Laura Pudwell’s reputation as a superb vocalist has been well-established as a result of her performances worldwide, in a vast repertoire ranging from early music to contemporary works.
I’ve been watching her engaging performances for many years, fascinated by her effortless sense of comedy. Yet Pudwell brings a genuine pathos when needed, as we saw in the Tafelmusik Hercules a couple of years ago, or as a soloist in the Mozart Requiem just over a year ago. The vocal colours are rich, her expression & diction wonderfully flexible. Those comic gifts will be foregrounded in Toronto Consort’s upcoming presentation of Cavalli’s 17th century masterpiece Giasone in early April. On the occasion of assuming the title role I ask Pudwell ten questions: five about herself and five more about her work on Giasone.
1) Are you more like your father or your mother?
Interesting question! I’ve always thought I look very like my father, but in recent years I see more and more of my mother in me. I would still say I have more the look of my Dad than my Mum. But in terms of personality, it’s my Mum all the way! Of course this made for very interesting teenaged years… my brother used to refer to us as the clones, and I’m not sure he was being altogether positive.
Like my mother, I’m a very quick processor, in fact I do everything quickly, which is both good and bad. I learn quickly, make decisions quickly, make friends quickly, anger quickly. You get the picture. I’ve always wished I had my Dad’s calmness, rootedness, gentleness. But my brother got all of that.
2) What is the best thing or worst thing about being a singer of historically informed performance repertoire?
The very best thing about singing the repertoire that I perform is the people I get to work with! No question about that. The creativity and talent is boundless, and collaborations are always fun and challenging. I get to work with some of the worlds most talented instrumentalists and singers, and am privileged to be part of every project I do. I used to fret about being pigeonholed as an early music singer, but you know, I’m very happy where I am now. I don’t think I would change a thing.
3) Who do you like to listen to or watch?
Curiously, I don’t listen to much vocal music. I’m a cello fan, as is my son, so I listen to a lot of Rostropovich, Mischa Maisky, Jacqueline Du Pre. (Will anyone ever play the Elgar Cello Concerto more beautifully?) My son introduced me to a recording called The Goat Rodeo Sessions, with Yoyo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile. Fantastic stuff. And I confess that the popular bands of my youth still hold me in their power; Supertramp, Led Zeppelin, Genesis, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones. But I also have a secret fixation on great tenors, and listen to them just for sheer heart-stopping beauty. Caruso, Bjorling, Wunderlich, Pavarotti.
4) What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?
Oh good grief! Where do I start? The list of what I can do is SO short. I’ve always wanted to ski. Well, I’ve always wanted to be not AFRAID to ski, which I guess is different. And there’s the cello again. Every time I watch a beautiful player, I think how great it would be if I could just sit down and pick up that lovely instrument and play it. So sad. And as the mother of two teenagers, I would LOVE to be clairvoyant so I could actually have some clue as to what they might be thinking…
5) When you’re just relaxing and not working what is your favourite thing to do?
I’m a big reader. Every Saturday after I finish the Globe and Mail cryptic crossword, I pour over the Book Section and make notes of everything that sounds interesting; biography, fiction, non-fiction, murder mysteries. Sadly, my list is now so long I’ll never get through it, but I keep adding books to it anyway. I also knit socks. I have a largish family with very cold feet.
Five more about Giasone, Toronto Consort’s upcoming production at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre, Jeanne Lamon Hall April 4-6.
1) Please talk about the challenges in creating Giasone.
Well, the biggest challenge was certainly not mine! Just creating the score, which our brilliant Artistic Director, David Fallis, undertook, was a very time-consuming, painstaking process. That’s way outside my skill set.
I have done very few pants roles in my life; I’m neither physically nor vocally suited for them, as they tend to be for higher mezzos. Having said that, it’s always interesting to try to find a masculine energy, while clearly inhabiting a feminine body. I had some very good success singing Nerone in Poppea, simply by channeling the energy of my children at around three or four years of age; self-centered, impatient, unreasonable a lot of the time. It seemed to work very well! Giasone is clearly not the same sort of character as Nerone, so I will have to use a different strategy. In the Cavalli portrayal of Giasone, he comes across as a rather devil-may-care womanizer, not so much heroic as opportunistic. I haven’t quite figured out how to find that in myself yet, but I will.
