If the road is a universal metaphor for the journey of life, then the road less travelled is a perfectly fitting one for the singular way soprano Suzie LeBlanc’s career has unfolded. She has carved out one of the most unique profiles of any Canadian soprano, with a career that includes not only recitals and performances around the world with orchestras, opera companies, and new, early and traditional music ensembles, but also a widely-acclaimed acting performance as the protagonist in Rodrigue Jean’s film Lost Song – named one of Canada’s Top Ten films of 2008 at the Toronto International Film Festival. Lost Song also won the City of Toronto-Citytv Award for Best Canadian Feature Film at the Festival.
Having also completed the fabled pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain – known to followers as simply “el camino”, it’s no surprise that exploring the pathways of life is not only a central metaphor for LeBlanc’s career, but also a source of inspiration. In fact, walking is one of the parallels between LeBlanc and the Pulitzer prize-winning American poet Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979), who is the focus of much of her attention these days.
LeBlanc is co-artistic director and one of the guiding lights behind EB100: The Elizabeth Bishop Centenary, an ambitious world-wide, year-long celebration of the poet’s life and influence. The multidisciplinary celebration aims to generate new creation across Canada, and especially in the Maritimes. EB100 will involve collaborations with arts organizations including Scotia Festival, Viewpoint Gallery, Symphony Nova Scotia as well as literary festivals, film festivals, and a prose competition – a reflection of the “octopus-like way she had of inspiring artists of all stripes,” says LeBlanc. “Her fame is exponential at this point, and it turns out that she has been incredibly inspirational to several generations of artists.”
In 2006, while researching the repertoire for her well-received second Acadian album Tout Passe, Chants d’Acadie on ATMA Classique, LeBlanc walked hundreds of kilometres on the East Coast trail of Newfoundland and spent time gathering traditional songs in her native New-Brunswick — a journey that is documented in the film “Suzie LeBlanc: A Musical Quest”, which was broadcast nationally this year on Bravo! LeBlanc discovered that the 21-year old Bishop had traversed the Avalon Peninsula in Newfoundland on foot over a three-week period in 1932.
LeBlanc’s initial encounter with Bishop’s work and influence was serendipitous: “I hadn’t read any of her poetry. I happened to be visiting Great Village, Nova Scotia, where she had spent a part of her childhood. I found a leaflet about Elizabeth Bishop in a church basement where some friends of mine were rehearsing for a concert, and I was intrigued by her story and by her photo. After that, I kept meeting people who were fans of her work including Canadian composer Alasdair MacLean, who led me to Sandra Barry, a writer and independent scholar who knows everything about Elizabeth Bishop. I was also struck by the fact that Elizabeth’s centenary in 2011 would coincide with my 50th birthday and I had wanted to work on a special project for that year. With Sandra’s initiatives and ideas for a centenary Festival, the Elizabeth Bishop Centenary Festival (EB100) was born!” explains LeBlanc.
As if putting together a year-long celebration of a renowned poet’s work wasn’t enough, in addition to her regular performances on the world’s stages, LeBlanc has been running her own opera company since 2005. Le Nouvel Opéra was born of a meeting of minds between several gifted artists, including opera and stage director Guillaume Bernardi and ATMA recording artists, conductor and harpsichordist Alexander Weimann, and countertenor Matthew White. Antonio Caldara’s oratorio La Conversione di Clodoveo, Rè di Francia marks the debut recording by Le Nouvel Opéra on ATMA Classique featuring an all-Canadian cast.
Today, the leadership of Le Nouvel Opéra is shared on a rotating basis between LeBlanc, Weimann and stage director Marie-Nathalie Lacoursière. The company is dedicated to the production and workshopping of repertoire from the baroque period in the form of operas, oratorios, intermezzi, singspiel and other art forms where dance, theatre, commedia dell’arte, visual arts and singing are blended together into one spectacle. Since 2005, Le Nouvel Opéra has presented both fully staged and in- concert versions of operas and oratorios by Monteverdi, Purcell, Rameau and Mozart in Vancouver, Montreal, and Germany, and will hold its third annual workshop for young singers, dancers and actors in Montreal this summer.
During our interview, Suzie LeBlanc mentions that, thanks to having received a special grant from the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec, she will be taking a sabbatical next year and will perform very few concerts in 2012. It’s no surprise that her sabbatical year is chock-full of ambitious projects and further explorations: she hopes to work on the third in her series of Acadian albums. She will also use her sabbatical time to develop a new recital programme and “in order to become a fuller, more well-rounded musician,” LeBlanc intends to practice the art of self-accompaniment, a natural for this singer who originally trained as a harpsichordist. LeBlanc also looks forward to receiving her third honorary degree, this time from the university in her hometown of Moncton. Reflecting on her career at mid-life and her full slate of new projects and exploration, she says, “I feel like I’ve gone back to school.” And while her fans will miss her luminous presence on the stage next year, they will, no doubt, be thrilled to share what she has learned.
© Luisa Trisi, 2011