Joining us in this season’s Handel Messiah is a stellar line-up of soloists: soprano Joanne Lunn, countertenor James Laing, tenor Rufus Müller, and baritone Brett Polegato. We sat down with our four soloists to find out a bit more about them. Enjoy!
How did you come to decide to sing?
Joanne Lunn, soprano: I have always loved singing: I believe I used to drive my brother crazy when we were children by constantly singing. I joined the church choir as soon as they would have me. I can vividly remember that I would stand up and sing my heart out in the final hymn on a Sunday when the choir processed by, hoping someone would hear and say I could join!
James Laing, countertenor: I had always enjoyed classical music and ended up singing in the bass section in my school choir. There was a time when lots of the trebles voices broke and suddenly the bass row was overflowing. However, there was a space beckoning amongst the ladies on the alto row …
Rufus Müller, tenor: Apparently I sang before I could talk. But when it came to deciding if I could sing professionally, when I sang as a student in the Tallis Scholars, I asked a couple of my professional colleagues in the ensemble if I had a chance of making a living in London. Countertenor Michael Chance simply laughed and said, “Don’t be ridiculous!” I took that to be a “Yes.”
Brett Polegato, baritone: In school, I was somewhat of a math geek. I was also involved in many in-school instrumental ensembles (I played oboe and tenor saxophone) and after-school choirs. I was offered a full scholarship to Waterloo for Computer Science and to the University of Toronto for Vocal Performance. I chose music with the thought that, if it didn’t work out, I could always go back to math. Thirty years later, I’m still singing!
What was your first music gig?
Joanne: I won a competition that the BBC ran when I was young called “Choirgirl of the Year.” That year-long experience of concerts, radio broadcasts, and recording sessions really made me decide that I might just be able to give singing a go.
James: My first solo gig was performing “Come ye sons of art” by Purcell at a small church in … errr … Buckinghamshire? There is a wonderful countertenor duet within the piece, “Sound the trumpet,” and my partner on this occasion was one of my heroes, James Bowman. Talk about pressure: the grandfather of countertenors and the upstart whippersnapper!
Rufus: My first paid gig was while I was at university, singing the baritone (yes, baritone!) solos in Duruflé’s Requiem for a local choral society. I think I got £20.
Brett: My first professional gig was singing Figaro for Opera Atelier in their production of The Marriage of Figaro. Conductor Marc Minkowski was making his North America debut, and Tafelmusik was in the pit. In fact, I left an opera diploma program to accept this gig. Not a bad way for a 24-year-old to start!
What is your “guilty pleasure” music to listen to?
Joanne: I listen to a wide variety of music ranging from medieval right up to music from the charts, courtesy of my children!
James: Oooh, tough one but you can’t go wrong with a bit of Dolly Parton.
Rufus: The Carpenters! Karen Carpenter’s voice was one of the most creamy, sensuous voices in the pop world — ever. And her fight to the death with anorexia gives a plangent edge to everything she sang.
Brett: Broadway recordings. I can’t get enough showtunes!
What is your favourite thing to do on a day off?
Joanne: Walking along the white cliffs in Kent on a sunny day near where we holiday regularly, with a hearty meal at the pub halfway of course!
James: Spend time with my family — my wife certainly appreciates being able to offload our four children on me!
Rufus: In the summer, going to the beach. In the winter, daydreaming about being on the beach.
Brett: Read. I’m an avid reader and a collector of first-edition, signed books.
What is the most challenging aspect of singing Messiah for you?
Joanne: I love singing Messiah! It is my challenge after having sung it so many times to keep it fresh, as if it were the first time I had ever sung it: for myself, for the audience, and most importantly for the sake of the message it tells.
James: The challenge for me is trying to get an audience to not just “listen”’ to the piece, but to really engage with it. A difficult thing to do with such a well-known work.
Rufus: Remembering my words in the alto-tenor duet near the end: “Oh death”? or “Oh grave”? On one occasion I sang: “The sin of death is Sting.” Oh, no! Now I’m going to be nervous about it in Toronto — why did I agree to answer these questions!!
Brett: Each bass aria requires a different weight, colour, and articulation. I work hard at trying to fulfil the impossible demands of each while balancing the set as a whole. It’s fortunate for me as a baritone that the tessitura gets progressively higher as the evening goes on, so I can “warm up” into them. At the final aria, “The Trumpet Shall Sound,” when many basses are ready to call it a night, I’m ready to raise the roof!
What Messiah part do you especially look forward to?
James: Funnily enough, my favourite part is non-vocal: the Pifa orchestral interlude which introduces the shepherds. I love the translucent quality you get from the strings and the way that every section has an intertwining voice. Simple and beautiful.
Brett: Every year, I look forward to the response from the audience. Robert Shaw used to say to his choristers before a performance: “Remember, there is someone here tonight who’s hearing this piece for the first time. And someone here who’s hearing it for the last time.” I think of this particularly when I perform Messiah, which for so many audience members is an annual tradition. I ask myself: who will NOT be here next year to hear this? It reminds me to make each performance count.