You do not have to spend much time in the Ottawa classical musical arena to know that the city produces and attracts a wealth of talented young artists and composers. A few years ago I was lucky enough to appear on stage with Rebecca Gray, an Ottawa local, who is both a very accomplished composer and performer of operatic and classical voice repertoire. In Ottawa for the Summer, Rebecca spoke to Classical Ottawa about her story and her musical trajectory and philosophy.
Rebecca assured me, when I asked about her musical journey, that “there was no epiphany of hearing Beethoven and deciding I wanted to be a composer.” Starting with violin at the age of 5 (with a mother she described as the “perfect Suzuki parent,”) she didn’t suddenly discover either inspiration or ability.
“It was much more gradual, and I would say I got more serious about violin when I was about 12. Then at Canterbury I took two years of the strings program which led me to pursue an undergraduate degree at the University of Ottawa’. I started off in violin and then switched to voice.” After graduating in 2016, she enrolled in the Masters program in Opera at the University of Toronto. As part of the program at the University of Toronto she is studying composition under Norbert Palej.
In terms of learning experiences she describes her years performing with the Ottawa Youth Orchestra as “what taught me the most.” Other performance experiences in Ottawa include studio recitals as well as working with the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra, a role with Pellegrini Opera, and the chorus with Opera Lyra. In the final year of her undergraduate studies she won the Thirteen Strings/University of Ottawa composition prize. Last summer she premiered her composition Love, Dear Love for two voices, string quartet, large scale drawings and projection. In Toronto, her Ruminations on The Planets for violin, cello, flute, soprano sax, percussion and projection was performed at Nuit Rose (a queer arts festival).
“I am very grateful to Ottawa U because they have such an open policy to let people try different things. If they didn’t then I would never have started composing.”
Now Rebecca is working on both singing and composition, I wonder how (or if) she can combine her love of both historical and contemporary work.
“I am trying to figure out how to combine these things – that is the challenge at the moment. I have focused on contemporary but I feel I have a lot to say about both. So I am trying to look at both and not make any decisions. It’s hard where when everyone is streamlining to a specialization, especially in a very specialized program, like my opera masters. I don’t want to filter things out too soon.”
Which of course begs the question where does she see herself ending up at this stage?
“I had envisioned myself finding an answer this summer but I am not sure. I have vague dreams of doing a Masters in composition in Germany. I would really like to find an environment where I could also perform contemporary music every day, especially a place that teaches extended vocal techniques.
“I have realized that I love chamber music – it is the environment, musically, I enjoy the most and it is where there is the most thrilling new music as far as I am concerned (in my opinion?). So hopefully soon I will be producing new works that other people would like to perform in a chamber setting.”
Despite her natural abilities (which include, as I learned with her when we were in chorus together in L’elisir d’amore, her perfect pitch) it is clear that Rebecca’s schooling at Ottawa U and Toronto are key to her career so far. What were the advantages of attending the University of Ottawa?
“I benefitted a lot from personal relationships with a lot of professors, not just my main teachers. For example, I took the composition course because I knew the teacher: I had a whim, and he encouraged me to register. It is important that schools encourage this exploration of other areas. We all have whims – I didn’t know if I would be any good – but we can’t always follow through. Because they gave me the chance, I could explore composition.
“Also really important in my experience was that they let me switch from violin to voice very easily.
“Violin was my major but due to some serious injuries I realized I couldn’t continue. Also, although I was very good, I wasn’t working with the best aspects of myself, whereas singing and composing allow me to work more constructively with my talents Specifically, composition makes me think more deeply, explore my own ideas, and consider performance space, while voice (and acting) allow me to explore my own and other people’s character.”
And how does she find the experience in the University of Toronto’s music program?
“The main advantage is the size of Master’s program. It is small and so I get a lot of dedicated time from my teachers. It is also well funded. We have a full time administrator and a group of full time professors who we see every day. They keep track of me and my interests and they support me.
