- Suzie LeBlanc - spotlight
- Luisa Trisi
- April 2011
If the road is a universal metaphor for the journey of life, then the road less travelled is a perfectly fitting one for the singular way soprano Suzie LeBlanc’s career has unfolded. She has carved out one of the most unique profiles of any Canadian soprano, with a career that includes not only recitals and performances around the world with orchestras, opera companies, and new, early and traditional music ensembles, but also a widely-acclaimed acting performance as the protagonist in Rodrigue Jean's film Lost Song – named one of Canada’s Top Ten films of 2008 at the Toronto International Film Festival. Lost Song also won the City of Toronto-Citytv Award for Best Canadian Feature Film at the Festival.
Having also completed the fabled pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain – known to followers as simply “el camino”, it’s no surprise that exploring the pathways of life is not only a central metaphor for LeBlanc’s career, but also a source of inspiration. In fact, walking is one of the parallels between LeBlanc and the Pulitzer prize-winning American poet Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979), who is the focus of much of her attention these days.
LeBlanc is co-artistic director and one of the guiding lights behind EB100: The Elizabeth Bishop Centenary, an ambitious world-wide, year-long celebration of the poet’s life and influence. The multidisciplinary celebration aims to generate new creation across Canada, and especially in the Maritimes. EB100 will involve collaborations with arts organizations including Scotia Festival, Viewpoint Gallery, Symphony Nova Scotia as well as literary festivals, film festivals, and a prose competition – a reflection of the “octopus-like way she had of inspiring artists of all stripes,” says LeBlanc. “Her fame is exponential at this point, and it turns out that she has been incredibly inspirational to several generations of artists.”
In 2006, while researching the repertoire for her well-received second Acadian album Tout Passe, Chants d’Acadie on ATMA Classique, LeBlanc walked hundreds of kilometres on the East Coast trail of Newfoundland and spent time gathering traditional songs in her native New-Brunswick — a journey that is documented in the film “Suzie LeBlanc: A Musical Quest”, which was broadcast nationally this year on Bravo! LeBlanc discovered that the 21-year old Bishop had traversed the Avalon Peninsula in Newfoundland on foot over a three-week period in 1932.
LeBlanc’s initial encounter with Bishop’s work and influence was serendipitous: “I hadn’t read any of her poetry. I happened to be visiting Great Village, Nova Scotia, where she had spent a part of her childhood. I found a leaflet about Elizabeth Bishop in a church basement where some friends of mine were rehearsing for a concert, and I was intrigued by her story and by her photo. After that, I kept meeting people who were fans of her work including Canadian composer Alasdair MacLean, who led me to Sandra Barry, a writer and independent scholar who knows everything about Elizabeth Bishop. I was also struck by the fact that Elizabeth’s centenary in 2011 would coincide with my 50th birthday and I had wanted to work on a special project for that year. With Sandra’s initiatives and ideas for a centenary Festival, the Elizabeth Bishop Centenary Festival (EB100) was born!” explains LeBlanc.
As if putting together a year-long celebration of a renowned poet’s work wasn’t enough, in addition to her regular performances on the world’s stages, LeBlanc has been running her own opera company since 2005. Le Nouvel Opéra was born of a meeting of minds between several gifted artists, including opera and stage director Guillaume Bernardi and ATMA recording artists, conductor and harpsichordist Alexander Weimann, and countertenor Matthew White. Antonio Caldara’s oratorio La Conversione di Clodoveo, Rè di Francia marks the debut recording by Le Nouvel Opéra on ATMA Classique featuring an all-Canadian cast.
Today, the leadership of Le Nouvel Opéra is shared on a rotating basis between LeBlanc, Weimann and stage director Marie-Nathalie Lacoursière. The company is dedicated to the production and workshopping of repertoire from the baroque period in the form of operas, oratorios, intermezzi, singspiel and other art forms where dance, theatre, commedia dell'arte, visual arts and singing are blended together into one spectacle. Since 2005, Le Nouvel Opéra has presented both fully staged and in- concert versions of operas and oratorios by Monteverdi, Purcell, Rameau and Mozart in Vancouver, Montreal, and Germany, and will hold its third annual workshop for young singers, dancers and actors in Montreal this summer.
During our interview, Suzie LeBlanc mentions that, thanks to having received a special grant from the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec, she will be taking a sabbatical next year and will perform very few concerts in 2012. It’s no surprise that her sabbatical year is chock-full of ambitious projects and further explorations: she hopes to work on the third in her series of Acadian albums. She will also use her sabbatical time to develop a new recital programme and “in order to become a fuller, more well-rounded musician,” LeBlanc intends to practice the art of self-accompaniment, a natural for this singer who originally trained as a harpsichordist. LeBlanc also looks forward to receiving her third honorary degree, this time from the university in her hometown of Moncton. Reflecting on her career at mid-life and her full slate of new projects and exploration, she says, “I feel like I’ve gone back to school.” And while her fans will miss her luminous presence on the stage next year, they will, no doubt, be thrilled to share what she has learned.
