The last time Measha Brueggergosman-Lee performed with Opera Atelier, it was as a sublime celestial being, complete with wings, in the Toronto company’s 2021 film project Angel.
For her latest outing, the celebrated Canadian soprano finds herself at the opposite end of the spectrum. She’s back onstage this October to sing the demonic role of the Sorceress, who gleefully brings tragedy to the lives of the eponymous lovers in Henry Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas. It’s the kind of wicked character she delights in – even if, offstage, Brueggergosman-Lee is warm, loving and devoted to good causes.
She’s also remarkably resilient, as the last few years have proved. In 2018, she split with long-time husband Markus Brueggergosman and the following year underwent major surgery a second time for what she calls her “bum heart.” After COVID-19 put pause on her international touring schedule, she turned entrepreneur, producing and hosting a series of live-streamed concerts from East Coast venues in a range of genres, including jazz, gospel and folk. Now remarried and raising a family in rural Nova Scotia between gigs, Brueggergosman-Lee shared her thoughts on playing baddies, bringing equity to the arts and lessons learned from the pandemic.
On the promotional video for Dido and Aeneas you look like you’re having a ball being the Sorceress. The director, Marshall Pynkoski, says he thinks you’re channelling Cruella de Vil.
Man, oh man, do I ever love being the bad guy! I’ve played my share, whether it’s Evillene in The Wiz or Elettra in Idomeneo. The bad guys don’t know they’re bad – they’re not thinking, “What I’m doing is going to ruin people’s lives.” The Sorceress is like that; she really believes she’s acting in the best interests of everyone. Even though it’s motivated from an evil place.
The Sorceress isn’t alone in being evil, either. She has her two witches [played by Danielle MacMillan and Cynthia Akemi Smithers].
Oh yeah, it’s great to be part of a trio [and have] a couple of sidekicks! We’re super-nasty ladies; happy about the fact that we’re evil to the core, having the best time destroying people’s lives. There’s even evil laughing built into the score.
You’ve had a long relationship with Opera Atelier, going back to Idomeneo in 2008. You’re currently its artist-in-residence. Apart from performing, what does that involve?
Joseph Herbison, the director of education and outreach, and I work very closely together to develop the Making of an Opera program. Throughout COVID, we were able to develop an online module and now we’re making it a complete package whereby any school anywhere can take it and implement it. It’s not about making more opera singers, it’s about heralding the importance of collaboration [and] understanding that when you’re striving for excellence, that’s a mindset, it’s not a one-off thing. That’s where I come in, as a bridge to help other young people who are growing up like I did, in remote, underserved communities, places where they wouldn’t necessarily think of the classical arts as an option.
You mentioned the pandemic. You seem to have pivoted in a big way, producing your Measha Series of online concerts and performing in films like The Young Arsonists.
Believe me, there were skills I did not want to learn! But I was frustrated by the fact that I could be cancelled. In 2019, I had my second emergency open-heart surgery and then we came around to the pandemic a few months later. By then I thought, “Ho-ho, I’m ahead of the curve. I’ve been cancelled once, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to get cancelled again.” So, I founded Planet Measha Productions and got to steppin’. We employed over 100 people through the Measha Series. I understand now that that’s what I’m supposed to be doing.
Not being able to tour during the lockdowns, did you spend a lot of time at home?
I sure did. We’re 45 minutes north of Halifax, in the Annapolis Valley. It’s gorgeous country. My husband and I can drive the back roads of our property, 20 minutes on dirt roads, and not encounter a single soul. It’s that kind of vibe.
You also remarried during the pandemic, to jazz musician Steve Lee.
My husband is an incredible guitarist and he’s also a carpenter, so my sons [Shepherd, 10 and Sterling, 7] can be learning those skill sets as well.
Apart from Dido and Aeneas, do you have other gigs lined up this season?
I’ll be at the Vancouver Symphony doing some beautiful Berlioz [La Mort de Cléopâtre] come February. But the truth is, these days, I’m way more likely to answer a call from an NGO. I feel like the need to help with people’s mental health has expanded during COVID, so I want to contribute to that. And I’ve become the brand ambassador for the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, speaking for another underrepresented facet of our society. I also want to continue the dialogue about racism and the classical arts, which is a bastion of inequity. There’s a real opportunity for us to shine a light on where we need to do a bit more work.
But you must also be looking forward to singing opera onstage again.
I’m excited to wear a corset. There was not a lot of corset-wearing during COVID! But seriously, anybody who learned to be grateful during COVID is who I’m interested in partnering with now. It’s that non-stop awareness of just how good we have it, that’s what I want to be basking in this season. And sharing that, spreading that, having that be what’s contagious.
Dido and Aeneas runs Oct. 20 to 23 at Toronto’s Elgin Theatre.
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