“There are also limitations. Mainly, for me personally I would say that is over-scheduling – you have so many rehearsals and other aspects of practice that sometimes it is hard to take things in, and develop and pursue other interests. But constant masterclasses etc mean you get exposure to big names. We have a lot of master classes, for instance, and we are exposed to the Canadian Opera Company. There is even a contemporary opera company in the city I have worked with outside of school We don’t have as much opportunity in Ottawa any more. In Toronto, the opportunities for classical singers are wonderful and I have made lots of contacts there outside of school.”
We seem to be in an age where – finally but also often problematically – identity is being given so much prominence. From conversations in the past I know this is highly important to Rebecca so I asked her to talk about being a composer, versus being a female composer, versus being a queer female composer?
“Personally I am always aware that people are aware of my gender in composition, which can make me uncomfortable. But at the same time it is so important we pay attention to who composers are, and things like gender ratio within parts of the musical world. So I’m tired of people being hyper-aware of that, but we should be noticing when there is only one woman in the room. At the same time I haven’t received any demeaning comments about my gender since I started composing in my masters program, which is amazing and certainly wouldn’t have been the case even 20 years ago.
“I was at a program this summer with 8 student composers. The level was very high and I was one of only two women. I couldn’t get the thought out of my head ‘There are only two women here – did they choose me because I am a woman?’
“I think I told you before about this experience I had in my undergrad composition class. There were 22 people, and only two were women. One day I mentioned this fact to my professor. It’s kind of a perfect example of what we are talking about that the professor hadn’t even noticed that there was such a gender imbalance. And this isn’t some kind of conspiracy. He is a great person and wasn’t trying to keep women out of his class. That is why it is such a hard a barrier to fight. There are so many factors and there is not one thing to fix or one person to blame.
“It depends a lot on the school and the region, but I also notice that a lot of it is a difficulty that stems from childhood. There is something about women being, in general, less likely to come out and show what they have been working on, even when it is excellent work. What do you do when those kind of systemic messages have been at play for decades? Each person has their own way to try to unlock that.
“Sometimes, it can be just a small thing. In the opera program at U of O we don’t didn’t have any set people so the singers moved sets and props around themselves. A director would often state, “We need a man/men to move chairs.” Even when the chair was plastic and weighs 4 ounces. That drives me nuts – but in the end, it is just because people arere used to a pattern, and haven’t realized it can be damaging.
“So many people are on automatic pilot when it comes to so many things in music, for example, who to program when it comes to composers, or who to put on stage. When you have a more diverse artistic staff who look at these kinds of things from different angles it begins to change. Otherwise you have artistic staff with the same blinders and you will only hear the same old composers again and again. I think artiscally it’s all about getting groups of people with different sets of blinders together, who are constantly pushing to unlock their blinders and get new perspectives I can speak to female and LGQBT representation, and other people have more expertise to speak to accessibility or race, for example.
“I sometimes feel disempowered and get frustrated in institutional settings, because it’s not always appropriate to share one’s misgivings or ideas. But I am working with a lot of great individuals on smaller scale projects, which I find less frustrating.”
One of the things that interests me most is who is inspiring someone pursuing twin avenues of composition and singing. Rebecca has been busy discovering the work of diverse composers to help her.
“I’ve been listening to Kate Soper. I am in love with her. The fact she is a singer as well as a composer is very exciting. She has an ability with texts and delivery which is super creative and compelling. Her work makes me feel more confident about finding a place for myself.
“I also really like George Krumb. His work is sparse and ethereal and I am very inspired by his notation
“Kaija Saariaho [only the second female composer to have an opera produced at the Met in New York in its history] is a goddess. I am inspired by her operatic work. It is so hard to find contemporary opera that works. Composers are caught between being lyric and expressive, and being innovative. Often everything ends up being either too melodramatic and 19th century-esque , Or it is “modern, ” but unoperatic and doesn’t tell a story. But Saariaho has so much colour and yet still tells a story. She straddles that line the best of anyone I have encountered. I also admire her choice of stories. They are very operatic, and she works with very talented librettists.”
“I haven’t heard a lot of modern operas that tell a contemporary story well. It seems like something grand opera really struggles to do. The range of stories for different voices just isn’t there yet. We need something for our poor sopranos to sing that isn’t just about love!”
