclass. Even at that early stage of his career, he was the complete package — great voice, the right musical instincts, leading-man looks, and charismatic stage presence. A year later, he was a winner of the COC Ensemble Competition, which won him a place on the roster.
Not only did Osborne and Bintner hone their craft as members of the COC Ensemble, it was here that they met and fell in love. They married and are now based in Frankfurt, Germany, where Bintner is a “Fest” artist at the prestigious Oper Frankfurt, singing leading roles the likes of Chorèbe in Les Troyens and Der Graf in Capriccio. They released him so he can fulfill his pre-existing contract as Belcore in Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love at the COC, with Osborne as Adina.
Osborne just made a big splash at the end of last season at the COC, when she earned critical acclaim as Marguerite in Louis Riel. I asked her what it was like to sing in this important revival: “It was quite a turning point for me as an artist,” Osborne recalls fondly. “It was also a pretty stressful gig, very exposed (vocally). The curtain goes up, and there was nothing, no orchestra, no one there to hurry me up or slow me down. No one can cover up bad high notes for me. It was all up to me for seven minutes. It was daunting just trying to remember the starting pitch, with nobody there to cue me! A real challenge and a gift, to be part of an incredible piece of Canadian operatic history.”
Osborne and Bintner are the latest in a long line of operatic couples, both in Canada and elsewhere. I was curious to find out what post-Ensemble life was like for them. Both have gone on to flourishing careers. We met in the COC’s administrative offices on Front Street for the interview. Relaxed and in good spirit — it turned out to be Simone’s birthday, who just turned 31 — they fielded my many questions with candor and grace. It was an informal, fun-filled hour.
Thanks for taking the time out from rehearsals to do this. This article is at least partly a human-interest story, combining your musical careers and your lives as an operatic couple. I did some research but haven’t found any interviews where you’ve talked about your personal life…
SO: You are the first! We’ve sort of avoided the personal angle, but we trust you. For us, if it impacts the work, on a project like this where we’re playing love interests, in our musical hometown, it would be a bit ridiculous not to mention it. At the COC, everyone knows — we met here, we fell in love here; it’s part of our story here. We don’t go screaming from the rooftop, just because our work is about our work. We’re not tenor and soprano — even if we play love interest we rarely end up together!
“At the COC, everyone knows — we met here, we fell in love here; it’s part of our story here.”
Have you sung together before?
SO: No. The only public singing we did was on our working honeymoon, on a cruise ship!
Was it on the Stella Maris? [Note: Osborne participated in a vocal competition on the Stella Maris cruise ship a few years ago]
SO: No, similar though! We were asked to come on the Paul Gauguin, a beautiful six-star cruise ship, to Tahiti, French Polynesia, and the Cook Islands. We ended up spending two weeks of our honeymoon. We did two concerts. We didn’t have a concert for the first 8 or 9 days. No one on the ship knew we were singers which was fantastic. We could lounge by the pool in complete anonymity…it was heaven! That’s the only time we’ve been on stage together. We’ve never done a recital together, but we’ll do one in Toronto.
Great! What’s on your program? Are you singing duets too?
SO: Yes, proper duets, not just “La ci darem la mano” and “Lippen schweigen” (Laughs). We’ll sing Saint Saens’ “Pastorelle”, Faure “Pleurs d’or”, Mendelssohn duets, and some Schumann. It’s tricky for us to find things suitable for a bass-baritone and a high soprano. There are lots of mezzo and baritone and lots for tenor and soprano.
Have you sung Adina and Belcore before?
SO/GB: No, we haven’t.
Wow, so it’s a double debut! Tell us, when did you meet?
SO: In 2013. We met on the first day of rehearsal at the COC, my first opera back, as Musetta in La boheme…
GB: And I was the first customs officer [Laughs]
SO: It only took one word he had to sing, and I fell in love with him! [Laughs] No, just kidding!
When did you marry?
SO: June 25, 2016.
Tell us, what are the challenges and rewards of being a musical couple?
SO: Oh, so many rewards! To be in the rehearsal room with the person you love is special. It’s one thing to send your spouse off to work and you head off to work and you come back and update each other, but to sit in the room when he sings a particularly beautiful note or does something hysterically funny, it reminds me how special he is at what he does, and how special he is as a person. It’s wonderful to see that, to be in the room, and to acknowledge that, to support and encourage him in the moment. Of course, it’s very special that he completely understands all the thought processes a singer goes through, all the anxieties and concerns, the joys and the pitfalls, the highs and lows in this complicated profession. I started a busy musical career while still in university at 17. It’s almost 15 years now. My family still don’t quite understand how stressed and neurotic I can get around performance time. Gord understands completely and gets out of the way and helps when he can; and I try to do the same for him. There’s a level of understanding that unless you get on a stage on a regular basis and put your heart and your soul out there, no one else can really understand. That to me is an incredible source of strength.
