Cathedral Arts: Soprano Katherine Whyte is in the path of right place, right time

Have voice. Will travel.

That motto probably should be on Katherine Whyte’s business card. The soprano has built her career as a professional performer by her God-given talent and her willingness to go anywhere to work.

Consider her Ottawa debut this Saturday. White will get up a 4 a.m. Friday, hop on an early morning flight from New York, where she lives with her husband in the Bowery district. Fly into Ottawa, rehearse and check into a hotel. She’ll get up on Saturday morning, and prepare to sing a number of arias and duets with tenor Jean-Philippe Fortier-Lazure in the Cathedral Arts Opera in the Cathedral concert at 7:30 p.m. And the next day, she fly home.

“The thing that is really fun about this evening was when they called and said, ‘We’d love you to come and do this evening of opera and do whatever you want.’ I was like ‘Sweet, I get to sing all the arias I sing well’.”

That means the audience in Christ Church Cathedral will hear Violetta’s aria from La Traviata. There will be some Leonard Bernstein with Glitter and Be Gay from the operetta Candide and a piece from West Side Story (It’s the 100th anniversary of Bernstein’s birth in 2018). And she’ll sing a duet from The Elixir of Love by Donizetti with Fortier-Lazure.

There will be lots more.

Much of Whyte’s musical career takes place with some pretty high-powered opera companies such as The Metropolitan Opera Company in New York and the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto. Recitals, such as this Saturday’s are a welcome break from her normal working routine.

“In opera, when you are on stage, you are bringing part of yourself to a character of course but you are still portraying a character with direction given to you by a director. An evening like this is such a fun thing because you get to pick the direction.

“I love recital work because it’s a more intimate situation.”

But still why do this? It’s pretty simple really.

“People who don’t love to sing end up quitting. There are people who are terribly talented but they just don’t love it. They don’t love getting on a plane; they don’t love the performance. They don’t love the interaction with the audience and they quit.

“You get to a point where it becomes part of your bloodstream. I have to sing. Someone says, ‘Do you want to do an evening of your favourite opera arias?’  Yes please.”

Whyte said she has an  opportunity to do a recital in Serbia next May. She’s definitely doing the gig, even though she won’t be paid for it.

“The guy who offered me the spot is a fantastic pianist. I would give my left eyeball to work with him. I am going to go do it, because I want to be heard in Serbia. I can set up auditions there and maybe hired and paid to sing there. Unless I make the sacrifice how will anyone in Serbia know what I sing like.”

She did a similar thing in China. She sang for free at the Canadian embassy there. And she paid for her own flight. Why the embassy would do that is another matter. But in the end it worked out. She’s been back several times and been paid well, flights and hotel included.

“China’s a great place to work.”

Whyte, who hails from Scarborough, has some musical talent in her family. Her great-grandmother was a performer and her grandmother sang in church. Neither of her parents have musical training, but she got hooked in high school. That led to an audition with The Juilliard School. And she got in. By 2004, she was performing in New York. And after graduation in 2006, she has been working steadily.

“I went for my Juilliard audition with my mother and we took a picture outside the Lincoln Centre. I wondered then if I would ever sing at the Met.”

She has worked there for eight of the past 10 seasons and will be back for one opera in 2018, perhaps to be conducted by Montreal’s Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who was recently hired to replace the legendary James Levine.

Working at Met is special, she says.

“I had a show a few years ago. In middle of the performance I thought ‘This is really fun. I finally feel at home here’.

“The first three or four years there it was ‘Oh my goodness’.

Whyte has stayed in New York for many reasons, but it’s the perfect place for a professional singer.

“I got hired hired once to work at the English National Opera in London, Eng. I was in my gym clothes when my manager called.” She was offered a last minute audition and had a hour to get there to sing something from Rigoletto.

New York lets her be in the path of right place, right time.

If you said divine intervention, Whyte would not demur. She’s a committed Christian.

“When I was a kid, my father quoted line from the movie Chariots of Fire to me. In the movie the runner Eric Liddel says ‘When I run I feel his pleasure’. My father said to me ‘When you sing, you feel his pleasure’.

“I just feel like God gave me a voice and when I sing I feel it’s pleasing to him. That’s a special thing to me. I think music is transformative. Singing is such a special gift. I love it so much that I will die trying to do it. If somebody asks, I’m going to go. I would hate to get to the end of my life and wonder what if I had just done this or that.”

It’s unlikely she will have any doubts about the choices she didn’t make.

Opera in the Cathedral
Cathedral Arts
Who: Katherine Whyte (soprano), Jean-Philippe Fortier-Lazure (tenor), Matthew Larkin (piano)
Where: Christ Church Cathedral, 414 Sparks St.
When: Saturday, May 27 at 7:30 p.m.


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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.