This leads us back to the position of female roles in opera.
“I was in a production with Tapestry Opera – Oksana [by Aaron Gervais]. I was talking to the man in the lead role, someone playing a despicable, rapistmurderer and I asked him about the process of portraying a monster. He asked me “don’t you find it’s easier to be a villain then a victim” . I said I wouldn’t know because I never get to play a monster. Women don’t. Oksana is set in the world of human trafficking and it is a great contemporary story but every main woman in the opera is still a victim.
“It’s also frustrating that we just don’t seem to be able to get over voice type: villains are baritones or basses, and if a villain is ever a woman it is almost always a mezzo. It is a lot to do with how we perceive authority – we don’t associate a high voice with authority or strength. As a composer I want to challenge the voices we associate with character types. Artistically it makes sense to try and mix things up – not only are these things sexist, they are less interesting. “ that’s a big point for me: problematic historic conventions aren’t just damaging, they are boring artistically!”
I can attest to Rebecca’s dedication to subverting the gender roles in opera. When we were in the chorus of Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore there was a scene that called for all the women-folk to swoon over the hunk of the opera, Belcore. Rebecca suggested to our director that perhaps for once not every women in the crowd would go giddy for the baritone. The director agreed and instead of trying to win the gaze of Belcore, she washed glasses at the back of the scene with a singularly nonplussed look on her face. (Not to be outdone, I stepped up to play a gay male who was definitely into the dreamy Belcore, and not averse to getting into a catfight with the women to get his man).
If characterization is something she thinks can be addressed by composers, what about subject matter for pieces, operatic or otherwise?
“What is difficult at my stage of life is figuring out what is within my grasp in terms of ability and experience. I see a lot of people who are ambitious about their subject matter – composers, for example, who want to write about the apocalypse, or the refugee crisis. I don’t have those abilities yet. There are lots of things I would like to address, for example, the Trump Presidency, but my skills aren’t there yet.
“One of the main pressures with the modern music world is pressure to be ‘super contemporary’ and to address ‘modern’ issues. These are definitely things to be excited about but I wish we could build more excitement about well-executed collaboration and building creative performance spaces.”
What about the movement of classical opera repertoire into contemporary settings?
“I have thoughts about setting classic opera in modern settings I haven’t personally seen many that work for me. I got frustrated with a modernized production of a Handel opera – where a woman is kidnapped by pirates and rescued by a man. He then asks her to marry him despite her being engaged already. She is then torn between being unfaithful and ungrateful, which is an interesting dilemma for a woman in the 17th century who has to navigate being male property. But it makes me uncomfortable setting this narrative in modern times, because it normalizes woman as property and just doesn’t make any sense.
“I did like the Met’s Vegas setting of Rigoletto. It was a well thought out choice and they chose to bring out the horror of the space in Las Vegas. So it can definitely work – it is just rare.”
Indeed, last year Rebecca premiered Love, Dear Love at House of Common, a converted garage in Hintonburg, with art by her sister Rachel Gray dominating the walls, overlaid by real time video projection by Mathieu Hallé. It is this interplay of interesting place and additional stimulation within that space that gives Rebecca’s work an edge, and it is something she is continuing to explore.
“I’m working on collaborative piece for a contemporary program in composition in Montreal right now [for the summer of 2017]. I am using images – my partner Adrienne Scott is creating a timed slideshow of abstract images that determine the rhythmn of the piece.. We are inspiring each other with sounds and images – an image might make me think of a particular emotion that I try to harness musically. Our goal was to really work together, rather than just creating a set of images to go with music, or composing music to accompany some images. It’s what I am most excited about in contemporary music: using my music in collaboration with other arts forms. I am personally very excited about how? music can interact more meaningfully with other arts, rather than just checking the collaborative box.”
The project, like everything Rebecca works on, sounds to be helping push the boundaries rather than conserving the sometimes petrified art forms of voice and instrumentation. The politics of identity only serve to elevate her work above the performance and work who lack that edge and meaning. She is an exquisite performer, accomplished technician, and reflective constructor of music, and we cannot wait to see where her career takes her.