The beaches of Vancouver are about as far from the Atlantic shores of her Acadian childhood as Suzie LeBlanc could go and still feel at home. Her brilliant career as one of the early-music movement's leading sopranos, though better appreciated in Europe and Quebec than in English Canada, got its improbable start in this overgrown seaside town some 20 years ago.
Back then she was a McGill student and a harpsichordist who sang on the side for the sheer pleasure of it -- because that's what you do when you're brought up in the powerful Acadian musical tradition of community choirs and folk songs that have been passed down from the Middle Ages. Now, two decades after being recruited into Vancouver's New World Consort at a postconcert cocktail party and launched on an international career before she'd even convinced herself she was a singer -- "It seemed too bizarre," she says -- LeBlanc looks on the city as one of those places where life found its strangely appropriate way.
As she treads the soft sands on her energizing walks between performances of Purcell songs, Handel's Acis and Galatea and a Caldara oratorio at Festival Vancouver over the next two weeks, the urban waves connect with the pretty waters of her childhood. La mer jolie, as it happens, was the title she chose for her seductively evocative collection of Acadian songs about the sea, a recent folk-Baroque crossover that alongside some wild, improvised fiddling and the soprano's agile vocal ornamentations, features a portrait of her deftly jigging on the desolate New Brunswick shore.
"It was my mother's favourite beach," she says in barely accented English that carries just a slight Celtic lilt. "You could walk for miles and miles along the sandbar without meeting anyone, listening to the birds, no hot-dog stands."
Vancouver's mer jolie can't quite compare in that respect, but LeBlanc has a way of imposing her own stamp on unsuspecting surroundings. This is a woman who, encountered late-afternoon before one of her productions at the Montreal Baroque Festival, slips her home-cooked salmon from its wrapper onto a café's assiette végétarienne. " Voilà!," she says with a waiter's flourish. "I wouldn't normally do that, I meant to eat it earlier, but I need the energy for tonight's performance."
While staying in Caraquet, N.B., last week, she went to a local church to ask if she could practise singing the Mozart songs that she's preparing to record accompanied by fortepiano in a more authentic 18th-century style. "She walked into the presbytery," says her friend and University of Montreal colleague, singer Rosemarie Landry, "and when the priest saw her, he said, 'You kept me company all winter.' " He had put a gift copy of La mer jolie on his CD player in January and was mesmerized by its undeniable intimacy for the next three months.
At 43, after two decades criss-crossing the highly globalized Baroque music world (and with 44 CDs, both solo and ensemble, in her discography), she claims to be weary of travel and ready to settle down. And it's true that as artistic director of the new Académie Montréal Baroque, a group devoted to putting the theatre back into early chamber music, and as a sought-after professor of voice at the University of Montreal, she has set down roots in a city with a madly energetic early-music scene.
And yet she's in Vancouver now and toured Germany earlier this month with the out-of-the-way Caldara oratorio La Conversione di Clodoveo.
(She plays St. Remigius, "my first male role and my first saint.") She also performs with Toronto's Tafelmusik and the Toronto Consort in the coming season, will expand her early-music range by singing Schubert in Calgary in the fall, has a rare staged version of Bach's St. Matthew Passion to look forward to with Jonathan Miller at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and is touring the Handel love duets that were a recent classical bestseller for her and fellow McGill alumnus, countertenor Daniel Taylor -- just to name a few of her out-of-town gigs.
"I'm trying to focus on reducing my crazy life," she says, without any hint of world-weariness. "because now I think I know what I want to do. But I still have to travel, I still have to earn my living that way."
She recently added to her travel time by starting a new relationship with a professor of business strategy at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., which can only be productive for a woman trying to establish financing for a Baroque music academy. "I didn't pick him for that, but it doesn't hurt," she says. "His specialty is to link artists to businesses, and he's also a jazz pianist and sings in choirs, so it's perfect."
