An Interview with Canadian mezzo-soprano, Kimberly Barber.

KITCHENER, ON, 18 August 2007
By Mary-Lou P. Vetere

In 1999, I had the distinct pleasure of attending the Canadian Opera
Companyís production of Handelís Serse and it has remained
concretely in my opinion and otherwise, one of the truly magnificent Canadian
performances. Much of this weighs on what had been the sensitivity, dramatic
and vocal prowess, and down right sexual appeal of mezzo-soprano, Kimberly
Barber. Her portrayal left audience members in awe of her solid and
beautifully lyric voice and the passionate delivery of her phrases, but more
so because one tended to forget that underneath those trousers and the
well-manifested male mannerisms, il RÈ amoroso was really a woman.
Since then, Barber has established herself as one of Canadaís operatic
treasures, gracing the stages of the major Canadian and international
companies; yet equally at home on the concert stage and in the recital hall.
Her career combines the standard repertory but also contemporary and baroque
works. Most recent praise has been for her portrayal of Charlotte in
Massenetís Werther with Vancouver Opera, and her creation of
Jessica in the world premiere of John Estacioís Frobisher for
Calgary Opera. She has been acclaimed for her role of Sister Helen in the
Canadian premiere of Heggieís Dead Man Walking and for her
magnificent portrayals of Handelís big-boys: Serse, Ariodante, Nerone
(Agrippina), and Rinaldo. No one would argue that Barber is Canadaís
ìMistress of the trouser-role.î And yet, on a whim she can transform
herself, like a chameleon, into Pucciniís Suzuki or Rossiniís Rosina.

What is most impressive about her lies not merely in her operatic
accomplishments, but the fact that she is also a reputable pedagogue,
clinician, lecturer, adjudicator, and artistic consultant. She has been the
Assistant Professor of Voice at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo,
Ontario since 2002, and as if that isnít enough to add to her already busy
life as a recording artist, and brilliant stage performer, she also holds the
most important job of being a devoted mom to her two lovely daughters, Jana
and Alice, and loving wife to her husband Markus Philipp. She garners respect
from the Mecca of great Canadian singers that are gracing the worldís
stages, and she is earning her right as one of the bright lights in
Canadaís operatic history. If one word comes to mind to describe this
multifaceted and brilliant artist, as a performer and as a person she is:

On a beautiful, sunny Saturday morning, I sat with the fit, clad all in
black, sunglasses to block the sun, and barefoot mezzo, under her apple tree
(‡ la Serse) and embarked on what would be an enlightening and
revitalizing couple of hours. Barber spoke freely and with impassioned
fervor; so much so that I wish I could link this interview to a sound file so
that one might hear how she speaks as expressively as she sings. In the
truest sense of the word, she is an artist and her thoughts and ideas
resonated with me for days after our conversation.

Mary-Lou: Kimberly, first, thank-you for taking the time
for this interview. Iím sure the first question everyone wants to know is,
ìHow do you do it all?î Your career doesnít just consist of being a
performer. Youíre a teacher, a workshop clinician, an adjudicator, a
lecturer, and a recording artist. Tell us, what drives you to do all of the
things you do, and what has propelled you to continue in what is becoming a
more trying business than ever before?

Kimberly: I think itís passion for the art-form that
drives me forward. I guess not just for opera but for the vocal arts. I think
that my greatest passion has been kindled by opera. For some reason, itís
the height of the emotion and the intensity with which theyíre portrayed.
As a small child, my two favourite games, interestingly, were school and
dress-up. So, I was either being a teacher or living in a fantasy world. And
I loved dressing up in costumes and being different personalities. I think
what I do now is a perfect marriage of those two things. You know a lot of
life coaches and self-help or creative books that teach you how to tap into
your creative self. They talk about going back to your childhood and looking
at what it was that really sparked your passion, your creative passion. And
so, Iíve done a couple of creative workshops of this sort and I looked back
and thought, ìIsnít that interesting that those were my two games that I
always played?î I think itís that desire, on the one hand, to live in a
fantasy world but to actually take on another personality and completely try
to become that person which one does, of course, in a purely technical sense.
Iím not really one of those people who says, ìOh yes, I became Erica, or
I became Sister Helen.î I think you do become immersed in these roles by
the more intense they are, but itís very technical and calculated, in a
senseÖif you will, process; this complete dawning of another personality
that I find continually invigorating and it sparks my curiosity. Itís that
aspect and the ability to explore parts of my own personality and to perhaps
bring out aspects of my own personality that might be dormant that is very
stimulating for me. Itís the communication with the audience. Itís a
desire to interpret works that excite me on many different levels, and bring
them to others. And the teaching aspect, I find extremely invigorating as
well because itís a different way of communicating that similar aspect.
Youíre facilitating for others, be they young singers or even lay-people or
opera fans who want to gain more of a window into what we do. Itís that
idea of communication and inviting oneís own passion for the work that
weíre doing.

