28 Aug 2007
An Interview with Canadian mezzo-soprano, Kimberly Barber.
Uncut with Canada’s Mistress of the trouser-role: the multifaceted Kimberly Barber.
Uncut with Canada’s Mistress of the trouser-role: the multifaceted Kimberly Barber.
KITCHENER, ON, 18 August 2007
By Mary-Lou P. Vetere
In 1999, I had the distinct pleasure of attending the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Handel’s Serse and it has remained concretely in my opinion and otherwise, one of the truly magnificent Canadian performances. Much of this weighs on what had been the sensitivity, dramatic and vocal prowess, and down right sexual appeal of mezzo-soprano, Kimberly Barber. Her portrayal left audience members in awe of her solid and beautifully lyric voice and the passionate delivery of her phrases, but more so because one tended to forget that underneath those trousers and the well-manifested male mannerisms, il Ré amoroso was really a woman. Since then, Barber has established herself as one of Canada’s operatic treasures, gracing the stages of the major Canadian and international companies; yet equally at home on the concert stage and in the recital hall. Her career combines the standard repertory but also contemporary and baroque works. Most recent praise has been for her portrayal of Charlotte in Massenet’s Werther with Vancouver Opera, and her creation of Jessica in the world premiere of John Estacio’s Frobisher for Calgary Opera. She has been acclaimed for her role of Sister Helen in the Canadian premiere of Heggie’s Dead Man Walking and for her magnificent portrayals of Handel’s big-boys: Serse, Ariodante, Nerone (Agrippina), and Rinaldo. No one would argue that Barber is Canada’s “Mistress of the trouser-role.” And yet, on a whim she can transform herself, like a chameleon, into Puccini’s Suzuki or Rossini’s Rosina.
What is most impressive about her lies not merely in her operatic accomplishments, but the fact that she is also a reputable pedagogue, clinician, lecturer, adjudicator, and artistic consultant. She has been the Assistant Professor of Voice at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario since 2002, and as if that isn’t enough to add to her already busy life as a recording artist, and brilliant stage performer, she also holds the most important job of being a devoted mom to her two lovely daughters, Jana and Alice, and loving wife to her husband Markus Philipp. She garners respect from the Mecca of great Canadian singers that are gracing the world’s stages, and she is earning her right as one of the bright lights in Canada’s operatic history. If one word comes to mind to describe this multifaceted and brilliant artist, as a performer and as a person she is: larger-than-life.
On a beautiful, sunny Saturday morning, I sat with the fit, clad all in black, sunglasses to block the sun, and barefoot mezzo, under her apple tree (à la Serse) and embarked on what would be an enlightening and revitalizing couple of hours. Barber spoke freely and with impassioned fervor; so much so that I wish I could link this interview to a sound file so that one might hear how she speaks as expressively as she sings. In the truest sense of the word, she is an artist and her thoughts and ideas resonated with me for days after our conversation.
Mary-Lou: Kimberly, first, thank-you for taking the time for this interview. I’m sure the first question everyone wants to know is, “How do you do it all?” Your career doesn’t just consist of being a performer. You’re a teacher, a workshop clinician, an adjudicator, a lecturer, and a recording artist. Tell us, what drives you to do all of the things you do, and what has propelled you to continue in what is becoming a more trying business than ever before?
Kimberly: I think it’s passion for the art-form that drives me forward. I guess not just for opera but for the vocal arts. I think that my greatest passion has been kindled by opera. For some reason, it’s the height of the emotion and the intensity with which they’re portrayed. As a small child, my two favourite games, interestingly, were school and dress-up. So, I was either being a teacher or living in a fantasy world. And I loved dressing up in costumes and being different personalities. I think what I do now is a perfect marriage of those two things. You know a lot of life coaches and self-help or creative books that teach you how to tap into your creative self. They talk about going back to your childhood and looking at what it was that really sparked your passion, your creative passion. And so, I’ve done a couple of creative workshops of this sort and I looked back and thought, “Isn’t that interesting that those were my two games that I always played?” I think it’s that desire, on the one hand, to live in a fantasy world but to actually take on another personality and completely try to become that person which one does, of course, in a purely technical sense. I’m not really one of those people who says, “Oh yes, I became Erica, or I became Sister Helen.” I think you do become immersed in these roles by the more intense they are, but it’s very technical and calculated, in a sense…if you will, process; this complete dawning of another personality that I find continually invigorating and it sparks my curiosity. It’s that aspect and the ability to explore parts of my own personality and to perhaps bring out aspects of my own personality that might be dormant that is very stimulating for me. It’s the communication with the audience. It’s a desire to interpret works that excite me on many different levels, and bring them to others. And the teaching aspect, I find extremely invigorating as well because it’s a different way of communicating that similar aspect. You’re facilitating for others, be they young singers or even lay-people or opera fans who want to gain more of a window into what we do. It’s that idea of communication and inviting one’s own passion for the work that we’re doing.
