Simone Osborne rejoins Vancouver Bach Choir for Handel’s Messiah

The celebrated soprano got her start with the Bach Choir; now she comes back to perform Messiah as a soloist

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      The first time Simone Osborne sang George Frederick Handel’s Messiah with the Vancouver Bach Choir, she was so naive that she didn’t know where to sit. This time, however, she knows exactly where she’s going to be: in the spotlight.

      Back around the turn of the millennium, long before the rising-star singer accepted a job with the Canadian Opera Company or strode the stage at Carnegie Hall, Osborne was just a music-obsessed teenager with a big voice and no sense of her rightful place. “One might think that I was sort of feisty or something and wanted to sit with all the boys—but no, that wasn’t the case,” the Vancouver-born singer recalls with a laugh, reached at home in Toronto.

      “I sat at the edge of the tenor section because I thought that I should sing with them, down in that octave, rather than up with the sopranos,” the 29-year-old vocalist continues. “I didn’t think that I could sing high, and I didn’t think I could sing in my head voice. I had sung musical-theatre songs and pop songs, and I just thought I was a belter. And I didn’t realize that, physiologically, everybody has a head voice. Even a bass has a head voice. But I hadn’t found mine yet. So that was my rude awakening in the Bach Choir, when [then conductor] Bruce Pullan made me sit with the other girls and I had to sort of figure out how to get up there. And sure enough I did, and I fell in love with it.”

      Osborne was a disruptive force in more ways than one, apparently. “The Bach Choir was my entrée into classical music and actual singing in harmony and singing with other people, and blending,” she notes. “That was a big one for me: ‘Simone, you’re going to need to tone it down a little bit. There are 40 other people singing.’ I actually had a choir director once, who shall remain unnamed, who would walk by the choir and stick his hand out in my face—sort of a talk-to-the-hand gesture meaning ‘You can give a little bit less, Osborne.’

      “I was always going at 100 percent, I guess, when it came to music.”

      Indeed, Osborne’s early passion verged on the all-consuming, to the extent that her mother encouraged her to join the Vancouver Bach Choir in an attempt to harness her voice, rather than polish it. It was a good call.

      “I kept bothering her about singing lessons—and initially, she put me in the Bach Choir, hoping that it would tame my need for vocalizing all the time,” she says. “And then about a year later I had kept bothering her about lessons, so finally she went up to Bruce and said, ‘Listen, Mr. Pullan. She sings all day and all night. I can’t shut her up, and I don’t know that it’s healthy, ’cause she literally never stops. Should I give her some singing lessons?’ And he said, ‘Well, you know, she’s 14, and frankly, I don’t really think that young people should have singing lessons until they’re about 16 years old, because their bodies haven’t finished changing.…Let her grow up a little bit, physiologically, and then you can talk about lessons. As long as she’s not shouting, and she’s enjoying herself, let her sing.’ My mother happens to be a physiologist, so that made a lot of sense to her. She held me back for another couple of years, and I think that was really good for me. It’s not necessarily best to be pushing your limits at that early a stage.”

      Osborne’s return to Vancouver as the soprano soloist in the Bach Choir’s Messiah, now under the baton of music director Leslie Dala, isn’t going to tax her vocal limits overmuch. As she notes, “Now I crack open the score and take a look at those runs in Messiah and I think, ‘Oh, this isn’t that bad. It’s really just a couple of patterns. It’s fine!’ So it’s funny how things come to you when they’re supposed to.”

      More of a stretch for the singer, who was raised in a nonreligious environment, is bringing believability to arias that are, for the most part, about angelic visitations. And even here she’s arrived at an elegant solution.

      “I’m now of an age where a lot of children have come into my life,” she explains. “Not my own—everyone back home will get very nervous, thinking something’s up—but nieces and nephews or godchildren or the children of my friends. I think the closest thing that I have met to an angel is a child, so when in one of the recitatives it says ‘And suddenly there were with the angels a multitude of heavenly hosts,’ I see the little face of my little niece. From the day that I started singing it, I’ve seen her little face, and it’s pretty easy for me to tap into that image!

      “It would seem like, you know, maybe if you don’t come from a profoundly faith-based background, that it must be difficult to break into these pieces,” Osborne adds. “But it’s no more difficult than it is to break into Romeo and Juliet, where I’m going to drink some poison because I think he’s dead without checking his pulse.”

      She laughs again, and then gets serious. “It’s all about creativity, I guess, and imagination.” That, and a very big voice put to very good use.

      The Vancouver Bach Choir presents Handel’s Messiah at the Orpheum on Saturday (December 12).