Sharon Azrieli sang her first solo in Grade Two in Hebrew school in Montreal.
She doesn’t remember the name of the song but she is pretty sure it was a prayer. No matter, she had already been bitten by the music bug.
And despite life’s ups and downs, she still burns with the desire to sing.
Azrieli makes her NAC debut this week in a concert performance of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. She’ll sing the role of Marcellina, who is suing the wily servant Figaro for spurning her and breaking his promises to her.
On the day Azrieli spoke with ARTSFILE she was walking her seven year old schnauzer cross Toby along Mackenize Avenue in Ottawa.
“I have had such a funny career. It has taken many meandering paths.”
Azrieli wanted to be a singer, she said, but her father, David, wasn’t keen. He said that if she wanted to pursue such a life he would not help unless she got into The Julliard School.
So she put her head down and got to work on her singing. She left Montreal at 17 to study art history at Vasser College and then she studied at the Parsons School of Design in New York to develop skills that would pay the bills while she prepared for her bid to enter one of the world’s great music schools. Along the way she also started to design jewelry.
She auditioned for Juilliard three times. The third was the charm and she entered Juilliard where she studied with Ellen Faull. That led to more instruction in Israel with Joan Dornemann. The track was set on a career in opera.
It all started well with Azrieli picking up roles such as Juliet in Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, Mimi in La Bohème and Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro. Then life intervened.
“I wanted to have children. That is a choice that a lot of women have to make during your most wonderful singing years.”
She doesn’t regret her decision.
“I am so grateful that I have wonderful children who are now wonderful young men. But you can’t do everything, as my mother once told me, you just can’t.”
Along the way her first marriage fell apart and Azrieli’s musical journey took another turn.
In fact it was a metaphoric turn to her past. As a young person she had studied at Hebrew school and knew the language. She also knew much about the synagogue service.
She thought she might be able to work as a cantor in a synagogue.
“I had gone to Hebrew school and I had studied all the prayers.”
She realized that in New York (where she was living then) a female cantor was common. It was less common in Montreal.
“I went to school and became a cantor. I got a job in Montreal and I was the first female cantor in the city’s history. It saved my life.”
Azrieli has continued to sing professionally. Her voice has matured and darkened over the years and that has led to roles such as Aida.
“And now here I am singing Marcellina. I never thought I’d be singing that.”
People call her a mezzo but she doesn’t. “I call myself a falcon (soprano).
“I never liked high C. I always had a terror the high C. I did have them for Aida but I didn’t like them.”
Marcellina is a character role. This the time of life she is in now.
“That’s the beauty of Mozart. He wrote appropriate music for every voice at every age.”
Unfortunately she’s not singing Marcellina’s aria in her NAC shows. The opera is long and it is often cut.
“It’s a shame. I hope the next time I sing Marcellina I do get to sing it.”
The aria features Marcellina singing about the mistreatment of women by men, a topic that is very #MeToo. The Marriage of Figaro was radical when it premiered in 1786 in Vienna, three years before the French Revolution. It is a satire that pokes fun about an arrogant aristocracy and was part of the rising tide of anger that would eventually sweep across Europe, especially in France.
Azrieli is singing with a fine cast that includes Pembroke’s Joshua Hopkins as Count Almaviva, Erin Wall as the Countess, Andriana Churchman as Susanna, Katarzyna Sadej as Cherubino and Gordon Bintner as Figaro.
In addition to singing, Azrieli runs a couple businesses including a design and architecture magazine called Home in Canada for which she does some of the interviews including recent chats with Ottawa native Karim Rashid and the legendary Frank Gehry.
But she still has a fire in her belly for music.
“All the great artists I have met still have it at 90. Once you have it you have it. It is what makes us live.”
In addition to her NAC debut, Azrieli has recently had her debut on the stage the Lincoln Centre in the Metropolitan Opera production of Suor Angelica by Puccini. Last November and December, she played Suor Dolcina, another character role.
“Here I am, after all these years, having a resurgence in my singing career and getting roles as the funny lady on the stage. I’m having a good time.
“Going out on that vast stage and hearing 5,000 people laugh it is a thrill that cannot be adequately explained.
The Met debut coincided with Placido Domingo’s 50th anniversary with the opera in New York.
“He was such gentleman. What a time to be at The Met,” she said.
Azrieli said that when she got the part she immediately lost 20 pounds which caused some consternation in rehearsal.
But, she was unrepentant. “I’m damned if I was going to go and be the fat one at the Met.” When she showed up for rehearsals “they said, ‘You’re too skinny. I said, ‘It’s OK I’ll be fine’.”
The state of opera in Ottawa and globally is troubled.
Azrieli says she is “trying to do what I can to help. I think the starting point has to be getting music back in the schools. Music is so important for a child’s development.
“You also have to get entrepreneurial,” she added, noting the smaller companies such as Toronto’s Against the Grain that have started up.
Azrieli does has the ability to help. She sits on the board of The Azrieli Foundation. “When my father died the family foundation was giving two per cent to music. It is now at seven per cent” and mostly because of Sharon’s fire.
The foundation has created important and valuable music prizes in recent years, one of which was won by Ottawa composer Kelly-Marie Murphy in 2018. The first two prizes created were for Jewish music new and already composed and a third is for new Canadian music. Azrieli says she is currently working on a fourth prize.
“I am all about music and art,” she said.
Going forward, she’ll be singing Liu from Turandot in St. Eustache and Rimouski Quebec and then later she’ll be performing in Sicily and then in Poland and the Czech Republic.
She’ll also be moving in a new direction in a recording with Broadway composer named Frank Wildhorn early next year.
With typical enthusiasm, she says, “I love Broadway. Even though I have opera work lined up, I am thinking I will move into Broadway over next two to three years. It’s so much fun.”
Mozart’s Figaro in concert
Where: Southam Hall
When: June 12, 14 at 8 p.m.
Tickets and information: nac-cna.ca