Born in Kitchener – Waterloo, Ontario and raised in the Philadelphia area, Emma Char (who holds dual U.S. and Canadian Citizenship and currently resides in Toronto) recently crossed the border back to Canada to make debuts with Opéra de Montréal, I Musici de Montréal, Les Violons du Roy and Ensemble Caprice. The current adventure is in a co-production of the Banff Centre, Canadian Opera Company, Against the Grain Theatre and Toronto Summer Music, taking on the title role of Benjamin Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia, which opened July 14th in Banff. July 22nd it’s Toronto’s turn to see this production at the Elgin-Winter Garden Theatre.
I had to find out more about this intriguing young artist and her portrayal of Lucretia.
ONE: Are you more like your father or your mother?
I think I am a blend of both my father and mother in terms of how I look and my inherited character traits. My father is Chinese- American and my Mom is Canadian of British Heritage. I would say I’m calm, analytical and logical like my father, but also possess a non-linear way of thinking and a latent fiery side, which I believe are traits inherited from my mother. My father is a computer-scientist with a passion for musical theatre and my mom is a painter and homemaker; their influence pervades my life in many ways most of which I am probably not completely conscious.
TWO: What is the best thing about what you do?
I’d say the best thing about what I do is the possibility for continuous growth. In this field of work I’m learning about myself all the time through taking risks in rehearsal and making discoveries about what is possible to create with my voice in the practice room. I am usually a quiet person in normal life, so performing through singing is a way I feel I can express myself and connect to people in a much larger way than I would ever be able to do otherwise.
THREE: Who do you like to listen to or watch?
In general, I love watching and listening to people with rock- solid technique that allows them tremendous expressive capabilities through sound but who also use their bodies in an expressive physical way to further convey emotion and drama. Joyce Di donato and Isabel Leonard are two of my favourite mezzos to watch.
I love watching TV shows; Arrested Development, Parks and Recreation, The Office and also getting lost in amazing dramas; House of Cards, The Good Wife, Broadchurch, The Killing etc. Netflix is a major source of joy and comfort, but at times a tremendous addicting temptation.
FOUR: What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?
I wish I were an incredible dancer. I love dancing but I’m afraid that will never be a highlight of my skill set.
FIVE: When you’re just relaxing and not working what is your favourite thing to do?
Sharing a meal with family and friends is my favourite thing to do. I also love going outside for any reason; biking around Toronto is amazing, as I find it both stimulating and relaxing.
More questions for Emma Char as she undertakes the title role in The Rape of Lucretia at Toronto Summer Music Festival July 22nd.
ONE: Lucretia lives through hell in this opera, and has to express that through her voice yet while still sounding heavenly. Please talk about the special challenges of such a role vocally.
Preparing the music very, very well, so what is on the page is more or less automatic and second nature technically in terms of vocal production hopefully allows me to not worry about my voice while performing. Diving into the experience of Lucretia, her intentions, her depth of feeling, has been a huge exercise in getting comfortable being uncomfortable with vulnerability. At times during the rehearsal process, emotion took over and I could barely speak or phonate at all, let alone sing. Getting comfortable feeling such heightened emotions and learning where my edge is; the point where I am completely engaged dramatically with my entire body but where I can still keep my throat calm and breath flexible in order to be able to sing well is a continuous process, the ease of which changes from day to day.
TWO:Rape of Lucretia is a small-scale work both musically and dramatically, to be performed in a relatively small theatre on July 22nd, as the heroine’s heart is laid bare with an almost indecent intimacy for the audience. Please talk about what that feels like, particularly in an intimate venue.
For the rehearsals of our production in Banff, we rehearsed in a relatively small space, where the production team would be watching a few feet away from the front of the stage. These rehearsals definitely felt intimate and at first a bit uncomfortable but I got used to the space and missed it when we moved into the theatre. The best thing about a small space is that I feel I have no choice but to get lost in the character and completely commit to the moment to moment, as there is no shield of distance between stage and audience.
THREE: One of the special challenges in some roles is the desire as a feeling person to react, to feel. A performer who is reacting emotionally –perhaps crying or laughing—has lost some if not all of their control, and is no longer performing, having become another of the spectators. How do you stay clear in a role like this one, where your feelings may overwhelm your thought process?
What is most difficult is learning exactly how far I can let emotions inform me before they take over when I’m onstage. It is usually a lot further than I think. What is also interesting to me is that the audience doesn’t feel what I feel. Sometimes I can be feeling a lot of really negative things about a performance and everyone thinks it was incredibly moving. Other times I feel great about what I have just done and those observing have less intense reactions to the experience. The best advice I have gotten about acting had to do with keeping my intentions on stage active. Sometimes, sinking into too far into “feeling it” does little to move the audience because all that people experience is that you’re standing there flailing your arms around.
FOUR: I can’t help wondering if Rape of Lucretia is a coded work of art, where the composer’s ideas are hidden yet lurking under the surface. But unlike so many of Britten’s operas –thinking of Peter or Grimes or Billy Budd or Death in Venice—there’s no troubled male protagonist at the centre of the story, as though tempting us to seek the correspondence between his life and the story of that opera. Where, if anywhere, would you find him in this story (for instance in the exchanges between the male and female chorus, or in the anguish of Lucretia)? Or am I being too reductive?
Paul Curran, our director at the Banff Centre, brought up the idea that this piece was written at the end of the World War II as a political statement to Churchill and a commentary about war and the harm it does not only to soldiers but to bystanders. At the end of the opera the Female and Male Chorus bring up questions about what the point is of all of this that has happened. What has humanity learned from the horrors of the past, do we ever learn? Why does history continue to repeat itself?
FIVE: Opera has always relied upon women to be the voices for suffering from its inception and Britten’s powerful opera isn’t much different, leaning most heavily upon the women, while leaving the men comparatively inarticulate. Please weigh this opera, whether you see it more as a modern piece of theatre, or as a classic opera requiring its diva to suffer and die. Is it modern or timeless in its handling of an ancient crime?
I think this piece is not necessarily just representative of women’s suffering but with the collective suffering of humanity. The characters at the end of the opera dealing with the aftermath of Lucretia’s death are the ones who are perhaps left with the greatest pain.
I believe this piece couldn’t be more modern and its subject matter couldn’t be more relevant. What I hope to do with this role is to make Lucretia a real person with desires and not a one-dimensional character. The subject matter presented in this opera is unpleasant, but so necessary to bring to light. What can we learn from this story, and why do tragedies like these continue to occur across the world in real life?
SIX Is there a teacher or an influence you’d care to name that you especially admire?
The Against the Grain Theatre team has been a great source of influence and inspiration to me personally and professionally. The work they have done the past few years has gotten me enthused about the possibilities of opera yet to come and my involvement with this project has been nothing short of life – transforming. My highest admiration and gratitude goes to those brave souls who took risks starting this company.
Produced at the Banff Centre in collaboration with Against the Grain Theatre, Canadian Opera Company, and the Toronto Summer Music Festival, Benjamin Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia comes to the Elgin/Winter Garden Theatre, 189 Yonge Street, Toronto at 7:30 Friday July 22nd. For further information click image below.