Chamberfest: Canadian soprano Simone Osborne relishes the intimate power of a recital

Simone Osborne. Photo: Bo Huang

Simone Osborne is a a proud ex-pat.

The Vancouver native is living in Frankfurt, Germany these days where her husband, the bass-baritone Gordon Bintner has a gig with the opera.

She maintains a busy career of recitals and opera roles from her base in the German city, many of them in North America, ironically. Occasionally, she and Bintner get an opportunity to work together. One such time is a concert at Chamberfest on Wednesday.

A professional singer has to be a pragmatist about where they work and when they work.

“From early on, I was trained well by a professor who had made a career in Germany. I knew from the beginning that if I wanted to do this I would have to make choices based on singing and concessions based on my work.

“We love the life over here,” she said by phone from Germany.” We do miss our families, but, right now, music comes first. I am lucky to be in a relationship with someone who also feels that way. And it’s big opportunity for him to be over here.”

Frankfurt is a very comfortable city to live in. It’s not that big but it has great cultural venues.

“It’s actually quite a small city. It’s kind of nice to slow down and still have all amenities you would want and still be able to go to a concert or an opera every night of the week.” And, if you like that sort of thing, the Germans also keep the best riesling wines at home.

Gordon Bintner. Photo: Brent Calls

The recital at Dominion-Chalmers features a selection of favourite art songs by composers such as Saint-Saëns, Mendelssohn, Faure and Finzi.

The program was assembled a year ago but illness has kept it on the shelf so this Chamberfest performance will be its debut, she said in an interview.

“Technically this is our first duo recital and we are really excited about it.”

The show will feature the pianist Michael McMahon, a long time friend of the pair.

Recital singing is a big part of Osborne’s career.

Marilyn Horne was the one who encouraged me to invest in recital singing and art song. It is a great pain in her heart that recitals and art song are not at the forefront of classical music singing these days.”

Osborne studied with Horne at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, California.

“Growing up in Vancouver, I was very involved in productions at UBC, but I wanted to get out and do more so at 20 I auditioned for her. Later that years she accepted me. When I won the Metropolitan Opera competition she has forever said ‘I heard that first’.

“We have had a very close relationship for 10 years. I saw her recently in New York and we had tea and talked for hours. She is an incredible teacher, friend and mentor.

“I promised her I would invest in recitals and do them no matter what.”

The recital and art songs have become a passion for Osborne.

“It is one of the only times as a classical artist that you control more of the scenario. It’s you up there. You are not hiding behind a character and a costume.”

As operatic roles get more complicated and distant from the original settings (“Putting La Traviata on a soccer field”) that can be hard to swallow, Osborne said.

“It’s nice to retain some power and some feelings about this incredible music.”

The singer is also a lot closer to the audience.

“Usually in the opera house we are on a big stage behind the orchestra pit and 20 feet from the audience in the dark. In a recital you can sing to people. You can look in their eyes and you can choose music you perform.”

The pieces selected are favourites. Bintner will sing a Finzi piece he enjoys. She will sing a set of four Richard Strauss songs.

And then there are the duets.

“My favourite things to sing are the duets with Gord. There is something special about being connected as people and musically. We very rarely get to perform together, so it’s a real joy for us.”

They deliberately do not sell themselves as a package, however.

“We never want any organization to feel pressured to hire both of us. That’s not our style.”

But when the stars do align, they jump at the chance.

That doesn’t mean, however, that they would relish working together at the Frankfurt Opera.

“There is a difference between working with your partner sometimes and working with him six days a week.”

This summer both of them are in Canada. In addition to the Chamberfest gig, they just appeared in Robert Lepage’s version of The Magic Flute with  Festival Opera de Quebec playing Papageno and Pamina for the first time together. Both of them sing the roles a lot.

From her vantage point on the Main River, Osborne has a solid perspective on Canadian music.

“I think Canada bats much higher than average in terms of the musical talent coming out of the country. The training we get is incredible. There is something in the water in Canada,” she said. “It is a legacy we all can be very proud of.”

She has no regrets leaving Canada.

“Certainly it is sad to be far from home. I think we will definitely come back at some point. I could see teaching at some point, when I have run out of high notes and character roles to sing. But that won’t be soon.”

When she does return it will be with a lifetime of lessons learned.

“It is important to come back with lessons learned from other places in the world. For example, I started singing Strauss lieder at 18. But it is  incredible the difference living in Germany for two years has made. The connection I now have to the language and helps with understanding simple things like grammar and ending of words and why they are used.

“To live in the language is important. One day I could pass that on to a student. I do feel that, in one way, it is our job to go out into the world and learn as much as we can to meet people from different schools and who speak different languages and different schools of musical thought.

She is part of a merry band of Canadians working overseas. She’s good friends, for example, with Ottawa’s Wallis Giunta and Joyce El-Khouri, for example.

“We keep up with each other. Every working Canadian singer I know is a wonderful person as well as a wonderful artist.”

She believes that to reach the next level in a singing career, it’s important to have your eyes opened to different experiences.

“There are people who make full and beautiful careers in Canada but for us it was important to make this change. But it is always incredible pleasure to come home.”

Some experiences aren’t as enjoyable as others, however. Osborne has faced her share of harassment and innuendo.

“Of course, I have had to deal with unwanted attention or comments, often from a person with more power.

“I grew up thinking I needed cards in my playbook to help me escape the situation. It’s part of my normal, just having to protect myself. I hope the next generation of young singers won’t need that skill, that they won’t have to figure out how to escape situations.

“I do think industry is changing a little bit and it’s nice to be able to go to work and focus on the work. It is important to be sensitive of different cultures, but it’s also important to know we don’t have to put up with that stuff anymore. The opera companies and festivals are getting better at listening and taking things more seriously now.”

Simone Osborne and Gordon Bintner with Michael McMahon
Where: Dominion-Chalmers United Church
When: Aug. 8 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.