In a large sense, itís a passion to create a community. Whether itís
the community within the opera house, because I always feel that the great
artistic performances, or rather, any live artistic performance can change
your life; itís this that weíre drawn to it and why we go and itís
different than seeing something in a movie theater or on television. When you
have immediate contact with the artists, there is an alchemy that exists that
canít be replaced. And I feel that infusion every time I do that, and not
only when Iím on the stage but also when I sit in the theater. Obviously,
some performances stand far far above others and sometimes itís hard to
pin-point what the elements are that make those certain performances just
stand out. Itís that interest, for me, in the community, in the human
community. Whether itís as a performer in the theater or as an educator,
when I do my work as a clinician or if Iím asked to adjudicate a
competition, or when I teach a workshop, thatís also a form of
communication. Itís me interpreting for whomever Iím working with; not
only the music but the art-form itself and trying to be a filter. I become
the filter for those people. So, itís that passion for communication and
creating that community that gives me the energy to do what I do.

Mary-Lou: I think itís interesting that youíre
talking about your childhood and the influences that youíve had even just
with creative playing. Do you think that itís becoming more difficult
nowadays because many young children are staying indoors, attached to the
internet, and attached to their cell-phones and such? Do you think weíve
lost a bit of that sense of fantasy and how does that affect, for example,
your work with younger singers? Obviously you work with singers from a broad
spectrum of ages. Does it affect their abilities and how can you change

Kimberly: Thatís an interesting question. I think, for
sure, that it does make an impact but however little they do it, everyone has
some kind of fantasy creative life and itís fed in some way or other by the
challenges in our culture. Society today has made it so much more difficult
for people to come into touch with that. I would say, probably the biggest
problem I find in my teaching, or really a problem that affects people in
Northern Western culture, is that we are fairly guarded emotionally and
artistically. Itís sometimes, just in general, more difficult to draw
people out of their comfort zone because they feel ashamed or that theyíll
look silly or that it would be too much. I find that across the board though.
I wouldnít say that it necessarily has to do with the computer media
culture. I think the thing I find most difficult in my students is to simply
get them in-touch with their bodies because weíre becoming a culture that
is more and more sedentary. When I think of my own childhood, of course we
had television and at time it was seen to be the big evil, but when summer
came we were never at home. We were always outside playing and I think also
that our culture in the west has become much more overprotective of children
and very controlling. There is very little opportunity for children to have
unstructured, unorganized, unsupervised play which we had all the time as
children. We live in a culture of fear which is highly churned up by the
media. I donít think that itís real, by that I mean the fears are real
and the facts of life are real; but often most of those fears weíre playing
upon are not real. We are doing children a disservice in the way weíre
raising them. I was very fortunate that my children were born in Germany and
I was living in a community in which there was a lot of support for
alternative education and my kids both went to a pre-school where they were
outdoors almost all of the time and in all types of weather. Iím a very
strong advocate of public education. Iím a really strong advocate of not
having kids have their time planned all of the time. Sometimes this is a
lonely road because many people are frightened. I understand their fears but
Iíve always tried to buck that trend. I do that with my students as well. I
really try to make them aware that they have to go their own path and try
things, make mistakes, endanger themselves. Itís very hard as a parent to
let your children go and I remember my obstetrician telling me that being a
mother was a continual process of letting go from the first: through weaning,
to the first steps to going to school, to puberty, to when they finally leave
home, to when they get married, to when they finally do have children
themselves. And, I found that was a very profound moment when he said that. I
feel that if this is one of the things we can do as a race, as a species;
maybe we can try to let our children go a little more and give them more
freedom, to trust them more. There has been a lot of research done into
childhood development for children to have major falls or almost
life-threatening experiences. When you see children in their backyards
wearing helmets, for heavenís sake; Iím going into a completely different
realm here, but what I see as a teacher of music is this out-of-touchness,
this lack of independence, this inability to breakout of the mold. Just to go
back to your question, what we need to do as a culture is to have a
re-thinking of whatís important and are we really helping our children by
protecting them and sequestering them so severely. Some of the most profound
experiences I had growing up, were mostly things that I did on my own, things
that were sometimes questionable in terms of safety and so forth. We all know
in life that the experiences that often change us are extremely painful and
sometimes we try to prevent our children from experiencing this. We donít
want our children to hurt like we have. I urge my students to push the
boundaries and I think I do that to my audience too. Maybe for some people I
think Iím too much in their face. Some people donít want to be churned-up
when they go to the theater. Sometimes they just want to have a lovely
experience at the theater and then go home and put their head on the pillow
and go to sleep, so maybe they better not comeÖ.(laughing)Öthatís being
too strong, but I do like to reach out and grab people by the jugular and
shake them up a little bit.

