Spotlight on: Keith Lam Photo: Katie Jameson

Spotlight on: Keith Lam

Jenna Simeonov

Keith Lam and I met in the way that many, many opera-loving Canadians meet: at Opera NUOVA. The Hong Kong-born, Toronto-based baritone is a member of the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir, and he has sung with the very excellent Canadian Opera Company Chorus. As a soloist, Keith has lit up stages with Against the Grain Theatre, The Banff Centre, Aspen Opera Theater, and he wrote me recently mid-rehearsals for Le nozze di Figaro at Highlands Opera Studio.

If you know Keith, he has already charmed you. If you haven’t yet met him, start by reading his frank and wise interview. “Singing is my medicine,” he says.

1. Why do you sing, and why are you pursuing it professionally?

For me, singing is as important as breathing air. Singing is my medicine. Singing brings me out of my funk. Like many performers out there would say, “It’s something I can’t live without.” Believe me, I’ve gone through long periods not singing and I was miserable and depressed. I just wasn’t me.

I choose to be a vessel of the art form so I can share it with the world whether it is on a big stage in the city or a small church in a rural town. I believe we’re here to make a difference and this career allows me an even bigger platform to do that. So I might as well make some money doing it, haha.

Simple as that. I wish everyone could pursue what he or she loves as a career, a job shouldn’t have to feel like a job. I’ve been very lucky.

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

To me, good singing means healthy singing. Nothing contrived. I believe in a good, solid, reliable vocal technique that will save your ass when you’re sick as a dog and you still have to perform because there’s no understudy. Achieving good singing means you’re unstoppable as a performer, the possibilities are endless. That’s when you feel you’re making an “out of body” connection/experience with the audience and it doesn’t feel like you’re just “singing the notes on page”.

Photo by Katie Jameson.

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

Have more confidence in yourself: if you make a mistake, don’t dwell on it. Fix it and move on. When you’re on stage, it ain’t about you anymore. You’re there to service the audience, it’s about them. As my roommate Laura would always tell me before performing: go change lives.

Be kinder to each other: let’s all celebrate each other’s success. We have enough assholes in the business, we don’t need anymore thank you.

Be patient: I’m a December baby so I feel like I’m always catching up with everyone else. If my achievements aren’t exactly the same as everyone else, that’s fine. We’ll all get there eventually, in one form or another. I want a long career, not instant fame.

So stop comparing yourself to other singers: Trust me, it will never do any good for you. The only singer you should try to be better at is the singer you were yesterday.

Go find a new hobby: for God’s sake, get out of the opera bubble once in a while, geez! Have conversations with people who know NOTHING about opera and learn what they do instead. New and non-operatic experience will make you a better performer, believe me!

4. Do you have a “bucket-list” role that you’d like to sing? Why?

I’m happy to say that I do not have a bucket list role. I worry if I do end up performing that role, then any role I perform afterwards would seem less satisfying. Schaunard from La bohème remains my favourite role to play. At this very moment, I would love to perform Riccardo Forth from Bellini’s I Puritani. Love me some beautiful and schmaltzy bel canto music. And just to add to the fun, a role I’d love to sing but never will is the Dutchman from Wagner’s Der fliegende Hollaender. “Die Frist ist um” is one of the most badass arias ever written.

Photo by Phil Crozer.

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

Me: “I sing opera.”

Non-music folks: “Oh cool! I know someone sings opera too, do you know [insert name]?”

Me: “My job is contract by contract.”

Non-music folks: “So what does that mean?”

Me: “It means I don’t have any free time to hang out right now, I’ll see you in two months. Let me pencil this in just in case. I might have to reschedule if I get another gig.”

Me: “I’m sorry I can’t.”

Non-music folks: “Why not? It’s the weekend!”

Me: resting bitch face “Some of us don’t have a 9-5 job salary.”

Non-music folks: “I just don’t know how you can produce all that sound and sing in a foreign language.”

Me: “Well how do YOU learn to do your job?”

Non-music folks: “I went to school, I learned to do it. But what you do is a natural talent right?”

Me: “Well no. Math is a talent, science also is a talent. If you have the heart to pursue and learn anything, that becomes a skill. I was a shitty singer and I got better because I work hard. Just like anyone else.”

These are some of the actual conversations I’ve had before.

If you know someone who deserves some spotlight, let us know! Send your recommendations to [email protected]. And yes, you can absolutely nominate yourself.

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