“O Holy Night is my total jam,” gushes beloved soloist Measha Brueggergosman. “It’s an opera singing barn burner that comes around once a year.” This week, the opera star is flying from her home in rural Nova Scotia to Toronto to perform three back-to-back concerts for the TSO’s annual Holiday Pops event–and we’re pumped to hear her belt out the Christmas hits.
It’ll be a sweet reunion: Measha called Parkdale home for many years, and was often spotted frequenting west-end haunts: The Dakota Tavern, Not My Dog, Sam James Coffee. At one point, Mildred’s Temple Kitchen named a cocktail in her honour. “If you ever want me to come to your restaurant, just name a drink or food item after me and I’ll be yours forever,” she laughs.
A self-described “hardcore Maritimer”, Measha has roots that date back to the 1700s, when Black Loyalists first arrived in Nova Scotia. But she admits that Parkdale still has her heart. “I’ll always love coming back,” she says. The birth of her first child, however, prompted her to move home. “I realized I had no idea how to have babies in the city,” she says. Having her parents close by to help with (free) childcare was also a strong incentive.
While she loves the noise and nightlife of downtown, Measha appreciates her quiet new surroundings. Located in a village, close to the mouth of the Annapolis Valley, she drives 35 minutes to get her kids to school each morning. On the way home is when she warms up her vocals. “The life of a soloist is quite solitary,” she says. “It’s incredibly isolating. I really enjoy it because I do like a lot of time on my own.”
I envision her driving through the coastal landscape, doing scales, and ask her if she sings all day. “NO! Do you run all day?” she jokingly scoffs. “It’s a muscle! You can’t do that. It needs to recuperate. It needs moisture. It needs silence.”
As she speaks with me, she moves around her home, and tells me about a treasured photograph that lives in her living room. It shows her onstage at Roy Thomson Hall, singing to a packed audience, with the Toronto Symphony behind her. “I’ve been with them through every trajectory of my career,” says Measha, who always knew that working with the TSO was part of her destiny. A child prodigy, her talents were discovered at a very young age, and dreaming of the TSO was something she thought about often while growing up. “I never had any doubt. I was always destined to do what I’m doing. It wasn’t a question of ‘if’, but a question of ‘when’.
It was NYE, in 1999—almost exactly twenty years ago—when Measha made her debut as a soloist, alongside the TSO. Her performance was part of the millenium opera gala. Billed as the ‘up and comer’, she was slated to perform directly after famed tenor, Richard Margison. “Some people would feel as though this was working from a deficit, but I welcomed this opportunity to step into my place as the next iteration. CHALLENGE ACCEPTED!” She stepped onto the stage like she was born ready, and has been wowing audiences ever since.
Her achievements with the TSO span decades, but this is—in fact—her first Christmas concert with them. “We’ve worked really hard to find ways to showcase not just the orchestra, but also the chorus,” says Maesha, who’s especially pumped about the jazz trio within the orchestra. “It’s going to be a wonderful cross-section of all the different styles that are at your disposal at Christmas time.”
Talking about the Holiday Pops concert alone fuels Measha’s passion—something I can feel on the other side of the phone, some 1795km away. But having survived two open-heart surgeries, no matter how thrilling the material is, Measha needs to keep her cool. “Sometimes I will feel that my heart is beating faster than it should,” she says. “When I’m excited about something, I am also making sure that I’m taking deep breaths. The process of gestially remaining calm, is part of my work.”
42 is a young age to have undergone such intense medical procedures, but Measha views them as part of her journey. “My life is not any different than anyone else’s, I just happen to have been chosen twice, in a very dramatic way.” When I ask Measha about her recovery, she confesses that life is lived much differently than in the past. “Sometimes it’s hour by hour, and sometimes it’s minute by minute. My ambition and desire and energy – I have to try to keep everything as even, despite the fact that life is full of spikey patches.”
Medication aside, her training as a yoga teacher has taught her a lot about breathwork, which has helped immensely. “It’s a concept that I now really have to live out in a conscious way. It’s really physiologically beneficial to me at this point, the concept of keeping my heart rate low.”
While she’s had to slow down, her zest for life is unwavering. Following her performances with the TSO this week, she’ll touchdown in Nova Scotia for Christmas with her family, and then she’s off to France for a NYE concert. Dazzling audiences everywhere with her stunning vocals is what she’s best known for, but Measha is much more than that. She’s a fighter, a survivor, a quirky and eccentric individual who likes to live a big life. “I’m existing in my third quotient of grace,” she says, “and I’m grasping it–with both hands and white knuckles.”