Interview with Emily Klassen
I walked into the Art Gallery of Ontario and took a seat in one of the chairs within the crowd. The room was stunning with ribbons hanging from the balconies. There was a woman on the stage in a gold dress ready to perform. I sat next to a gentleman who seemed really eager to listen to the performance. The singer started and I watched the gentleman go through so many different emotions. The presentation was so powerful that the gentleman was in tears. At the end of the song, he jumped out of his chair to applaud the production. Later, I learned it was Mads Mikkelsen “Hannibal”. Little did I know they were taping a television show and the performer was Emily Klassen. Roll the footage. (Pause) Only kidding folks. I wish I was there.
1. How would you compare folk & world music versus classical?
My father sang folk music to me as a child, so I learned this music first. I was drawn to the storytelling aspect and the acoustical sounds of the instruments and voices. In this way, classical music is very similar. You can’t hide behind electronic production and amplification, so in a sense, you are very intimately connected to your audience. There is nothing between you and them. You are very exposed. Also, both aim to tell human stories and explore the emotions we all feel. Those themes are the same in any language and at any point in time. It’s interesting to me too that the folk songs I gravitated towards were the laments, the sad, haunting melodies. As a classical singer, laments are still my favourite.
2. Can you discuss how you prepare to perform in front of an audience? Emily Klassen, do you have any singing preparation advice for newer singers?
I feel most comfortable if I feel very secure about the music. That means putting in the time to study the score carefully, getting the notes solidly and comfortably in my voice, really understanding what the composer intended. Live performance is inherently unpredictable, and nerves will always play a factor, at least for me. Knowing I can trust the hours of work I’ve put in goes a long way to alleviate that stress. On the day of a performance I like to take things slowly. I lay everything out that I need the night before and take my time warming up my voice, doing whatever I need to do. I also like to set aside some time to meditate.
3. Can you tell us about your relationship with the Canada Council for the Arts? How did it happen?
I’ve been very fortunate to have won two CCA grants. The first one was when I got accepted into the Accademia Europea Dell’Opera (AEDO) in Amsterdam. It was the first time I was cast in a principal role for a baroque opera. I had been steering towards Early Music for a couple of years prior to this, but this was the first time performing a full Monteverdi opera. This program marked a major change for me and my confidence in this style of music.
Having the Canada Council support my work was incredibly validating at that moment. The second time was to help pay my travel costs when I was invited by Italian organist Luciano Zecca to tour Italy doing a programme for soprano and organ. Again, this marked an important moment in my career, and I was deeply grateful for the opportunity to reach so many people, performing in nine concerts.
4. Can you tell us about your background on stage?
I’ve been performing since I can remember. I would do skits as often as I could at school and summer camp. I was memorizing Shakespeare when I was 10 and imagining myself as Lady Macbeth. My focus later became music and my stage work was largely focused on concerts and operas. When I moved to Toronto though, I took a lot of film courses and lately, I’m really enjoying improv classes at Second City. Getting up in front of an audience is something I find really gratifying and I imagine I will be doing it in some form as long as I’m able to.
5. You have appeared on screen in the series 12 Monkeys, Flashpoint, Murdoch Mysteries and Hannibal (NBC series). Any fun stories you would like to share about these experiences?
Hmm… Well Hannibal was an incredible experience. I vividly remember holding the train of that exquisite (very expensive!) gold dress as I walked into the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) hall where my scene was shot, looking out at all the extras in the audience, the actors, and all the crew behind them. There was a huge crane out there as well. It felt like a sea of people and equipment, all focused on me. There I was, just standing alone on that stage. I had a small moment of “Oh God! Can I actually do this??” and I decided “Yeah, yeah I can.” That was a big moment for me.
6. Let’s play a game I would like to call un mot. One word to describe your collaboration with others. Go!
One word… I guess what comes to mind is inspiring. I can’t explain how it feels when you are with a group of other musicians and you get in a zone, your own ego falls away and you lean into what’s being created by the group. It’s an extraordinary feeling.