Acclaimed for her powerful, charismatic solo performances, Canadian soprano Measha Brueggergosman, 33, has been described as possessing what “may be one of the great voices of the 21st century.” Since launching her career in 1998, she has performed with some of the world’s top orchestras in the most prestigious venues in North American and Europe. Last year, she survived a brush with death after a split aorta sent her to the hospital for emergency open-heart surgery. Now, fully recovered, Brueggergosman is back on tour, and promoting her critically acclaimed new recording, Wagner’s Wesendonck-Lieder, performed with Franz Welser-Moest and the Cleveland Orchestra. She spoke with Canadian Business contributor Bryan Borzykowski.
Date of birth: 06/28/77
Age when she landed her first lead role in a professional opera: 20
Number of times she has performed at the World Economic Forum in Davos: 2
TV viewers who watched her sing at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics opening ceremonies: 3.2 billion
Number of honorary doctorates she has been awarded: 2
What would you say has been the key ingredient in your success?
I think I’m teachable. I’ve always remained quite keen to learn. I can recognize the gifts of others. I’m not one to refuse help. Some artists either get a huge ego or too down on themselves. If you don’t find a balance, you’ll eat yourself up inside or find no one wants to be around you.
So how does one go from Fredericton girl to world-famous opera star?
My family went to a church that had a predominantly classical music tradition. And at that time, CBC was programming predominately classical. Those two things were what had me exposed to opera so early. No one in my family is a full-time musician, but they’re all musical. So I started lessons when I was seven. We were in a small town, [and people were] very supportive. I’d get hired to sing at funerals and bar and bat mitzvahs and all that stuff, so I had lots of opportunities to perform and work as a singer.
A lot of young singers turn 16 and want to launch a pop career. But not you. Why?
There was no secular music in my house when I was growing up. One could argue there are many secular themes in classical music, but I wasn’t exposed to pop culture until later in life, really until university. For me, the music of my church and Saturday Afternoons at the Opera, that is my pop music. I hear it as the soundtrack of my youth.
You talk about community being a crucial factor in your development. In what ways?
My parents made it their mandate to discover and apply the gifts we had as kids. They’ve always been very supportive and encouraged us to be very goal-oriented, which we all are. My sister was an international gymnast; my brother is a pastor now and has 18 degrees or something crazy. My church, whether providing me with ample opportunities to sing in public or my high schools where I did my first stage role — half the role of narrator in Joseph and Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat. It’s things like that you only find in smaller communities.
I’m not married anymore, but my wedding was essentially calling in all the favours from all the people whose weddings and funerals I sang at. The reception was held at a massive mansion, but I sang at the owner’s daughter’s wedding so he gave us the space. The ceremony was in a historical chapel they never opened, but they opened it because I helped promote the refurbishing.
There were two wonderful men in Fredericton, Harry McFarlaine and Sid Grant, who started the Friends of Measha Fund so I could go to university [to study music]. I did have a scholarship, but it was the extra fees, staying in dorms and the full meal plan that needed to be covered. I wouldn’t have been able to afford it. The term is “humble beginnings.” No one wants to say “poor.” But yeah, we were poor. The fund was a very integral part of my support system financially. The support to this day continues. Now the fund is a scholarship at the Fredericton Music Festival. People continue to contribute to it.
When you set out initially, did you have specific goals for yourself?
For me, it was playing Carnegie Hall, getting a major record deal, buying a house and not be fat anymore by 30. Those were my four goals. I set those when I was 20 and I hit all those. Having a PhD was one I didn’t get, but now I have two honorary doctorates, and I’m cool with that.
Have you set any new goals for your 30s?
I’m going to become a Bikram yoga instructor. When I was filling out my application for the teaching training course, one of the questions is why I want to do this. And I said that when I first started practising, my goal was to lose weight, and Bikram helped me accomplish that. What I didn’t expect was how my body would realign itself and how my mind would align itself with my body and with my spirit. There’s a sense of accomplishment that comes with the end of every class, and I want to share it. It’s made my technique as a singer a lot more efficient because you learn that there’s an economy of movement that I think this particular practice hones.
Do you have any pre-performance rituals?
I tend to lay low for the afternoon. I go to a Bikram yoga class at four, which lasts to 5:30, then I shower and be at hall at 6:30. Then I warm up my voice, then play with my pianist. We’ll just test a few things and work from the back of program to the front so we’ll end sound check with the thing we start with. I have no backstage rituals. I’ll have tea and like to do my own makeup — I find that very relaxing. I’ll also listen to other music, just put something else on as a palette cleanser. Right now I’m into Trinity Roots and Sufjan Stevens.
You had a terrifying health scare last year — open-heart surgery. How does this sort of thing change your life?
You get to a point in your career where things hum along. You get used to that platinum card, all of a sudden there’s this black card. With the open-heart surgery, it was almost like now I have a bit of perspective, though I haven’t completely figured it out. I came to my 30s being very satisfied with my 20s, and then I’m here sitting in my house with cats and scores and binder of all my reviews and articles. I’ve never sat and looked at them — they just get compiled by assistants and managers and someday maybe I’ll look at them — but I wonder now, after having almost died, what it would really matter. What would I be most proud of? It really wouldn’t have anything to do with singing. I’m proud I have a good relationship with my parents. I’ve had the same best friend since kindergarten. I have relationships that are older than my relationship I have with my voice. These relationships are really more important, more foundational to me in deciding how I think than any vocal technique.