Simone Osborne and Mark McGregor hit their high notes

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      Simone Osborne

      An opera singer who dresses the part and a virtuoso whose flute is a fluke: both are rising stars on music scene

      It’s 9:30 on a weekday morning, and Simone Osborne is sipping a soy chai latte, recuperating from a night of festivities. You wouldn’t know it from her appearance, however: the 21-year-old soprano may have spent the night out on the town with UBC School of Music colleagues, but she might as well have just stepped out of a salon.

      Her makeup is flawless: she sports perfectly glossed lips, expertly applied eyeshadow, and shimmering foundation on her olive skin. She’s dressed in a hot pink ruffled blouse, fitted knee-length black skirt with a wide belt, and long black and white jacket, while her thick dark hair frames her face like a mane. She looks, in a word, like a diva.

      “I always dress up,” the Vancouver native explains in conversation with the Straight in a Kitsilano café. “I just started dressing up when I was 18, because people weren’t taking me seriously. I was so young, and they thought, ”˜Who’s this kid that thinks she’s going to sing opera?’ ”

      This “kid” has been taken very seriously indeed during the past year. In February, Osborne was one of five singers selected as winners in the highly prestigious grand finals of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, with New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini praising her “sweet and clear sound, sensitive phrasing and gleaming sustained high notes”. In July, she was cowinner of the prestigious Marilyn Horne Foundation Vocal Competition in Santa Barbara.

      Those accomplishments are remarkable even more when you consider that until the age of 16, Osborne—who will appear in the UBC Opera productions of Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel (December 11 to 14 at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts) and Giuseppe Verdi’s Falstaff (March 5 to 8 also at the Chan Centre)—had never been to an opera or learned to read music.

      “I was doing the musicals at school and I really, really loved musical theatre and I wanted to take singing lessons,” she recalls of her Grade 10 year. “My mom’s a scientist, so she said, ”˜When you have an A in math, you can have singing lessons.’ Then I said, ”˜Okay, well, the chances of me getting an A in math by the end of this term are probably slim to none.’ So I got a job at the Dairy Queen up the street, and I started paying for singing lessons.” When her mother realized, as Osborne puts it, “that I didn’t want to be Britney Spears and that I was really serious about it, she was really supportive.”

      In the summer before her last year of high school, Osborne enrolled in the UBC School of Music voice-division program for young singers, where she was spotted by her mentor Nancy Hermiston. Hermiston, in an earlier interview, remarked that as soon as she saw Osborne walking across the parking lot, she knew she was looking at a singer. Osborne chuckles when told of Hermiston’s comment: “The way she told me was, she saw me walking across the parking lot all dressed up and thought, ”˜Oh, there’s a singer.’ And then she said, ”˜I really hope she has a voice.’ ”

      Given that the young vocalist is now on a first-name basis with the likes of Marilyn Horne and Judith Forst, and that she’s vetting offers to sing around the globe—she’ll spend two weeks performing at Ireland’s Wexford Festival Opera this fall—any doubts about Osborne living up to her carefully cultivated image have long been laid to rest.

      Mark Takeshi McGregor might be playing the sax if not for his dad. Alex Waterhouse-Hayward photo.

      Mark Takeshi McGregor

      Some people just can’t resist a bargain, and new-music fans should be happy that Mark Takeshi McGregor’s dad is among their number.

      Had the senior McGregor not been so budget-conscious, there’s no telling what his son might be doing today: touring the world with a big band, perhaps, or playing funk in some dance club. Instead, he’s well on his way to becoming one of the world’s leading flutists, all because of a music-store sale.

      “I originally wanted to play the saxophone,” McGregor reports, on the line from his Vancouver home. “But my father went off to the music store and he found a flute on sale for $50, and the saxophone was $150. So he brought the flute home, and my flute career began that way.”

      Does he have any regrets about the horn not taken? “No,” he says, laughing. “I love doing what I do, even if it means making next to no money. It’s a rare thing to be able to wake up every morning and do the thing that you really love.”

      This season, McGregor is doing the thing that he loves with the Victoria-based new-music ensemble Aventa, readying a second CD from his Tiresias duo with pianist Rachel Kiyo Iwaasa, working on his doctorate in performance at UBC, and programming concerts for the Redshift Music Society. And on top of all that, he’s going to perform what might be the most difficult piece ever written for his instrument as part of the 2008 Vancouver New Music Festival. Dedicated to “the art of solo virtuosity”, the event is at the Scotiabank Dance Centre from October 22 to 25, and McGregor’s reading of Brian Ferneyhough’s Unity Capsule could well be a highlight.

      “With flute players, if you look at our music it’s always on one staff,” the 35-year-old comments. “But Ferneyhough has written up to seven different musical lines happening concurrently. So, say your lips are doing one thing, your tongue is doing another thing, and your fingers are doing yet another thing—all in different rhythms, all in their own different world, and you have to make them line up.”

      Compared to that, making the next Tiresias CD should be a piece of cake. On the sequel to the duo’s Delicate Fires, he and Iwaasa essay the taxing works of Jean Coulthard, Paul M. Douglas, and Chris Kovarik—a West Coast pioneer, McGregor’s first flute mentor, and a promising young composer, respectively. (Tiresias will also perform this material live at Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s Surrey campus on October 15, and at the Silk Purse Arts Centre in West Vancouver on December 18.)

      From there, McGregor goes to court—the Robson Square law courts, where Redshift will stage a concert of spatial music on February 7. The idea behind this collaboration with the Vancouver Cantata Singers and five trombonists is to offer an immersive listening experience to an audience that’s not necessarily acquainted with contemporary composition.

      “It’s a unique thing to be able to walk through a space and be surrounded by the music, and have it come out at you from all directions. For me, that’s the most electrifying thing about what we do.”