In a large sense, it’s a passion to create a community. Whether it’s the community within the opera house, because I always feel that the great artistic performances, or rather, any live artistic performance can change your life; it’s this that we’re drawn to it and why we go and it’s different than seeing something in a movie theater or on television. When you have immediate contact with the artists, there is an alchemy that exists that can’t be replaced. And I feel that infusion every time I do that, and not only when I’m on the stage but also when I sit in the theater. Obviously, some performances stand far far above others and sometimes it’s hard to pin-point what the elements are that make those certain performances just stand out. It’s that interest, for me, in the community, in the human community. Whether it’s as a performer in the theater or as an educator, when I do my work as a clinician or if I’m asked to adjudicate a competition, or when I teach a workshop, that’s also a form of communication. It’s me interpreting for whomever I’m working with; not only the music but the art-form itself and trying to be a filter. I become the filter for those people. So, it’s that passion for communication and creating that community that gives me the energy to do what I do.
Mary-Lou: I think it’s interesting that you’re talking about your childhood and the influences that you’ve had even just with creative playing. Do you think that it’s becoming more difficult nowadays because many young children are staying indoors, attached to the internet, and attached to their cell-phones and such? Do you think we’ve lost a bit of that sense of fantasy and how does that affect, for example, your work with younger singers? Obviously you work with singers from a broad spectrum of ages. Does it affect their abilities and how can you change that?
Kimberly: That’s an interesting question. I think, for sure, that it does make an impact but however little they do it, everyone has some kind of fantasy creative life and it’s fed in some way or other by the challenges in our culture. Society today has made it so much more difficult for people to come into touch with that. I would say, probably the biggest problem I find in my teaching, or really a problem that affects people in Northern Western culture, is that we are fairly guarded emotionally and artistically. It’s sometimes, just in general, more difficult to draw people out of their comfort zone because they feel ashamed or that they’ll look silly or that it would be too much. I find that across the board though. I wouldn’t say that it necessarily has to do with the computer media culture. I think the thing I find most difficult in my students is to simply get them in-touch with their bodies because we’re becoming a culture that is more and more sedentary. When I think of my own childhood, of course we had television and at time it was seen to be the big evil, but when summer came we were never at home. We were always outside playing and I think also that our culture in the west has become much more overprotective of children and very controlling. There is very little opportunity for children to have unstructured, unorganized, unsupervised play which we had all the time as children. We live in a culture of fear which is highly churned up by the media. I don’t think that it’s real, by that I mean the fears are real and the facts of life are real; but often most of those fears we’re playing upon are not real. We are doing children a disservice in the way we’re raising them. I was very fortunate that my children were born in Germany and I was living in a community in which there was a lot of support for alternative education and my kids both went to a pre-school where they were outdoors almost all of the time and in all types of weather. I’m a very strong advocate of public education. I’m a really strong advocate of not having kids have their time planned all of the time. Sometimes this is a lonely road because many people are frightened. I understand their fears but I’ve always tried to buck that trend. I do that with my students as well. I really try to make them aware that they have to go their own path and try things, make mistakes, endanger themselves. It’s very hard as a parent to let your children go and I remember my obstetrician telling me that being a mother was a continual process of letting go from the first: through weaning, to the first steps to going to school, to puberty, to when they finally leave home, to when they get married, to when they finally do have children themselves. And, I found that was a very profound moment when he said that. I feel that if this is one of the things we can do as a race, as a species; maybe we can try to let our children go a little more and give them more freedom, to trust them more. There has been a lot of research done into childhood development for children to have major falls or almost life-threatening experiences. When you see children in their backyards wearing helmets, for heaven’s sake; I’m going into a completely different realm here, but what I see as a teacher of music is this out-of-touchness, this lack of independence, this inability to breakout of the mold. Just to go back to your question, what we need to do as a culture is to have a re-thinking of what’s important and are we really helping our children by protecting them and sequestering them so severely. Some of the most profound experiences I had growing up, were mostly things that I did on my own, things that were sometimes questionable in terms of safety and so forth. We all know in life that the experiences that often change us are extremely painful and sometimes we try to prevent our children from experiencing this. We don’t want our children to hurt like we have. I urge my students to push the boundaries and I think I do that to my audience too. Maybe for some people I think I’m too much in their face. Some people don’t want to be churned-up when they go to the theater. Sometimes they just want to have a lovely experience at the theater and then go home and put their head on the pillow and go to sleep, so maybe they better not come….(laughing)…that’s being too strong, but I do like to reach out and grab people by the jugular and shake them up a little bit.
