On February 7th, twenty-six-year-old Claire de Sevigne will perform Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte”, as part of the COC’s Ensemble Studio: Canada’s premier training program for young opera professionals.
It’s a rare opportunity for a young artist to experience the real thing, with the COC’s conductor and proper mainstage production set at the Four Seasons Centre. “We get to see what it’s really like backstage and onstage,” says Claire, “It’s a test to see if we can do what the pros do, and if we can get through it. It’s A LOT of pressure!” But it’s also a dream.
I stole the rising opera star away from rehearsal to chat about what it’s like to pursue a career in opera and what the demanding journey has looked like thus far.
When Claire de Sevigne was just a toddler, she’d fill the family home in Hudson, Quebec with sweet melodies. “What are you singing?” her mom would ask, “My song! I wrote it!” chirped little Claire, not yet old enough to read.
As it turns out, Claire’s devotion to singing wasn’t a fad. While classmates in grade school would lip synch “Wannabe” by The Spice Girls at the annual talent show, Claire would confidently sing songs she’d written, like her 80s hit “Cry Guy” about bullying.
In high school, she joined the jazz band, the concert band, sang in the local church choir and always had a fledgling rock group on the side, but her parents were cautioned not to enlist her in formal voice training until her vocal chords were fully developed.
It wasn’t until she attended CEGEP, at Montreal’s Marianopolis College, that the idea of opera even crossed her mind; she had never even heard an opera, let alone attended one. “In Music Literature, we had to watch music opera on TV. After class, I ran to the library and rented all the operas!” says Sevigne. That frenzy to the library marked the beginning of a passion that has burned steadily since.
Following CEGEP, Claire was accepted into McGill University’s undergraduate studies in vocal performance. Upon graduation, she moved to Toronto to be one of few to study vigorously at University of Toronto’s elite master’s of opera program.
If you’re like me, you visualize a small room, high up in a tower with Claire, clad in velvet, singing “FIIIIIGARO!” at the top of her lungs. Maybe that did happen, but there wasn’t as much singing as one might assume.
Claire had to learn the International Phonetic Alphabet and study music history, theory and literature. She also spent a year learning Italian, another year learning French and ANOTHER year learning German! It’s a huge investment for a career with absolutely no guarantees. But as Claire explains, “I have to sing. I just have to.”
But it’s not just the drive and talent that one requires to make it in this industry, “You need a really thick skin, it’s a lot of critique that you’re hearing every day. You need to understand that, like every artist, you’re never going to make everyone happy. You also need to be smart and sing roles that are appropriate for your voice and age. Of course, nowadays, with HD, you have to be fit and expressive with your face too! Overall, it’s the voice, but all these other things will help you get the job,” she says, “Just like being in the Olympics, you always have a coach, a teacher. There’s always more to learn.”
Right now, Claire has achieved what any young opera singer could hope for: a spot in the COC’s prestigious, and covetable, studio ensemble. The program prepares the group for a “highly competitive international environment”. It’s also an effort to entice young people, like you and I, to become reinvigorated by the classic art form.
“A lot of friends of mine, who aren’t musicians, don’t have a clue about what I do. They think the opera is boring or stuck up,” says Claire, “but when I tell them tidbits about my day, they become more interested. We’re just young artists! The same as if we were rock musicians or painters.”
To hesitant friends, she urges them to come just once; she knows that just one concert can hook them and sway their preconceptions, “I love walking away having felt something. I love the movies, but there’s nothing, NOTHING, like live performance.”
When she’s not hitting the high notes on stage, Claire is harmonizing to Beyonce in her Cabbagetown apartment, strolling into Jet Fuel for a latte and taking walks to her favourite Toronto destination: Riverdale Farm.
See Claire on stage this Friday! Buy a ticket to Mozart’s classic, Cosi fan tutte. Tickets are priced at reduced rates for the special COC Ensemble Studio performance.