Canadian soprano Measha Brueggergosman has no desire to be typecast as only being an opera singer.
She certainly ranks among the Canadian greats, having performed in New York City’s Carnegie Hall, Washington’s Kennedy Center, and Wigmore Hall in London. Along the way, she’s worked with several of the top symphony orchestras in the world.
In addition, the Fredericton, New Brunswick, native won several awards for her critically acclaimed Night and Dreams album, which features the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Johannes Brahms, Richard Strauss, and other legends from the past.
But last year, in the midst of the pandemic, Brueggergosman decided to release Measha Jazz, a tribute to legendary 20th-century Black vocalists such as Sarah Vaughan and Nina Simone, who were denied opportunities due to racism.
“They would have had a career in classical music if they hadn’t been Black,” Brueggergosman tells the Straight by phone from Fredericton. “Nina Simone graduated from the Juilliard [School] as a pianist and couldn’t get a job until she started singing, to put it bluntly.”
Brueggergosman, on the other hand, gained entry into the classical-music world as a Black singer many years later.
“Now, I’m singing a jazz album as a reverse homage to these women,” she says.
VSO gala will showcase her talent
On Thursday (February 18), Brueggergosman will be one of many high-profile musicians appearing in the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s Resilient Symphony virtual gala concert. While other music superstars—including k.d. lang, Geddy Lee, violinists Itzhak Perlman and James Ehnes, trumpeters Jens Lindemann and Bria Skonberg, and pianist Stewart Goodyear—will participate remotely, Brueggergosman will sing from the Orpheum stage into people’s homes via their computer connections.
In addition to performing Mozart’s aria “L’amero saro costante” from Il Re Pastore and selections from Gustav Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn, she plans on showing off her jazz chops.
“So people are going to get a lot of Measha,” she says with a laugh.
So why go with Mahler?
“The short answer is because Mahler is never wrong, and you never have to have an excuse to perform Mahler,” Brueggergosman replies.
As for Mozart, this offers her the chance to collaborate with other musicians, including Nick Wright and Amanda Chan.
“We’re looking for as many ways as possible to employ as many musicians as possible in as many circumstances as possible,” Brueggergosman declares.
Her appearance at the Resilient Symphony virtual gala reflects her deepening ties to the VSO under its president and CEO, Angela Elster, who was hired last year.
Last November, Brueggergosman hosted the VSO’s presentation of Americana: Walker, Montgomery & Copland. She’s also an international master teacher in the VSO School of Music.
“If you know what motivates you, you’re going to be such a better singer,” she advises.
Advocate for music education
Elster and Brueggergosman have been friends for more than 20 years and both share a passion for music education. When Elster was senior vice president of the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, she launched an initiative whereby community artists worked with classroom teachers or subject-specialist teachers. Together, they delivered the core curriculum through music and other art forms.
“This fascinated Measha, so she became a champion of learning through the arts,” Elster tells the Straight by phone. “And, in fact, we went to her elementary school in New Brunswick…and she taught math through singing to fourth graders.”
Elster says that while her friend’s operatic career has reached great heights, she remains eclectic in her commitment to the power of music.
“Her spirituals are amazingly moving,” Elster notes.
Brueggergosman also stunned the world when she sang the “Olympic Hymn” at the opening ceremony of the Vancouver Olympics in 2010.
“I’ll always associate one of my career highlights with the West Coast,” she says.
Another highlight was singing “Both Sides Now” in a 2008 televised tribute to Joni Mitchell. It was a masterful demonstration of Brueggergosman’s soaring vocals reaching an emotional crescendo in ways that the audience could never have imagined beforehand.
Brueggergosman says she can still recall these events perfectly, saying such moments are rare indeed. But she also keeps things in perspective, emphasizing that these memories are not any more special than the births of her children.
Faith makes her fearless
She’s also a devout Christian—and she’s eager to discuss how her faith is manifested in her singing.
“My faith makes me brave,” Brueggergosman states with confidence. “My faith makes me fearless. My faith makes me not care what anybody thinks but for my Lord Saviour Jesus Christ.
“That’s what my faith does, because I’m serving Him,” she continues. “Like, that’s why I’m so happy, because I do everything in service to Him. So then why would I be sad or negative or backbiting or jealous, when everything I am doing is what He intends for me to step into. So I have to be bold and I have to be strong and have good courage so that you can be too, because this life is not about us.”
That said, she doesn’t want to be mistaken for somebody who is “effortlessly positive”.
It’s been tough for her to learn new things during the pandemic after working so hard to achieve success. Plus, like many others in the arts, opportunities to perform have evaporated along with the spread of COVID-19. That’s to say nothing of the more than two million people who have died from the disease around the world.
“I don’t want anybody to not understand that I am in mourning too,” Brueggergosman states.
To her friend Elster, she’s “beautiful inside and out” while remaining “such a good human being”.
“Measha is a perfect fit, a beautiful fit, for the VSO because we are the only orchestra in Canada with our own music school,” Elster says. “So that nexus where artistic excellence and educational excellence overlap—that’s where she feels really comfortable and she feels she can contribute tremendously. I agree with that.”More