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Spotlights on Hélène Brunet

The celebrated Canadian soprano Hélène Brunet makes her ATMA Classique solo album debut with Solfeggio, a program of hand-picked baroque and classical arias for which she feels a deep affinity.

Hélène Brunet is hailed as “a singer of tremendous quality” with “a voice of perfect beauty and sincere expression.” Recognized for her interpretations of Bach, Handel, and Mozart, her repertoire extends from Baroque to the music of the 20th and 21st centuries. Hélène sings at the Tage Alter Musik Regensburg, and the American Bach Soloists in San Francisco, the American Classical Orchestra at Lincoln Center in New York City, and the Orchestre Métropolitain under the baton of Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who says, “Hélène Brunet is the embodiment of class, refinement, and purity.”

We recently caught up with Hélène to chat about her early years, musical collaborations, and what she finds most inspiring.

Congratulations on your debut album, Solfeggio! How does it feel to release your first recording into the world?

Thank you!! I am so very thrilled with the release of my first solo album! This has been a very special project for me and above all, a labour of love! Introducing myself on an album, singing my favourite baroque arias is a dream I’ve had ever since my university undergrad years. It still feels very surreal and I do not take it for granted! This album is very personal. To have been able to craft this project from start to finish alongside my dream team at ATMA Classique and with ensemble l’Harmonie des saisons has truly been a privilege. As I write this, I still find myself so moved to have been able to enjoy total freedom every step of the way, from selecting repertoire that truly represents me, to conceptualizing the cd booklet! What an artistically fun and enriching experience!

How did you first discover that you had a special talent for singing?

Oh… what a tricky question! I think it’s one of those things where, even when digging through my earliest memories, it’s impossible to remember the very moment I discovered my passion for singing as a child! Music is a language, and I think that early on, that language resonated with me. I understood it in my heart, and that was just the way I expressed myself as a young girl. I was constantly making noise, humming, singing… even at the dinner table! No boundaries! But I was still a shy kid, and it was actually years before I finally took singing lessons and performed in front of others. As a child, I just knew I was a singer, but I was in no rush. I absorbed music and it simmered. Pursuing singing seriously would eventually come later. Things moved at just the right pace!

Solfeggio is dedicated to your high school music teachers, Mr. Clark and Mr. Holowitz. What impact did they have on your development as a singer?

Ever since I was a teenager, I told myself that if I were ever to record an album, my dream would be to dedicate it to my first and most influential music teachers. In a way, I still think that my years in high school were the best years of my life! Adolescence can be a very difficult stage in a young person’s life, however, in my case, Mr. Clark and Mr. Holowitz provided a free and joyful environment where I was able to find my voice – both metaphorically and literally! In their presence and through music, I developed a deep sense of self and honest confidence in who I was, and that was the priceless gift I received from these two lovely, amazing educators! They were there during critical years in my life and I am so lucky to have crossed paths with them! They are in my heart always.

You describe growing up in a home that was constantly alive with every type of music – jazz, pop, blues, soul, film scores, etc. How has exposure to so many different genres influenced the way you approach performances as a lyric soprano?

My mother reminded me recently that she used to listen to a lot of classical music when she was pregnant with me and when she was nursing. I wonder if that had an impact on me… I like to think that it did! To name only a few, we listened to artists like Queen, Tears for Fears, Genesis, Pink Floyd, Oleta Adams, Simply Red, Annie Lennox, Ray Charles, Tony Bennett, Barry White, Stevie Wonder, Earth Wind and Fire, and the music of movie composers like Hans Zimmer, James Horner, John Barry, Thomas Newman or Vangelis. Being exposed to such a rich variety of musical genres was like being in a candy store! I wanted it all! I was in awe of the commanding stage presence and artistry of singers like Barbra Streisand and Céline Dion. When I’m on stage, I think I try to channel all these singers, but while wearing an elegant gown singing Bach, Handel or Mozart! These artists have essentially taught me how to sing baroque music. I think that all these different genres share the same intensity, deep passion, groove, and coloratura as classical music. Baroque repertoire allows me to have a whole lot of fun with my voice in the way I swing it from lower to higher registers and play with its rock ‘n’ roll moments or more intimate, sensitive nuances and deep expression.

Your performances of baroque music in particular have been especially well received. What’s the secret behind your special affinity with this repertoire? What draws you to it?

Although I very much enjoy singing various types of classical music, somehow I do have a very special connection to the baroque repertoire and the music of Mozart. I can’t get enough of Bach’s music. His musical universe feels like home. Singing sacred repertoire in the German language is where my heart lives. It’s the sheer beauty of his music, and the pain or the longing that colour the harmonic tensions in the score that is so irresistible. And it’s that indescribably special place where his music takes you that puts a spell on all our hearts I think.

Any classical music can be described as extremely invigorating, exciting, or moving. However for me, the baroque repertoire really embodies these qualities because of its particular melodic and harmonic language mixed with the unique colours of period instruments, the sheer intensity that animates string instruments, all of that coupled with the incredible passion that feeds vocal lines.

And with Mozart, it’s his signature use of colours with the woodwinds and horns that soar through the orchestra. It’s so divine I almost can’t handle it. And it’s the way he writes for voices. Whether it’s the fun athletic quality of his coloratura passages (so satisfying to sing!), or his melodic lines that float and soar to the heavens, his writing is always full of deep expression. His operatic characters, for instance, often reveal true vulnerability, which is so moving. Mozart’s music is so sophisticated, yet simple and pure. He is truly timeless.

Solfeggio includes the world premiere of two arias by Leonardo Vinci (not to be confused with the great painter Leonardo Da Vinci!). Can you tell us a little about these arias and how you came to know of their existence?

I wanted to add a special touch to this album and thought it would be so neat to offer music that had never been recorded before! And so when I was searching for repertoire, I asked my dear friend and very talented colleague, the countertenor Michael Taylor, to contribute some ideas. That’s when he suggested I should take a look at the opera Elpidia, a pastiche opera gathering some of the most popular opera arias from Venice in 1724, written by various composers and weaved together using a pre-existing libretto. Nearly half of the arias shaping this opera were composed by Leonardo Vinci, a contemporary of Handel. In fact, this pasticcio opera was the first of its kind to be produced at the London Haymarket Theatre in 1725, where Handel himself was artistic director! An interesting fact is that Handel had, up until then, resisted programming pastiche operas … it just goes to show you that Handel must have thought this material to be alluring enough!

Your work with Mélisande Corriveau, Eric Milnes, and l’Harmonie des Saisons goes back a few years. What makes your collaboration with them so special?

Mélisande and Eric are so incredibly talented. Every time we share the stage together, I am in awe of their artistry, their genius musicality and expressivity. They are wonderful friends and very special colleagues. Every project together is musically and artistically so gratifying and I never take for granted any opportunity to work with them. The first time we ever rehearsed and performed together was such an effortless experience. From day one, the chemistry was there. Collaborating with l’Harmonie des saisons is pure joy!  There is a deep and natural understanding of what we wish to express together through a shared sense of musical style. I couldn’t have done this album with anyone else and I dream of many more recording projects with them!

Interview by Luisa Trisi, Big Picture Communications