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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 16, No. 9

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 my heart.

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 and reaction.

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 piano.

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.

The Met
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 almost prophetic.”

» St. John Passion, J.S. Bach, as Pilatus. With the Montreal Symphony Orchestra: November 9, 10, and 11. www.philippesly.com

(c) La Scena Musicale