Vancouver Opera Festival. Three new opera productions plus dozens of events over 16 days until May 13. For complete schedule visit festival.vancouveropera.ca.
One’s parents might not want to hear that their child pursued a career in opera largely because they were looking for a challenge, but as the saying goes, fortune tends to favour the bold. Former North Vancouver resident and opera singer Mireille Lebel made some bold choices along the way.
“I always did like singing and theatre and all this stuff, but I thought, ‘What is the art form that would be the hardest?’” says Lebel, a former North Vancouver resident.
“I didn’t really know that much about it and I didn’t really know what the lifestyle would be and I didn’t know what it would take – but I just focused on it.”
Her focus has paid off.
Lebel, now a well-established opera singer who lives in Berlin, is in the midst of a homecoming.
She’s playing the character Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro, part of Vancouver Opera’s inaugural festival that kicked off last week.
“This is actually the first time that I’ve sung at home – and I left when I was 18. It’s really nice,” she says.
After graduating from Handsworth Secondary, Lebel migrated east to study singing at the University of Toronto and Université de Montréal.
Like many budding artists who have their “eureka!” moment, Lebel counters that for her there wasn’t a specific instant where she realized she was destined to sing opera. It was just something she started doing, driven by a desire to take her soaring mezzo-soprano vocals to the stage.
Following her studies Lebel was awarded grants from the Canada Council for the Arts and the Jacqueline Desmarais Foundation, in addition to participating in an artist-in-residence program with the Atelier Lyrique de l’Opéra de Montréal.
Her career really took off in 2009 when she was invited to join the Ensemble of Theater Erfurt in Germany, a production ensemble that allowed her to make debuts with opera companies all over Europe and North America as well as find consistent work in the industry.
“I knew it was the best way to become better, was to be on stage literally like five nights a week,” she says.
These days, Lebel is as busy as ever when it comes to her performance schedules. And she still loves what she does.
“No matter what kind of a bad day I’m having, after rehearsal I feel better,” she says. “Nothing’s going to make my day better than having to rehearse or having to perform.”
Figaro, which has already had two matinee performances, is running until May 18. The Mozart opera buffa is one of the most widely performed works in the canon. It tells the story of servants Figaro and Susanna and their efforts to get married in spite of their meddlesome employer Count Almaviva.
Although Figaro is a comedy, its ability to pull the audience in with its wit, tenderness and sentimentality is just as powerful.
“The relationship between Figaro and Susanna is like a couple today,” says Lebel. “It’s just so fascinating that that never changed. The way that humans interact – Mozart’s people did it and we do it the same now and that’s what I love about Marriage of Figaro, is that it’s so real.”
Lebel says some youth from the Delta Opera & Performance Arts Academy came to one of Figaro’s rehearsals recently and were similarly in awe of the production’s power and realness.
“It was amazing because their eyes just kind of lit up when we were rehearsing and afterwards they had a thousand questions. It was really interesting because there’s no better way to like opera then to see opera up close and then in a way you can get hooked,” she says.
Speaking of getting hooked, she’s confident Vancouver Opera’s inaugural festival has the potential to envelop people with a case of the opera bug.
“I think it is a really cool thing and I think it’s pretty unique in Canada. I mean, there are festivals, of course – but a concentrated opera festival is kind of rad,” she says.
In addition to Figaro, this year’s opera offerings also include Otello and the contemporary piece Dead Man Walking.
In an effort to rally the city around the festival, however, event organizers are pushing it as a one-stop shop for all kinds of arts events that are littered about town.
A striking art installation has been constructed outside the Queen Elizabeth Theatre for all to take in, an upcoming concert by experimental singer Tanya Tagaq, and a number of arts forums and talks make up just a sprinkling of what’s currently underway and expected to come.
Lebel, however, says what she likes most about the festival is its focus on gathering the community together around opera.
“They’ve made this opera bar tent where the performers come after the shows and where the public can also come. Basically, they’ve made this kind of hub right in front of and around the Queen E. It’s an event,” she says.
“It’s your atypical night at the opera basically.”