Ottawa Choral Society: Wallis Giunta sings a Messiah with a difference

Wallis Giunta. Photo: Kirsten Nijhof.

Wallis Giunta has sung more than a few Messiahs but never quite like the one she’ll perform with the Ottawa Choral Society on Nov. 30.

The mezzo won’t be telling the good news to the people of Zion in this show. She’ll be singing about a great light coming to the people who live in darkness and announcing that the trumpet shall sound.

What the? Those are normally bass solos. She can thank the OCS music director Jean-Sebastien Vallée for this opportunity. In this Handel’s Messiah, the soloist roles are reversed with the soprano and tenor exchanging parts too.

For Giunta, this fulfills a secret desire.

“I have always wanted to do a Messiah where I got to sing some of the (male) arias. It’s going to be the first time I have done it. I have sung the soprano arias with the choral society in Regina,” she said. In that case a snow storm meant that the soprano didn’t make the show. Giunta sang both female parts.

“But I have never been able to sing the gentlemen’s arias and that was a very enticing offer.” The timing worked too because she was in Canada singing a recital in Toronto.  “It all lined up to make it work.”

She said that she sings Handel’s male arias in her living room at home.

“This is the out-loud version of what always goes through my head when I am performing Messiah, listening to the bass and wishing I could join him. It will be very satisfying to not have to hum them quietly while someone else gets all the glory.”

It’s not a crazy idea to swap these roles.

“We share same general tessitura. It’s the same with soprano and tenor.” In this performance there aren’t any transpositions of notes, she’ll simply sing an octave higher.

“It’s actually easier for a mezzo. A lot of basses, if they have the plummy low notes, can struggle with the high notes. A mezzo has to have a larger range. It comes with territory. I can use my chest voice for low notes and the high notes are not that high.

“I think I have an easier time singing the bass role than the guys would singing my normal part.”

She’s never heard of a Messiah sung this way. She likes the experiment.

“It’s a perfect piece for this. If you look at text there is zero correlation between text and what gender the singers are.” That makes for an interesting message for our time about being open to new identities and gender roles.

“I do this a lot in my own choices of songs for concerts. I am rather irreverent about whether a song is for a man or woman. I think ‘Is this a story I want to tell?’

“It doesn’t make any sense to say I can’t sing (Schumann’s) Dichterliebe because I am a woman. Maybe when Schumann was writing it wasn’t possible for a woman to sing these songs. Today it is.”

She often performs Songs of Travel by Ralph Vaughan Williams “because I identify so strongly with it. It’s about a person who lives an itinerant lifestyle on the road away from family and longing for their company. That is my identity.

“There are gender references and I can make changes or leave them in. More than 50 per cent of my opera roles are pant roles anyway. I’m a drag prince” and seemingly unafraid to break down the conventions that lock people in.

“They don’t really have a place in our time,” she said.

She’s even sung the role of the Queen of the Night in a performance of Mozart’s Magic Flute with her friends Elizabeth Bowman (who is now Giunta’s PR representative) and Joyce El-Khoury at uOttawa where all three were studying. “I was 18 and I had no idea what my voice type was then.”

Giunta is always looking for a chance to sing in her home town and she has a particular loyalty to the Ottawa Choral Society.

“They were one of very first organizations to acknowledge me as a young artist when I won their competition about 10 years ago. That meant a lot to me. It was a huge boost of confidence that helped me go forward.”

Forward indeed. She’s becoming a bit of an opera star from her current home base of Leeds, England with her partner, who is a musician and professional choral singer.

“Leeds is awesome. It’s a good size — not too big so you can have a good quality of life but at the same time its very culturally rich. There are three national dance companies and the biggest opera company (Opera North) outside London. There is a symphony.”

It’s also easy to travel to London and beyond for gigs which these days mostly involve opera.

“My career has been heavily opera lately. But I’m just about to do a little flurry of recitals including a recent one in Toronto and a few in Australia.

She was in operas in London, in Edinburgh at the famous festival and most recently in Seattle in La Cenerentola.

Her recital program is a new one called Mother Dearest based on the idea of the Virgin Mary as a mother and motherhood in general.

“It started because of the Canadian song cycle called The Confession Stone by Robert Fleming, who is grandfather of one of my friends from summer camp. I’ve been singing that song cycle for a couple of years. It’s 25 minute character piece — a one woman opera.”

She wanted to use it as the cornerstone of a dramatic narrative about this woman and her story.

She is pleased to have some Canadian music to draw upon. Another cycle she uses regularly is Rufus Wainwright’s Songs for Lulu.

Her busy career does take her around the world. But that is “incidental to what I hoped. I wanted to have a career in which I was working in a way that really challenged me and helped me grow as an artist.”

She wants to work with colleagues who are better that she is and keep being exposed to new things. She doesn’t want to get stuck in an artistic rut.

“That was the goal. Keep it alive, meet new people and find new colleagues to inspire me. Moving around is incidental because that’s just what you do. In this career you don’t really have too much say in where you work.” Every now and then a contract will come that lands her in one place for a period of time, but that’s the exception.

“It can get lonely, but I put that aside. I don’t feel that loneliness is too much of a problem for me. I have been travelling for work since I was very young. I’m used to it. It’s the norm.

“What I feel more is real gratitude for the variety of places I get to go and the new friends I make all the time. I choose to be content in my life so I have to find the silver lining in what I have chosen.”

That kind of maturity comes with experience and with growth both vocally and a person. These days, Giunta is clearly more confident.

“My voice is getting bigger and darker. My range is expanding a tiny bit, but it hasn’t changed a great deal. But as a person I have changed. I have matured emotionally spiritually and that allows the repertoire and the artistry to grow more so than my voice growing.”

As a young singer she said she was “more about what I thought people wanted me to do and what I should look like and what I was supposed to sound like and act like. Now I really do follow my instincts and I’m led by my emotions.

“It’s more authentic. I trust myself and I really actually don’t give two hoots what people think and want from me — possibly to my detriment. Some directors might argue I should be more amenable to their ideas — if it works for me I do it. If not well, sorry, I’m the one out there in the stage.”

The Ottawa Choral Society presents Handel’s Messiah
Where: Church of St. Francis of Assisi, 20 Fairmont Ave.
When: Nov. 30 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.