“I do like to reach out and grab people by the jugular and shake them up a little bit.”
Mary-Lou: I disagree. I think that people should definitely come and get shell-shocked because this is the theater. We go specifically to immerse ourselves in a world that is completely different.
Kimberly: The most shock people get is watching the Sopranos. You know, “live a little,” would be my thing, and push your own boundaries a little bit. Try something that blows your mind. Who wouldn’t want to go to something and come back out and just be gob smacked speechless and say, “I had no idea that this existed.” It’s why we do all these thrill stunts that are extreme. We need to have an outlet for extreme emotions in our lives.
Mary-Lou: I agree, and I think that you push boundaries, not just in opera but in everything you do. You seem to stretch the limits of the norm and we need more of that. That being said, you base yourself not just in opera but in a number of other artistic genres. What do you enjoy the most? What personally gives you the greatest pleasure in a performance perspective, and how do you see yourself contributing to the overall international spectra of performance in this area?
Kimberly: That’s a difficult question. I mean, opera was really my first love once I got into the classical genre; before that it might have been musical theater or something like that. I was always interested in music, but I really got hooked on opera because of the level of intensity, of the emotion. You know when emotions get too big you sing them, kind of thing. I love the collaborative aspect of opera. In an opera production, when I’m working with colleagues that I love, with directors who are really questing to say something interesting, with conductors who just know the score inside out and who are interested in shaping details and making a statement, the give and take with the other players on the stage; when those elements come together on the stage, and granted they don’t always, but when they do that’s a real shot in the arm for me. For me, that’s the epitome. But I also love chamber music for the same reason. I love collaborating with my colleagues and learning from them and being fed by their energy. I find that extremely rewarding. I’ve had great musical and artistic experiences in every genre. For example, when I did the Duruflé and Fauré Requiems with Chung Myung-Wung and Bryn Terfel and the Academia di Santa Cecilia, it was a phenomenal artistic experience: the hall, the choir, the orchestra. That exchange of energy was phenomenal. I love doing Beethoven’s 9th, for instance. It’s quite a dull alto part and Jean Stilwell and I always say, “Just wear a nice dress otherwise everyone will forget you.” But, it’s such a great experience to feel that orchestral and choral sound behind you. It’s a life changing moment when you can be a part of that. My favourite thing is to sit on the stage for the full second half. I just love it. In recital, too, I find that collaborative work, especially during the rehearsal with your pianist particularly important. What I love in recital is that I often talk a fair bit from the stage and I learned that it makes that experience of being in the recital hall so vital and thrilling. Instead of standing on the stage and talking from above, it becomes a real communion and people come out being really changed. Afterwards, people come up to you and tell you how much more they related to the music and finally “got it.” The short answer to your question is that I love all genres. My greatest passion is opera, but I find all of the genres stimulating.
Mary-Lou: And, I think that you’re stimulated but from the audience’s perspective, your main crux when you perform is to stimulate us. We all become stimulated whether you speak or not because you sing expressively, just as you speak. You try to express and keep digging at us to get to the thorough point of your emotions and anyone that has seen you perform is often left with a feeling of (big sigh). There is something you exude on-stage, something that I call the “X-factor,” that indescribable something that a performer possesses that makes them individual and inimitable. It is very clear that you digest the notes on the page for us and especially with Handel and music that is somewhat infiltrated by coloratura and fioritura. Looking at the score from a musician’s perspective they’re notes on the page, but you digest those notes and when you project them to us, your listeners, you give them such a clear and emotional meaning that you become a transmitter, if you will, through which a composer speaks. If you had to offer advice to a young performer, about this type of intense musical process, this kind of deep musical communication, what would you suggest to them to promote a really thorough projection of musical process?
Kimberly: I think that the number one thing has to be the text. You really have to think about it and study it and really understand what it means to you. Obviously, you think to some degree why the poet chooses a particular word, but you have to know what it means to you. It’s not enough to wonder why the poet wanted that or why the composer wanted it. You are the vessel through which this work is being filtered. And so, you have to make a decision and have an opinion. I urge my students, “What do you feel about that?” I give them an exercise that they hate where I make them sing, for instance, a Mozart aria in English, in their own words or if they happen to be Romanian or French I get them to sing it in their own words in their own mother tongue. It’s quite astounding. I mean this is not rocket science and I’m not the first person to come up with that but it’s astounding how that simple exercise makes a difference…sometimes all they have to do is sing two or three phrases and they totally loathe it. They look at it and then they’ll laugh at themselves and they get flustered. Once they return to the original language, it somehow comes to life because they now understand what they’re saying and they have an opinion about it. They’re expressing. So come from the text and ask not just what it means, but what it means to you personally. “Why are you singing this?” You really have to care about the things you sing. Sometimes you’re going to be asked to sing things that you don’t particularly care about and you have to find a way to care about them because you’re putting bread on your table. Sometimes things are less meaningful for you but you have to make them meaningful or they will be boring to the audience. The other aspect is to explore your own emotional life. I go to movies and watch a lot of films. I read a lot and I go to as much theater as I can, and I love it. “Experience life as much as possible.” Travel, go to other cultures; push your boundaries in whatever ways you can. As an artist you need to have as many experiences as possible to draw on and that’s how you open up a world to the people in your audience. If you’ve experienced…you’ve sat on an Italian piazza and walked down the boulevards of Paris, if you’ve tasted Mole; whatever it is you can bring it to people listening to you and inspire them so that they say, “Oh, I love those Spanish tangos that she sang,” and they’ll go and take a tango class. The more young singers push their boundaries and expand their own emotional life, the more they’ll have to give as an artist.