2-What do you love about Toronto Consort?
Oh boy, where do I start? I have been a member of this group for 28 years now. My first concert was in the Fall of 1986. So obviously there is something compelling about this group of people and the music that we perform. I remember auditioning for David Fallis and Terry McKenna, taking in some Abbess Hildegard von Bingen (I had discovered the Sequentia recording A Feather on the Breath of God and was compulsively listening to it) I had no idea about performance practice, I’d never had a voice lesson, I just went in and sang how I always sing and was immediately asked to come and do a concert with the group, a kind of trial concert to see how I would fit. Apparently I fit pretty well … Almost everything I have learned about period performance of Medieval and Renaissance music has been through working with and listening to the members of this group. We have covered such a range of time periods, composers, languages; there have been some crazy collaborations (one of my favourites was about light where we performed a Christos Hatzis piece and the Perotin it is based on, and shared the concert with two throat-singers.)
But one of my favourite things about working with these truly wonderful musicians is the laughter. We laugh a lot, about all manner of things. There is such mutual respect and admiration among us that rehearsing is a real pleasure. And I get to listen to them perform for free!
3) Do you have a favourite moment in Giasone?
I’m still making friends with the score, but I suspect there will have be two parts where I will have to bite my cheek not to laugh out loud. The first is when Isifile (played by Katherine Hill) finds Giasone with Medea, asleep. She wakes him up in a very startling manner, and proceeds to demand her due. Having borne him his first set of twins, she has the right to be as unreasonable as she is. Knowing Katherine, she will make Giasone squirm, and she will make ME laugh. This could be bad.
The second moment that already makes me laugh, is a moment with Besso, Giasone’s right hand man, played by John Peppper. He has been given quite cryptic instructions by Giasone, which will result in a murder. He does PRECISELY as he is told, ends up killing the wrong person, and then explains himself in a most hilarious manner. John will sing this so perfectly. I’m already laughing, and I haven’t even heard him yet.
4) How do you feel about historically informed performances such as Giasone for a modern audience?
I would venture to say that most people will not ever have heard this opera. They will likely be familiar with the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece, but might not know about the myriad distractions Jason faced in his search. I mean really, twins with Isifile, another set of twins with Medea …
I think it’s important for anyone who enjoys opera to see how the threads of early opera are woven into the fabric of Grand opera. From these early operas of Monteverdi and Cavalli and others, we see how continuo recitative can lead into the accompagnato recitative of Mozart, for example, and how the arias of later opera grew out of the short ariosi of these early operas.
I love how much freedom there is for individual interpretation in these earlier operas. While there is of course a very clear structure, there is much more room for true collaboration between the singer and the continuo instruments. Great continuo players, like the ones we will hear in this performance, will change the colour and feel of their playing according to each individual singer. The performance can change substantially each night.
5) Is there a teacher or an influence you’d care to name that you especially admire?
Even before I started my almost thirty year career in singing, I had people who encouraged me to discover and hone my potential, and offered tangible support as well. In 1985 I was working full-time for the Inter-Church Coalition for Refugees, and was asked to sing my first Messiah, in Toronto. My boss, Kathleen Ptolemy, and her husband happened to choose that Messiah as their holiday concert, not knowing that I would be participating. This remarkable woman offered to house me for a year with the understanding that I would pursue a career in performance. My dear friend Edith Shore paid for my first year of singing lessons. My teacher, Patricia Rideout, by sheer force of her warm, generous, no-nonsense spirit, got me to stand up straight and take responsibility for my own talent. Despite her tragic, early death some years ago, she remains a cornerstone of my performance.
I have had the great good fortune to learn from some remarkable colleagues over the years. The great Canadian soprano Henrietta Schellenberg taught me so much about how to work with a conductor and an orchestra. Daniel Lichti has been an advocate and mentor for my entire career. There are countless others whose performances have helped me to shape my own.
Perhaps my staunchest supporter and advocate has been David Fallis. He was the first person to hire me after I made the leap into full-time singing, and he has been a constant presence in my musical life ever since. His gentle, wise and generous counsel has helped me through many a rough patch over the years. And he’s the smartest person I know!