Hometown: Mississauga, Ontario, Canada
Current city: Stuttgart, Germany
1. Do you have any upcoming gigs you’re particularly excited about?
Contracts during COVID-19 have all been a little complicated. I have various things lined up, but many of them have not been announced publicly yet. Depending on how the pandemic develops, they may end up being postponed to 2022 and beyond so there are various projects that I am working on with no idea when or even if they will actually happen. That being said, I do have a couple of things coming up that I am quite excited about and are able to be shared.
I just came back home from a recording session in Munich of Stravinsky’s “Pulcinella” with the Münchner Philharmoniker. I never thought that I would be making my debut with such a world class orchestra in a broadcast recording during a worldwide pandemic, and yet here we are. The performance hall may have been empty but the energy and excitement from the musicians was practically tangible. It was such an exhilarating experience amplified by the fact that I had not had a chance to make music with other musicians for quite an extended period of time during Germany’s second lockdown. I could not help but get a little emotional the first time I heard the orchestra tune during our first rehearsal. The orchestra tuning is often one of the last things an opera singer hears before a performance begins and it naturally instills a bubbling excitement throughout your entire being. It means that you have been gifted with another opportunity to come together with your fellow passionate creators and share your collective artistry with the world. It wasn’t until I stopped hearing it that I realized how much this particular sound meant to me. To top it all off, at the podium was one of my dear mentors, Barbara Hannigan, who has taken me in as one of her Equilibrium Young Artists and has done so much for me already in the past year. The broadcast should be happening sometime in the next couple of weeks and will be available for free on the Münchner Philharmoniker website.
In July, I will be heading over to Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, where I will be joining Barbara Hannigan in a chamber music concert of 20th-century French music. This is a part of the Momentum Initiative that she has created as a way to allow established soloists and conductors to support young artists during the pandemic and beyond by inviting these artists onto professional engagements with them.
2. How did you spend your time during lockdown – were you doing role study, baking, learning a new hobby?
The beginning of the first lockdown was honestly pretty rough for me. I was in the middle of rehearsing the title role of Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie for my first big principal role debut in Germany with Nationaltheater Mannheim when everything shut down pretty suddenly. I spent several months feeling pretty aimless and emotional after having my entire performance calendar wiped and losing about 60% of my annual income from cancelled contracts. As time went on and especially once the second lockdown in Germany began, I started to seek out other creative outlets. I started taking an online figure-drawing class and also began experimenting with digital art. It honestly felt great to just be creating art for art’s sake. No pressure to show it to anyone or monetize my abilities. Just developing a skill for my own pleasure and nothing else.
My German language skills have also developed further than ever simply because I have the time to dedicate to it now. On my birthday, I recorded a 10-minute video of me rambling completely in German, including the various grammatical errors and awkward pauses that come naturally with a new language, and posted it to my social media for accountability. This December, I plan to make another video on my birthday to see how far I have come during my lockdown language studies.
3. You’re currently a member of the Opernstudio in Stuttgart. What has it been like living and performing in Germany during the pandemic?
I will be forever grateful that I had the opportunity to move to Germany when I did. Seven months after I moved to Stuttgart, the pandemic hit. Despite losing most of my income due to cancelled guest contracts, I still always receive my salary from Staatsoper Stuttgart, which covers my basic living expenses like rent and food. The Staatsoper has been incredible during all of this and has done everything they can to ensure that we are always safe and taken care of during this crazy time. The entire Staatstheater (including the Schauspiel, ballet, and opera) were also one of the leading innovators when the pandemic hit and was featured in a New York Times article about a “Wandelkonzert” that I performed in. Audience members were very limited, masked, and separated into very small and distanced walking groups. All throughout the Staatstheater were designated performance stops where audiences would be able to experience a dance, drama or musical performance. The first walking group would start at the first station, then move on to the second station while the second group would begin at the first station. This cycle would continue on with several groups for the entire evening for about 3 hours. The opera singer destination was outside where we were distanced in a courtyard for maximum fresh air and safety.
Naturally, there has also been a huge shift towards digital content. I have spent more time with cameras and microphones than I ever have my entire life. I had the opportunity to record a music video that is a part of a series of Monteverdi madrigals that will be premiered by the theater. I recorded and filmed a German adaptation of Purcell’s King Arthur while also recording an entire Christmas album (and filming more videos to go with it) with my fellow studio members which can be listened to on Spotify. There was even a brief moment when the initial lockdown was lifted with strict safety protocols implemented that I was able to sing Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni in one semi-staged and distanced performance literally days before the second lockdown was enforced. Extensive testing and strict safety measures are in place whenever we are called into work and I feel very taken care of. So many premieres have been cancelled and we have had months of rehearsals for things that have yet to be performed. Despite all of this, I am incredibly grateful that I still have an opportunity to create and sing, even at such a compromised and reduced level. When the time comes that we will be able to share our artistry again with actual live audiences, we will be ready.
4. What are you most looking forward to doing in a post-vaccine world?
Hugs. Being able to see the beautiful smiles of my friends and family not obscured by masks. There are several members of my family, particularly my mother, who are part of high-risk groups. Because of this, it has been over a year since I have had an opportunity to go home to Canada and see my family and friends. I also live alone in my apartment in Germany so it has been a pretty tough time socially and mentally during these isolating lockdowns.
And of course, being able to go back to proper live performances. As much as it is a blessing that we have been able to adapt to all of these digital performances and even create surprisingly innovative performing experiences out of necessity, it is all still a compromise. There is still nothing that compares to the energy of a full audience experiencing the art that is an actual live performance. To actually feel the unadulterated sound of the orchestra wash over your entire body. To experience the herculean capabilities of the unamplified and unedited human voice as it penetrates your soul and evokes larger than life depictions of the human experience. This is what opera is to me and no amount of high quality recording technology will ever be able to replace that.
See Charles’s StageTime profile here!