They each star in a main-stage show at this year’s Vancouver Opera Festival, they both grew up in Vancouver, they both studied at UBC School of Music, and they both did stints at the Canadian Opera Company’s ensemble studio.
But most coincidentally of all, they share the name Simone—a moniker that, incidentally, means “heard by God”.
One of the two vocal knockouts, soprano Simone Osborne, will play Marguérite in the fest’s production of Charles Gounod’s Faust, while fast-rising mezzo Simone McIntosh is taking on the title character in Gioacchino Rossini’s La Cenerentola (Cinderella).
“It’s funny: we’ve had this very parallel path, but she’s been ahead of me the entire time,” notes McIntosh, speaking to the Straight in a lively conversation with her colleague at VO’s East Side headquarters. “I’m going through all these things in my career, and it’s odd to be sharing it with such an uncommon name.”
“We did one charity concert together for a friend,” adds Osborne, referring to a 2017 gig in Toronto (one of the rare times, like now, that the affable pair’s paths have actually crossed), “and within five minutes we dubbed ourselves Simone Squared.”
At the festival, audiences will see very different Simones on-stage. In the dark Faust, the lovesick Dr. Faustus sells his soul to the Devil for rekindled youth and a chance to bed the innocent Marguérite, with disastrous results. Osborne will travel anguished terrain, madness, and heavenly melodies, including her character’s famous “Jewel Song”, a joyous lyrical aria before all hell breaks loose.
In La Cenerentola, McIntosh plays the rags-to-riches character in full storybook-fantasy splendour, with not one but two showstopping gowns, she’s excited to report. But don’t let the family-friendly, make-believe trimmings fool you: the opera, not performed on the VO stage since 1981, demands serious vocal agility and ends with a stunning aria.
“You know it took a long time to learn this role,” says McIntosh, laughing, in a case of obvious understatement. “And it’s paying off, so that’s good.”
Chatting with “Simone Squared”, you start to see how much more they have in common than just their résumés—and their names.
Reassuring for those who’ve questioned their own career path, both took a while to really find their way in operatic singing—and both credit UBC’s opera and vocal professor Nancy Hermiston with helping them excel.
McIntosh grew up in a musical family, with a dad who played the tuba and a mom who sang and studied opera. She loved choir in high school, and was considering acting or jazz, before deciding classical studies would allow her to both act and sing.
But McIntosh wasn’t sure about it until a turning point between the second and third years of university, when she had to sing in concert at Bard on the Beach.
“I hadn’t memorized it until I was on the bus on the way there,” she admits. “And it was the worst experience of my life. I was fully phoning it in at this point.” That’s when Hermiston, chair of the voice and opera division at UBC, stepped in. “She said, ‘You’re too good for this shit and I’m not going to give you anything till you prove to me otherwise.’ It’s so important to have that person who can tell you that. And it completely changed my life.”
Osborne, who graduated a year before McIntosh started the UBC program, remembers registering as a way to continue singing but also to get a degree (mostly to please her mother, who’s a scientist, and her father, who’s a lawyer). She had not seen an opera till 16, when (like McIntosh, again) she won a spot in the VO work-experience program for kids in grades 11 and 12. During that time, she was blown away by seeing American Mary Jane Johnson sing Giacomo Puccini’s The Girl of the West at VO.
“I watched Mary Jane Johnson sing on the stage with all these men, in flawless Italian, and she’s Texan!” Osborne marvels. “And it was like, ‘I want to do that. I want to be that!’ ”
But she never loved singing in the chorus in early university productions.
“It was a little bit soul-crushing,” Osborne says candidly. “It’s overwhelming as a young student; you don’t know your place or whether you’ll even have a place.
“So Nancy [Hermiston] was one of the major inspirations for me too,” she says. “There was a lot of pressure as a young student in her studio. Anything she wanted, I wanted to do. She understands what it means to be a working singer and she won’t let you stand in your own way.”
There have, of course, been many other mentors and turning points, including major awards for each, along the journey.
Osborne would go on, in 2008, to become one of the youngest winners of the Metropolitan Opera National Council audition in history, later finding a guiding force in legend Marilyn Horne. She’s now in high demand for operas, recitals, and symphonic concerts in Canada and abroad, putting her mark on a wide range of roles—including a few other notable Marguerites: Marguerite Riel in the COC’s new opera Louis Riel in 2017, and St. Marguerite in Joan of Arc at the Stake with Marion Cotillard at Lincoln Centre.
These days, Osborne lives in Frankfurt, Germany, with her husband, bass-baritone Gordon Bintner.
McIntosh’s gleaming mezzo won her first prize at the Canadian Opera Company’s 2016 Ensemble Studio Competition and, later, the $25,000 Wirth Vocal Prize, while she earned her master’s in McGill University’s opera program. She’s gone on to tackle new music, art song, and a growing roster of operatic roles—including Cis in Vancouver Opera’s Albert Herring. She’s just moved to San Francisco from Toronto for a prestigious spot as an Adler Fellow at the San Francisco Opera.
The Vancouver Opera Festival marks a welcome homecoming for both.
The more they talk, the more parallels Osborne and McIntosh see between their characters at the festival here.
Osborne says Marguérite is a role she’s always wanted to perform. And it’s not just the famous music she gets to sing. “With Marguérite, it’s her sincerity and her optimism, and her unabashed belief in true love,” she says. “There are duets that will make you believe in love.”
Both Marguérite and Cenerentola are victims of their circumstances, they observe—Marguérite of not being worldly enough to see how she’s being manipulated; Cenerentola, in Rossini’s version, of her stepfather Don Magnifico, and his mean daughters Clorinda and Tisbe, who share his rundown castle.
“What I love about these characters is they’re not women of means or power, but they both end up having a total growth in power,” Osborne says. “Marguérite gives in to this love, she gives in to this tenor, which is so often the case for a soprano, but in the end she takes complete control of the situation—even when she’s out of her mind.”
McIntosh says her approach with director Rachel Peake has been to make Cenerentola the embodiment of goodness, charity, and strength. “She finds that place of strength to forgive someone. And the epitome of strength is forgiveness,” she asserts. “There are these people that have not been kind to her and neglect her and treat her like a second-class citizen in her own home.”
As they discuss it more, the two singers start to talk about that strength as it applies to their own rising opera careers—and you see that the two Simones have something else in common. They share a deep passion for their art form, but also a groundedness that will take them farther still in the glamorous world they now find themselves in.
“I think there is something so special about someone who just fundamentally doesn’t change based on their circumstances,” Osborne says, to the hearty agreement of McIntosh.
Osborne has shared the stage with some of the most successful names in opera. And that’s exposed her to people who take a wildly different approach to stardom than she has chosen. “They either let that power and adoration go to their heads, or they are exactly who they were when they were 20 years old in music school and grateful for the success that they’ve had,” she says.
The latter is clearly the attitude that Osborne has. “That’s the kind of artist I want to be, and that’s the kind of person I think that Cenerentola is,” she tells McIntosh. “I haven’t changed at all. Certain people will treat you differently because all of a sudden you’re getting more attention in their eyes, and I’m thinking, ‘I’m exactly who I was last Tuesday,’ you know? And it’s in that moment that you decide you’re just going to be who you are and who you were.”
The Vancouver Opera Festival presents La Cenerentola at the Vancouver Playhouse from April 27 to May 12, and Faust at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre from April 27 to May 5.