Serendipity is a funny thing.
A few days ago Canadian heldentenor Ben Heppner announced his retirement from singing after one of the most extraordinary careers. At the exact same time, I’ve been talking to Canadian soprano Margarete von Vaight, who just left town to participate in the Lauritz Melchior singing competition this week in Europe, a competition celebrating the kind of singing (at least among the young up and coming talent) Heppner excelled at, namely Wagner.
Canadian soprano Margarete von Vaight was a recent recipient of the Jim Madros Artist Award at the Musician in Residence Program at the Banff International Centre for Performing Arts. She’s emerging as one of Canada’s exciting young dramatic sopranos, under the recent tutelage of Wendy Nielsen, and formerly with Jane Eaglen with whom she participated in the inaugural season of the Baldwin-Wallace Wagner Intensive Program, performing the role of the Third Norn (Götterdämmerung) and Brunhilde (Siegfried).
In addition to Ms. von Vaight’s musical education, she is currently a student a of Harvard University Liberal Arts Extension in Business Program in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
As they begin the competition in Jutland (Denmark), I emailed some questions to Margarete, asking about herself and the competition. Luckily she answered.
1) Are you more like your father or your mother?
I possess a little of both. My father was an extrovert filled with joy and charisma. As a child I remember thinking he was a dichotomy. Albeit he was very masculine and gregarious, he belonged to a men’s choir. There was something very special about attending one of his performances. His face reflected the internal connection he felt with singing: elated. My mother is very clever and sophisticated. She is warm and understanding; always thinking outside the box with her business mind. She is a lover of the arts and is very creative. They were both influential in my exploring creativity in any form. Both were adamant that I learn from experiences whether good or bad. Life in the world of performance can be filled with highs and lows. They were influential on how I dealt with the both extremes. My parents would say ”one must take risks and keep a fun card in hand at all times”.
2) What is the best thing or worst thing about being a singer in a singing competition?
The preparation wins hands down. I was a Musician-in-Residence at The Banff Centre when I was notified about the LMISC. I panicked. It was my first international competition of this magnitude. An entire program needed to be performance ready in a short amount of time, three months to be precise. During my time there I worked with two exceptionally talented musicians, Cecilia Berkovich and Mark Simpson who experienced the repertoire from the perspective of the orchestra pit. It was an insightful opportunity to understand the composition from a panoptic view, not just the vocal line. Moreover, I felt I had already won. To have been selected to represent Canada was quite the achievement. Because I am in the early stages of my career, I felt the pressure was off. I could only become better aware of myself. What better place to learn than being on the stage itself? The process is the most enjoyable part for me- the end result of winning does not motivate me. I’ve invested a significant amount of time, effort and money; however, it is the music and the joy of learning and sharing that keeps me going.
I have enjoyed the impeccable attention to detail and precision the LMISC has provided. A fabulous support staff, top notch accompanists and wonderful facilities available to us. The people of Aalborg have been most welcoming and incredibly friendly. Like most singers, I enjoy visiting other countries and interacting with the local people. In addition, one of the highlights is singing alongside and learning from singers who are more advanced than me. Learning a bit of the language ahead of time is also an interesting experience when put to public use. The response is usually in English followed by a giggle. After my first round of competition I saw a few of the audience members in the foyer, albeit we could not find a common language. We managed to communicate via German, Danish and English. There were hugs! Music has no boundaries.
Unfortunately, the worst part of an international competition is the internal pressure one feels. No matter how positive one tries to make a competition sound, it can feel like a blood sport at times. Luckily I have not felt that at all while here. Consequently, it is the buildup of my own insecurities which I slowly diffuse over time. I’ve learned to laugh at myself. Matriculation comes through error. I cannot progress without errors. For anyone who says they do not experience insecurity: they are not being honest. It’s natural. It eventually wears off over time; personally I think a tad bit of insecurity is a good thing. It keeps the bar high ensuring I put my best work forward.
3) Who do you like to listen to or watch?
Joan Sutherland, Kiri Te Kanawa, Luciano Pavarotti, and Jussi Bjorling were my idols growing up. Their approach to singing seemed effortless. These days I listen a great deal to Irene Theorin, soprano. She has been a delight to watch. I’ve been in love with the Copenhagen Ring Cycle- I’ve been watching it time and time again. Stig Fogh Andersen blows my mind- his vocal and physical endurance beats many of the thirty-something year olds hands down. For the most part, one will rarely see me listening to Opera outside of the rehearsal hall. My musical tastes vary. My IPod includes Daft Punk, The Crystal Method, Agricantus, Sarah Mc Laughlin, Emmy Lou Harris, Cote de Pirate and The Wilderness of Manitoba. I am also a lover of Danish and Swedish crime dramas- the soundtracks are also on my IPod.
4) What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?
Unfortunately, I don’t “wish” I had a skill. I believe we all have skills, many of which are underdeveloped; however, some are more prominent than others. I am very action oriented. If I am required or interested in attaining a skill, I will learn it to the best of my ability and incorporate it into my skill toolbox. With that being said, I have many skills which best remain in the box. These days I am enamored with sewing. I designed all of my gowns for the competition and seem to have been successful in the execution of the skills I learned (patterns, cutting, sewing). Unfortunately, when my gowns were fitted I realized my sewing skills were terrible resulting in the hiring of a seamstress to correct my multiple errors. The body fit well; consequently, if I only had the arms of a ten year old and the height of a tree it would have worked out well.
5) When you’re just relaxing and not working what is your favorite thing to do?
