Had Cris Derksen’s mother owned a minivan, the rising-star cellist’s life might be different today. Serendipity, though, determined that mom drove a compact, and that frugal ride played a crucial role in her daughter’s remarkable career.
“When I was 10, I really wanted to play the bass,” reveals the 28-year-old musician, who grew up in Edmonton, Alberta. “But my mom drove a Hyundai Pony, which is pretty small, and she was like, ”˜That’s not going to fit in the car.’ So I got stuck with the cello, the next biggest thing.
“As I grew up,” she adds, “I realized how lucky I was to have picked such a versatile instrument. You can do way more with the cello, I think, than a lot of instruments.”
Considering Derksen’s approach, that’s an understatement. In solo performance, she uses electronics to turn her cello into a bass or a viola or even an entire string section. And as an accompanist, she’s worked with dancers, rock bands, songwriters, and the wildly innovative Inuit throat-singer and improviser Tanya Tagaq.
It didn’t take Derksen long to discover just how versatile the cello can be. “Even when I was, like, 12, I started playing along to Nirvana’s Unplugged,” she says, noting that she never planned on following the usual cellist’s path. “There’s a certain high-artness to classical music that I don’t carry in my body,” she explains. “I’m a little bit more down-to-earth and gritty.”
Still, she doesn’t regret heading to UBC for a degree in cello performance under the supervision of the Emerson String Quartet’s Eric Wilson. Being able to read and write music fluently is an asset when it comes to assignments like creating a soundtrack for Karen Jamieson Dance’s Agon, a task she shared with Hard Rubber Orchestra mastermind John Korsrud.
Other projects include writing and recording with the folk-noir band E.S.L.; scoring a 12-minute video for the Museum of Anthropology; working as a session musician; and, of course, her own solo performances, including the one she’ll give at Gallery Gachet on Saturday (September 19).
“Lately, I’ve been kind of working on more dance-y tunes, trying to get away from that sad-cello stuff,” says Derksen, who hopes to record her solo debut in November. “It’s so easy to emote on the cello, and I think one should be a little bit wary of emoting too much. But it always changes, right?”
Also in the cards for the half-Cree musician is a Cultural Olympiad–sponsored showcase of aboriginal artists organized by Manitoba-based arts activist Alan Greyeyes. And from April to June of 2010 she’ll take up residence at the newly renovated Cultch, where she’s been asked to curate several evenings of music.
“I have a lot of ideas for that in my head, but they’re not finalized,” she says. “One is to take some really lovely solo artists that I know and make a full night with a string quartet—but that would be a lot of work, cause I’d probably end up doing all the arranging.”
If Derksen’s track record is any indication, that’s a chore she’d happily embrace. Hard work seems like second nature to this cellist: among all her other projects, she’s discussing a possible collaboration with Holy Body Tattoo dancer-choreographer Noam Gagnon.
“It’s an exciting time,” she says. Who would have guessed that old Pony would get her this far?
> Alexander Varty
Call her the Mary Poppins of opera: nanny by day, coloratura lyric soprano by night. For the past two years, 30-year-old Melody Mercredi (and yes, that is her given name) has been tending to the child-care needs of two families—not to mention waitressing one day a week at the Sunset Grill—while pursuing a singing career. And it looks as though her perseverance is finally starting to pay off.
The Comox-raised Mercredi will make her Vancouver Opera main-stage debut in April, singing the role of Barbarina in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. The gig comes after five years as part of the opera chorus, as well as a stint as the understudy for Hwang Sin Nyung’s Queen of the Night in the company’s 2007-08 production of Mozart’s Magic Flute, a role she performed in VO’s school touring show that season.
“I’d heard word that she kind of had a bit of a cold,” recalls the refreshingly frank Mercredi of Hwang, over a cup of coffee in Kits. “You don’t want them to get sick—but yes, you do, so you can maybe have your moment!” In the end, the Korean soprano remained in frustratingly good health, and Mercredi had to bide her time.
The daughter of a Métis father and a Caucasian mother, Mercredi came to classical singing by a circuitous route. Her first performances were as a young girl in a cultural dance group called Oh-toh-kin. “There were girls that were Cree, Mohawk, and some half-aboriginal girls,” she remembers. “We’d be involved in powwows and stuff on the reserve.”
In her teens, she embraced two types of music: grunge and, conversely, opera. “I really, really wanted to be a pop-slash-rock star when I was in high school,” she confesses. “I was kind of a skater chick–slash–grunge girl. I didn’t shave my legs or things like that. And my jeans, I wouldn’t wash them because I liked the stains. I’d go for months without washing them. So gross!”
For a couple of years, the teenage Mercredi served as lead vocalist and bass guitarist with a band called Spatula; she boasts of having once opened for a then-still-underground No Doubt. Meanwhile, she took part in choirs, competed in classical-music festivals, and pursued private singing lessons. Her epiphany came with the 1993 Tom Hanks tearjerker Philadelphia.
“That movie totally spoke to me,” she says, recounting a scene in which a recording of Maria Callas singing “La mamma morta” by Umberto Giordano figures prominently. ”I remember being so touched, and I was like, ”˜Oh, my God, I have to sing like that.’ ”
Following high school, Mercredi spent a year at Capilano College before enrolling in music at UBC, where she auditioned twice unsuccessfully for the opera program. She moved on and completed her degree at the Vancouver Academy of Music, studying first with Ann Golden Fisher and then pursuing a postgraduate diploma under David Meek, with whom she continues to train.
While opera remains her first love, she is also involved in a new classical crossover vocal quartet, Il Voce, which is lining up media appearances and gigs for the coming season. Eventually, Mercredi hopes, she’ll be able to give up the day job. “The plan is to do what I trained to do, and do what I love to do: sing for a living, and make enough money to make ends meet.” She pauses, then adds, laughing: “And be able to shop once in awhile.”
> Jessica Werb