Many hundreds of us in Ottawa were privileged enough to see the recent University of Ottawa’s recent production of Carmen. Those who heard the show on the nights Alberta-born Jeanine Williams sang the role of Micaëla were lucky in to hear this new local soprano proving that there are no small roles – especially when you have both a big and a skilled voice. She has impressed everyone who has heard her since her move to Ottawa last year with the size and character of her singing, and her thoughtful musicality. As Jeanine only moved to Ottawa last year, I started by asking her what was the main difference between the capital city and Lethbridge, Alberta where she complete her undergraduate degree in Music.
“The singing scene in Ottawa is bigger here obviously,” Jeanine told us. “That is the biggest single difference. It means there are more things for me to participate in as a singer and to watch and learn from as an audience member. Coming to Ottawa was the perfect step – I know eventually that like many budding professional singers I will end up in Toronto or Vancouver but this is the perfect intermediate place for me.”
Having studied under Blaine Hendsbee at Lethbridge, Jeanine is now learning with Christiane Riel for her Masters at the University of Ottawa. She maybe at a larger institution but there is one very immediate advantage to the program here. “It’s the size. There are only seven of us so we get a lot of attentions. The community itself at Ottawa U is bigger than that so there is support too, but I am not just a face in the crowd to those who are teaching me.” Aside from the teachers there are some further advantages. “They have some of the best paid TA’ships in the country and great scholarships.”
It’s not hard to see why she answered time management when I asked Jeanine what is the hardest part of studying for a Masters in Vocal Performance. “It’s not something I am bad at but it’s a challenge. I work for the university. I study full time. I have made an effort to do things in the city.”
“In terms of studies, while programs across the country are super varied, but mine is performance based, so I am doing two recitals and a recital defence, then there’s academic requirements, like music history and musicology, some theory and practical courses, for example, acting or conducting. Plus performance classes – opera, art song, and studio (which is the main component – all in preparations for the recitals this year and at the end of next year. Lessons). Plus a French class!”
Although Jeanine is still only 23 years old, she has already completed many roles – from a small part in Marriage of Figaro, through Dido in Dido and Æneas, the mother in Handsel and Gretel, to two of Puccini doomed heroines, the title role in Suor Angelica and Mimi in La bohème. Everyone has different techniques for getting to grip with their roles. Jeanine’s confessed, “I am going to be honest here: I make sure to listen to a lot of recordings and find one that has musical integrity; then I listen to that on repeat A LOT; next, I break I down act by act. Let’s say we are on act 1 – I plunk out the melody and sing it, then sing it with a recording. It’s only at that point that I complete a literal and poetic translation. Some of my teachers know this is how I work. I know a better way is to start singing it once the characterization and translation are already complete but to be honest that would bore me. Not to say that I don’t do it that in the future, but not right now.”
So does the recording that she would listen to be one that is most similar to her own voice? “No, absolutely not. It’s because I don’t want to emulate someone else’s voice or performance. ”
It is not surprising that she feels she learned most from the role of Mimi. “I learned this at Opera Nuova – the six week intensive summer program. It’s a total culture immersion! For me it was my first summer program. It was a high caliber production and I was among some of the most advanced singers in the program, so I felt moved to sort of rising to the occasion.”
As we had just completed Tosca together and with Mimi and Suor Angelica under her belt, does she feel like she has a classic Puccini voice? “Well, I do think that the thick lyrical phrases and lush orchestration suit my voice (and ears!) well in Puccini roles. Also I love the music and I love the stories. I was singing full lyric, but now I am heading toward spinto.”
That would also explain some of her dream roles, including Leonora in Il Travatore. She is also keen to learn the title role of Rusalka. “I am not that daunted by the Czech. I am actually performing Song to the Moon in my recital next week and the diction is not as hard as I expected because the language has hard and fast rules.”
Having completed the Opera Nuova, Jeanine is heading for another prized program this summer. “I feel very lucky and privileged. The Summer Program is called Opera in the 21st Century. It’s a program in collaboration with the Canadian Opera Company and Against the Grain Theatre Company, which means the faculty is a very highly esteemed group of individuals. It is a pre-professional program so I won’t be surprised if I am the youngest person there! It is mainly people who have finished there Masters in the past few years and may have completed a young artist’s program also.”
The output is as varied and interesting as the artists involved. “We are doing the chamber program, which is basically staged art song and scenes from opera. This is an exciting opportunity to do some fun things. I have suggested Libby Larson’s Cowboy Songs, the Brahms Ophelia Lieder, and Rückert-Lieder by Mahler. For opera I have suggested I do some extracts from Cosi fan tutte, Marriage of Figaro, and Peter Grimes.”
“In terms of what is involved, there will be master classes, coachings and performances called Opera in the Pub, which is an idea taken from Against the Grain’s organized performances in Toronto where singers perform a piece from opera in a pub for the entertainment of the drinkers. We will be doing it Banff style! It’s definitely a great opportunity to work a piece in public.
“There are fourteen of us – it’s very competitive. I feel very lucky to be involved.”
Those of us who have heard her sing – and know how hard she works – know it is very little to do with luck. This talented and exciting voice has a great path ahead of her and we can’t wait to hear more about her career as the years progress.
You can hear Jeanine Williams First Year Recital at Perez Hall, the University of Ottawa on Monday, 24th April at 8pm.
Jeanine is also teaching. If you wish to contact her about vocal lesson please email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can learn more about Jeanine at http://jeaninewilliamssoprano.weebly.com/