Music and Beyond: The very diverse career of soprano Jane Archibald

Canadian soprano Jane Archibald.

Diversify. If there’s a watchword that would describe Canadian soprano Jane Archibald’s vision for her career as she enters into her fourth decade, that would be it.

She has been a regular on stages in Europe and in North America including with the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto.

But today, from her base in Halifax, where she is raising two children including a five year old daughter named Audrey with her husband, the now retired tenor Kurt Streit, she says she is eyeing the potential of singing recitals and in concerts in a more diverse career.

And she wants to get the word out that “I’m not just an opera singer” and that she likes to sing at home in Canada.

So to that end she’ll be singing a recital with her regular pianist Liz Upchurch at the Music and Beyond Festival on July 7 and in concert singing the Mozart Requiem with Thirteen Strings, led by her old colleague Kevin Mallon on July 10.

The festival had asked about the Mozart role first and she countered with that plus a recital.

The appeal of a recital, and to a certain extent a concert appearance, is about another word: control.

“It’s a collaboration between me and the pianist. There is no hierarchy there. We have to work together. I love all the different formats I work in, but there is something quite freeing about the amount of artistic expression and leeway you have in a recital.

Another aspect is the time commitment.

“I have a five year old now. She no longer travels with me on road and opera contracts these days are two months at a time minimum. That’s a grind.”

She is quick to say she still wants to keep working opera. That’s deeply situated in her musical DNA.

But “the word diversify, we all understand that whether we are artists or not. We diversify our investment portfolio. It’s about balance.

Jane Archibald.

“I love opera. I would not be happy about giving that up. I love being on stage and soaking it up and giving my all. I like the purity of a concert performance where it’s just about the music and the I love the flexibility of recital.

“I’m hopefully at a stage in my career when I am able to cherry pick a bit more … and say no to this.”

Then she checks that. “I better not get too cocky or someone will come along to show me I have no control.”

So far it’s working.

Preparing a recital program usually means finding a good partner.

And she said she hadn’t really prepared such a thing since her university grad recital.

So she rolled up her sleeves and got to work with Upchurch and they have done a few in places such as Toronto in between opera gigs.

“It’s such a balm to my artistic soul. I have to do more of these. You can paint with such a variety of colour and text.”

In Ottawa, she’ll sing some Purcell, a Mozart concert aria, some Britten, Debussy, Richard Strauss, songs by the English composer Roger Quilter, Robbie Burns and some operetta.

It’s quite diverse. There’s that word again.

“I just pick my program and later people belatedly say that was quite diverse.” She does a clear reason why she is performing the music she is but really it comes down to a simple truth.

“The staring point is I like this. Let’s do this. You’d be surprised how much you can put together purely on ‘I like this’.

“When you sing music that speaks to you, you want it to speak to the audience too and you help that. The audience will feel if you love the music.”

Does she gravitate to certain kind of music?

“Part of it is what people tell you. You get told early on ‘Oh you are a Strauss singer. You go OK, you probably know better than me. Then you look into it and see if it’s true.”

That said “(Richard) Strauss is my jam. He fits like a glove for me. That’s not surprising. You hear a lot of sopranos say that he understood the soprano voice.

“With my high extension it always feel like a balm. It brings out really good technical singing in me.”

She does a challenge though, “so I just wouldn’t want to only sing one or two composers. I’d like to add more Verdi to my repertoire. I don’t sing enough bel canto. I think French opera repertoire would be a perfect fit for the size and colour and the way my voice works.”

She doesn’t sing much new music these days because that’s the way the career has gone.

But interestingly she got her musician’s union card singing a new work with Toronto’s Queen of Puddings Music Theatre in a show called Sirens which had in the cast Barbara Hanigan and Kristina Szabo.

She says she hasn’t spent much time in Ottawa. Her memories include a band trip in high school and a visit to see her sister in her 20s.

“I’m excited to bring my husband and daughter. He is a U.S. and Austrian citizen and it will be his first time seeing Parliament.”

She met Kurt a decade ago. Both were in Berlin singing with the Berlin Philharmonic.

“It was unexpected. Concert gigs usually last about seven days. You never think you are going meet anybody and make enough of a connection to pursue anything.”

But he moved quickly.

“He invited me to lunch the first day and we made most of the seven days. The stars aligned because he got time off and we continued to get to know each other.”

