Vancouver Bach Festival: Singer Ellen Torrie raises questions about gender expectations imposed on sopranos

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      Over the past two years, singer-songwriter Ellen Torrie thought a lot about gender assumptions placed on sopranos in opera and baroque music.

      Torrie is a Montreal-based soprano, visual artist, and folk musician who prefers the pronouns they and them.

      According to Torrie, sopranos have traditionally been expected to ooze femininity while appearing conventionally attractive and desirable on-stage.

      This is notwithstanding opera’s history of gender-bending over the centuries through so-called “trouser roles”, a.k.a. travesti, in which women wear pants while performing male roles.

      “The feminine and masculine tropes are still so strict, regardless of the gender identity of the person playing them,” Torrie says. “So, I’m interested in projects that reframe narratives in opera and in early music—to smash heteronormative narratives in opera—which I think is the next step.

      “The framework is there,” Torrie continues. “We already have been doing, essentially, drag in opera for centuries.”

      Torrie and Montreal-based violist Marie Nadeau-Tremblay are the first members of Early Music Vancouver’s emerging-artists program.

      They'll perform with Sylvain Bergeron on the archlute on August 3 at Pyatt Hall in a concert entitled The Next Generation: Baroque Innovations. It's part of EMV's Vancouver Bach Festival, which runs from July 26 to August 6.

      Video: Ellen Torrie sings Vivaldi's "Fac ut sordescat telus, recit/Rosa quae moritur, aria".

      Torrie says that many younger baroque artists have a deep interest in gender representations in early music but adds that institutions presenting this art form have not been nearly so quick to adapt to reflect current society.

      “The best part is that these emerging artists will be the industry in 20 years, so we will have that power to conceive the kind of stories we want to tell now,” Torrie says.

      The singer-songwriter views the pandemic as a period when many people stepped away from social conventions and confronted previously hidden aspects of themselves. For Torrie, isolation led to a “sort of reckoning” with gender identity.

      “It felt very easy at the time and beautiful to discover these very different parts of me in that way,” Torrie continues. “But when I returned to the stage and when I returned to the industry of early music and of classical music, it just became that much more apparent, these gender expectations that are put, especially, on sopranos.”

      The biggest one, Torrie emphasizes, is to look a certain way on-stage.

      “I think I’m looking forward with my colleagues to forging a new way forward in terms of what it means to be a soprano—and how FoC [feminine-of-centre] and identity are related but are also separate in a lot of ways,” Torrie says, “and how those gender associations can be harmful but can also be celebrated.”

      Torrie will also perform at another Vancouver Bach Festival concert, Armonico Tributo, at Christ Church Cathedral on August 2. It will include EMV artist in residence and keyboardist David McGuinness and violinist Chloe Meyers in a program revealing how Scottish folk music seeped into the consciousness of 17th- and 18th-century European baroque composers.

      “Folk singers are singing in what I would call democratized spaces—like public spaces—busking in cafés, in parks,” Torrie says. “Because of the context of our performance, we’re able to facilitate community music-making and community storytelling.”

      Torrie likens this to the self-accompaniment that occurred in Renaissance salons.

      “So I’ve been learning baroque guitar to learn to self-accompany Renaissance and baroque music—and marry this aspect of folk music to Renaissance music.”

      And that, Torrie adds, just might help bridge any class divides that might exist between devotees of folk and baroque music.

      When the Straight asks about their favourite baroque composers, Torrie rattles off a few names, starting with Barbara Strozzi. A Venetian, she created eight volumes of music without any support from the Catholic Church, relying in part on texts written by her father and his colleagues.

      "Barbara Strozzi is a huge inspiration to me beause she’s such a prolific and compassionate composer and she was doing such innovative stuff in her own time," Torrie says.

      Also on Torrie's list is Henry Purcell, Antonio Vivaldi, George Frideric Handel, and Johann Sebastian Bach.

      "I would say those are the top five at the moment," Torrie says.

      Check out this video of Ellen Torrie singing "Lara's Theme" from Dr. Zhivago. It was her debut with the mandolin.

      In addition to singing, Torrie is also a talented visual artists. And the two art forms are deeply connected in their world.

      "When I’m learning repertoire, I love to listen to a bunch of different recordings to get inspired by other singers," Torrie says. "While I am doing that, I often doodle or work on illustrations because I think it’s nice to do some things physical while you’re absorbing musical material just to get it in the body somehow. But my illustrations are also heavily inspired by music."

      As an example, Torrie citec "The Modes" series, which is on 

      Torrie was born in Ontario and studied music therapy at Acadia University before heading to Montreal to complete a master's degree in early music performance at McGill University.

      There, Torrie was able to study privately with Suzie LeBlanc, a highly regarded Canadian soprano who also happens to be the executive director of Early Music Vancouver.

      "I inherited her entire physical music collection," Torrie reveals. "It’s been one of the greatest gifts of my life.

      "She said I could have it as long as I digitized it for her, which has been a longer project than I anticipated," the singer-songwriter continues. "But it’s been such a gift to go through all this repertoire and discover these gems, since, our voice types are similar."