Singing in Russian, coffee, and the perils of bad advice: SesayArts in Conversation with Soprano Shannon Mercer

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.

Canadian soprano Shannon Mercer (photo by Helen Tansey)

Canadian soprano Shannon Mercer (photo by Helen Tansey)

The 5 at the First Chamber Music Series is a hidden gem among Southern-Ontario classical music scene. Its line-up boasts some of Canada’s finest classical musicians performing in the intimacy of Hamilton’s First Unitarian Church. The final concert of this season bears the innocuous title “Different Romances” and combines the diverse talents of cellist and series co-founder Rachel Mercer, pianist Andrew Burashko, violinist Yehonatan Berick, and soprano Shannon Mercer.

The title might be deceptively simple, considering that it refers to the extreme ways that the idea of “romance” can be used in art –   kind of turning it on its head – muses Rachel Mercer, who created the program. “Pas de Deux, John Burge‘s duo for violin and cello, is definitely a love duet, but with moments of discord and strife,” she explains. “‘The Shostakovich Trio #2′” is passionate and about the human condition…about a different kind of human relationship or ‘romance’. We hope that the audience finds in this program the range, from extreme passion, darkness, light–and perhaps almost ugliness at moments–which makes the moments of beauty (of which there will be many!) even more special.”

Also on the program is Dmitri Shostakovich’s song cycle “Seven Romances on Poems of Alexander Blok,” composed for his wife, soprano Galina Vishnevskaya. Blok’s poems are dark and austere, sometimes disturbing, yet also deep and moving. And they are seldom performed. So to hear them sung by the luminescent Shannon Mercer will be sublime. Originally from Ottawa, Shannon began her career in the Canadian Opera Company’s Ensemble Studio Program, and hasn’t looked back. With a vast repertoire ranging from early to contemporary music, she has graced renowned operatic and concert stages across North America and Europe. In anticipation of her appearance with 5 at the First, Shannon engaged SesayArts in a lively chat about singing in Russian, her obsession with coffee, and the perils of bad advice. 

  1. What can we expect to hear from you at the 5 at the First concert, “Different Romances”?

I’m involved in the Shostakovich Blok Romances….written in 1967 by Shostakovich for famed Russian singer Galina Vishnevskaya with poetry by Alexander Blok (1880-1921). The poetry is very dense, evoking themes of war, loneliness and death. It’s my first time performing this cycle, and I don’t often sing in Russian, but I’m really excited about performing these beautiful songs with these amazing artists.

  1. You’ve performed many operatic roles to date, to significant acclaim. What role haven’t you yet performed that you would like to? Who would you like to share the stage with? 

I would love to sing Melisande in Debussy’s opera Pelleas et Melisande.  It’s such extraordinary music, and the story is heartbreaking. I always love to sink my teeth into characters with lots of flaws.

Honestly, I’m happiest sharing the stage with my good friends in the industry.  It can be a lonely life on the road, so it’s always nice when it works out that you’re sharing the stage with your friends.

  1. What’s the worst advice you’ve ever received? 
Shannon Mercer as Oscar in Un ballo in maschera with Canadian Opera Company (photo by Michael Cooper)

Shannon as Oscar in Un ballo in maschera with the Canadian Opera Company (photo by Michael Cooper)

Oh, good question. I would say trying to fit into a box. I’ve had the career I’ve had because I’ve always been willing and excited about performing all sorts of repertoire with all sorts of groups.  From Early Music, sacred, secular, choir, opera, recital, concert, contemporary, jazz, folk to musical theatre.  As long as you as using your voice in a healthy way then there is NO reason to just sing one kind of repertoire.  In fact, if you are trying to make a career solely in North America, you’re going to have a hard job finding enough work if you have this mentality.  Be flexible.  It’s made me a more well-rounded artist.

  1. What’s been your most memorable performance? Why?

Honestly, I don’t have just one that sticks out in my mind.  I guess I’ve been so lucky to have sung in so many amazing concerts and operas.  I guess one would be when I played the page boy of Oscar in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera with the Canadian Opera Company back in 2003.  It was my first principle role with the company, and my whole family made the drive from Ottawa to see me sing on the big stage.  Its more memorable because I knew they were out there supporting me!

  1. Tell us something about you that will surprise us.

I’m obsessed with coffee, Zumba–and I might have a tattoo.

  1. You get the last word.

Thanks to Rachel Mercer (my namesake, no relation, sadly) for inviting me to sing these amazing songs. They are not often performed, and I just want to thank her for taking risks and creating an interesting program. I think it’s always important to challenge your audience! 

Shannon as as Ann Page in The Merry Wives of Windsor with Merola Opera (Photo by Robert Shomler)

Shannon as as Ann Page in The Merry Wives of Windsor with Merola Opera
(Photo by Robert Shomler)

News You Can Use 

What: 5 at the First Chamber Music Series: “Different Romances” 

Who: Shannon Mercer (soprano), Andrew Burashko (piano), Yehonatan Berick (violin) and Rachel Mercer (cello)

When: May 21, 2106, 3 PM

Where: First Unitarian Church, 170 Dundurn Street South, Hamilton, ON

For Information and Tickets: 5attheFirst.com

FYI: ShannonMercer.com

© 2016 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya

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