Home     Content     Articles      La Scena Musicale     Search   

La Scena Musicale - Vol. 16, No. 6

Shannon Mercer : A Trademark Voice

by Crystal Chan / March 18, 2011

Version française...

Flash version here

Interview by Wah Keung Chan

Warm, clear, and easy on the vibrato, Shannon Mercer’s trademark sound is unmistakable. The Canadian soprano is hailed as a leading Baroque vocalist, with the honours to prove it: most ­recently, a 2011 Juno nomination and a 2011 Opus Awards win and three nominations. Known for her versatility, ­Mercer is not one to be pigeon-holed, succeeding in early music, opera, contemporary and folk music, and holding her own in seemingly any genre she turns to.

Witness her current role in Love Songs, a one-woman show written by SMCQ 2011-2012 homage composer Ana Sokolovic. In the demanding hour-long performance Mercer sings a cappella and performs monologues, using 100 languages, all the while playing a chair and drum as percussion instruments. It’s a ­virtuosic maelstrom of styles, weaving Baroque influences with contemporary music, experimental vocal techniques, and spoken word. Her voice fits seamlessly into each mode. “It shows off my ability to sing different styles,” she says. Mercer and reporters alike have noted the strong effect the performance, featuring love songs and poems from around the world, has on audiences, who often give way to tears. Mercer is currently touring the show in western Canada, following performances in Toronto, Amsterdam, and Paris.

From Ottawa to Carnegie Hall

At 34, Mercer has already accomplished more than many do in a lifelong career. Named a “Leader of ­Tomorrow” by Maclean’s, she is the recipient of numerous awards including a Career Development Grant and the Virginia Parker Prize from the Canada Council for the Arts, the 2004 Bernard ­Diamant Prize, and the Women's Musical Club of Toronto Career Development Award. Ensemble Caprice’s December 3, 2009, ­performance of Bach’s Mass in B Minor, which featured Mercer, won Early Music Concert of the Year at this year’s Opus Awards.

A juggler of many projects, she has an extensive discography—nine records in seven years. 2010’s O Viva Rosa, a finalist at this year’s Opus for Early Music Record of the Year, brings to light unpublished music by Francesca Caccini, whom Mercer describes with reverence as “a very unique voice in music, but, as a female composer, sadly, not always taken seriously.” The album is her sixth under the Analekta label, but she hasn’t renewed her contract with them. Next year, ATMA will be issuing two recordings featuring Mercer: Bach’s St. John Passion and a Purcell disc.

With one Juno win already under her belt for her part in Ensemble Caprice’s Gloria! Vivaldi's Angels in 2009, this year sees a nomination for ­Ensemble Caprice’s Salsa Baroque disc, another acclaimed record with her name on the credits. Also in 2009, Mercer surprised listeners with a turn to folk music with the release of Wales, The Land of Song. “To those who know me as a classical vocalist, this Welsh folksong album may seem odd,” she writes in the liner notes. “But this music, this Welsh culture and ­heritage is the reason I became a singer… My father’s mother was left in a basket on the steps of an orphanage in June of 1913 in Gelligaer, Glamorgan, South Wales. My father immigrated to [Canada] in 1967 along with my mother and my three eldest siblings… He discovered the Ottawa Welsh Society and began to sing with the Gwalia Singers. I was able to carry on this inherited tradition when, at the age of 15, I traveled to Wales to sing in the prestigious Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod. I returned to Canada as a proud ambassador, bringing home the winning silver cup!”

By this time, Mercer had been taking voice lessons for eight years with Joan Burnside, as well as playing guitar and violin. Her life revolved around music, highlighted by the annual Kiwanis Music Festival. At Canterbury, an arts high school, she gained experience in many musical and artistic genres. “That helped me become a well-rounded singer,” she explains. “I was able to draw on all that and not get stuck on one genre of music.”

It was at McGill that Mercer’s passion for early music took off, when she discovered that early music ensembles provided more stage time. It turned out she had a natural ease with the genre, and she completed a double major in vocal performance and early music. In Montreal, she became known as a baroque specialist, starting out in professional choirs such as the Studio de musique ancienne de Montréal (SMAM) and La Chapelle de Québec of Les Violons du Roy. “There is a stigma saying you have to sing with this colour voice for this and another for something else,” says ­Mercer. “At McGill, nobody ever said to me ‘you have to sing that way.’” Voice ­teachers Thérèse Sevadjian and Lucille Evans encouraged Mercer to hold on to her own voice, reveling in its tone, strengths, and weaknesses rather than try to change it with each role. “I’ve always used my own voice, for Baroque or other music. I realize that with different repertoire you’re ­required to have more or less of a steady rate of vibrato.”

Mercer’s voice has, naturally, subtly changed over the years, yet the essence of her sound has remained unchanged. Even though she’s never been able to pop what she jokingly calls “Z sharps” (impossibly high notes), she now finds her voice dropping lower and developing a richer timbre, which matches her increased stamina, confidence, knowledge, and ­emotional depth.

