Music and Beyond: Wallis Giunta gets ready for a choral Christmas

Wallis Giunta. Photo: Gerard Collett

When it comes to building a music career, you need a musical community. Just ask Wallis Giunta.

The striking mezzo-soprano from Ottawa has made her way in the opera world on the strength of a musical family home, the help of a great teacher and a very special choir director.

Wallis’s father Mike was an on air personality at CHEZ-FM for many years and would often take his children with him when he went to introduce performers before concerts.

That’s how Wallis got to mingle backstage with the likes of Aerosmith. At home, her musical curiosity was fed by piano lessons and her father’s massive record collection. She was exposed to music of all kinds from Duke Ellington to Maria Callas. It was listening to the great diva, though, that convinced Wallis she had a voice.

“I started to sing along and felt I could pick up what she was doing. I remember being surprised my voice worked that way. It just kind of fit.”

When the young girl turned eight years old, auditions were being held in her school for the Ottawa Children’s Choir.

“I said, ‘I want to do that.’ I was really keen. I practiced O Canada and I just sold it.” She got in even though she was too young. Wallis, who is named after her great-grandfather Wallace and who also had red hair, was not to be denied.

These days, she’s singing her way across Europe from her base in Leipzig, Germany, where she is on contract to Oper Leipzig until the summer of 2019. But she is often home to visit with family and to perform. Thursday night she’ll be singing in Music and Beyond’s annual Christmas concert in Dominion-Chalmers United Church. And she is relatively free to keep other singing commitments.

One of those has led to a nomination for the What’s On Stage Best Breakout UK Opera Artist for her work with Opera North in Leeds, England, this past year. (You can vote for her if you choose.) 

Giunta loves Leipzig, which she calls an up-and-coming place. It is the hometown of J.S. Bach, whose music she enjoys singing.

“Last summer I did the B minor Mass with Music and Beyond and next year I will be doing his Magnifcat with Opera Leipzig.”

After her contract is up, she says she hopes to maintain a connection with Oper Leipzig but also to continue expanding her musical network to other places.

“I could stay in Leipzig,” she says, even without a contract. “The cost of living is so low. And I would be very happy not to travel, but I crave opportunities to challenge myself and to grow as an artist by working with new people in different situations and different languages.

“I also want to sing new repertoire as much as possible. There is a certain amount of growth you can achieve in that situation and I have sort of maxed out on that.”

At the opera house, many of her colleagues aren’t German. There are two Canadians, two Koreans, two Swedes, an American, one Ukrainian, one Greek, a Finn, an Icelander, an Israeli, one from France and an Italian. The common language is English.

Where she ends up is anybody’s guess.

This week she’s singing something from Messiah, a piece from Mozart’s Mass in C and a Brahms lullaby in the first half of the evening. The second half is carols when she will be singing with the Ottawa Children’s Choir.

“For me that’s the best part. I started with the choir. It was everything for me. It’s the reason that I became an opera singer.

Wallis Giunta and Barbara Clark.

“When I was 12, the choir conductor Barbara Clark suggested I take private lessons. She connected me with Charlotte Stewart, who was my teacher 12 until university.”

Clark also got her involved with the Opera Lyra youth chorus in a performance of La Boheme at age 14. And by age 16, after leaving the Children’s Choir, she joined the adult chorus for Madama Butterfly.

“That was the first time I got a taste of what it felt like to be a proper opera singer. And it’s all thanks to Ms. Clark.”

That kind of support network was absolutely vital, Giunta says.

“I knew that I wanted to sing and that I loved it but I didn’t know really much about opera or what it would mean to me. I hadn’t experienced it in that way.

“It was important that I did. If she hadn’t connected me with them, I’m not sure that I would have gone in that direction.

“I had other interests. I really loved musical theatre. I had been doing quite a bit of that with the Orpheus Music Theatre. I was in a jazz band. And I did a lot of folk singing with my sister. We were just writing songs and going to coffee houses and open mic nights.

“But I think I found the right thing. It was like ‘I need to do this’.”

Christmas with Music and Beyond
Where: Dominion-Chalmers United Church
When: Dec. 21 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.