Ottawa native Julie Nesrallah is returning to her first musical love — opera — this week at Centrepointe Theatre. The performance, called A Night at the Opera, will be a welcome addition to her busy schedule that also includes her day job as the host of the CBC Radio 2 show Tempo.
Her decade of work on the radio show, she says, has done wonders for her understanding of music.
“Those 10 years have flown by. It has changed my life. I believe my brain is bigger, my heart is bigger, my scope is bigger. And spending the whole day listening to music and researching music has made my singing better.
“When you craft stories for the radio, you have to figure out the most important bits. These are typically the most important parts, the most moving and poignant. It brings your intellect and your heart together.”
As a young person, Nesrallah says, she didn’t have an idea how her career would unfold, but unfold it did.
“Before I graduated McGill I had an offer and an agent in New York. Things were in place. Back then (1996) I was the youngest and only Canadian with Dispeker Artists.
“The agency was set up by the late Thea Dispeker. To get in, I went to her apartment in New York. She was there and all her agents sat around on couches and nodded at each other. I sang one aria and she went Yes, Yes, Yes. All of a sudden I was on this roster.”
Nesrallah was 28 then. After high school in Ottawa she “noodled around” for four years before going to university first at Carleton and then at McGill in Montreal.
All the while, though, she studied singing privately.
A teacher or a coach is a must Nesrallah believes, even for an experienced singer.
“You have a lot people, today, who think they are set and don’t need teachers. But the best singers are coached their entire lives.”
She still treasures the memory of her first and “best” teacher.
“Barbara Ross was my first teacher and I basically just stayed with her. I was at McGill and I’d go back to her anyway. I started with her when I was 12 and I was with her until the day she died. She’s a member of my family and she only had the best heart for me. She was never anything but loving. When you encounter people who aren’t like that it’s a shock,” she said.
These days she relies on coaches, hired as needed.
The idea for A Night at the Opera is from Bob Missen, a Toronto-area agent and impresario, Nesrallah said.
“He approached me with the idea of putting together an opera hits show.”
The show has been performed in St. Catharines and Burlington after a debut at Koerner Hall last summer. The first half of the evening on Feb 1 is a compendium of songs “from Mozart to Traviatia,” Nesrallah says. It will also include a bit of Broadway. The second half will feature music from Bizet’s Carmen, an opera Nesrallah owns with the success of her show Carmen on Tap. (Editor’s note: Margison has come down with a bug and will be replaced in Ottawa by tenor Ernesto Ramirez.)
“It’s nice way to showcase that role for me in a concert setting,” she says.
Nesrallah has no qualms about such a “populist” presentation of Opera. The music originated on the streets after all, she added.
“Come on, let’s put all the artifice aside.”
Nesrallah will also introduce each number before they are sung.
“I feel it is important to tell stories to people that relate to them. That’s where the emotional impact is going to be. This is basically the name of my game. I tell a story about somebody who happens to be a musical genius.
“At the end of the day these people are human beings. Some are drunks. some are depressed, some cheat of their wives, some have no trauma whatsoever, some are rich, poor, sick. Their families suck. They were rich once and now they are poor.”
She says these are enjoyable stories to tell. In a way she is demystifying genius.
That role of explainer, demystifier appeals to Nesrallah.
“This is great music. You can come in, have a good time, listen to a few stories and if you like it fabulous, if it’s not for you it’s OK. I can’t control that.”
That wonderful music, though, is part of a complex world that has not escaped the #MeToo, #TIMESUP movement.
Nesrallah knows there is sexual harassment in the opera world.
“I think the world is full of this. I have not had horrible experiences but there have been heavy flirtations. I’m out of that loop now of rehearsals and performances where people’s guards go down and stuff starts to happen. But of course it’s there.
And things have happened to her (in the past) that in today’s climate would warrant addressing, she says.
“For example, this one conductor had a crush on me. He would gravitate to me on every break and talk to me and talk to me… He would even follow me to the bathroom. He just didn’t pick up the cue.
“However, most of men I have worked with are fantastic. They are fun. They are collegial. But you do get the odd bad apple.”
The question Nesrallah says needs answering is what to do about such incidents.
“In the music world, if you are assaulted in a rehearsal, who do you talk to? The stage manager? He or she is not really equipped. It’s also The Theatre: this uber-liberal, uber-lovey-dovey. touchy-feely world and all that stuff plays into it.
“But it’s all coming out now. There is a terrible, emotional, aspect to it all but it’s also terribly unprofessional. Just because you are a musician, it doesn’t give you the right to touch my bottom. Get your game in order,” she said.
How does she fit in a show like this in her busy schedule.
“I just do it. I work a full 9 to 5 day, or longer. I go home, watch some TV, eat dinner and start practicing. Then I go to bed. Rinse and repeat.
“When it comes to time management the No. 1 rule is if you want to do it, you make the time for it. I don’t think about it. I just do it. It’s what I want to do. I want to sing and I do this radio gig. I don’t have kids. I have a partner and we have been together for four years, but the only person I really have to take care of is myself.”
So with all that in mind, Nesrallah will board a VIA Rail train on feb. 2 with the pianist and head to Ottawa, do the show, come back and that’s it. It’s truly bananas, but I’m used to it.”