Mary-Lou: And I think this is one of the reasons why you bring so many different aspects to roles that you’ve recently created like the role of “Jessica” in Estacio’s Frobisher and previously for the role of “Sister Helen” in Dead Man Walking. A historian of opera tends to look at the inception of new operas as a bit of an anachronism but also, I think, as a possible “new path” for study and performance aesthetics. Opera after 1945 is really an interesting and eclectic study and with Heggie’s contribution and new operas like Filumena and Frobisher do you feel that we are headed for a new aesthetic?
In the Canadian première of Estacio’s “Frobisher” as Jessica. (Calgary Opera, 2007)
Kimberly: Also an interesting question. I think so, probably. One thing I think about some of the contemporary works is that they tend to be extremely intellectual and I think the less intellectual you can be the better off you are, with opera. It’s not really an intellectual art-form; it’s an emotional art-form. The most successful operas are going to be the ones that grab you on an emotional level. It’s like they don’t even go to your analytical brain at all. It’s like they come up with a giant suction cup on your heart and they take you on this emotional roller-coaster and your just going, “AHHHHH!!!” You know, the ones that work the best are the ones that work on that level, whatever aesthetic they might have. For instance, Nixon in China, I’ve seen that work a couple of times and the scenes that work in that are the ones that are really emotional. There has to be a lot of story-telling and human stories. People like to watch people and that doesn’t matter whether it’s 2007 or 1693, people watch other people. We’re social animals and we’re interested in other people’s behaviour. We talk about other people all of the time. That’s what we do. That’s never going to change; it’s what turns people on. I mean, some people are interested in the story-telling aspects. I mean I’m interested sort of on an intellectual level but I want to know why that person did that. What was the motivator for that? What was the relationship between the two characters ‘cause I’m not getting that enough? I need to care about why. That’s, for instance, why Dead Man Walking works for me. It’s the chemistry between Sister Helen and Joseph. It’s the agony of the mother. It’s that fascinating triangle. I think that there’s something maybe that Jake could have done to bring that more to the fore. I think there are some absolutely heartbreaking scenes in that opera, heartbreaking. The sextet in the first act, there were so many rehearsals when we couldn’t get through to the end of that because it was so powerful emotionally. That opera works is because it enables you to have that kind of release and connection to the characters. It’s this sort of critical mass that comes together in that sextet, that whatever opinion you have about capital punishment, when you see what the lives are of those six people and how they’re impacted and how those lives relate to one another, it’s mind-blowing. You just think, “I never thought about that.” That’s the future of opera. It’s the way we have to go so that whatever musical or political aesthetic we have, that emotional component always has to be there. For me, it’s a constant. It’s also why Filumena works. It’s a simple story but you have protagonists with very very big stakes. It’s also why Frobisher, a much more difficult piece, works. There are some very big emotions in that piece and ideas but the Johns talked about how “making the stakes higher” was an important element for them. It’s a much less immediate piece emotionally than Filumena. It’s filled with beautiful and profound statements but a little less direct emotionally and that makes it more difficult. This might actually be the problem with our modern aesthetic, that we try to be so indirect. Can we find an amalgamation for our desire to be aloof and indirect, subtle or even vague, but with something that is packing a really powerful emotional punch, that’s telling real stories about real people? It’s why the Ring is so timeless. When I went to see the Ring last year at the COC, I was reconfirmed, much as I so love other operas. It is the ultimate art-work. It is so profound and all-encompassing. There’s the story of human-kind. Boom: four operas. That’s what keeps people going back. Why is Poppea still as current today as it was then, or Agrippina? We are fascinated by these characters because they’re so motivated by the gut by deeply human things: love, lust, quest for power. We need to find more of those triggers.
As Sister Helen in the Canadian première of Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking” (Calgary Opera, 2006)
Mary-Lou: I think it’s so interesting that the operas that have characters who end in downfall, like Salome and Elektra, are the most controversial operas but then we are drawn to them even more because we desire to watch, maybe as an educative warning about what to do and what not to do with our own lives.
