Music in the holidays for some might seem a bit predictable if not an outright cliché, but that doesn’t faze Meredith Lustig.
For the American singer making her Canadian debut this week at the National Arts Centre for three nights of holiday music, “holidays are about gratitude and togetherness. If I can bring that sentiment to someone in the audience or if I can share that holiday spirit through singing these songs, what an opportunity and gift for me to be able to do that.
“Music is music. My job as an artist is not to judge the material, my job is to interpret the material and let an audience judge.”
That’s a pretty darn mature attitude. And it’s something the Lustig has learned over her relatively short career that has taken across her home nation and now into this one.
Why is she coming here? “I’m still trying to get to the bottom of it. I know the conductor of the concert Rei Hotoda (who is also making her NAC debut) requested to work with me.
“We haven’t met but I really admire her work. She does a lot of contemporary music in the U.S. and that has always been a passion of mine. I am looking forward to meeting her, working with her and finding out how she heard of me.”
She is also excited to get to Ottawa for the first time. “I hear orchestra is top-notch. I seem to have lucked into this gig.”
The life of a freelance singer is by definition an itinerant one. Lustig often works in the New York City area, where her home is these days.
“I grew up in southern New Hampshire in Nashua and when the time came to go to school I was accepted to The Juilliard School and moved to New York. It is where I always wanted to be — the heart of everything or so it seemed to a kid.”
She picked up an undergrad and Master’s from Juilliard and started work with the City Opera in the Big Apple and and then in Pittsburgh with the opera company there.
These days she’s a freelancer so it helps that “I do enjoy travel. I am a huge foodie. So I love to research spots in cities and getting to know personality of each town I am in. Each place is so unique.”
She’s also learned all the tricks of the trade to save a buck or two on the road. The wonders of a hotel microwave do beckon from time to time.
She has a student from the Ottawa area named Michelle Daly who has offered insight. Lustig teaches privately and with the Bard College prep school in New York.
Having been helped by her own teachers along the way, she feels an obligation to “pass the knowledge along. Teaching absolutely makes me a better singer too. When you are teaching something you see it in others can improve upon it for yourself.”
Right now she is busy with her performing career. That’s pretty typical of the holiday season. But there are slow times too.
“There are moments in my life as a performer when I travel a great deal, but there are also moments when things are very quiet and I stay home for a long time. You have to get a balance. You have to learn how to make life fulfilling on the road and at home.”
You also have to step back and realize that there is a pendulum to performing and that it won’t always be busy.
Knowing this is one reason why she doesn’t specialize. You can find Lustig performing opera, recitals, pops concerts, you name it she can do it. She’s even sung with a ballet performance danced to music by Richard Rodgers.
“I love variety. It made it really hard as a young artist starting out and hard in school too. Everybody really wanted me to specialize but I do think that is changing.
“With way the performing arts have evolved and the way internet has played a part in that, it behooves an artist to have more skills at his or her disposal. To have variety in the skillset can only help you. I can only expand the vocabulary.
“I say to my students that you want as many paints in the palette as possible so when it comes to make something you have all the colours to choose from.”
Lustig started in musical theatre as a child. Then she was introduced to classical music and “that became interesting from a very intellectual point of view. Singing always came naturally and it was a joyful way to express myself. Classical music gave me a fantastic intellectual puzzle. And certainly modern music is an extension of that.”
The first opera she ever saw was Little Women by Mark Adamo.
“I had teacher who was in a production at The Glimmerglass Festival. My folks piled us in the car. My brothers went to Cooperstown and the baseball Hall of Fame I went to the opera. And that was it.” she was hooked.
She did go to Hall of Fame herself many years later when she was performing at Glimmerglass.
“They put me on the Baseball Hall of Fame concert and put me in a baseball uniform. I looked like someone from the movie A League of Their Own.
Her mother knew Meredith would be a singer of some sort when she would fall off her bike and hurt herself.
“I would scream so loud all the neighbours would come out to help thinking someone was being abducted.”
Her parents, even though they were musical, were very supportive.
“When I got older they drove me to lessons in Boston every Saturday.”
Thats the kind of support that gets you to schools such as Juilliard.
“I loved my time there. I was lucky. I was in a class of 10 for four years. Our group got along well but that’s not the case for every class.”
She says she never felt the pressure of competition. “But that’s not to say there weren’t moments of jealousy and comparison but I never found myself wishing ill on anyone.
“There were teachers who made me cry and who put me through the ringer. They pushed me and I learned so much. It makes for great war stories.”
It’s also training for a hard road ahead, she said.
“Learning to deal with rejection is a lifelong study. I get rejected all the time. I tell my students constantly there is no end to hearing the word no, but it’s the way you receive that and move forward that matters.”
Her advice: “Always eat what is on your own plate. You can’t compare yourself to other people and say ‘I want to have what they are having.’ Their experience is theirs. What things look like on outside are often very different on inside.
“For me, I look at the things I have with gratitude and then say where can I go from here? What will make me happy as an artist?”
It has taken time to have this attitude and the help of her partner who is an actor and singer.
In Ottawa she’ll be singing some holiday favourites.
“I don’t get to pick the repertoire. I have not made it to that point but there were a couple of songs that I wasn’t familiar with on this program. I had never heard of the Hawaiian Christmas song Mele Kalikimaka for example. That was fun to come across a standard that’s new to me.”
She has done a lot of Pops concerts and her take on singing standards is that “first of all, they are beautiful songs. The fact we hear them all the time doesn’t tarnish how beautiful and timeless they are.”
Holiday Hits with the NAC Orchestra
Conducted by Rei Hotoda featuring Meredith Lustig and the Cantata Singers of Ottawa
Where: Southam Hall
When: Dec. 12 – 14 at 7 p.m.
Tickets and information: nac-cna.ca