The winter issue of Opera Canada will be on newsstands this month. Here are some highlights from my Suzie LeBlanc profile which appear in the issue.
“I always begin from the text.” Those who know her primarily through the coloraturas and trills of her early music pieces may be surprised by these words by Suzie LeBlanc, but a closer look at her multi-faceted career will confirm a great love of text and language as essential to music. “I used to be an instrumentalist – a harpsichord player – and when I switched to singing I was relieved to find words. I have words now! I love melody but for me it is there to enhance what I’m talking about. I love observing how composers take a word or a phrase and bring it out with the harmonies. When I work on a new piece, I have my own idea how the music of the text works before I go over to the composer.”
First big break was with the New World Consort, a renaissance ensemble from Vancouver.
“It just so happened that Emma Kirkby was pregnant and they asked me to come and audition. They had heard me before and they thought I sounded a bit like Emma. So I got the job replacing her.” This lasted a year, but LeBlanc and the NWC continued collaborating ad hoc, whenever the ensemble needed another soprano. Years on, Kirkby and LeBlanc would record together Buxtehude cantatas and Schütz’s Symphoniae Sacrae, both with the Purcell Quartet.
On the commonalities between the early music and folk, both of which she performs and records frequently.
“The folk music I’ve been doing is Acadian, which originates between the thirteenth-to-seventeenth centuries in France. So much of the tunes that we find are renaissance and early baroque. I find that lots of the so called court or learned music from the early music period sometimes borrows from the folk melodies; they’re amazingly close in terms of harmonies and melodies… Of course you can do the melodies to any style, you can do them in contemporary style and it all works. But I approach folk with what I know from early music, and try to re-give it a bit of its origin. And at the same time make it work for what we like as musicians today. Our music still retains a bit of its original flavour which was passed down orally in that we don’t use arrangements — we don’t buy arrangements. We have a tune and we make our own arrangements.” Of note among her folk recordings: Tout passe and La mer jolie.
In recent years LeBlanc has been rediscovering Romantic and post-Romantic world of Lieder and mélodies.
“I think Richard Strauss taught me to sing more than any other composer. I would say Mozart as well. The way Strauss writes for the soprano voice teaches you how to sing. All of which you can then adapt and put into early music and it helps. If you don’t actually sing well, you can’t sing it at all. Same with Mozart, if you don’t sing well, you can get through the phrases.” Schumann also, she adds, but not in the same way as Strauss. “Strauss teaches the soprano how to float, how to sing high notes without getting tired.” This summer, she sang Strauss’s the Mädchenblumen and the Drei Liebeslieder and toured the recital with the pianist Julius Drake. “There is that incredible lyrical phrase that just goes on and on and on, on a thread. Once you get the hang of it, it’s the most pleasurable physical experience.”
Photo by Tara McMullen