For the past two years, I have had the privilege of singing in many glorious concerts as a member of the Ewashko Singers. Whenever the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa presents a choral piece, I am usually up there, behind the brass section, singing my heart out from the front row of a vast chorus. It is an exhilarating experience and one that I likely would not enjoy had it not been for a sudden burst of chutzpah back in early 2011.
We’ll get to that later.
The truth is, I was never really into singing in choirs.
“What do you mean I have to do all this work and no one in the audience will notice the sound I am producing?”
Although I did sing as a kid with various synagogue choirs in Ottawa, I quickly discovered I was a ham — a Kosher ham. I wanted to be listened to, and applauded — and not just by my father. I quit piano lessons when I was 11 (after all, I wasn’t making any friends by sitting at the piano all by myself) and enrolled in musical theatre classes at the Ottawa School of Speech and Drama.
Those classes were life-changing. At a time when I was ferociously bullied in the schoolyard, I was blessed to be surrounded by nurturing teachers and peers as quirky as me (yet far more talented). Singing in the world of musical theatre is all about standing out and leaving an impression, rather than blending in, as it is in a choir. On the other hand, singing technique in theatre is generally subservient to committed storytelling. I was having far too much fun to care. Some of my peers began to sense that they wanted to develop a career on the stage, and so the whole discipline became much more serious to them, much more high-stakes.
But I was doing it for the thrill, and also the transferable skills. Educators love to make claims about how studying the performing art allows young people to develop skills that will benefit them in work and in life, regardless of the path(s) they pursue. For me this notion was not merely theoretical. I experienced first-hand how musical theatre changed my way of being and interacting with others. I noticed how it led to opportunities for me to demonstrate leadership and teamwork — opportunities some people thought were only available to the football star.
After taking part in many wonderful productions — including starring as sleazy lawyer “Billy Flynn” in my high school production of Chicago, an unlikely character transformation if there ever was one — at some point I developed an interest in studying singing in a more rigorous, disciplined manner. At the same time, I was getting pretty hooked on opera, which I have claimed on this website to be the world’s greatest art form (http://mindthis.ca/opera-exploring-possibilities-human-expression/).
I started off with Arie Antiche, the set of 18th-century Italian songs which everyone, from Pavarotti, to your neighbor’s parrot began their study of so-called “classical” voice with. Within a few months, I was singing my first lieder (songs) by Schubert, who wrote some 600 songs in his short life. These pieces are timeless because they so perfectly capture life’s winding ways. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jyxMMg6bxrg).
Once thing I found frustrating was that I could not simply sing whatever pieces I wished. My teacher essentially claimed full control over which composers and pieces I could and could not touch with my young and (still) maturing voice. But anyone who knows me knows I could not accept such control without hearty albeit heartfelt resistance (soundcloud.com/adam-moscoe).
One act of resistance required a particularly large amount of chutzpah. I was scanning the bulletin boards in the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Music building — where I often did my homework, stacking up my textbooks alongside the scores to my favorite operas, pretending to be something of a music student — and saw that the school was holding auditions for the baritone and soprano solos in Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem.
“Perfect!” I thought.
I immediately booked an audition and set to work learning the two difficult male solos
I showed up to the audition and tried to act like all the opera majors around me. When I walked into the studio, the conductor — a revered professor with a tremendous white beard (he sort of looked like Brahms) — cued my entrance. Here I was, a second year psychology student with relatively little training, performing a solo in German usually sung by a singer in his late thirties.
The Brahms look-a-like asked, “At what point are you in your studies?” (i.e. who gave you impression you, a non-music student, were equipped to handle this beefy solo?).
I didn’t get the part. But as I left the audition room, a man with a gentle voice asked politely, “May I have your email address?” It turned out the man was Laurence Ewashko, one of Canada’s most esteemed choral directors. Laurence was inviting me to sing in the chorus for Opera Lyra Ottawa’s production of Lucia di Lammermoor. It didn’t work out due to scheduling, nor did a subsequent production of Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer, which was cancelled due to budgetary problems at the opera company. It seemed my opera debut was not to be.
About a year later, Laurence invited me to sing in the chorus for a Pops concert with the National Arts Centre Orchestra entitled “Do You Hear the People Sing?” It was a gigantic tribute to the musicals of Boubil and Schönberg, including Les Miserables and Miss Saigon, and the concert featured numerous original cast members from those shows, including Lea Salonga. Even Boubil himself was there. It was exhilarating to rehearse those dramatic songs under Laurence’s precise direction and to combine our hard work with the assured might of the orchestra — led by Jack Everly — and the soloists. Add in three sold-out shows and cheering audiences to the mix, and I was hooked.
I have been lucky to sing with Laurence and his Ewashko Singers in seven programmes to date, and I am currently in rehearsal for two more: Brahms’ Shicksalslied and Schnittke’s Concerto for Choir. Each experience has been unique and has exposed me to new cultures, languages, and communities. This past fall, for instance, I sang Roman Hurko’s Requiem/Panachyda as part of a Holodomor remembrance concert. It was profoundly moving to join the Ukrainian community of Ottawa in commemorating that horrific assault on human rights and dignity and to connect with and honor the victims through the transcendent power of music.
My involvement in theatre and music continues to impact my life in diverse and enduring ways. While much is made about getting young people to “appreciate” the arts, I have learned that the only way to experience their full magnitude is to get involved in the magic of live performance.
So ignore the cynicism of Macbeth and take your spot on stage.