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AMAZING AMBUR: Soprano Ambur Braid forges a singular path towards a blossoming international career.

The city is in the middle of one of its first big snow days of 2019 when I go to meet AMBUR BRAID at Toronto's Soho House.

She's there when I arrive, already settled in a plush armchair beneath a warm-looking sweater and a striking statement necklace; she flashes a big smile and announces, "I'm getting a cheeseburger."

Tall and stylish, often flanked by her toy poodle, Walter, Braid has a distinct air of star quality about her. But what sort of star? She possesses the conversational skills of a politician, no doubt honed at events like the Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson's 80th birthday. And she has the disarming charisma of an actor, which came in handy while getting her make-up done next to Bryan Cranston on-set of the recently-released film, The Upside (she played an opera singer, natch). "[Cranston] was asking so many questions about opera," says Braid, who seized the opportunity on-set to sing for a captive audience. "Because I am competitive, and sometimes a show-off," she winks, "I sang 'Sempre libera' like 17 times, and 'Der Holle Rache' over 20 times."

And Braid has the comfortable etiquette of a socialite, no doubt a natural flair, but formally developed during her years working in public relations and event planning. "It taught me how to speak to anyone, of any social standing," she says. Even in the "austere environment" that is so often the opera world, "there aren't that many people now who intimidate me."

The only thing that really gives away Braid's status as an opera singer is, well, her voice. "My favourite thing is when people meet me first and then hear me sing," she says. "Seeing me as I am, as a goofy, ridiculous human, and then to hear me make those sounds-- it's my absolute favourite response."

The Canadian soprano, B.C.-born and with a career that began in Toronto, sets herself apart with her dramatic, agile, chameleonic sound that runs the gamut from heartbreaking whisper to fiery shriek. Mozart's Queen of the Night (The Magic Flute) has become a signature role of sorts for Braid--a no-brainer, considering her thrilling high extension and natural knack for playing queens.

Mozart's Queen has taken Braid to the stages of the Canadian Opera Company (COC), English National Opera, and Oper Frankfurt; remarkably, the role has stayed in Braid's repertoire, even as her voice has matured and found room for Elizabeth I in Roberto Devereux (Oper Frankfurt), the tide role in Fuccim's Tosca (Calgary Opera), and the hefty Sabina in the world premiere of Rufus Wainwright's second opera, Hadrian (COC).

"My [Magic Hute] Queens are better than they've ever been," says Braid, with no plans to retire her high Fs.

There's much about her that doesn't seem to jive with how we imagine opera singers to be: instead of the swoopy, sing-song laugh that gives away many opera singers, Braid cackles like she's up to no good; her love of Formula One racing makes her a minority among her colleagues--in fact, British racing driver Jensen Button is one of only two people around whom Braid "couldn't actually function." (The other: Gustavo Dudamel.)

From other angles, Braid is a purebred opera singer, as though transported through time from a more glamourous, old-world age of singing. Her calendar has all the surprises and nonconformities of decades past, reminiscent of Anna Moffo (who sang Puccini's CioCio San before she sang Mozart's Susanna) or Jessye Norman (who started big in her first professional gig as Elisabeth in Wagner's Tannhauser). She has the work ethic and curiosity that fostered the long careers of Marilyn Home and Judith Forst. And with the metallic, edgy sheen that lends humanity to her arresting voice, Braid gives off subde, consistent whiffs of a Maria Callas--or at the very least, a Sondra Radvanovsky.

As though she's already preparing for a page-turner of a memoir, Braid has a refreshing habit of neither asking permission, nor begging forgiveness for her professional decisions. In the current climate of cookie-cutter, overly-curated careers, her prioritization of the few things that still lie within her control--like racking up a resume that would confound most casting agents--seems almost reckless.

"People rhapsodize about the Golden Era of singing," says Braid, "but there's also the Golden Era of living, where people didn't have the weight of history on their shoulders like we do now, and you could just do your job."

For Braid, "the weight of history" is another way of describing the operatic traditions of past generations--the iconic recordings, the industry lore that is sourced from the singers and conductors of the first half of the 20th century--that can create neuroses in opera singers of today, and even scare them away from boldly bringing to the table their own artistic statements.

Perhaps it's why some of Braid's most successful professional moments have been as a last-minute replacement for an ailing singer--gigs that are, by definition, impossible to over-think. "Every major break I've had, I've learned six or eight days before, as a jump-in," she says. "It's much less pressure, because everyone's just grateful that you're there."