“I have dragged him to Canada and now he has retired in Halifax. He likes it here. He has taken up kite surfing and resumed his love of tennis. I’ll head out on road in August and he’ll look after Audrey.”

Archibald says it was a natural thing that she would marry another singer.

“The ease of knowing I don’t have to explain what I do and why I have to do it. He gets it. Even when it’s hard or stressful, he gets it. He did it himself. In his previous marriage, she stayed home and he travelled.”

As for Audrey, she has seen the world. She still travels with Jane occasionaly. In the fall she’ll go to Lyon, France and London. She knows how to travel and is eager to explore the world, Archibald said but “that may change.”

Her daughter is showing some interest in music but “we aren’t pushing anything. My mom waited until I asked. We are kind of following the same thing.”

Archibald grew up in musical home. Her father played piano by ear. She attended a school where the music teacher went above and beyond.

She started taking singing lessons at age 11.

She said she was serious about it right away but she didn’t get the stage bug. It was all about the music.

“I still hate to be asked to sing in someone’s living room. I know tons of people who do it, but I find it very uncomfortable to sing to someone who is two feet from your face.”

She also is growing increasingly impatient with the process of preparing for an opera. These days the opera gigs call for six weeks of rehearsal and Archibald doesn’t understand why.

“If an idea was more clearly stated by directors, perhaps they wouldn’t necessarily need six weeks of rehearsal.

“I have had them say ‘I don’t work that way’ but you can’t tell me that they don’t have some idea of what they want. They could communicate that.

“I feel sometimes we do a scene 17 times with all these little micro changes happening. As a result, sometimes you get to the piano general never having run the whole piece once.

“Every singer I know over the age of 35 has this feeling. You start out your career saying I’ll do anything. Then you don’t have a family and you don’t mind being on the road for six weeks of rehearsal. After awhile you’d like things to tighten out and be more efficient.”

Having practiced the profession for some time, Archibald is not worried about opera’s future.

“The material is golden. It will go through ups and downs but I just think it will survive and grow.”

She does worry about music and art education and how it is always the first to go from public school curriculums.

“People need to be exposed to music.” Once they do, she believes, they will love it.

The role she is most known for is Zerbinetta from Richard Strauss’s Ariadne on Naxos. The role also gave her career a shot in the arm.

In 2007, she got one of those calls. The woman singing Zerbinetta in a geneva Opera production was unable to carry on.

Archibald was a member of the Vienna State Opera chorus at the time and was tabbed to cover the role in Vienna later that spring.

“My agent called me and asked ‘Have you got it ready? Can you do it?’ I replied, ‘I haven’t got it ready but I really want to do it. Give me half an hour to look through the score and figure out if I would be insane’.” And she just said “Nothing ventured, nothing gained and I said yes.”

“I was only just starting out in Europe and Zerbinetta has become the role I have sung more than anything else. That was my first shot at it and it got rave reviews. There was a lot of coverage of it because Geneva is a big house and it was Nina Stemme’s first Ariadne. All kinds of people were coming to hear her” and they also saw Jane.

The break was a real door opener in Geneva and in Vienna and elsewhere.

Archibald is also living through opera’s #metoo moment. She believes that the revelations of misconduct are starting to change how opera works.

But she points to a more fundamental shift that is slowly, perhaps too slowly, happening.

“It’s all so interconnected with misogyny and the lack of female representation in places of power. We need women in positions of power in these places. We don’t need them to come and make a speech, we need it every day on a micro level and then things will shift.

“It’s shocking to me that it continues. That’s how blind people are and how ingrained it is. It’s painful time and the reckoning has to happen. Change is going to come because time’s up.”

Is she one of those women who would go into management.

“I’m not sure if I’m suited to it, but I sure am supportive of anyone who has an interest.” And typically she says, “never say never. I can’t imagine being on the road forever. There probably will be a second act for me but I’m not sure what it is at this point.”

Music and Beyond presents Jane Archibald (soprano), Liz Upchurch (piano) in recital
Where: First Baptist Church with Dominic Desautels (clarinet)
When: July 7 at 7:30 p.m.

Music Beyond presents a Mozart Gala
With Jane Archibald (soprano), Lauren Segal (mezzo-soprano), Owen McCausland (tenor), Alain Coulombe (bass), Studio de musique ancienne de Montréal, Thirteen Strings
Where: Dominion Chalmers
When: July 10 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.