Spotlight on: Chelsea RusInterview
A versatile young artist, soprano Chelsea Rus has spent her time onstage in roles like Adina (L’elisir d’amore), Blanche (Dialogues des Carmélites), Lauretta (Gianni Schicchi), and Female Chorus (The Rape of Lucretia). Recently named one of CBC’s 30 Hot Canadian Musicians under 30, Chelsea is a new member of l’Opéra de Montréal’s Atelier lyrique Young Artist programme.
She gave us a smart interview about her lightbulb moments in the practice room, coveting Berg’s Lulu, and why she saves time for baking.
Why do you sing, and why are you doing it professionally?
I sing because I must sing. Selfishly, I sing because it brings me so much joy and it makes me feel incredible. I also love connecting with people through music and creating a space that is outside of our day to day reality.
Opera pulled me in because it blends two of my favourite art forms: music and theatre. Being an actor allows me to be someone else, and explore a world outside of my own. It is through singing that I have enriched my life with history, poetry, psychology, humanity, and a better understanding of myself.
As to why I sing professionally: I have been warned by many people in the business that if you do not need to sing you shouldn’t, since you will most likely end up miserable. Of course I have had moments of doubt (and I have tried to imagine my life as a lawyer), but the bottom line is that I am an addict. I will always itch to sing and perform, and I will never feel like myself doing anything else.
What does “good singing” mean to you? What does it feel like when you achieve it?
I had a lightbulb moment a few years ago when I was feeling frustrated in the practice room. I was miserably hacking over my arias for an upcoming audition, and was overcome by fear of doing the wrong thing, or sounding bad. I paused for a moment and tried to remember the last time I was truly happy when I sang. I was taken back to memories of my teenage years singing and playing jazz at local restaurants and bars in my hometown of Abbotsford, BC.
Back then, I was simply entertaining, improvising, and ultimately playing a few wrong notes here and there. I never thought about singing technique, I was just playing and having fun. I wanted to figure out how to incorporate that freedom into my classical singing.
Now when I feel I’m doing my best singing I feel limitless and like I am improvising. I am the most fulfilled when I can go beyond technique, notes and rhythms. I try to forget everything and pretend as if I’m creating the words and music for the first time. This, for me, helps singing and stage craft become more honest and in the moment, which is the most exhilarating experience.
What do young singers need to do more of? What should they do less of?
I think it’s important for young singers to create a life for themselves outside of singing. Life as a musician can be all-consuming, and although we are all grateful to get to do what we are passionate about for a living, sooner or later you could lose yourself in the piles of rejection letters. Avoid the temptation to lock yourself in a practice room, depriving yourself of human contact.
Young singers should be curious about a multitude of things; they should travel, nourish relationships, learn about history and mythology, go to museums, and practice enriching your life with things outside of music that bring you joy.
The most important lesson I’m learning in the first steps of my career as a singer is that it is important to separate myself from my singing. Playing music as a teenager was my outlet, my release. It was something to do that made me feel like myself, and helped me cope with the stresses of daily life.
Now that singing is my work, I need to redefine and prioritize in a way that allows me to still find joy in other things when I have a bad singing day. That means putting energy into other things outside of music that help define me as a person. For me, that means that some days I bake a lot of pastries!
Do you have any “bucket list” roles you’d like to sing (realistically or otherwise)?
For now at least, they remain slightly out of my reach, but I would love to play Salome and Lulu. I think one could spend a lifetime exploring the minds of these characters, they are so alive with a distinctly modern psychology that Strauss and Berg bring to the dramas.
Playing Lulu certainly seems to me an ultimate feat of musicianship and dramatic craft. What excites me most about this role is the huge scope of skills needed to successfully pull it off! I find it musically and dramatically thrilling from start to finish.
How do you explain your job to non-music folks?
Very enthusiastically! I typically chat up anyone on airplanes, trains, or on the street who is interested enough to ask about my work. Generally speaking, they are all surprised that a young person has any interest in opera.
I’m always motivated to explain why opera no longer lives in the stereotypes of its past. Opera is full of sexy young talent defying physical and acoustical law. It is an art form that appeals to all the senses, and combines true drama with music! What could be better?
The conversation usually ends with me politely declining an impromptu concert on the subway or plane, notifying them of their local opera house and making suggestions for a great first opera to see!