Spotlight on: Beth Hagerman Photo: Daniel Lastres

Spotlight on: Beth Hagerman

Jenna Simeonov
New Brunswick-born soprano Beth Hagerman impressed us most recently in Tapestry Opera’s Songbook VI, and she’s a lovely example of what it means to be a true young artist. With an exciting voice and professional wisdom beyond her years, Hagerman gave us a beautiful interview. She chats about her musical family, the elusive “perfect ‘ah’ vowel,” and what it means to be a brave and autonomous singer.

Why do you sing, and why are you doing it professionally?

I sing because I have a very musical family and playing and singing together is just something that we do at family gatherings. Music is important to us. It’s a way to connect, a way to bring the family together. I sing classical music because I had a great teacher who introduced me to it back in Woodstock, NB. I’ve always felt it in my core that I have something to say, to share with people through this medium.

I sing professionally because, when I was at Mount Allison for my first undergrad, Wendy Nielsen gave a recital there and after that I couldn’t imagine doing anything else with my life. I felt the way she moved me when she sang and I knew I had it in me to do that. I like to connect with people which is why I think most singers get into this business. We want to make an emotional connection.

What does “good singing” mean to you? What does it feel like when you achieve it?

Good singing has meant different things to me at various stages of my artistic development. It used to mean just getting the notes and rhythms right. Then for a while, I interpreted good singing as having evenness of tone throughout my range. Right now, good singing to me means, being present in the moment and meaning every word from the core of my being. When I reach that point, I’m not seperate from the character on the page. I am that person and feel their emotion. It’s a spiritual experience not a technical one.

What do young singers need to do more of? What should they do less of?

I think that young singers need to know from a very early stage in their development that they have the authority to be an artist. It’s hard when you’re in school and you’re focusing so hard on technique. You have teachers telling you which aspects of your singing are good or bad. You start to think in terms of absolutes and you forget about things like interpretation, artistry and connecting with the text because that feels so wishy-washy in a world where you need to find that seemingly mythical perfect “ah” vowel.

When I was in school, I always wanted to be at a certain technical level with a piece before I would add in interpretation. I was too afraid to put my emotions out there alongside my technical imperfections because if one was wrong I would feel that both were being corrected when my “ah” vowel was taken apart by whoever was coaching me on a given day. Of course that’s wrong, and I see that now! My anxiety was separating me from my inner artist, and wanting to be an artist is why I got into this profession in the first place! No one can give you permission to be an artist. You decide that. You have to hold that dear and know that that belongs to you even if you’re working through the rest right now. Singing with real emotion helps you to sing better technically as well. It frees you up mentally and physically. It makes you available to the demands of singing.

All that said, I would like to tell young singers that they can connect to music and text more and be an artist and be less afraid of their technical imperfections. You don’t have to be scared to open your mouth and say something. No doubt, that’s why you’re here.

Do you have any “bucket list” roles you’d like to sing (realistically or otherwise)?

Currently, I have a small bucket list of roles which I know I could sing right now: Elettra (Idomeneo), Fiordiligi (Così fan tutte), Mimì (La bohème), Magda (The Consul), and Agatha (Der Freischütz).

How do you explain your job to non-music folks?

I tell them I’m an opera singer and I work by contract. Then I answer any questions they have after that. Usually it’s about how I got into singing opera, “do you sing that really HIGH song?” or “what is opera?” A lot of people have no idea what it is or how powerful it can be. A lot of people are curious. Depending on their existing knowledge or preconceptions, I want them to understand that opera is like a play but with music (kinda like a musical). There’s a story which has characters that you care about (or don’t) and within that framework I work to present a person with needs and desires in a realistic way that can resonate with anyone. Opera is exciting and either you will leave laughing or crying. Sometimes you get a bit of both! Hurray!

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