This is how I first heard of Heather Flemming: the Belgian public radio station has been live-commenting the Queen Elisabeth singing competition back in May (Camille de Rijck was behind the Musiq3 handle), and this popped up in my Twitter feed, followed by the exchange below:
The rest is, as they say, browser history. I found Heather’s home page (impressive schooling, promising beginnings) and Twitter account and am looking forward to following this young artist as she builds her career.
How did you find your (contralto) voice in the course of your music education and after? My impression is there are never enough contraltos among singers of the younger generations in Canada, and I can’t remember seeing any in competitions and ensemble studios lately. (Is the situation better at McGill and in Quebec in general on this issue?)
Finding my contralto voice has been a journey in itself! I first began singing as a young girl attempting to sing soprano with a rather hefty voice with lack of top register…this was very limiting. It was during my undergraduate degree with a wonderful teacher Monette Gould (still one of my great mentors), that I began exploring the possibility of my voice deepening and adapting to a more natural mezzo-soprano quality. During my masters degree I gained access to my contralto register actually by accident. I was studying with soprano Joanne Kolomyjec when she discovered I had the ability to imitate a ‘false tenor’ voice, impressed with the color, she was able to help me turn this into something useful! At this point I still lacked a top voice and as we were developing the top, my bottom voice began to grow also. This is when we discovered I had the ability and the color to sing contralto repertoire. What often impressed people was that I was able to sing in the contralto register without the sound becoming brassy, edgy or harsh sounding. It maintained a warm quality which I am thankful for.
Yes, I too agree there are not enough of this voice type, especially in the younger generations. It is sometimes a mystery as to why this is. In my opinion, it is not that we have a lack of these voices (though they are indeed, and will always be, a rare breed), it is that there is a lack of opportunities in which to showcase this voice type. We are of the generation of ‘flashy, exciting, high note galore, stratospheric fireworks, which does not lend itself kindly to the contralto, or lower dramatic mezzo-sopranos. Apprenticeship programs rarely take chances on these voice types because they feel it limits their casting. These voice types tend to sing smaller roles, or in some cases, like mine, more Wagnerian or Verdi roles, which younger training programs tend not to program. I wouldn’t say the situation is better at McGill or in Quebec, I would say it is sadly, currently a global issue.
Your appearance at the Queen Elisabeth competition this year was an exciting exception.
Thank you! Yes, the Queen Elizabeth Competition is incredibly selective. I do think being a contralto was both a service as well as a disservice for me. I think being a Canadian contralto helped me in being selected, but it was also difficult for me to compete against the ‘firey’ sopranos and tenors and other voice types with ‘show stopping’ entertaining repertoire. I think biology does have a lot to do with voice type, especially in contraltos: aside the lack of roles/opportunities for this voice type, it is still not a common one.
We did have a couple of star contraltos in Canada over the last few decades (of course– Lemieux and Forrester) and I hope they helped pave the way for other future contraltos…Were there any of import in the US, or do they tend to end up, due to larger career opportunities, promoting themselves as dramatic mezzos (I’m thinking Dolora Zajick, Stephanie Blythe, Michelle de Young)?
Maureen Forrester has most definitely helped to pave the way for contraltos, however during her ‘reign’ as the Canadian contralto, things were very different in the arts. There were more opportunities for concert work, Mahler symphonies, oratorios etc. It is noted that Forrester rarely performed operatic works, and to be honest, she did not really need to. She was kept very busy as a concert artist, which is much more difficult to do today. Why? Well it just seems that we are of the ‘operatic’ entertainment decade, or what sometimes feels, century! I would say that most contraltos in order to survive in the operatic repertoire, lend themselves to the dramatic mezzo soprano Fach. Yes, all of those mezzo-sopranos mentioned consider themselves dramatic mezzo-sopranos. If you want to be able to make a living you almost need to be able to spread yourself between the two fachs, at least to some degree.
Career paths for a contralto can be tricky. First and foremost, I would advise students to never limit themselves. Contraltos often tend to be placed in a box which can be very restricting, so I strongly advice students to continue to expand their horizons to gain the optimal amount of opportunity. This may mean some opera, some oratorio, passions, masses, concert work, contemporary work. Truthfully, for a career you may need to be a multiple trick pony, so to speak, and grab everything that is handed to you! Never underestimate high notes, though singing a high C may not be necessary for every low voice, contraltos do still need high notes. To me, it sometimes feels that we are the voice type that needs to be able to do it all.
Does the much more extensive and diverse baroque and early music scene in Europe make a huge difference for a contralto? Or maybe the fact that the Mahler lieder and other lieder rep in which a contralto can shine are also more frequently performed there than in N.A.?
It is somewhat true that the concert repertoire, symphonic repertoire and lieder repertoire are more frequently performed in Europe, but I feel that it is because there are so many smaller symphonies and venues in which to gain opportunities. However, though it seems very easy to just ‘cross the pond’ to sing, it is much more difficult than that. Making a name for yourself is very difficult, much more than people realize. Sometimes companies or agencies will only hear you based on your experience level, if you have not yet been engaged with a well recognized company than some will not even take the liberty to hear you. Like many people in multiple professions today, they simply want you to have experience first. However, sometimes it seems that no one will give you the experience…a two edged sword! I am still very much in the process of learning all of this myself and figuring out ways to help get my name out there and to be heard. You could have the best voice in the world, but if no one knows who you are it can be difficult to be recognized.
Competitions can help for some, but for different reasons, some voices do not compete well. No, not because they lack in ability or beauty of sound, but because winning competitions is hard to do! You must exude a certain level of flashiness; which with some voices, though they may be incredible, have trouble achieving this recognition. I have learned that in some competitions it is not always the best voice that wins, sometimes it is the most entertaining. But of course that is not the truth for all competitions. I continue to remind myself daily, there is not one road to the top and am often reminded of the famous words by Robert Frost “two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one less traveled by and that has made all the difference.”
Your top five works for contralto that you either performed or would love to perform?
This is a tough one! I am constantly discovering new works each day as I continue to grow in this field. However, if I must choose 5 I would say that my picks for where I am currently in my life would be the following. In no particular order:
- Mahler – Urlicht (Symphony No. 2 4th movement) I have not yet sung this piece but REALLY hope to soon! Listen to Maureen Forrester sing this (via the wonderful YouTube) with Glenn Gould conducting and try not shed a tear…I dare you.
- Wagner – Weiche Wotan, Weiche! also known as Erda’s aria from Das Rheingold. This is my go-to aria, the one I frequently use for auditions, the one that tends to turn heads or at least have panels look up from staring at my resume during an audition (hehe). It is by no means ‘flashy’ but it is definitely intense!! I have not yet performed this role, but look forward to that someday.
- Elgar – Sea Pictures. I have performed this cycle with piano, but hope to sing it with orchestra someday. It is beautiful, descriptive, picturesque and one of the most beautiful works for contralto/mezzo-soprano.
- Bach – Es ist Vollbracht (St. John Passion). I am currently working on this aria and am in love with it. I love Bach, my soul sings when I hear Bach. His works have taught me so much about breath support, line, flexibility and musicianship.
- Robert Fleming – The Confession Stone (Canadian Cycle). This cycle is dear to my heart, not only because of the text but also because it is some of the best Canadian writing ever written! The piece follows the journey of Mary, told from her perspective, from the birth of Jesus through to His resurrection. It is captivating, moving and chilling and I hope to continue to work on this cycle and perform it throughout my career. Singing in church is where I discovered my voice, as a believer and Christian, sacred works are first and for most my passion and will forever give me grounding and continue to give me reason to sing.