I love driving. I drive every evening. I have been nicknamed “Night Rider”. When I lived in Toronto I could find myself up at Lake Simcoe after exploring the side roads. If I could drive to Europe I would. I am also an avid gardener. Attending to the garden is a trait inherited from my mother. I adore flowers. I also love living near the water. I eagerly await the return of summer so I may head out for my daily bike ride and stroll our deserted beach with my cruiser bike “Roxie”. Albeit not the norm, I am an enthusiastic furniture restorer. Unfortunately, it is a pleasure which best be controlled for I haven’t enough room to accommodate the space needed to house these projects.
Five more about the singing competition.
1) Imagine for a moment what Wagner might say. He wrote singing competitions into TWO operas…but those heroes–Tannhauser & Walther in Meistersinger–seem to mock rather than celebrate competitions. Would he approve?
Wagner pushed the boundaries on all levels. For the singer the real test is endurance, not just vocally, but psychologically. Both Tannhauser and Walther are tested figuratively and literally. At a glance, if one compares both characters side by side, Walther wins the precious hand of Eva, while Tannhauser loses his Elisabeth. Interestingly enough the same goes for singing competitions. Nothing is ever as it seems when it comes to Wagner. He was far too clever. His theme of redemption through love which applies to many of his operas runs parallel to singing competitions: redemption through performance; may the best singer win.
2) talk about the challenge of singing Brunnhilde in a singing competition, and how you’re approaching this special moment
In my experience singing the Wagnerian repertoire is a process rather than a challenge; moreover, it is not limited to the role of Brunnhilde. In my discussion with Poul Elming, Tenor (Lauritz Melchior International Singing Competition Director and re-owned for his role as Parsifal, Bayreuth, ‘94-‘01) the consortium of singers able to perform the work is rare and limited for several reasons. The voice type is rare. A prerequisite of course would be a moderately well developed sound, size and range of voice; consequently, the long period of development can be twice as long as for the non-Wagnerian singer. This also involves years of financial expense. As a student at the Royal Conservatory of Music in my teenage years I did not hear voices similar to mine. The range, size and vocal timbre was different than most of my peers. However, I was encouraged by my voice teacher at the time (Eraine Scwing-Braun) to sing with my natural voice. It was liberating. I was constantly being told to sing lighter or darker by other teachers. In my late teens I was asked to use Siegliende’s aria “Du Bist der Lenz” from “Die Walkure” as an exercise. It was evident that my voice responded to the long lines albeit I did not have the top notes. The higher register eventually developed over several years while the Wagnerian repertoire lurked in the background. It is important to note that the culture surrounding Wagner is different to the operatic culture of Puccini or Verdi. Wagner re-wrote the rules when it came to opera. Not only does he demand vocal stamina, and thorough examination of musical texture, but most importantly, he serves up a constellation of innovative orchestral structure in his compositions posing rhythmic and musical “clash” for the novice. For the singer, it requires one to collect this knowledge over time as it is multi-layered. This also requires a singer to go further by emotionally understanding his character’s motives through leitmotifs. I believe this requires quite a few years of “real life” experience to sincerely feel and portray for instance, the love Isolde has for Tristan. Singing the words and knowing the notes on a page is not substantial enough in my opinion. Often times the score does not provide the preamble to Wagner’s intentions. It is for these reasons that I have concluded that the process begins long before one reaches the stage of singing Brunnhilde or Isolde. Like Wagner’s compositions, maturation evolves over time, through experience.
3) what do you love about singing Wagner?
The Wagnerian repertoire is MAJESTIC! One of the most wonderful experiences I’ve had attending the LMISC is the thrill of hearing my colleagues. I feel alive and excited when I hear or sing the Wagnerian repertoire. The energy is like no other. It awakens a playfulness and joy that I do not experience elsewhere. While studying, I love the exploration of finding the answer to the question “Why did Wagner do that? What was his motivation?” Whether it is researching the works of Schoppenahuer, poetry, myth, or his letters, the quest for the answer is half of the fun.
4) put this in context for us, at a time when the opera world seems so fragile, when so many companies are going under, and even the Metropolitan Opera seeming at risk. Is opera an endangered art form, and how does that make you feel about what you do.
I believe it would be fair to say that Opera is undergoing an explorative renovation. Like most businesses there are high and low periods, sometimes, prolonged low periods. Businesses in general, not just Opera, are continuously trying to retain their clientele. Is the art form at risk? Absolutely. I am thankful to the administrative teams who work endlessly at trying to find innovative ways to retain and attract new patrons. The silent communication between musicians and audience is electrifying. The sound of the human voice is extraordinary. To enter into “endangered” territory would be a disservice to society. At the end of the day I will forever advocate for live performance. The long hours of preparation, years of practice and joy of singing will continue- even if I have to set up my soap box in the town square.
5) is there a teacher or influence you’d care to recognize who has brought you to where you are today?
Goodness, there are a few to list. My “dream team” Wendy Nielsen, soprano and Rachel Andrist, Pianist were an integral part of my development. Not only is their musical tutelage impressive, but their personalities and joy for creativity reflects a healthy approach to an art form which imposes the unrealistic quest for perfection. Jane Eaglen, Wagnerian soprano extraordinaire, was also an integral part of my development. She remains in my opinion, the consummate musician. I learned a tremendous amount from her in the years we worked together. I must admit I hadn’t been the best of students in my younger years; however, I would not have been able to get to this point without observing Jane’s work ethic. Eric Weimer, (Lyric Opera of Chicago) permeated musical intellect like no other. A cornucopia of people, both family and extended family that put up with many years of supporting me. Lastly, the audience; without them I would not have as much joy in creating and continuing in this special art form.
Margarete has sung in the first round, and although some singers were eliminated she’s through to the next round!
I’ll let you know what I hear, or check out their website (click the logo).