Kimberly: Yes, and we’re almost perversely interested. Why do people go to public hangings? Why do people watch executions on YouTube? Why do we read the gossip problems in the paper, because we’re fascinated by it.
“The most successful operas are going to be the ones that grab you on an emotional level. It’s like they come up with a giant suction cup on your heart and they take you on this emotional roller-coaster and your just going, “AHHHHH!!!”
Mary-Lou: You mentioned the COC production of the Ring. Your career began around 1985 when you apprenticed for the Canadian Opera Company. How did that experience mold you and who were your significant mentors?
Kimberly: Well, of course, it was a fantastic opportunity and in Canada at that time there were very few opportunities for young singers to develop themselves beyond university. Just having that available was really extraordinary. Now there are programmes everywhere. It was a great experience to be involved in productions; generally as a secondary performer with really top-notch people. Lotfi Mansouri was a great mentor to all of us. He was really the grand-daddy of the current company. He brought it up to the international level. We had fantastic artists come through: Richard Leech, Joan Sutherland, Jerry Hadley, Carol Vaness when she started her meteoric rise. We had master-classes with Richard Bonynge which were quite extraordinary; he’s a wonderful teacher. Steven Lord was one of the head coaches at that time at the COC. I learned an enormous amount from him. Dixie Ross-Neill was there at that time and she really kick-started the ensemble into high gear. One experience was working with Dutch director Hans Nieuwenhuis. Wesley Balk, a tremendous educator who wrote three books that I draw a lot from in my teaching gave a two week workshop on performing techniques and that was life-changing for me: release inhibitions, breakdown blocks and entanglements, as he called them. There’s a bit of overlap with Alexander technique, but he broke down the singer-actor into three different components and he taught us to isolate those components and then recombine them. It changed my perspective as and artist. If there was one single “Ah Ha” moment for me, it was that. Also, Matthew Epstein came and did a workshop with us and taught young artists how to put together a package and so there were a lot of really good people that came through.
Mary-Lou: You are well-loved in this country and abroad for your portrayal of pant-roles. Tell us why playing a man is such a particular and dramatic feat, and this interview wouldn’t be complete without asking, “Who is your favourite character to portray?”
Barber as the Composer (Seattle Opera, 2004)
Kimberly: That’s always hard. I think my favourite character is the Composer in Ariadne auf Naxos, of the characters that I’ve portrayed, although that’s such a hard question. When you’re doing it you love whatever you’re doing. I mean I’ve loved playing Sister Helen, too. The Composer is so demanding. A lot has to do with timing and it’s very mercurial. He can be extremely romantic and philosophical and then he can be in a rage and in the depths of despair and all that can be in one phrase (laughing). So it’s very difficult when you’re working with a director on that, and I’ve had some very good directors that I’ve worked with. I love that opera and I love a lot of the things that the Composer says; they’re very profound. It’s thrilling to sing and I’ve had many great colleagues to work with and so I have a lot of good memories of that role. Playing pant-roles is really; well, I grew up in a family of two brothers and until I was 12 there were no girl cousins in the family and we have a pretty close extended family so I knew my cousins very well and we visited often and I really had to learn to get along with boys. Obviously, I had lots of opportunity to observe boys and their behaviour and even through high school I had a lot of good friends who were guys. In some ways I related to them better than girls just because I had to suck it up a little bit when I was little. I had no patience for cry babies and even if I wanted to be one I couldn’t because I would have been ridiculed (laughing). I had to play a lot of boy games and I was a bit of a jock in school although I did a lot of extra-curricular in school…lots of sports. I was used to being very physical and I just liked the challenge of gender-bending. I liked trying to portray that difference of sexual energy. But, it does propose a particular challenge and you know obviously you can never truly suspend disbelieve entirely. I mean everybody knows that you have a breast-binder on and that you’re being made-up to be a man and I actually really hate having to wear facial hair or sideburns. I try to resist it because we’re not fooling anyone. Everyone knows that I’m a woman but I want to get as far as I possibly can, to suspend disbelief. I think one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever had was a colleague who I saw a couple of years after Xerxes who said, “I wanted to write you a letter after that performance cause I wanted to tell you that I was really really attracted to you. She’s heterosexual right; she really believed that I was a man. I was very pleased by that compliment and that’s what I do try to project and I guess it comes naturally to me but I do think about my posture, my gait and the way I stand and gesture. It’s also the sense of male entitlement that this element has to be there; a sort of cockiness if you will that we attribute to women being too masculine or too ballsy and they sometimes give us the creeps a little bit, maybe.
As Xerxes for the Seattle production in 1997.
