The Canadian Opera Company kicks off its 2007/08 season not with a bang but with a buffa—Mozart’s comic opera The Marriage of Figaro. One of the composer’s most beloved works, Figaro tells the dizzyingly interconnected love (and lust) stories of a philandering count, his wily countess and their plucky servants Figaro and Susanna.
Inspired casting makes tickets to the show a must: soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian shares the role of the much-in-demand housemaid Susanna with Chinese soprano Ying Huang. (Bayrakdarian performs October 21, 24, 27, 30, and November 2). Born in Lebanon of Armenian heritage, raised in Toronto and celebrated by critics around the world, Bayrakdarian opens up about life as a renowned opera diva.
You’ve performed at some of the world’s most famed opera houses. What’s a personal highlight?
My debut at the Canadian Opera Company was very special. It was 1998 and I’d never sung a big role in a mainstage performance. I was the understudy for Rosina in The Barber of Seville and at the last minute, I was asked to sing the opening night performance. It was a thrilling experience, laced with both nervousness and excitement. Having a wonderful colleague such as Russell Braun as my Figaro helped, but most importantly, having my “guardian angel” Richard Bradshaw at the helm of the orchestra helped tremendously in giving me the confidence to shine that evening and enjoy every single minute.
You’ve been most celebrated for your performances in Mozart’s operas. Do you have a personal connection to these pieces?
I love singing the Mozart heroines for two very important reasons. First and foremost, these roles have sublime and divine music that’s pure joy to sing, interpret and project. Mozart really loved singers, literally and figuratively speaking, so I feel that anything he wrote for the human voice has a natural “fit” to that voice type. The second reason is that his characters immediately come to life on stage.
What kind of music do you like?
Years ago, I got hooked on the band Muse, from England. It’s rock, but you can hear the classical training of the musicians behind the music. I love listening to Feist and Joni Mitchell. A lot of Latin-influenced music has a permanent place in my CD collection, like fado, the traditional and hypnotic music of Portugal—Misia or Mariza are great interpreters. Vocal flamenco is perfect for those “dark” days that are best spent alone. And, of course, tango.
Are any familiar faces in the audience when you perform in Toronto?
I live in Toronto with my husband, and both our families live here, so it’s wonderful to be surrounded by close family members. Singing in Toronto is a special joy because it means I drive to work instead of flying to work, and I come back at the end of the day to sleep in my own bed instead of a hotel room.
Many would be surprised to learn that you have a biomedical engineering degree from the University of Toronto. How did you move from engineering to music?
I started to take singing lessons on the side, as a hobby at first. This hobby developed into a passion so that by my last year of engineering, I couldn’t wait to graduate so that I could pursue singing, which coincidentally I did, starting the very same day as my graduation. I got my diploma in the morning, and by that evening I was in Glimmerglass Opera rehearsing for my debut role as the goddess Diana in Gluck’s opera Iphigénie en Tauride. As they say, I haven’t looked back!
Isabel’s Top 10 in Toronto
1 Bonjour Brioche: The baguette is to die for.
2 Sushi on Bloor (515 Bloor St. W.): You’ll never taste fresher fish.
3 Burrito Boyz (218 Adelaide St. W.): Their trick of toasting the tortilla makes all the difference.
4 Arz Bakery (1909 Lawrence Ave. E.): Every time I shop there, the car gets crammed.
5 Civello: Blond highlights on a brunette? Ana Karzis achieves the perfect balance.
6 Dufflet Pastries: Oh, the countless times they’ve come to my rescue when entertaining.
7 Queen Street West: I pop into Zara to get my Spanish fashion kick.
8 Biking on the lakeshore puts me in touch with nature.
9 Royal Ontario Museum: Something for everyone.
10 L’Atelier Grigorian for classical music recordings.