Philippe Sly: Always Singing
June 13, 2011
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In March, at 22, Philippe Sly became
one of five winners of the 2011 Metropolitan Opera’s National Council
Auditions, which heard a total of 1,500 singers. Sly has received many
offers but plans to continue his studies with the Canadian Opera Company
Ensemble Studio. A native of Ottawa, his father is an anglophone while
his mother is from La Tuque, a little town in Northern Quebec which
he calls “my other hometown”; his self-proclaimed cultural heritage
is “all French-Canadian.” He shares his story.
as told to Crystal Chan
“When I grew up there was an elderly
neighbour living right beside us named Muriel Racine. As soon as I started
walking, she would have me come for tea almost every day. She would
sing to me and I would sing back. It was quite formal. I was wired,
hyper as a child; she funneled that energy into singing. My parents
brought me to see an operetta that the Opera Lyra Boys Choir put on,
and it was the first time I stood still; I was awestruck for the entire
concert. I told my parents: 'That's what I want to do.' At seven, I
auditioned and joined that choir, started taking voice lessons. I haven't
looked back since.
My voice changed later than most boys.
I thought I'd be a countertenor, as I maintained a very high falsetto
for a long time. It was only later when I started auditioning for university
in Grade 12 that I realized baritone would be the only way for me. My
voice coach, Laurence Ewashko (a teacher at the University of Ottawa),
was the one who really gave me a lot of direction through that change.
I've been singing as a bass-baritone for only five years.
I came to McGill specifically to study
with [Sanford Sylvan]. I had a great audition at McGill and I realized
there was someone on the panel whom I didn't know, and he was going
to be a new teacher the next year. So Michael McMahon—the best coach
in this country, really—told me I should schedule a lesson. I immediately
knew that this was the teacher I wanted.
At McGill, solidifying the voice took
a long time. At the beginning, it was a hard and arduous process. There
are different kinds of baritones, and because I am so young they didn't
know how to classify my voice: I have a big voice and I can sing lower
repertoire—bass-baritone—but I can access the higher repertoire
too. The idea in classical music that you can only sing certain roles
is really not useful. So they just wanted me to sing what sounded most
beautiful. People seem to want me to sing Handel and Wagner—which
are completely contrasting. As a young man your voice changes over a
long period of time; it settles much later than for women. [Sylvan]
helped me sing beautifully with ease and allowed me to find my voice
instead of trying to contrive it. A good teacher allows you to just
discover what your natural voice is instead of trying to impose a sound
quality, intensity, or aesthetic that people want.
I was warned very early on that there's
no use in emulating anybody, because you're never going to be able to
imitate that singer’s sound quality exactly. But Bryn Terfel was a
great influence on me. He's so musical and he has a voice set close
to mine. Canadian-wise, I find Gerald Finley a supreme artist. Gerald
and I were in the same church choir in Ottawa, St. Matthew's, and we
both have an affiliation with the Brian Law Opera Competition.
I've been fortunate to sing some really
exciting roles at McGill: Nick Shadow in The Rake's Progress
—I realized that I'm not going to find much that matches up [to that]—and
Marcello from La Bohème, one of the best baritone roles that
Puccini wrote. [Each role has] a different Fach; I am a bass-baritone
with a dark core to my sound but an extension that's quite intense,
so my voice is going in a direction where it might be able to sing Puccini,
Verdi, and Wagner in the future. My dream role is Don Giovanni, a character
that I can't wait to sink my teeth into. Don Giovanni is a constant
struggle for every baritone to try and figure out.
I'm also a big admirer of new opera and
I want to take part in the creative process. I also love discovering
roles in operas that haven't been performed in the last century; there
is so much out there. I know my career will rest very much in Mozart,
baroque and new opera, with baroque music being the closest thing to
Playing jazz trombone in high school
was very influential to me because learning how to improvise is quintessential
to my musicality. Onstage things never go as planned. Your reaction
to what's going on has to be successful. If you plan out everything
then you won't give yourself the chance to be moved, inspired, react
and communicate in a way that's direct. Jazz gave me that concept. That's
something that there's not enough of in opera today: the idea of improvisation
A singer can't practice as much as an
instrumentalist can. My instrument is part of my body and can only sustain
so much at a time. Half an hour of straight singing is very taxing.
In a three-hour opera, you're not singing through that whole three hours
non-stop. As a singer you can practice—full singing—maybe an hour
a day. The rest is memorization, poetry and verse analysis. To learn
the music you can say the words in rhythm and learn the notes on the
No matter what I'm doing I want to be
dealing with the stage. I would be more than willing to be part of traditional
theatre and musical theatre. I know that during and after having my
career as an opera singer, directing is something I'm sure I’ll be
a part of. I want to be able to create, no matter what the medium is.
It was my first time in New York. I became very close friends with
one of the other winners, Ryan Speedo Green. My highlights included
attending the performances and working with the orchestra and the conductor.
I felt like I was just rehearsing here at McGill.
I wasn't nervous during the performances,
but I was nervous as soon as it ended. I remember my last aria at the
finals: right after I finished the last note there was a silence. Then
somebody led the applause, shouting ‘bravo.’ Then I began to shake.
I bowed and walking back to my dressing room, I was weeping—I hadn't
realized it. I had so much pent-up nervousness that it was just being
released after that moment was over.
Remember Muriel? She had passed away,
but her son happened to be in New York and came to see the finals and
visited me afterward. It meant a lot to me. Muriel was at my beginning,
and it’s like she was also there when my career was launched. It was
» St. John Passion, J.S. Bach, as Pilatus.
With the Montreal Symphony Orchestra: November 9, 10, and 11. www.philippesly.com