Melody Courage has always loved singing.
“I started as a small child with dreams of being a pop star.”
Instead she has turned to a career as a soprano singing classical and contemporary repertoire. She was converted onto this musical path in a movie theatre in Comox, B.C.
“My inspiration is from the movie Philadelphia,” she said in an interview with ARTSFILE. “There is a scene where the lawyer played by Denzel Washington visits the character played by Tom Hanks, who has AIDS and has lost his job.”
Hanks was listening to Maria Callas in the scene and as a recording of the diva singing La mamma morta from the opera Andrea Chenier played in the background, young Melody “just started crying and thinking I have to sing like that.”
At the young Metis girl’s urging, her mom went out and bought a Maria Callas album that Melody wore out.
These days Melody Courage (that’s her married name; she was born Melody Mercredi) mixes an emerging singing career with a family business she shares with her husband in the Vancouver area.
That career is taking her to the stage of Southam Hall on Sept. 19 where she will sing the world premiere of Ian Cusson‘s Dodo, mon tout petit. But her journey to the big stage in Ottawa has been a test of her personal courage and determination.
She started singing lessons after her epiphany with La Callas and “I went on to compete in festivals and was winning. I felt a deep connection with classical music.”
She sang in children’s choirs and started getting solos. But then after high school the dream went slightly off the rails. She enrolled in Capilano College (today it’s Capilano University) to get some more grounding. The ultimate goal was to tranafer to the University of British Columbia to study opera and voice.
But to get into UBC you have to audition. She did that but failed to even get into the general music program at the university.
“I had very good grades. I still don’t know what it was.” So she enrolled as an Arts major and started taking voice classes too. She tried again and once again didn’t make the grade, although she did get into the general music program.
At that she said, “Screw this,” and auditioned for the Vancouver Academy of Music. She got in there and eventually finished a degree.
That landed her a spot with the Vancouver Opera chorus and she performed with them for the next few years. She was given some small roles and was in the touring ensemble one year.
Over the next 20 years she was teaching, working in other areas and getting a few singing roles in some Messiahs and some Mozarts. She even toured with the NAC Orchestra in B.C. in 2004, as a soloist in Vivaldi’s Gloria.
But then, in 2017, she landed the role of Native Girl in Missing, composed by Brian Currant with a libretto by Marie Clements. The co-production of the City Opera Vancouver and Pacific Opera Victoria is a story of missing and murdered Indigenous women.
That was a turning point.
And now at age 40, she says she has arrived at the right place at the right time. She’s landed with Domoney Artists in Toronto and all of a sudden Melody Courage is on a roll.
“As a young singer in my 20s and 30s I would have dreamed of having an agent, but I wasn’t ready for it. Today it feels that everything is now falling into place at a time in my life when I am ready for it.”
Missing is a challenging opera and as a Metis woman from British Columbia it was especially poignant.
“It was emotionally challenging. The nice thing about the process of doing that opera was that they had enough funding to have time to develop the character.
“I had the time to figure where it was all going and what the motivation was.” She worked with director Peter Hinton, the former head of English Theatre at the NAC.
“It was so emotional but I learned that I can cry and sing at the same time.”
It was also a relatively new experience singing a contemporary work.
“Brian’s writing was very challenging for me, but I loved it.” Now she’s hooked on new work.
That’s a good thing because she’s signed up for roles in a double bill this fall in Toronto. The co-production by Soundstreams and Signal Theatre features a one act opera with a libretto in Cree by Tomson Highway. The other is in the Sami language of Scandinavia and is called Gallabarnit. The Toronto-based actor, choreographer, director and educator Michael Greyeyes and Cole Alvis direct.
She has found that she likes singing in Indigenous languages. Missing was in English and the Gitxsan language.
“It’s another way to keep languages alive that are being lost.”
It’s also important, she said, to tell Indigenous stories.
“I feel, because of my heritage, I am getting these opportunities. I just turned 40 last fall and these days I just want to do things that are meaningful.
“I want to do things that I feel are rewarding.” That has meant turning down some roles.
Without her other income, she can be selective. She also is the mother of a six year old and family is important.
“I wanted to simplify things and so I am making the decision to do things that make me happy and that are meaningful.”
Such is the case with Cusson’s Dodo, mon tout petit. It was commissioned by the Canadian Opera Company and the National Arts Centre.
Cusson’s assignment was to write a new aria for the Canadian opera Louis Riel, replacing one that was part of the production created by the composer Harry Somers and the librettist Mavor Moore in 1967.
The original aria was sung by a young Metis women to her infant, and it opens Act Three of the production, as does Cusson’s. But the music was not Metis. In fact, it’s from a song that is sacred to the Nisga’a people of British Columbia. It is known as the Kuyas aria and its presence in the work was controversial and offensive to the people from which it was borrowed without permission.
Courage got a Facebook message from Cusson asking her if she would like to sing the aria in its world premiere.
“He said that (the mezzo-soprano) Marion Newman had recommended me. I have known her for years.”
She sent him a recording of her singing and then the NAC was in touch.
“I thought it was huge. It made me feel proud. This is amazing that this conversation was able to happen and that wrongs were being righted.”
Now, she said, “I just need to focus on the job and try not to get caught up in who is in the audience and who thinks what. If people want to discuss it afterwards, that’s fine. I don’t think I’ll be distracted.
“The piece is beautiful.” When this interview happened she had had the score for a couple of days. And she had met with Cusson in Toronto, where he is now composer in residence with the Canadian Opera Company.
She believes “it’s one of those pieces that will be in aria books because of how well it’s written.”
Now that she has an agent, she getting calls for work. But, she insists, “I will not uproot.”
Still singing is taking up more space in her life and that’s OK.
“I have a supportive partner. He’s excited too. It has kind of happened really fast. We have decided to give it a shot.” She organizing photo shoots and updating her social media.
“I didn’t imagine this would happen, but even if all I had was Missing that would also be pretty good.”
The National Arts Centre Orchestra presents an evening of Indigenous composition featuring works by Andrew Balfour, Barbara Croall, Ian Cusson.
Where: Southam Hall
When: Sept. 19 at 7 p.m.
Tickets and information: nac-cna.ca