You may have seen Wallis Giunta in the Canadian Opera Company's recent production of Mozart's The Magic Flute, prowling the stage in a sleek black outfit suggestive of bondage gear. Or perhaps she replaced the chain on your bicycle, while she was moonlighting at a Toronto bike shop.
Many opera singers can slay a dragon on stage, as Giunta did in her role as one of Flute's three ladies. Far fewer would be comfortable running a work crew charged with building a dock or a cabin, as Giunta has done, and would happily do again if she had the time and opportunity.
Time is becoming very scarce in the life of this talented mezzo-soprano from Ottawa. Still just 25, the COC Ensemble Studio member seems to be riding a fast escalator toward an important operatic career.
Last week, she sang at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, in the COC's production of The Nightingale and Other Short Fables. This week, she's in three New York Festival of Song (NYFoS) recitals in and around New York. This summer, she'll be a protégée of soprano Kiri Te Kanawa in Italy, and of soprano Edith Wiens in Germany. Next fall, Giunta takes a coveted place in the Metropolitan Opera's Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, which often acts as a doorway onto the company's main stage. Most of these things came about through a pivotal encounter at last summer's Ravinia Festival near Chicago, where Giunta was a student in the Steans Music Institute. She met and impressed vocal coach Brian Zeger, who leads the Lindemann program and the vocal-arts department at New York's Juilliard School.
"I worked with him, and at the end of the festival, he said, 'I'd like you to come to the Met, and I'd like you to do a Juilliard artist diploma,'" says Giunta. "He wouldn't have heard me if I hadn't gone to Ravinia, and I wouldn't ever have thought to audition for those things."
"Come to the Met" meant submit to a two-week trial for entry into the young-artist program. Steven Blier, another Lindemann coach who tested her out, promptly booked her for this week's Spanish Gold recitals for NYFoS, which he directs. The final Lindemann hurdle was an audition on the Met stage for the company's chief arbiter of all things musical, conductor James Levine.
"He liked her immediately," says Zeger, who is also a frequent recital partner of Te Kanawa. "He actually started working with her right there on the stage, so I could see his interest was piqued.… Wallis is a major all-round talent. She has a lot to say musically and dramatically, and is very far ahead for her age. She's extremely hard-working and very focused, and open to criticism and growth."
Facing me across a table in a small Toronto café, Giunta seems excited by the breaks coming her way, but not puffed up by them. I get the sense that friends, family and manual work are as important in their way as an opera career - though that's been her goal since she was 9, when she first heard a recording of Maria Callas singing Bellini's Casta diva. She impulsively sang along with it, as she did with most other music played at home by her father Mike, a long-time Ottawa radio host and major-league handyman.
"I couldn't get it out of my head," she remembers. "I played it over and over. She would do some crazy run, and I would pause it, and try to imitate that. The feeling was awesome."
She sang for several years in a well-travelled children's choir, studied piano and voice, and eventually entered the vocal program at the University of Ottawa as a soprano. Her first undergrad role was The Magic Flute'sQueen of the Night, a high-flying virtuoso part that she managed to pull off; but within a year, the pains in her throat told her that something was wrong. She transferred to Toronto's Glenn Gould School, where her new teacher Jean McPhail rechristened her a mezzo. After all that straining in Ottawa, singing a mezzo role in a Gould School production of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream was "like getting into a hot tub."
While at the Gould, she took a job at a bicycle shop and kept it for three years, through the first of her two seasons at the COC (which end in June). She sharpened her performance skills in productions with Opera Atelier, first in the chorus and, last spring, as Cherubino in Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro. Mozart and Rossini, she says, are going to be a major part of her near future.
But she's also a big fan of country music - "not new country, I like the really grungy, old-school stuff" - and looks forward to going to the Bonnaroo festival in Tennessee this summer with her dad. She still loves performing anywhere with her singer-songwriter sister Marley, even busking in an open-air market.
The Giuntas are a close-knit clan. They sing together, have built houses together, and their level of connection strikes Wally (as they and friends call her) as a good model and basis for just about everything else.
"I cultivate the same kind of connection with the people who are in my life now," she says. "I don't want to live on the surface. I have a lot of love to give, and I'm very lucky to have received a lot too. It makes a big difference as an artist, to know what that feels like."
Wallis Giunta sings in three recitals with the New York Festival of Song, at the Caramoor Festival in Katonah, N.Y., on March 13; and at New York's Merkin Hall on March 15 and 17. She performs with Toronto's Amici Chamber Ensemble at Glenn Gould Studio in Toronto on April 3.