In the Canadian Opera Company's production of Mozart's The Abduction from the Seraglio, an opera that stands out for featuring two leading roles for coloratura soprano – the voice type known for speed, agility and an extremely high range – Claire de Sévigné is one such soprano, taking on the impressive heights as Blonde alongside fellow Canadian Jane Archibald as Konstanze.
The production by Wajdi Mouawad – running Feb. 7 to 24 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto – marks de Sévigné's first time bringing Blonde to the COC, the company she considers home. Yet it's a role she has been calling her own for several years. "I started working on Blonde when I was 25," she recalls.
It may sound young to take on a full-length role in a taxing Mozart opera, but among her fellow coloratura sopranos, de Sévigné's career is right on schedule.
"Some of the best coloraturas in the world right now are my age or just a few years older than me," the 30-year-old native of Hudson, Que., says in a sit-down interview. While many young opera singers of different voice types – basses, dramatic sopranos, so-called Verdi baritones, for example – often have to patiently wait for their voices to mature, coloratura sopranos are the operatic equivalent of ballet dancers or gymnasts – their instruments ready for professional use much earlier.
As a student at the University of Toronto, de Sévigné always found she could "pop up easily" to the extremely high notes that come with roles such as Cunegonde (Candide), Zerbinetta (Ariadne auf Naxos) and the Queen of the Night (The Magic Flute). When it came to the flashy shows of scales and arpeggios – the coloratura soprano always seems to sing 10 times as many notes as anyone else on stage – she found it a simple case of practice makes perfect.
"A lot of the flashy stuff that makes you think, 'Oh my gosh, that's so hard!' – that's the stuff that you're practising as a younger coloratura," she explains.
Like most young voices that show signs of agility early on, de Sévigné's technical development had a strong focus on perfecting her natural skills. "I wonder if I do more scales in my warm-ups than other voice types," she muses. Likely, she's right.
It's not just busy work, either. Well-composed roles for coloratura sopranos are written to complement the voice's organic inclinations, mirroring much of what singers such as de Sévigné do in their daily technical practice. "A lot of the coloratura roles, it's written-out technique."
At home in a sea of fast, high notes, de Sévigné and her vocal specialties are enviable to many other singers, for whom coloratura does not come easily. Of course, there's a catch: Having a first-out-of-the-gate career means training for longevity, and singing famous, scene-stealing arias means having to consistently live up to a level of hype.
"It's horrible. I don't think anybody gets past that," Sévigné says with a laugh of one notorious example. "Auditioning for the Queen of the Night is the worst thing – almost as bad as having to sing the Queen of the Night!"
All opera singers spend their careers adapting to the changes in their voices that inevitably come with age. One of those changes can be the loss of a singer's highest notes – a terrifying prospect for a coloratura soprano. "I trained for years for the high stuff," de Sévigné says. "Now that I'm 30, the lower range is actually easier, and the higher range is getting harder. My voice is changing – I can feel it shifting gears."
She deals with that the same way she does with any vocal challenge: "I believe that you have to keep training." There's an urge, she says, to use her voice in the way she always has, and the challenge comes in finding – and trusting – a new technique.
The most nerve-racking part of it all: That training process often has to be done outside the safety net of a practice room and taken to the adrenalin-rich experience of the live stage.
"We're putting it all out there," de Sévigné says. "That's why sopranos get such a bad reputation for being crazy!"