After McGill, Mercer developed a separate opera persona by studying at the University of Toronto’s Opera School, followed by San Francisco Opera's Merola Opera Summer Program and the Canadian Opera Company (COC) Ensemble Studio. Now based in Toronto, she performs on stages across North America and Europe, including Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the Hollywood Bowl, Royal Albert Hall, and Covent Garden. She has performed for opera companies including the COC, l'Opéra du Québec, Opera Lyra ­Ottawa, Opera Ontario, Opera Atelier, Toronto Operetta Theatre, and Opéra national de Montpellier, in addition to dozens of ensembles and orchestras. Displaying a strong sense of humour and great theatrical flair, Mercer starred in the Gemini-nominated filmed comic opera Burnt Toast as well as Not the Messiah, a musical based on Monty Python’s Life of Brian, written by the creators of Spamalot.

This year’s season has seen or will see her perform with the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, Arion Baroque Orchestra, Portland Baroque Orchestra, Les Voix Baroques, Ensemble Caprice, Les Violons du Roy, the Welsh music group Skye Consort, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, Houston’s ­Mercury Baroque, and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

Breaking the rules

As multifaceted as her talents and interests are, early music holds a particularly special place. “It’s like I was born in that time. Purcell is one of, if not the, favourite composer of mine, and as for Handel, Bach, Mozart, I’ve ­always felt a connection with them. The music really speaks to me and suits my voice,” she states. She loves the challenge of tackling music that’s still relatively shrouded in mystery, enjoying the task of interpreting old scores with only several treatises, theories, and your own imagination to guide you. There are challenges specific to composers, too; while some composers such as Handel write perfect lines tailored to singers’ capabilities (a lot of singers dub Handel “medicine for the voice”), others such as Bach write vocal lines in an instrumental way, creating long lines without a space to breathe ­naturally. When she was younger, she pushed through “ridiculous phrases.” Now, she feels lucky she has great breath control and has learned not to force herself too far. “When you're in performance your breath changes ­significantly because of your nerves,” she explains. “Whether it's nervousness or excitement, it affects you the same way: your breath becomes more shallow. You shouldn’t put the pressure on yourself to make it through crazy phrases; you should breathe where it feels comfortable.”

Mercer also has a talent for improvisation and ornamentation, writing her own cadenzas. In Baroque tradition, the da capo (repeat) of the first part of a song is usually open to the performer for embellishment, allowing each to create their own “version” to best show themselves off. Latter-day vocal stars such as sopranos Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni participated in musical duels, each trying to perform more virtuosic ­cadenzas than the other. There are no hard-set rules, but Mercer likes ­traditional ornaments that don’t stray too far from the initial melody or hit the stratospheres of a performer’s range: all in good taste. Mercer’s cadenzas are so ­admired by colleagues that many have asked for permission to use them or even for her to write for them. She herself rarely borrows from other singers. She listens to recordings (some of her favourites are by Emma Kirkby) to hone in on techniques she likes but she builds her own unique ­vocabulary—not by emulation, but through trial and error. “I never listen to a recording of a piece until I’ve already learned the notes,” she says. “You develop your own ornamental style, just like you develop the way you dress.”

It might seem Mercer is stepping in a very different direction with a contemporary piece like Love Songs, but for her, “there’s a cross-over between early and contemporary music as there’s a certain ability to be spontaneous, improvisational, and take things that are not written in the score and make the piece your own, whereas in classical or Romantic music it’s really ­written in the piece and you mustn’t stray.” She’s eager to work on other ­contemporary works, and is extremely excited about another Sokolovic piece she’s premiering this June in Toronto: Svadba – The Wedding.

In the end, Mercer welcomes any project, regardless of genre, as long as she feels connected to the piece and the other performers. In December, she even narrated a Toronto Symphony Orchestra concert, singing not one note.

“I’ve never followed the rules,” she admits with a laugh. “I’m versatile; if I got stuck in one genre of music, I wouldn’t be able to try crazy things. I think there's this joke about me where whenever an organization goes: ‘hmm we need a soprano for kazoo, who could do that… oh, Shannon ­Mercer!’ I'm always inspired and excited about the next project.”

You can’t compare yourself to others, she believes. “There are people at the top of their game, but it can be lonely and unfulfilling. I don’t want that to happen. I don’t want to stop loving it. I will never be a Wagnerian ­soprano, and I’m okay with that—I have to try to be the best I can be at what I can do.”

Many of her fellow musicians have advised her that, in the end, the sole priority becomes making amazing music with amazing people. It’s now her personal goal. “One of the great things about her is that she is not only a very fine singer, but so much fun to work with,” says Artistic Director of ­Ensemble Caprice, Matthias Maute. “Working hard and cracking jokes at the same time don’t exclude each other!”

Shannon Mercer in concert:

» April 9th at Redpath Hall: "Heavenly Cantatas" by Bach and Handel with Ensemble Caprice and Daniel Taylor. www.ensemblecaprice.com

Version française...

(c) La Scena Musicale