Mary-Lou: Well, there is no question that that performance…well, let’s just say that I don’t think anyone who was there will forget it. You also give a master class revolving around the theme of Trouser Roles called “Call me Mister: Defining the Trouser Role.” Are these all elements you talk about or do you discuss a certain methodology in this sense?
Kimberly: I do talk to the singers about what they can do posturally: how they sit in a chair, how they get up from a chair, how they stand, how they walk. There are some certain physiological things that you can do that are very technical that can help you to find where your weight is, where your center of gravity is in the body; a certain kind of stiffness in the hips. The way women’s pelvis are constructed we get that sway in our hips and men don’t have that. There are other things like the way women and men differ in the way they put on a coat. You learn by observation. Those are just a few little tips that I give to that class and I try to give them a certain freedom of being in their bodies more than how women feel they’re able to be physically in the world. It depends on the context of the class. The first time I did it was for the Vancouver Opera Guild. They had just done Rosenkavalier and there was a lot of controversy about these two women kissing on stage. The audience didn’t get why it couldn’t be a man and they didn’t understand the tradition of trouser roles. So, I talked about the history of where it came from and why that tradition existed originally in the theater and so forth. You know, I get really annoyed and have had arguments with directors and opera general managers when they say that it’s kind of titillating to have a counter-tenor play Cherubino. And I think, you know, Mozart would have rolled around in his grave, not to mention Beaumarchais. I mean, Beaumarchais really had specific reasons why he had a woman playing Cherubino and why he wanted that quality and I feel very strongly about that. It’s very trendy at the moment to have counter-tenors in everything and there are many wonderful ones around and so I can understand that, but I think there is certain repertoire in which it is just not right to let that happen.
Mary-Lou: I agree. You also have a workshop called “Finding Your Individual Voice. Since you’ve been teaching for several years now and many of your students have gone on to opera programmes, festivals, and Masters programmes. What can you tell young singers who are searching for a career in opera or starting to hone their skills at finding their own voice?
Kimberly: I think what I’m trying to get at with that workshop is “What do you want to say?” I mean first of all, “Who are you?” Who are you as a singer and what is particular about you that makes you different and would make me want to listen to you rather than the person standing next to you? Each of us has our own unique self and set of experiences and filter with which we perceive the world. I use a lot of different exercises and techniques to try to get the singers in touch with that and to go back to the very beginning of the interview where we were talking about text and communication and say, “What is it that I want to say? Not, what do I think the director wants me to say or what do people in the audience want me to say.” Those are all interesting things to think about but what do I want to say as an artist. That’s a complaint that people often make about North American singers. They tend to be very well-trained their languages are good, they sing well, they look good, they show up on time, etc…but they don’t project anything unique and sometimes you can’t tell one sound from another. It all just sounds generic, just a pleasant, generic North American sound. That’s one of the things I loved about working alongside Kassarova. She’s just so fiercely not cut from any mold; or Kirchschlager, working with those ladies. They’re just making their statement and they’re not just sitting there saying, “Here I am making my statement,” they’re just doing what they do. And if someone says, “why did you do it like that?” or “that was an ugly sound,” they don’t care. That’s just their truth. They’re singing the truth that’s inside of them and I really learned a lot singing alongside of them and it was thrilling. I really try to encourage young singers to stop trying to be right all of the time. There is no right. There are certain stylistic parameters that should be respected…but maybe not. I don’t know. Who am I to say? Try it out for yourself and see if it really is your truth or if you’re just trying to provoke something that’s different. The crux of my workshop is to get people to experiment and move your boundaries. For the most part, people are just relieved to have permission to do something crazy.
“Singing the truth that’s inside of them.”
Mary-Lou: You are also the coordinator of the Voice programme at Wilfrid Laurier University. What goals do you have for that program and how are you establishing your position as a pedagogue in Canada?
