10 Questions for Tyler Duncan: Handel’s Messiah

Canadian baritone Tyler Duncan has performed at the Metropolitan Opera, the Spoleto Festival, Boston Early Music Festival, Pacific Opera Victoria; and Princeton Festival.

Duncan’s concerts include Mahler’s 8th Symphony with the American Symphony Orchestra and the Toronto Symphony, Berlioz L’enfance du Christ with the Montreal Symphony; both Bach and Mendessohn’s Magnificat with the New York Philharmonic; Bach’s St Matthew Passion with the Munich Bach Choir, Montreal Symphony, and the Oregon Bach Festival; Haydn’s The Creation with the Québec, Montreal, and Winnipeg symphony orchestras; Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with the Calgary Philharmonic and Philharmonie der Nationen in Munich, Berlin, Stuttgart, and Frankfurt; Haydn’s The Seasons with the Calgary Philharmonic; Handel’s Messiah with Tafelmusik, the Montreal and Toronto Symphony Orchestras, Handel and Haydn Society, San Francisco’s Philharmonia Baroque, and Portland Baroque; Mozart’s Requiem with the Montreal, Toronto, and Salt Lake City Symphony Orchestras. He has also performed at Germany’s Halle Händel Festival, Verbier Festival, Vancouver Early Music Festival, Montreal Bach Festival, Oregon Bach Festival, Lanaudière Festival, Stratford Festival, Berkshire Choral Festival, and New York’s Carnegie Hall.

Duncan’s recordings include Bach’s St. John Passion with Portland Baroque and a DVD of Handel’s Messiah with Kent Nagano and the Montreal Symphony from CBC Television. On the ATMA label are works by Purcell and Carissimi’s Jepthe with Les Voix Baroque.  Issued on the CPO label is his Boston Early Music Festival recording of the title role in John Blow’s Venus and Adonis.

As he prepares to sing the Messiah in Toronto with Tafelmusik, I was delighted to have the opportunity to ask Tyler Duncan ten questions.


Baritone Tyler Duncan

1) Are you more like your father or your mother?

I would hope that I am a good mix of both, I sure try to be. My Parents have no musical background whatsoever, yet I have wound up singing for my family’s supper so to speak. My parents have always been loving and supportive of my decision to pursue music, and I grew up in smaller places like Prince George and Port Alberni BC where music was a big part of the community. My parents are amazing individuals and an amazing pair, their optimism and kindness through thick and thin have helped me to keep a cool head and positive outlook.

2) What is the best thing about what you do?

To be able to love what you do is amazing, and I love what I do. Trying to figure out what that is exactly can be difficult. There are all of these labels that tend to be attached to who we are as singers. “Opera singer” “Concert singer” “Baroque singer” “Terrible Singer”. Each person is different, each voice is unique, and the craziest thing of all is that we don’t get to choose which one we are given, the divine slurry moulds itself into you and these teensy little vocal chords that have very limited infinite possibilities.

I sometimes jokingly call myself a light lyric coloratura helden bassbaritenor, because I don’t necessarily fit easily into any of the classical voice categories. What I love to do is a very wide range of repertoire. I love premiering new works, there are so many composers out there, especially in Canada, that need to be heard. I also love art song (lieder) and modern opera, and traditional opera, and baroque music and romantic music and jazz and folk songs and and and.

If I am asked to sing it, and think that I can somewhat pull it off, I will give it a try.

3) Who do you like to listen to or watch?

I really love listening to Podcasts, if you have any suggestions, please let me know. My guilty TV addiction is Poldark, plus I love anything to do with superheroes.

4) What ability or skill do you wish you had that you don’t have?

Because we now own a house, I really (and I mean really) wish I was more handy. I haven’t severed a limb yet and have only mildly electrocuted myself, but I could use a wee bit more skill in that department.

5) When you’re just relaxing and not working what is your favourite thing to do?

As singers we spend a LOT of time on our own, in hotel rooms, airports, stuck in traffic, because of this my favorite thing to do is spend time with my cute little toddler son and my amazing wife Erika.


Baritone Tyler Duncan

More questions about singing in Messiah.

1) Please talk for a moment about the challenges of Messiah for the baritone.

The challenges of the Messiah for baritone is the range. If it says “baritone” in the program then some people will wish to hear more of the low bass notes, if it says “bass-baritone” or “bass” in the program then people wish to hear more of a clear high register in an aria like “The Trumpet Shall Sound”. You really can’t win… Other than that, keeping the music fresh after performing the work for over 2 decades is a challenge well worth accepting. The baritone arias are extremely varied in approach and register, showing a very large range vocally emotionally and technically.

2) Please tell us about working with Ivars Taurins as Herr Handel, and how he is in rehearsal and in preparation.


Ivars Taurins as Herr Handel (photo by Gary Beechey)

Ivars loves this music deeply. I respect so much that he removes his ego from the process and tries to just give you Handel’s music. He is highly detailed in rehearsal, but has a great ear and listens carefully.

His alter ego, Herr Handel is a huge surprise the first time you witness it, and gets better each reincarnation.

3) What is your favourite part of Messiah?

It is very difficult to pick a favorite part of Messiah, I first performed it singing bass in the choir with the Vancouver Cantata Singers under James Fankhauser (Colin Balzer was also in the choir). I remember the excitement of singing with the orchestra and soloists, and I was hooked. It is very difficult not to sing along with the choir the whole time. I love the fugue writing in “He Trusted in God” and the “Amen.” I also love the call and response between soprano and strings in “Rejoice,” and the ridiculous coloratura in “For Unto Us a Child is Born”

4) Messiah can be seen as theatre, as music, and for some so religiously inspired as to be genuinely sacred. Where do you place the emphasis among those three (drama, music & spirit) in preparation & in performance?

Heart, mind and body are all needed to sing this amazing music. No matter what your beliefs are and how strongly you feel them, this music demands, needs you to go all in. When you sing “I know that my redeemer liveth” If you don’t know it, the audience will know it, you know? Every single time that I perform this work it uplifts my spirit. It is not just tradition that keeps Messiah a relevant and lasting work, it is the fact that there is something bigger than all of us that Handel has channeled through these little dots on the music stand, something that leaves both the audience and performers with a sense of connection that goes beyond religion. We all need a message of hope and love, reflection on those we have lost, and those we are bringing into the world.

5) Is there a teacher or influence you’d like to acknowledge?


Conductor & pedagogue James Fankhauser

The aforementioned James Fankhauser (or “Fank” as we called him) was not only our choir director at the University of British Columbia, and with the Vancouver Cantata Singers, but he was also my voice teacher during undergrad. He set the bar very high, especially with works like Messiah, or song cycles like Schubert’s great “Die Schöne Müllerin.” I still try to emulate his musicality in everything I do. His approach to phrasing, so focused, subtle and beautiful, and his use of language remain my foundation.


Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir present Messiah
Directed by Ivars Taurins
Amanda Forsythe, soprano
Krisztina Szabó, mezzo-soprano
Colin Balzer, tenor
Tyler Duncan, baritone

Wed Dec 14 – Sat Dec 17 at 7:30 pm, Koerner Hall; and their annual singalong Messiah conducted by Herr Handel himself on Sunday Dec 18th at 2 pm in Massey Hall.

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