Which one of you is more nervous as a performer?
GB: You know, I don’t get nervous when I’m performing. I may get nervous throughout the day, or maybe a couple of days before. As soon as I step out on stage, the nerves disappear. Because you are in the moment, there’s so much adrenalin and energy.
The nerves before the performance — is it about “Am I prepared enough’?
SO: For me, it’s subconsciously about the potential of getting sick, the lack of control over that.
GB: One of the concerns is vocal health, so you’re always checking in with yourself — how am I pacing myself this week, how does my voice feel today, what I need to do to get to that place where my voice is perfectly calibrated to deliver the performance? Some of the stress comes from that. Sometimes when you wake up and you feel tired, or it could be something like a tickle in your throat. You tell yourself, okay, I have to perform tonight. What do I have to do to get there. We build routines to help us focus and divert our stress. Nerves and excited energy are similar. One is debilitating; the other is empowering. If you can channel your energy in a positive way, that nervous energy can be incredibly effective in driving a performance.
Have you ever had to cancel a performance because you weren’t feeling well?
GB: There was one time, maybe three years ago, in a winter season Messiah. I had two sets of Messiahs, and I was very ill. Terrible cold before the first Messiah. I could have pushed through and done it, but a week later I had a second set of Messiahs with the same conductor in two different cities. It would have been a disservice to the conductor and to my colleagues, to sing through the first one and then possibly had to cancel the second one. You need to take care of yourself when you are sick. I cancelled the first couple of performances in the first city, and they found a replacement. Then I got better and was able to perform the second set. That’s the only time I had to cancel.
SO: I did cancel a performance of Last Night at the Proms in Vancouver. I was 21, just out of university, and I was supposed to do it with the choir I had attended as a young girl, to sing “Rule Britannia” and a couple of fun arias. It was the season after I had won the Met Auditions. I was bouncing around Europe and Canada, bouncing around east coast to west coast and back. I didn’t understand all that travel was a killer. I remember feeling unwell in Toronto, got home in Vancouver, got up the next morning and couldn’t move. I was taken to emergency and ended up in hospital for two weeks with exhaustion and pneumonia. That was the only time I cancelled. I didn’t cancel when I broke my nose when the set fell on me! [Note: It was at an Opera Hamilton Rigoletto] I don’t cancel unless I absolutely have to, but I have a whole lot of sympathy for singers who have to cancel. If you get a chest cold a week before the performance, there’s little that can be done. It would be detrimental to you as a performer in the future if you sing through it.
GB: The thing about nerves — it’s hard to identify one thing that causes them. We care so much about the performance, and we want it to be great, and that manifests itself sometimes in nerves. Your body is preparing itself to perform; the energy is excited in the room. You can call that nerves. When we were singing in Salzburg. Andrew [Haji] and I were in rehearsal. We didn’t have large roles or anything, but it’s a real opportunity. After the rehearsal, I told Andrew that I was so nervous. Andrew said: “you were nervous because you cared.”
Gordon, when you and Simone sing together, you don’t just have to worry about yourself, don’t you also worry about her? Doesn’t that double your nervous tension?
GB: You know it’s funny, I never worry about Simone! [Big laughs from SO]
SO: And I never worry about him, isn’t that funny? I think (the nerves) come from pouring your heart and soul into the music, from working so hard, making sacrifices in order to just do this as a profession. Whatever project is at hand, you become very invested in the music and in the production. I think subconsciously, I want everyone to enjoy it; I want people to come to the theatre and go out happy and moved. That’s a big expectation you put on yourself every time you get out there, to move someone. That’s where the nerves come from — will it be good enough to mean something to the people.
“We are both darn good at dealing with nerves. The nervous energy doesn’t manifest in big diva blowups or refusing to sing or anything like that. It manifests in a heightened energy level when you wake up that day.”
GB: You have standards of expectations of yourself, and you want to fulfil those expectations and give a great performance.
SO: We are both darn good at dealing with nerves. The nervous energy doesn’t manifest in big diva blowups or refusing to sing or anything like that. It manifests in a heightened energy level when you wake up that day.
GB: Typically we give each other the space we need. Each of us needs to preserve our focus and execute that day [of performance] the way we want. We understand each other’s needs.
SO: It works really well for us. It’d be more problematic if one of us needed more attention and support on performance day, while the other just needed the space. That would not work well. Both of us have learned how to be professional. As young singers, we’ve dealt with a lot of competition and stress and pressure early on. Had we not gone through those big stresses, we probably wouldn’t know how to deal with it. Because we forged our own paths, we know what we need. We make sure we have an apartment big enough, so we both have a little room.
What about just simple things like access to rehearsal time at home? Presumably, you only have one piano and don’t have two soundproof rooms!
