To some selective scrooges, Handel’s quintessential oratorio Messiah feels as tempting as last year’s fruitcake. But when paired with the Vancouver Bach Choir and the young, vibrant soprano Simone Osborne, this year’s rendition of Messiah at the Orpheum Theatre breathes new life into the holiday classic.
“It’s going to be pretty special for me to do this at home in Vancouver,” says Osborne. “I was a young singer in the Vancouver Bach Choir as a kid; it was my first introduction to classical music.” The Vancouver-born soprano gained international acclaim after winning the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions at 21, making her one of the youngest victors. Since then, Osborne has established herself as one of the most sought-after opera performers in Canada. With critically hailed roles such as Juliette in Vancouver Opera’s 2011 Romeo et Juliette, Lauretta in Gianni Schicchi with the Canadian Opera Company in 2012, as well as the most recently joining the Vancouver Opera for the 2015-2016 season with her return to Gilda in Rigoletto, Osborne’s youth, exuberance, and impeccable style are her most distinctive praises.
“It’s actually my first Messiah, which is sort of unbelievable,” she says. “It’s a real chestnut for opera singers—something most people can look forward to every Christmas season.” Written in 1742, Messiah follows the chronicles of the King James Bible and has become one of the most played pieces in the Western canon. In the form of an oratorio, Messiah leans heavily on the performance of the soloists. “Well, it’s a bit different,” says Osborne of the oratorio performance. “You do stand with your score in an evening gown. It’s not like you have a set and a costume and a character to hide behind—you have to be the best version of yourself when you’re out there, which can be a bit daunting.” For Osborne, there are also the additional anxieties of the season. “I think there’s an added pressure to be at your best because there are people in the audience who this means a lot to,” she explains. “And then it’s about fitting the gown.” For the all-important costume, Osborne turns to Vancouver designer (and childhood babysitting employer) Catherine Regehr. “Half of my wardrobe is her gowns,” says Osborne. “It’s pretty cool to go on stage at Carnegie Hall in a gown that your neighbour from Vancouver made for you. It sort of reminds me of where I came from.”
Osborne had been preparing for a life as an opera singer even before her babysitting gigs. At a young age, she became the pupil of famed American mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne. “Someone like that who has literally done everything and performed everywhere, for someone to come and sort of guide you as a mentor at that early stage, that’s something I’ll never be able to repay her for,” says Osborne. “All the amazing lessons. And one of those lessons is that singing isn’t a career choice, it’s a life choice. It demands that you treat your body as your instrument like an athlete does.”
But like any professional, Osborne understands her limits. And for an operatic athlete, that means no loud restaurants, eating right, and exercise. But perhaps with a little persuasion, Osborne can be nudged into some off-season play. “I have to be careful about karaoke,” she says. “But when I’m very much off of performances, maybe in the summertime, if I’ve got a few weeks off: anything Adele.” Osborne won’t be hitting up the karaoke route anytime soon, but for now can be seen calling hello from the other side as Messiah’s choice soprano.