Today, Braid finds herself on the other side of such neuroses, having decidedly paid the dues most opera singers must endure in their early careers. Stage fright, large personalities, and unending criticism (often offered as "advice")--it can seem like an industry-wide hazing process akin to something out of The Truman Show.

"I don't know how anyone does this, to be honest," she says, not entirely joking. "Masochism is the only response."

Braid seems uninterested in the entire "weight of history", but she certainly borrows from some of its select pages. She lives with an all-consuming, almost reverential urge to do great justice to opera, its composers, and its audiences--a Romantic notion of decades past, and another one of those involuntary nods to Callas. Even when she turned 30--a milestone that, for Braid, came with hormonal fluctuations and a few life changes--her priority was still to take care of her instrument.

Braid felt her singing had begun to reflect her personal transformations, and like a package-deal of well-being, she worked on her voice as a means of working on herself. "There was a shift, and I was singing like a lunatic," she says, with no sugar-coating. By the end of her time as a member of the COC's Ensemble Studio program, "I felt as though I had a different voice and that it was time to go back to the technical basics and to be reined in. I had to harness all of this new energy!"

With a hint of a paradox, Braid flew to Greece to get "reined in." She sought out Marina Krilovici, the Romanian soprano known for roles like Santuzza and Aida, who now teaches in Athens at the Maria Callas Athenaeum Conservatory. (There she is again.)

Braids work with Krilovici, which she packed into dense weeks of two or three lessons daily, was what unearthed her new sound. Their all-or-nothing working style--another operatic tactic plucked from the "weight of history"--worked for Braid; she still prepares this way, in compressed bursts either with Krilovici or with her coaches as she learns new roles. "There was no value in having one lesson a week," Braid had discovered about her process. "I can't even tap into anything."

Braid brought to Athens her most vulnerable sound, the one that "railed" her personal unrest. "I cared so much, but didn't have all the tools to deal with it," she says in hindsight. As Krilovici hacked away at Braid's habits from her past life, few options were left but to be still and sing honestly. "It's so vulnerable to just stand there with an open chest. "When she began her work in Athens, "I wasn't capable of opening myself."

Together, they worked on roles like Donna Anna from Don Giovanni, Violetta from La traviata, and Leonora from II trovatore, "because those will teach you how to sing." Immersed in the well-constructed vocal demands of these iconic roles, Braid found a new home for her voice, and for her temperament. "All of this stuff just felt so much better," she says of the gravity and subtlety of these new roles. "It felt like me."

Perhaps as a result of vocal breakthroughs, and surely through the cure-all of time, Braid has struck an enviable equilibrium of peace and motivation--no easy task in such a volatile industry. She shows dual facets of glamour and pragmatism, as though acknowledging that inherent in opera are both magic and sweat, and one simply does no good without the other. The career calls for public vulnerability, a skill only perfected through trial and error onstage. "That's why the audience members need to give us a little bit of grace with that," Braid adds.

In a wise pursuit of sanity, Braid balances that public vulnerability with a private personal life which she holds close to her chest. "I lead a very secret life, and I always have, and I like that," she says. That privacy is perhaps one of the few things that take precedence over her life onstage; when her personal self might be too bluntly exposed, Braid is skittish. "There are certain roles I don't think I would be capable of doing, because it would be too close to home," she says, reminding me of the similar struggle Sondra Radvanovsky told me she had with Leonora in II trovatore.

"We get to see so much, and gain so much empathy," Braid says of the roles she inhabits, and the traveling she does to tell their stories. "We have these large feelings, and that changes you as an individual." Most singers can understand this sentiment, but Braid is rare in her embracing it as a learning opportunity.

I've heard more than a few opera singers describe their work onstage as a form of therapy, and Braid understands the link. She's grateful to be a part of an "incredibly passionate business" which allows her to expunge some of the drama of everyday life. "Channeling it and using it onstage has probably saved most of our lives."

Jenna Simeonov is Editor and co-creator of Schmopera.com. She's also a pianist, vocal coach, and repetiteur, and working with singers is how she fell in love with opera.

Caption: Ambur Braid as Adele in Canadian Opera Company's Die Fledermaus (2012)

Caption: (Left) Ambur Braid (Tosca) with Gregory Dahl (Scarpia) in Calgary Opera's Tosca (2018); (above) Ambur Braid (Sabina) & Thomas Hampson in the title role of Canadian Opera Company's Hadrian (2018)
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Author:Simeonov, Jenna
Publication:Opera Canada
Date:Jun 22, 2019
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