Having settled in Montreal to recover from the physical demands of travel, she now finds herself earning VIA points going to and from Kitchener-Waterloo. "We'll work things out," she says, a soprano familiar enough with Handel to know that love duets have their twists and turns. "It's just a little train ride."
And nothing compared to the Baroque version of the jet-set lifestyle she lived after saying yes to the wide-ranging New World Consort back in the mid-eighties. "I toured the States, went to Europe, sang at London's Wigmore Hall -- I managed to get all this performance experience right at the start." This rapid exposure led to a stint in the London-based Consort of Musicke subbing for soprano Emma Kirkby (whose pure, flowing voice hers resembled), domiciles in London, Amsterdam and Bremen, Germany, and a long-term partnership "in every sense of the word" with lutenist/impresario Stephen Stubbs that ended poorly.
"We kept working together for a long time afterward," she says. "It was a very stressful time in my life, and then we saw the light and took a pause." Early music, while increasingly popular as a boundary-breaking alternative to the hoarier classics, remains a small world, and LeBlanc had to take her own pause when she realized an October ensemble tour would bring her and her ex-partner back together. "I'm looking forward to it musically," she says, "and I think we're now grown-up enough to deal with anything else."
When she went off to Europe in the eighties, that was the place to be for a rising star in early music, but the Montreal she returned to in 1999 was much more accommodating to her talents and interests. Johanne Goyette, who'd established the ATMA Classique label with a strong orientation to Baroque music, quickly recruited LeBlanc, and the result has been a steady stream of recordings, including the Handel love duets, La mer jolie, Suzie LeBlanc -- Portrait (a solo Handel sampler) and several CDs of Bach cantatas.
"She's not the kind of singer who expects her technique to do all the work," says Goyette. "She just sings like she's carrying a tune, like she has something to say, and you can feel the emotion." Christopher Jackson, director of the Studio de musique ancienne de Montréal, first encountered her as a 17-year-old, and saw her as "a real natural. She had an intuitive understanding of music, and where it came from, an openness not only to what was on the page but where it came from."
Jackson is not at all surprised that she has become both a leading singer and artistic interpreter of Baroque music. But her career path wasn't nearly so clear to the soprano herself. That invitation in Vancouver two decades ago came as a surprise precisely because she hadn't sought this role. As a girl growing up in Moncton, she was strongly attracted to gymnastics when a Romanian teacher established a highly serious training facility. "She was someone who instilled the idea that you could achieve excellence," says LeBlanc, "extremely encouraging but also exigeante -- demanding."
Suzie LeBlanc is clearly someone who doesn't wilt under demands, but rises to them. Perhaps ironically for someone who sings the plaintive songs of her native Acadie so beautifully, she was determined to get away from the place when she was a teenager. There was little in Moncton to push her, beyond gymnastics and a youth choir presided over by a nun for whom artistic passion and hard work were inseparable.
Her Moncton high school, by comparison, seemed a place of slackers and druggies, an environment where failure was prized: "I realized I had to leave this place, that I wanted to do something in the arts." At 16, she talked her divorced mother, herself a former singer who'd been sent away at 12 to study music at a convent, into moving to Montreal, ostensibly so she could study dance. Soon she moved on to flute, and then harpischord.
She went off to a course in Toronto, where she played the harpsichord as an accompanist but also drew on her choral background and indulged in a little singing herself. When she went in for her end-of-course interview, her teacher looked at the budding harpsichordist and delivered those words to live by: "Suzie, I think the world needs more singers." The message got through, even if it took her a while to act on it.
"At first I thought, okay, this can't be good. And yet for some reason, with the harpsichord between me and the audience, it had always felt like a piece of furniture, like a wall. As a singer, I'm there, the audience is there and I'm just communicating. When I sing, everything is more direct."
Suzie LeBlanc's performances at Festival Vancouver include: The Age of Purcell, tomorrow at 11 a.m., First Baptist Church; Caldara's La Conversione di Clodoveo, Aug. 7 at 3 p.m., Chan Centre, UBC; Handel's Acis and Galatea, Aug. 13 at 8 p.m., Chan Centre.