Arts Soprano Melanie Gall on opera, performance and the American Spring Festival
In this week’s Arts my guest is Canadian opera singer Melanie Gall – a soprano who has performed around the world including in Israel, Italy, France and the Czech Republic. This week she dropped by Radio Prague’s studio to discuss upcoming performances at this year’s American Spring Festival. She’s is a charming guest with a great sense of humour and Melanie talks not only about what she’ll be performing while in Prague but also about opera in general.
“I began training when I was six years old. Basically there was this little competition every year with the schools and I kept winning it, from ages 6 – 8. In school, they had us draw pictures of what we wanted to be when we grew up and I thought ‘wait a minute...you get presents and flowers if you are a singer.’! So that is when I started; but you don’t really start vocal training until after your voice changes at the age of 16. So I took acting lessons and dancing classes which didn’t take, and really started when I was 15 or 16.”
Minus the voice change, is a young age generally a good time to get started?
“Definitely. And you can start learning piano then and music theory. People don’t realise that it isn’t like American or Czech Idol: by the time you reach university you are expected to know music theory and it is much easier at six than at 16.”
It must take a lot of dedication and hard work: what was your childhood like? Did you have one?
“Oh, well it’s nothing like when you learn violin and have to practice six hours a day. So I did. When you are singer you don’t sing all that much and when you do, you get those flowers and presents! So it’s pretty sweet!”
As a teen did you have any favourite things that you liked performing?
“At that point The Phantom of the Opera had just come out and we were all EMO and we wanted to be in it: we thought ‘if only someone would kidnap me and take me to the opera! All of us taking singing classes wanted something in Phantom! But of course that goal changed.”
“I have sung quite a few lyric roles including The Queen of the Night which is a dramatic role which you can sing if you have a lighter voice. But lately I’ve been doing a lot of shows that aren’t opera, which are quasi-classical. So, it’s not classical music exactly and as a result is more dramatic and less lyrical. If it’s, say, Edith Piaf music, she smoked and drank and she had quite the life, so you need to growl a lot! Which is not how you are taught, but it is fun.”
And how exactly do you prepare for that?
“You don’t smoke, you don’t drink! It’s just a different way of singing. It’s interesting: good vocal technique... there is really only one way to sing well. You can take those skills and use them other ways but proper support is proper support; proper vocal production is proper vocal production. But, taking that, you can use that as a basis and play around with it and do things your teachers would be shocked. You can make it sound as if it was unhealthy, but in a healthy way.”
I just recently saw a performance of The Magic Flute in Prague so I have it fresh in my memory: did you enjoy playing the Queen of the Night?
“Well... there isn’t all that much to the role. If you know The Magic Flute, you come onstage three times: you come on once and sing your first aria, you come on again and sing the most famous one that everybody knows, and you come on at the end and look defeated. That’s pretty much it! Aside from basically pointing and looking angry, there isn’t all that much to it. It’s more about vocal fireworks. It was funny: the costume I was given was too small so I was more concerned with the fact that I shouldn’t really have been in public in that dress!”
How did you get involved with the International Dvořák Society?
“I knew an ambassador who knew one here and he got in touch with the society. I am really lucky: they are fantastic: generally I have a pretty free reign over what I perform. And the Czech Republic is a fantastic place to premiere pieces.”
What are you going to be performing this year?
“Several different pieces: a group of Edith Piaf songs because everyone loves Piaf – or they should! Then there will be something from The Phantom of the Opera as well. It depends on which concert: I will be performing some Handel, and some Hebrew music with the orchestra – some sung in Hebrew, some sung in Czech. There will be some songs by Dvořák and again... Edith Piaf! With the orchestra, they commissioned arrangements of the pieces so these are arrangements no one has ever heard before and they are beautiful.”
As a layman I am curious: with someone with your experience, do nerves ever play a role?
“As far as the singing is concerned: no. Because, vocally I know what I am doing and I am pretty steady with that. As far as the Czech... sometimes, yes! It can be stressful because I don’t want to sound ill-prepared and I want to sound good so I am always a little nervous singing in Czech.”
“Well I have worked with the people here, I’ve coached with them, as well as... some guy on the bus, someone at the airport, someone on the subway! I just keep reading to different people and they give me a funny look but help me with it.”
Reading about your career I was amazed by how many different projects you are involved with. It’s not just singing, you also write, and you wrote something called Europe: A Savvy Girl’s Guide – I wanted to ask you about that.
“That was a book I wrote back in 2007 and I had been to Europe to sing several times, mostly to the, France & Italy and a bit in Belgium, and I realised that for a woman or girl going to Europe for the first few times there was no book that told you how to pack, communicate, get a SIM card, what do if you get caught without a ticket on the subway. Those are really all kinds of things that I’ve done, as a cautionary tale! I am working on the second edition now.”
And you did the illustrations as well?
All the things that you are involved with... what about film? There is a clip on your website from some dark thriller in a scene in which you were an extra which lasts five or six seconds...
“Yes. I sometimes work as an extra and it’s not a bad work. Good food, too. I’ve also been on quite a few commercials: you spend most of the time sitting around but you do get to meet some interesting people.”
It’s almost impossible to think about extras’ work now without thinking of the series by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant... and it struck me that you included it on the site to poke a little fun at yourself: you are on-screen for two seconds!
“That’s right, two glorious seconds! The funny thing is that with friends who I went to high school with back in the day, they don’t care about opera or any of that stuff. But if they see you standing in the background in an episode of ‘Law & Order’ you’ve made it! So it’s not important but if they think it is, why not?”
Your work has taken you all around the world, travelling intensively: South America, Europe, the Near East. When you do get home, what do you look forward to?
“Home is still divided between Edmonton/Calgary but New York is where I live most of the time. And New York can be a hard place to live. It is fun, but you always have roommates because life there is expensive. It can also be a pain if you don’t have a car to get around. But then there is something about New York that sets it apart from every other city. Every time you go out, something happens and it’s an adventure. I’ve found that similar about European cities too. So while a part of me always dreads going back to NYC a little bit – it’s always a bit dirtier, hauling groceries is a pain – the simultaneous reaction is also always ‘Thank goodness, I’m back, I won’t ever leave!’.”