In Conversation – Suzie LeBlanc, Part I

Soprano Suzie LeBlanc and violinist David Greenberg share a talent for using written music as a vocabulary for improvisation … Following the goings on with the ear, however, was, like LeBlanc’s voice, a pure and translucent delight. The audience reaction at the end of the concert rang the rafters.
– Stephen Pedersen, The Chronicle Herald, 2011

Suzie Leblanc is an internationally acclaimed Canadian soprano. Her most recent project was the album I Am in Need of Music, a group of 11 songs whose settings she commissioned from six prominent Canadian composers and whose lyrics were based on the poems of Elizabeth Bishop, a new England poet who spent her formative years in Canada’s Maritime provinces (read the Voice review here). In order to prepare to sing these poems for the album, as well as for sheer love of Bishop’s poetry, Suzie and artist Linda Rae Dornan retraced the steps of a hike Bishop took through Newfoundland in 1932 (this is documented in the video ?Walking with EB?). Recently she took the time to answer Wanda Waterman’s questions about her Acadian childhood, her musical education, and her favourite mentors.

Bugs, plants, and encyclopedia bedtimes

My childhood was both active and quiet. I was interested in sports (gymnastics, swimming, and dancing), and I spent a lot of time conversing with bugs and plants and reading the encyclopedia in my bed at night, especially articles about animals?the stranger the better.

Some happy moments I remember were walking in the woods with my father. He was supposedly hunting but never shot an animal in my presence. He knew the names of every bird and would teach me to recognize them.

I also spent hours chatting with my father’s decoys, which I remember as highly entertaining. I wonder what we talked about!

School phobia

I had fun playing school with my sisters but happiness went out the window when I began going to a school far away from home. I had school phobia and hated having to get on the bus.

I grew up in Edmundston, New Brunswick. We moved to Montreal for two years when I was five and this was where I started school. Then we moved back to New Brunswick (Moncton) where I stayed until I turned 16.

The joy of choir

I was very fortunate to have grown up in the Maritimes where there have always been many wonderful choirs. I began singing with ?Les Jeunes Chanteurs d?Acadie? when I was seven or eight, and it was then that I discovered my love of music, words, pronunciation, discipline, and ensemble music-making. The conductor was Lorette Gallant (then a nun), a passionate woman with a great love of music. She taught us to give our best. I also took flute lessons and taught recorder to the kids in my class who had trouble with it.

Transfixing moments

The strongest musical element, though, was no doubt my mother, who had been a professional singer, winning the CBC contest ?The Singing Stars of Tomorrow? when she was 17. She sang opera, gave recitals, and studied for two years with Elizabeth Schumann in New York. At home she sang little, but once in while she would escape in song and it was exhilarating, if a bit frightening, to watch her transform.

I also remember lying under the piano bench while my sister practiced Debussy’s ?La Cath├ędrale Engloutie? and Bach’s chorale ?Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland.? I stayed there for hours, listening, watching her feet move the pedals.

Falling in love with early music

When I was 15 or 16 I went to Barbados with my family and fell in love with Italian 17th century music. How? The apartment we rented had one classical music recording: vocal music by Monteverdi that included the wonderful ?Lamento della Ninfa.?

This piece affected me deeply and I sang it for hours while walking on the beach or swimming, creating my own variations on the famous ground bass. Later on, I heard the same composer in a concert by the Studio de Musique Ancienne de Montreal, and decided on the spot that this music would be my life’s music.

As a singer and lover of Early Music, my first and largest influence was Emma Kirkby. I had all her recordings and taught myself how to sing by listening and trying to imitate her phrasing, ease, and virtuosity.

It’s not a surprise that a few years later I was chosen to sing in her place in the ?Concert of Musicke? for eight months while she gave birth to her first child, Nicholas. This was one of the strongest educational experiences of my life?a crash-course in pulling my weight in one of the best European vocal groups, learning new repertoire quickly, and singing performance after performance with a team of excellent musicians around me. There was no better (or quicker) school of learning!

Other mentors have been people I’ve worked with: John Toll, Rachel Podger, Stephen Stubbs, Erin Headley, Alexander Weimann, Richard Egarr, Jaap ter Linden, Charles Daniels, Marco Beasley, Bruce Dicky, Robert Kortgaard, Yannick Nezet-Seguin, and Julius Drake.

(to be continued next week)

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