The natural progression of soprano Karina Gauvin

Karina Gauvin. Photo: Michael Slobodian

There is something about Henry Purcell that appeals to Karina Gauvin.

“I have been attracted to Purcell since I was a little girl,” said the soprano from Montreal who has made a reputation for herself singing the music of the Baroque era. “They didn’t call him Orpheus Britannicus for nothing. He really had a way with melody.

“You hear his music today and it’s as fresh as it would have been back then.”

The music of the 17th century British composer fills a concert Gauvin will perform at Dominion Chalmers United Church on April 10 at 7:30 p.m. as part of the Chamberfest concert series. The Ottawa stop is part of an eight city tour in Canada with the early music ensemble Les Boréades de Montréal.

Gauvin has performed the program before in Europe, but it’s never been heard in Canada. She has also recorded it.

In a sense, Gauvin’s musical path has taken her back in time.

“I didn’t go to opera school, I didn’t take that path that singers take after conservatory or university.

“Often singers will go into a youth program with an opera company. When you go that route they will plug you in the standard repertoire and my teacher felt that I still needed to grow vocally.

“So I started doing concerts and I was immediately picked up by Bernard Labadie in Quebec City.” (Labadie is an internationally recognized expert on 17th and 18th century music and the founder of Les Violons du Roy and La Chapelle de Québec choir).

“When he started hiring me, I was not finished school. I did a lot of work with him, concerts and messiahs and touring all over the place. That’s how it went. It was a natural progression for my voice which was suited for this repertoire. It requires vocal agility which my voice has … and a lightness of sound.”

Labadie was one mentor. Another was one of the giants of the early music movement, the American Alan Curtis, who died in 2014.

“He started hiring me. I was his go-to soprano. I worked with him regularly for the last 10 years of his life.”

These special musical relationships propelled Gauvin’s career.

Does she feel pigeonholed because of that? “I think so. But it’s funny, just a few years ago I sang Vitellia in a production of Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito in Paris. The public knows me well there but they had never seen me in an opera.

“It was a big revelation. Vitellia is a very daunting role, very difficult. It has a huge range down to a bottom G and up to a high B.

“People were surprised and then, all of a sudden, other doors started opening.”

As a performer, “style has always been my pre-occupation. For me it’s important to stay true to style;  stay true, as much as possible, to what is written on the page and what the composer intended.”

However, “I don’t like dusty historically informed performing. I want to infuse it with my own personality. For Mozart, I’ve come to it in a natural way because I’ve done all this Baroque music. It’s a natural progression.

“I think the natural progression helps find the essence of the music.”

Early music performance has grown a lot since it surfaced in the 1960s and ’70s, she says. Curtis was a scholar but he was a man of his time. He was always looking for juicy voices, like hers, she said.

“In the beginning early music sought out ‘anemic’ sopranos. This is not what I want. I am singing with my real voice. Alan was a fan of ‘real voices’.”

Gauvin is on the road a lot. It’s exhausting, she says. And it’s getting harder, more cutthroat.

“People are cutting costs constantly. That means less time to prepare. You have to learn how to manage yourself and sometimes it’s not very nice.

“You have to be able to be with yourself because you do spend a lot of time alone. Some people can’t do that.

“There are a lot of people who want to do this job. A lot of young people come out of school and think ‘I’m a star now’. You have to work hard. You have to be committed to it.”

Gauvin will spend the spring and summer in North America before returning to Vitellia and Europe in the fall. She will be back in Ottawa to sing the Mozart Requiem on May 17 and 18 at the National Arts Centre.

For tickets and information on this April 10 concert, please see

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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.