© Luisa Trisi, 2011
- Singer uses crowd-funding to bankroll CD based on Elizabeth Bishop’s poems
- The Globe and Mail
- John Allemang
Before the arrival of crowd-funding, art and money didn’t rub shoulders quite so eagerly.
But as governments pare budgets, arm’s-length coolness between performers and their paymasters is turning into instant intimacy. For the versatile Suzie LeBlanc, financial necessity’s invention has proved to be a strangely welcome change.
“After a 28-year career, I’m learning how to do new things,” says the 51-year-old soprano who has sung 17th-century arias and Acadian folk songs with equal affinity. “Artists now have pretty well everything at their fingertips to create their own projects.”
All that remains is your contribution. The Canadian singer is seeking $60,000 to record newly commissioned settings of poems by Elizabeth Bishop, whose highly impressionable childhood was spent in Nova Scotia.
The details are spelled out at the website LeBlanc turned to when record companies wouldn’t take a risk on the creation of contemporary Canadian music.
For $25, LeBlanc will send you a thank-you card. Donate $500 and she’ll chat by Skype – ask about the walk she took across Newfoundland in Bishop’s footsteps.
At the $1,500 level, you receive a week’s visit to Bishop’s childhood home – listen to the rain tapping the skylight in Bishop’s bedroom, or overhear kitchen conversations through the floor-vent, just like the poet once did.
For $5,000, you can attend a rehearsal for the CD recording in August and have dinner with the singer who was so keen to turn Bishop’s poems into song that she sold her house in Montreal, moved to the Nova Scotia shore and became a poet herself.
For $10,000, LeBlanc and the Blue Engine String Quartet will pop by your house and play a private concert – sing along, if you like, but watch out for those deviously beautiful high notes that separate Suzie LeBlanc from the crowd.
She may stand apart in her art, but LeBlanc needs the crowd, and not just for its philanthropic gifts.
“I really want to know who’s listening, why they show up at a concert, what this music does to them. If I didn’t see the benefits music brings to people, I’d quit.”
Chasing down money for the Bishop recording, which features Canadian composers Christos Hatzis, John Plant, Alasdair MacLean and Emily Doolittle, has brought her even closer to her audience, and made her feel grateful for the poet’s broad appeal.
“To be honest, she changed a lot of things in my life: I started writing, moved to Nova Scotia, and now she’s teaching me how to crowd-fund.”
The passport-control guardians of literature consider Bishop to be American, but LeBlanc’s project, created in conjunction with the Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia, treats the lyric poet as one of us. And with reason: She was raised by her grandparents in the hamlet of Great Village, N.S., and found lifelong inspiration in her childhood memories.
“The whole purpose of the recording project is to reclaim her as a Canadian poet,” says LeBlanc, “and give her back the identity that was extremely important to her.”
Turning an American into a Canadian may be less challenging than fitting music to the poems on the printed page. LeBlanc admits to asking herself “whether what I was doing was necessary or fake.”
She knew that Bishop wanted Billie Holiday to record her Songs for a Colored Singer, so the poems weren’t sacrosanct – Bishop herself set out to be a composer before switching to verse. And that led LeBlanc to an early experiment with the Nova Scotian poem At the Fishhouses, interspersing baroque melodies in a way that could help an audience take in the poet’s compressed language.
“We stretched a poem that took three minutes to read into 25 minutes,” she says “The idea was to add space around the poem so the words became more full of meaning.”
Keeping the emphasis on the words has been one of the soprano’s greatest challenges as she prepares the CD, which is based on concerts held at the 2011 Elizabeth Bishop Centenary in Nova Scotia. Vocal music in the classical tradition prizes the beauty and range of the trained voice to the point where a text often gets submerged.
LeBlanc has opted for verbal intimacy in the recording, the up-closeness of the jazz club rather than the distancing of the concert hall. And even in her singing, which is prized for its melodious purity, she wants to give Bishop’s poems their priority.
“I’m removing technique, if I might put it that way,” she says. “If a soprano’s singing a high A, then yes, we have a challenge in terms of intimacy. But I’m hoping that people will get the same experience from the music that they get from reading – that they’re just six inches away from the poem.”