Kimberly: Goals for the program: I have a really great set of colleagues there. I would like to see if we can go along and attract other pedagogues to the programme. At the moment we’re at a state where we have a good cadre of teachers. It’s a good atmosphere there, very collegial and we’ve begun to create an atmosphere of exchange, and we share lots of discussion and idea sharing. I think it’s very positive and I want to grow that. I think there’s some interesting areas of research I’d like to explore, pedagogically, that I’d like to pursue and I want to involve my colleagues in that. I’d like to see Laurier become a kind of think-tank for pedagogy and pedagogical innovation. I apply a lot of the techniques that I use in my workshops and use physical work; my colleagues do so as well. I’m encouraging them to be as creative and innovative as possible. We’re all interested in creating total artists not just singing machines. The other thing that I would like to see grow at Laurier is the Opera programme. At the moment, because of the size and budget at our school it is difficult because we don’t have much of a budget but the size also allows us to rely on undergraduates. Our undergrads get to sing leading roles in the excerpts and in the opera we put on. This is all before they graduate and most don’t get a chance perform a role until grad school. It would be wonderful if we could get a great performance space, but the one thing that the space we have has allowed us is to be creative in our productions. I’ve always been fascinated by minimalist productions; by that I mean productions that focus on characters and their relationships and not so much on production elements. I know it’s possible to really engage people in a powerful way and what we try to do, at the moment, is wow people by effects. It’s quite exciting with the innovations of theater technology nowadays, to see live explosions on stage but it costs and exorbitant amount of money. When I go to the theater what I’m really interested to see is the story and how the characters move within it. That’s one of the things that is great about Laurier, it forces the students to learn that it is possible to present vital and interesting theater on a very small budget. It teaches you to be resourceful and use your imagination. I would love to see us get a wonderful space to work in with a pit and I would love do productions in an edgy, interesting, exploratory, creative kind of way. This is how you can really bring opera to the people.
Mary-Lou: True, and I think that’s really what we’re lacking today; the concept that really drives opera is the characters and more than anything, the voice. And speaking of that, let’s talk about the current caliber of singers and performances in Canada and abroad. Do you feel that we are progressing on a technical and dramatic level, or do you feel that is a sense of mediocrity than what we’re willing to accept? If there is, what do you think causes it and what can we do to change it?
Kimberly: (Laughing) I don’t know, I think that’s interesting. You know, on some levels, Canada is producing an extraordinary number of world-class singers which is really impressive noting the size of our population. Just think about it? The generation starting from Judith Forst, who’s still very active professionally. She’s probably one of the senior members of our clan and then moving through John Fanning and Jean Stilwell and myself. Our generation: Russell Braun, Michael Schade, Isabel Bayrakdarian, Jane Archibald…I mean it’s an endless list of singers: Brett (Polegato), Ben (Heppner), Richard (Margison), James (Westman), Gerald Finlay, Philip Ens and of course Adrianne Pieczonka (I don’t want to forget anybody)…it’s really quite amazing. Yes, there is mediocrity. There always has been but I think it goes back to something we were talking about before, blandness. There was a really interesting article in the Globe (and Mail) that I cut out awhile back and it was called: “We aim to passively suffice.” It was a plea to Canadians to stop accepting mediocrity and I think there are those of us who are trying to do that but as Canadians we’re sometimes too apologetic and we’re afraid to not be right. As an artist you have to be absolutely fearless and I tell my students this all of the time. You cannot be afraid; it’s part of the deal and contract that you make when you want to be an artist. We have to train our students to be fearless.
Mary-Lou: What about the public?
Kimberly: I think that the public doesn’t really know what they want. They just don’t get their buttons pushed often enough. If they were getting their buttons pushed more often they’d really notice the difference between this and that. They’d say, “I think I like that one better. I like the one where she made me feel more uneasy and crazy.” I think people need to be shown more. We’re too safe and too unobtrusive. People can sit in front of a DVD player or CD player and sit safely at home and so we have to shoot them off their armchairs and force them to get up. We have to be different.
Mary-Lou: I think that’s really interesting. I was going to ask you about the way that opera is perceived by the general public. Awhile back it was more an issue of social strata or class but I don’t think it’s this so much anymore, it’s really a problem of people having a hard time accepting those types of emotions and being penetrated by them. Everyone feels safer by being in their comfort zone whereas if someone came to see you in Serse and had no idea what the opera was or they were a first time opera goer, it would have just blown their mind.
Kimberly: One of the key elements of that production was that it was in the vernacular; in English with surtitles in a great translation by Steven Wadsworth and it was a very simple set; fabulous costumes, but a simple set. A house front and tree so that the audience could focus on the characters and that’s what got people. They really got the story. Some people thought it was cheesy but we also came out at the beginning of the opera and gave a little mission statement, kind of, about who we were and what our character was. Mine was, “I am Xerxes, I am King. I want to be in love.” We’d always make jokes about it, you know, like “Hi, I am Kim and I am scared.” (laughing) But so many people came up and thanked us for doing that because it helped them to understand. We have to make opera accessible to audiences without dumbing it down. I always preferred opera in the original language until I did that piece in English and people laugh in the right places and I became a complete convert to that.
Mary-Lou: Kimberly, how do you balance teaching and performing and being a mom? (As Kimberly’s daughter Alice came and sat on the grass in her soccer uniform, fresh from soccer practice, eagerly listening to her mom’s commentary on this question).
