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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 13, No. 2 October 2007

Sharon Azrieli, on the Comeback Trail

by Wah Keung Chan / October 3, 2007

Soprano Sharon Azrieli is on fire. Her desire burns hotter than ever to be a musician, particularly a singer, something that has guided her since her student days in New York. Back then, to fund her voice lessons, Azrieli turned to her entrepreneurial side and sold her handmade jewelry while furtively dodging police on the streets of New York. These days, the same determination propels her toward the next stage of her career, as a large-voice soprano which is ideal for the Verdi repertoire.

The daughter of a successful Montreal architect-real estate developer, Azrieli grew up with piano lessons and enjoyed the family’s Ella Fitzgerald record collection. "I was given a solo in grade 4, and my worst fear came true,” recalls Azrieli. “I think I froze and forgot the words. But I came back in the second verse."

The turning point for Azrieli came when she studied art history at Vassar College and began voice lessons. “I remember biking through the woods and it hit me that I was going to be a singer,” she remarks. As an exchange student in Paris during her junior year, Azrieli discovered the world of opera and immediately felt at home. Unfortunately for her, despite her growing passion for music her parents didn’t quite approve of her ambition to become an opera singer.

Driven by sheer determination, Azrieli made her way to the music mecca (New York) and studied illustration and design at the Parson School of Design. She pursued her music by studying with various voice teachers, including Clarice Carson. "My dad promised to pay for my voice lessons IF I get into Juilliard," recounts Azrieli who auditioned three times for the prestigious arts school before getting in. "You have to understand the politics, so I took lessons with each teacher until I found one that worked for me."

Looking back, Azrieli found Juilliard a mixed experience and says, “It helped me learn how to survive.” Following graduation, success came quickly. She was chosen by Richard Bradshaw to take on the roles of Juliette and Mimi during the COC’s 1993 season and at Banff, she created the lead role in Nosferatu.

In 1995, Azrieli’s career took a back seat when she started a family but in a few years found herself divorced with two young sons to raise. After studying cantorial singing in New York, she returned to Montreal in 2000 and for two years was Montreal’s only female cantor. “The Temple Emmanuel El-Beth is the only progressive synagogue that would hire a female cantor. It was a full-time job requiring (her to sing for) 150 bar mitzvahs, 200 funerals and 200 weddings, leaving little time for anything else. The great cantor repertoire was written for Richard Tucker, Jan Peece and Robert Merrill. The soprano voice is just one tone off from the tenor.”

For Azrieli, the last few years represent a rebuilding period. She completed a Master’s Degree at the University of Montreal in 2006, and under the guidance of her new teacher Bill Schuman, she has developed a greater dynamic range that is well-suited to Verdi and Puccini heroines; she now has a high pianissimi. “The secret is to keep the larynx from rising, and it requires much more spin that I ever thought.”

Recently, Azrieli has performed the Verdi Requiem and has done a solo in Mahler's 8th Symphony at the Brott Music Festival. Next month she will take on a concert version of Liù in Turandot and solos with the McGill Chamber Orchestra. She will also be singing Liù with the New Israel Opera in Tel Aviv next year in March.

As she realizes her dream, Azrieli has found new meaning to her art. “Singing gives me the ability to express much more than you ever can with words. You get better as you get older because you have more experience and you are not afraid of showing it.” n


• October 21: Concert in Rimouski with Claude Robin Pelletier and Pierre MacLean. 418-722-1985

• October 28: Cantor Mendelsohn Memorial Concert at the Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue. 514-937-9471

• October 29: Concert with McGill Chamber Orchestra at Pollack Hall, 7:30 p.m. singing Rachmaninov songs and a world premiere duet with Cantor Gideon Zelermeyer written by Stephen Glass. 514-487-5190

• PBS Mountain Lake’s Arts Express show will air a segment on Azrielii in the coming season

(c) La Scena Musicale