- Traveling Solo
- The China Post
- Lin Yuting
Canadian soprano Suzie LeBlanc discusses her work and philosophy during her brief touchdown in Taipei
Suzie LeBlanc made a surprising appearance in Taipei last week, as a soloist with the Taiwan National Choir (TNC, 國立實驗合唱團), conducted by her fellow Canadian Agnes Grossman. LeBlanc brought the “Pie Jesu” movement to life as part of the evening’s performance of the Requiem (Op. 48) by French composer Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924). After the whole work was performed, the appreciative audience requested an encore of LeBlanc’s “Pie Jesu,” as well as baritone Li Tzeng-ming’s (李增銘) “Libera me,” concluding the otherwise pensive evening with some star glamor.
LeBlanc’s appearance in Taiwan was serendipitous. She is on a sabbatical break and originally had no concerts scheduled until June. She has wanted to visit places in Asia for a long time, and after stopping in Taiwan she flew on to Bhutan.
The rose and the lotus
One of LeBlanc’s current projects, on a grant from the Government of Canada, is a multimedia concert, involving images, videos, and costumes. “The theme is the Awakened Rose, [after] a lieder by Richard Strauss,” she said. “It’s the beginning of a theme I want to develop [regarding] the rose but also the lotus flower. The lotus grows from mud, and the rose has thorns, which I think is an interesting concept to work with -- out of the dark comes beauty; out of the shadow comes creativity.” The project, now “in its infancy,” will have some musical content by the end of the year and is expected to culminate in a performance in 2014.
Unearthing music from the past
In addition to her pristine and weightless soprano voice, Leblanc is known for specializing in 17th and 18th century European music, bringing many hitherto unrecorded or seldom recorded works to life.
For the first 20 years of her career, LeBlanc spent much time in libraries to acquaint herself with works by 17th century masters when recordings of them were rare. “One way to get to know a composer is to… listen to every note that he has written, then you start to understand the style. So I would go to the libraries and see the manuscripts,” she explained.
In addition, within the past eight years, LeBlanc has explored her own roots by researching and recording Acadian folk songs. “My family was not about traditional music… we listened to Classical music at home like Bach [and] Beethoven,” she recalled. She overcame initial hesitations and eventually venturing into the tradition.
“My record company suggested maybe I should do this. First I said no [because] there are a lot of people who can do this music [i.e. Acadian folk songs] really well… I don’t want to do this badly so I’m never gonna do it at all.” Four years later, however, LeBlanc realized: “Maybe I can sing this music because it actually comes from the Medieval, Renaissance and 17th century. The songs are old, and I know about old music. So why not? So that’s what I did.”
In learning about Acadian folk songs she worked with real musicians in addition to written sources, an approach that she wants to extend to her Awakened Rose project. “I’m going to plant some roses in my garden,” she said, so that she can learn about the flower “not only intellectually” but also experience it “on a three-dimensional level.”
How music bears on life
Leblanc is self-effacing when it comes to discussing her experience onstage. “It’s not about myself, but about the music,” she remarked, seeing herself as a medium for the power of music to come through. She enjoys observing the audience members in her mind’s eye, seeing their various states of engagement as they listen: some are transfixed, some are bored, some fall asleep, and the kids sometimes swing their legs back and forth. The most important thing though, for her, is to “let people be transported from their daily concerns” through art.
LeBlanc’s practice of music has also informed other aspects of her life. “Music requires a lot of discipline and a lot of precision, and this idea of getting out of the way. It puts you touch with something much larger than yourself. If you are daily in touch with something that is so much more powerful than you -- it’s like living by the ocean and seeing it everyday -- you see [many things] suddenly from a different angle. You learn to cope in certain situations, like jet lag, that how you feel is not important; the result as a performance is what matters.”
- LOST SONG - Feature Film by Rodrigue Jean
- Toronto Star
In her previous life as a professional Montreal singer and pianist, new mom Elisabeth (Suzie LeBlanc) strove for perfect harmony, something a squalling newborn rarely provides. When her equally demanding husband Pierre (Patrick Goyette) moves the family to the untamed country, Elisabeth's struggles with postpartum depression becomes a family crisis. Acadian filmmaker Rodrigue Jean (
- LOST SONG - Feature Film by Rodrigue Jean
- Now Weekly, Toronto
This taut and atmospheric film doesn't miss a beat. LeBlanc stars as Elisabeth, a new mother who can't quite cope with the move to an isolated cottage with her husband, Pierre (Goyette). The immense wilderness and her overbearing husband strain Elisabeth's calm, and she slowly unravels.
Directing with patience and precision, Jean adds tension by keeping mum about his characters' motives. There's no exposition, very little dialogue and a thin plot.
Instead, he relies on evocative cinematography that makes the trees shift from idyllic to foreboding, editing that delivers a jolt every tie someone so much as trips over a log and a strong performance by LeBlanc, whose every flicker of emotion is placed under a microscope for analysis.
The film had me leaning closer so as not to miss a single moment.