Kimberly: It’s a constant balancing act. I’m very grateful to my family for understanding my craziness. I have a wonderful partner and my children are very supportive and understanding of what I do. I have great support from all my family, from my mother, my mother-in-law who traveled with me a lot when my kids were little, from my sister-in-law, my full extended family who has come to countless performances. They keep me grounded and humble and they remind me continually of what’s real. I could come home in the evening from a performance and feel a little disappointed or something, and my husband and I would go into our daughter’s room and watch them sleep and say, “That’s real, the other stuff doesn’t matter.” And that’s really important and it ultimately also feeds you as an artist. I say to my students, “You’ve got to have a life.” It’s not just enough to have your art because what are you going to do when you’re old? You have to have interests and they have to be rich. That’s how I balance. I have a lot of interests and I have a rich family life and also my family allows me to do what I do. It’s kind of like my performing feeds my teaching and my teaching feeds my performing, a sort of symbiotic relationship.
Mary-Lou: You’ve accomplished so much already, and you have so much ahead of you still. What are your future goals and what projects are you looking to work at?
Kimberly: I sort of take it as it comes. I used to do a lot of five-year plan and things like that but I don’t do that anymore. It’s easier to respond to what’s happening and I’m starting to get some really interesting roles offered to me that really surprise me. I’m going to be doing the Canadian première of Marc Blitzstein’s Regina out in Victoria (British Columbia) in the spring and I’m reading it going, “Oh my God, she’s in her mid-50s and I’m not even 50 yet! This is terrible!” And then I read the play and realized what a gift it is to play this character that is larger than life, or to play Sister Helen. That was also huge and a real departure for me, really challenging but extremely rewarding. I don’t limit myself anymore. I let things surprise me. I’m doing a lot more consulting and adjudicating. I got called out of the blue to do the broadcasting of the Montreal Jeunesses Musicale Competition a few years ago and I totally loved that. I’d be interested in doing anything like that. I’d be interested in doing something more political concerning the arts: Canada Council or in an administrative aspect at an opera company. The sky’s the limit. The things I’ve had no expectations for were the things that were really fertile that sent me in new directions. I try to live for the moment and do the most with the things I’m doing right now. My husband is a great advisor and he’s always spurred me on to my dreams.
Mary-Lou: Would you like to say a few words about Richard Bradshaw and his sudden passing?
Kimberly: That’s an enormous shock. It’s kind of like a seismic, 8.6 on the Richter scale of the Canadian opera scene. No one was expecting this. He was such a force of nature on the Canadian operatic scene and what he did for that company for the last 18 years. The kinds of operatic productions, the innovativeness; it is incalculable that affect that his unbelievable doggedness and perseverance in getting the opera house done just completely changed the playing field in Canada. It really put us on the map. It was that opening night in the Four Season’s Center with Wagner’s Rhinegold that was one of the greatest moments for me, ever (crying)……He brought the whole orchestra up on the stage…people were crying, it was huge. It’s a terrible shock. In a way, though, he completed his life’s work. There’s something almost divine (voice breaking), um…because he created this thing and completed it and maybe now he left it for someone else to take on and take to the next stage. So, um, I always try to put a bright spin on something cause I know that my colleagues at the COC are absolutely reeling at the moment. They don’t know what hit them. From a practical perspective, who’s going to lead the company and for right now who’s going to conduct the operas that he was going to conduct? He was just such a steersman and it’s going to be very very difficult indeed to fill his shoes, no question. He was a great operatic statesman. He left us a legacy and he has the company absolutely on the right track, in their opera house and he gave us a face. They have 99% attendance and it’s all very positive…he left everything in a good state. He received the Order of Canada and received honours and was justly celebrated and so I feel that his importance had been justly recognized and so I think we can all feel satisfied in that respect. There will be post-humus awards but we have recognized clearly what his contribution was.
Mary-Lou: The multifaceted, Kimberly Barber, continues to amaze and enthrall audiences from coast-to-coast. I’d like to thank you for taking the time to speak with me and giving your long-time admirers and fans a glimpse into your perspectives, opinions, and persona. You are indeed a treasure in the Canadian opera scene and it has been my pleasure to interview you for Opera Today.
Kimberly: It was a pleasure to be interviewed, great questions, and thanks.
A Review of her solo CD, “Faustina Bordoni: Faces of a prima donna” (CBC Records) can be found here on Opera Today, as well as a recent live review of her performance in Elgar’s “The Dream of Gerontius, Op. 38.” for the opening of the Elora Festival. Also, please check out Kimberly’s website at www.barber.de for more on this fabulous performer.
October 26, 2007, 7:30: Recital with Pianist Peter Tiefenbach and special guests, Waterloo Entertainment Center
January 8, 2008: Recital with Pianist Anya Alexeyev, Cellist Paul Pulford and others. Music at Noon Series, Maureen Forrester Recital Hall. Waterloo, On.
February 7 and 9, 2008, Charlotte, “Werther” (Jules Massenet). Opera Ontario.