SO: That’s one of the reasons why we stay near the venue. We have a small apartment in Frankfurt with a piano which I use when I’m at home between gigs. Or I go work with [Canadian pianist/coach] Anne Larlee, our friend and my bridesmaid. She’s on the music staff at Frankfurt. If Gord is working, I can practice in the studio, and vice versa. We study a lot at home. Given the opportunity, I prefer to take my music to go to a workspace. Then home really feels like home, a place of rest and relaxation.
Who does the cooking?
SO: [Laughs] Foodora? No, just kiddin’! We’re staying near the St Lawrence Market which is great, easy to pick up a few things and head home. With rehearsals, we often just pick up lunch. We’ll make breakfast at home — he makes his own and I make mine. He makes fun of my healthy breakfast! Dinner? It depends. After six hours of L’Elisir, running around, spinning and doing cartwheels, we are ready to just order something in. I’ll do the quick meals; he does the full-blown gourmet, like beautiful maple salmon, the whole kit and caboodle.
GB: [laughs] I only do it once a month!
What kind of food do you cook?
GB: I like French and Italian food; like cooking fish, chicken, meat, potatoes, the hearty foods.
SO: Gord’s mom is the best cook you’ll ever meet! His dad is a great cook too. A family of five siblings. When people gather, they gather at their house; a full meal that brings everyone together. It’s very special.
How has having a personal relationship and marriage impacted your careers? I’ve been interviewing singers for many years. I know it’s a bit of a generalization, but my impression is that relationships were harder for singers in the older generations.
SO: I studied with Marilyn Horne; I know it was hard on her marriage. She said to me: “If I find you walking down the aisle before 30, you’ll be in trouble! It’s an older generation’s mentality, that you can’t have both meaningful relationship and a career. It’s an older generation’s mentality that once you get married, you’ll have babies and can’t have a career. The truth of the matter is, look at Anna Netrebko, Diana Damrau, all these incredibly strong female singers, brilliant businesswomen and artists — they have families and careers! Of course, they make sacrifices.
Do you think at some point you’d like to have a family?
SO: We’d love that, but it’s a bit more challenging in terms of timing. At the moment I am freelancing. When I was younger, I thought of all the possible outcomes, all the possible plans. If we could and it doesn’t affect our careers, we would think about starting a family anytime. We’re starting in Europe and not knowing how long we’re going to be there. I’m pretty realistic about these things; I’m not the ‘throw caution to the wind’ kind of person.
Have you sung much in Europe, Simone?
SO: Things are starting. I was fortunate to have had a lot of work in North America the last few years. Even though we’ve moved to Europe, I haven’t had time to sing for anyone there. The offers that have come up, I’ve been busy. I’ve held a block of time this season to just go to sing for a whole bunch of people, to let them know we’re based over there now. Everything is so much closer over there, and if we are going to start a family, Europe is a beautiful place to raise children. Germany has an incredible school system.
Are you having a good time at Oper Frankfurt?
GB: Very good time, truly.
With your Fest contract, are you allowed to guest? How many performances do you sing in Oper Frankfurt a year?
GB: [My schedule] is planned around my pre-existing contract, like this L’Elisir. I sing anywhere between 18 to 30 performances a season at Frankfurt.
You sing mostly principal roles, but I noticed that you do have an Angelotti in there! Did you actually sing it?
GB: [Laughs] I did, and it was fun! A great experience. I did Chorèbe (in Les Troyens) as well, in French. It was fantastic…
What about From the House of the Dead? Was it in Czech or German?
GB: That’s this coming season. That will be in Czech.
SO: And in his underwear [Laughs]
Now that you’re based in Europe, do you find you miss home?
SO: There’s a reason why some people end up staying in Europe and some end up coming home. It’s a very different lifestyle. If you are close to your family, it’s very far from home. But we’ve kind of found a home in Germany. If we were to start a family in five years, Europe would be a wonderful option; the distance is so much closer. Gord isn’t one of those dads who’d work for six weeks and then come home and see the kids. He would want to be involved.
As a young couple, do you worry about balancing a career with kids?
SO: Even though Marilyn Horne gave me a hard time getting married young, when I asked her about having children, she said: “of course if you want them you have to have them!” I asked her, “what about your career?” She said, “If I hadn’t had Angela, what would I have?” At the end of the day, to her, the only thing that mattered is her daughter and her grandchildren. It really stuck with me.
Now with technology, it’s easier. There’s video Skype and everything.
SO: Yes. And in Europe, the distance is much shorter. You can take the train. If Gord’s singing in Paris and I’m at home in Frankfurt singing something, you hop on a highspeed train and be home in three hours. It’s a heck of a lot easier than flying from Edmonton to Toronto! Gord and I have the same goal, to make the best music we can possibly make, with the most integrity possible, with the most wonderful colleagues, all working on a really high level, they push us and we push them, so that we put something great on stage. We don’t really have any interest in being famous. That’s not why we sing. It’s possible to create the career you want if you are not interested in always being the center of attention.
