Music and Beyond: Shannon Mercer is suited to sing Baroque

Shannon Mercer Photo: Helen Tansey

To say Shannon Mercer is built for baroque music would not be overstating it.

The Ottawa born, Toronto resident has a soprano voice that is suited to the demands of the music of composers such as G.F. Handel.

“The truth is, when it comes to Baroque music, often it is your voice that makes the decision for you,” she said. “My voice as I was coming into this career was very suited to baroque music in its timbre, in the size of my voice and the agility of it, all fit the music,” she said in an interview before her performance in Handel’s The Triumph of Time and Truth. She will sing on July 8 with 12 choristers, 19 instrumentalists all led by Matthias Maute of the JUNO-winning Ensemble Caprice of Montreal in St. Joseph’s Church as part of the Music and Beyond festival.

With a facility for 17th century music also comes a compatibility with contemporary music, she said.

“It requires the same kind of musicality, a good ear and flexibility within the voice. I have basically done all kinds of music, my resume shows that. But as my voice is suited to Baroque, so is my spirit. And that’s also part of it.

“I really like the kind of freedom that I have felt within the music. As much as there are rules, and there are a lot of rules in Baroque music, I do feel  there is that freedom for me to do what I want. That is where I have felt the most comfortable.

“I was asked to do (the Handel) last fall. We just did it in Montreal to open the baroque festival there.”

In Montreal, the piece was performed without an intermission, which Mercer says she likes. Not so in Ottawa where there will be a break.

Still, it’s lucky to get to sing it twice, she said.

“To be able to do this type of work, which is so rarely done twice so close together, is really exciting.”

At 41, Mercer is approaching her singing opportunities with a new understanding of the realities of the music world.

“My life has really changed in past couple of years in terms of how much singing I’m doing.

“I don’t find myself working as much as I used to, so I have had to find other things to fill in my time. I ended up finding a regular job that I really enjoy and I have worked up the ranks. I’m teaching voice and piano on the side and also singing at a very high level. So there is a lot going on. It’s a very different life but I thrive on being busy.

“In a way my spirit is more content. I didn’t have a lot of down time, but when you have down time as a singer and you aren’t doing anything else you spend a lot of time thinking about not singing. That can drag you down. Being busy helps. Now I’m a more relaxed singer.”

She works for a Kiehl’s skin care store on Toronto. Ironically many years of managing her singing career has prepared her to help run a shop.

The store has also been very supportive of her singing career which can take her out of town for chunks of time.

One of the reasons for the diversification of her work life is that her voice has been changing.

“My voice is maturing and darkening. It is a natural progression but my voice has changed quickly and I was left with all this repertoire that I have for all these years and all of a sudden it wasn’t sitting as well.”

She took sometime to figure out how to adapt to her new reality. A Canada Council grant helped her examine what music might be a better fit going forward.

“I studied hard and I now have a better balance in life. In the last year I feel like the confidence I used to have is back. I am still a soprano. The agility is what has changed. When you have a light instrument it is easier to move about, but it’s not a bad thing it just has taken a lot of getting used to, figuring it out and being patient.”

Today the music world is always looking for the next shiny new thing, she said. That’s often a twentysomething with the kind of vocal flexibility that Mercer used to have.

“If you are 25, you get the gig,” Mercer said, “but good luck if you are still there in five years. It’s tougher now in the classical world which seems to have taken a cue from pop music. People think that opera singers are all old, but actually they are not. They are hot and skinny. They are all young and up and coming, but how long can you do that. The next group comes right behind you. Where does that leave me, I’m still singing really well.

“I am lucky that I have people (like her old friend Matthias Maute) on my side.”

“I don’t mean to spin it like I’m bitter. I’m not bitter at all.” She’s actually just being realistic.

“I have had a really good run and I’ve been really lucky I’m just on a different path right now. This is what I’ve got to do, so I do it. You get quite matter of fact about things.”

She got her job at Keihl’s when she was on her Canada Council grant. It didn’t cover all her expenses.

“I have good singer friend who had been working there for years. I happened to do a gig with them and said I was looking for a parttime job.That’s how it started.”

Mercer loves to come back to Ottawa to sing in front of her family.

“I went to Canterbury High School (where) I got exposed to lots of different styles of music. All my friends there were doing musical theatre and jazz and that opened me up. It gave me a more rounded view.” She went to McGill after that where she was exposed to early music and then off to Toronto for opera training.

Mercer was then accepted into the young artist program at the Canadian Opera Company for two years “and the rest is kind of history.” She has worked across North America and across the Atlantic in Europe in concerts, recitals and operas.

“I had a natural ability. My parents thought that because I was so busy singing around house they should get me into singing lessons.” At age seven she was taking lessons in Manotick from a woman named Joan Burnside, who saw the talent and took her on as a student right though to high school. She started working with the legendary mezzo-soprano and teacher Joan Maxwell Rempel at Canterbury and then went off to university.

“I’m not the kind of singer who is in her head all the time. I don’t sing at home, I don’t sing in the shower. I just sing when I need to sing. It’s my job and I love it.”

The Triumph of Time and Truth
Music and Beyond
Where: St. Joseph’s Church, 174 Wilbrod Ave.
When: July 8 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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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.