Let me play the devil’s advocate for a moment and ask you a question. Sometimes in two career couples there’s a bit of rivalry, when one has a more successful career than the other. To give you an example, I interviewed two singers, husband and wife, not too long ago. I brought along their engagement calendars. The husband has a much longer lists of engagements. The wife mockingly exclaims: “Look at his! And look at mine!” She was only half joking.
SO/GB: [Big laughs]
SO: Listen — to be a light soprano it’s almost harder than anything else. If you’re married to a tenor, it’s particularly challenging. The truth is, when I sit in the audience when he’s singing, I have so much pride in my heart that never once have I thought — I could sing this better than she, why am I not up there? I so enjoy what he’s doing. This week he has a particularly exciting thing coming, and I was bouncing off the walls, I am so happy for him. I know he would be the same way for me.
I recall an artist manager saying — if you’re too nice, it takes away the ‘edge’ that drives you to get ahead. It’s not to say I want to be better than my wife or husband, just that a little bit of friendly rivalry is good. What do you say to that?
GB: I think that edge, that drive, can come from within. We both have a very strong sense of where we want to go. But I don’t know I draw that from Simone. My ambition lies in my passion for what I do. I can understand that certainly, we need that hunger for an opportunity, but I think the support we have for each other, in life, carries over to our work. We are happy for the other person. We do each have our own thriving career. We can each take pride in that.
“I remember telling Gord — if you ever ask me to marry you, please don’t let it be during a curtain call, on the stage!”
SO: We both watch each other working very hard, watch each other’s sacrifices. Neither one of us have ever auditioned for an opera company or festival while the other one is working. If I am going to be with him for a contract, I am there to practice and work for the next gig, to support him in his shows and be with him, and vice versa. We don’t really talk shop when we come home. Even though we are in this show, it’s always about our own work. At the end of the day, we are too tiny little specks. If he’s worry about my career, he really isn’t focusing on the right things. If I’m worrying about him getting more gigs than I do, I’m focusing on the wrong thing. The truth is, it doesn’t matter what the others are doing, at the end of the day, all you have control over is your own work, what you put out on the stage. That edge, that drive that we both have, it’s inside of ourselves. It’s the drive for the next performance to be better. The more we invest in what others are doing, the less strong artistic energy we have to put into the practice room.
That’s a very positive attitude.
SO: We’re fortunate to be in this position, to be on stage. I have many friends who have worked very hard and have great talent, but have never set foot on the COC stage. It’s important to be grateful. Putting all our energies into the work has brought us great joy. Our lives together are so special and so sacred to us. The relationships we have are not because we are singers, that we make music. Of course that’s a beautiful bonus, but I think if I were a nanny and he’s a carpenter, we would still be together. So somehow for us it almost feels like it cheapens the personal relationship if it (our relationship) becomes a selling feature, so we don’t do a lot of the opera couples stuff. That’s not the reason he sings so beautifully. But on a project like this Elixir where we are playing a stage couple, it’s a bit silly not to talk about it. It’s never something we want to use as a PR thing.
You mean, you didn’t want to be like Alagna and Gheorghiu, getting married on the stage of the Met? I’m joking.
SO: I remember telling Gord — if you ever ask me to marry you, please don’t let it be during a curtain call, on the stage! The way he asked was perfect and very unoperatic.
Where did you propose?
SO: It was in BC, on Christmas morning, at my parents’ home. We went for a little walk with our dog… just the two of us, overlooking the lake. We do cherish our two lives. Of course, it would be special for any wife to sit in the audience and see their husband sing a beautiful recital or an incredible operatic role. It’s extra special because I know just how much work goes into that. When he was rehearsing Barber, he flew overnight to hear me sing my opening of Lucia in Edmonton. I don’t think he was ever as excited for one of his own performances. He was so happy and so proud. It is an incredible thing, that we both understand just how much goes into what we do. But if it all fell apart tomorrow, we would go and have a very happy quiet life somewhere. The things we cherish the most in our life are our relationship and our careers. For us there’s a little bit of a separation.
It’s probably healthier that way.
SO: I think so. Maybe when we have kids, we’ll do more together [career-wise]. It makes sense to be home more often to be with the kids, to turn down a gig to be at home. That’s down the road for us, and no doubt we’ll figure it out. We take it one day at a time.
Thank you so much for answering my very probing questions! And toi toi toi for the opening.
Simone Osborne and Gordon Bintner star in Canadian Opera Company’s The Elixir of Love. Oct. 11, 15, 17, 21, 27, 29, Nov. 2, 4. www.coc.ca