ìI do like to reach out and grab people by the jugular and shake
them up a little bit.î

Mary-Lou: I disagree. I think that people should
definitely come and get shell-shocked because this is the theater. We go
specifically to immerse ourselves in a world that is completely different.

Kimberly: The most shock people get is watching the
Sopranos. You know, ìlive a little,î would be my thing, and push
your own boundaries a little bit. Try something that blows your mind. Who
wouldnít want to go to something and come back out and just be gob smacked
speechless and say, ìI had no idea that this existed.î Itís why we do
all these thrill stunts that are extreme. We need to have an outlet for
extreme emotions in our lives.

Mary-Lou: I agree, and I think that you push boundaries,
not just in opera but in everything you do. You seem to stretch the limits of
the norm and we need more of that. That being said, you base yourself not
just in opera but in a number of other artistic genres. What do you enjoy the
most? What personally gives you the greatest pleasure in a performance
perspective, and how do you see yourself contributing to the overall
international spectra of performance in this area?

Kimberly: Thatís a difficult question. I mean, opera
was really my first love once I got into the classical genre; before that it
might have been musical theater or something like that. I was always
interested in music, but I really got hooked on opera because of the level of
intensity, of the emotion. You know when emotions get too big you sing them,
kind of thing. I love the collaborative aspect of opera. In an opera
production, when Iím working with colleagues that I love, with directors
who are really questing to say something interesting, with conductors who
just know the score inside out and who are interested in shaping details and
making a statement, the give and take with the other players on the stage;
when those elements come together on the stage, and granted they donít
always, but when they do thatís a real shot in the arm for me. For me,
thatís the epitome. But I also love chamber music for the same reason. I
love collaborating with my colleagues and learning from them and being fed by
their energy. I find that extremely rewarding. Iíve had great musical and
artistic experiences in every genre. For example, when I did the DuruflÈ and
FaurÈ Requiems with Chung Myung-Wung and Bryn Terfel and the
Academia di Santa Cecilia, it was a phenomenal artistic experience: the hall,
the choir, the orchestra. That exchange of energy was phenomenal. I love
doing Beethovenís 9th, for instance. Itís quite a dull alto part and Jean
Stilwell and I always say, ìJust wear a nice dress otherwise everyone will
forget you.î But, itís such a great experience to feel that orchestral
and choral sound behind you. Itís a life changing moment when you can be a
part of that. My favourite thing is to sit on the stage for the full second
half. I just love it. In recital, too, I find that collaborative work,
especially during the rehearsal with your pianist particularly important.
What I love in recital is that I often talk a fair bit from the stage and I
learned that it makes that experience of being in the recital hall so vital
and thrilling. Instead of standing on the stage and talking from above, it
becomes a real communion and people come out being really changed.
Afterwards, people come up to you and tell you how much more they related to
the music and finally ìgot it.î The short answer to your question is that
I love all genres. My greatest passion is opera, but I find all of the genres

Mary-Lou: And, I think that youíre stimulated but from
the audienceís perspective, your main crux when you perform is to stimulate
us. We all become stimulated whether you speak or not because you sing
expressively, just as you speak. You try to express and keep digging at us to
get to the thorough point of your emotions and anyone that has seen you
perform is often left with a feeling of (big sigh). There is something you
exude on-stage, something that I call the ìX-factor,î that indescribable
something that a performer possesses that makes them individual and
inimitable. It is very clear that you digest the notes on the page for us and
especially with Handel and music that is somewhat infiltrated by
coloratura and fioritura. Looking at the score from a
musicianís perspective theyíre notes on the page, but you digest those
notes and when you project them to us, your listeners, you give them such a
clear and emotional meaning that you become a transmitter, if you will,
through which a composer speaks. If you had to offer advice to a young
performer, about this type of intense musical process, this kind of deep
musical communication, what would you suggest to them to promote a really
thorough projection of musical process?

Kimberly: I think that the number one thing has to be the
text. You really have to think about it and study it and really understand
what it means to you. Obviously, you think to some degree why the poet
chooses a particular word, but you have to know what it means to you. Itís
not enough to wonder why the poet wanted that or why the composer wanted it.
You are the vessel through which this work is being filtered. And so, you
have to make a decision and have an opinion. I urge my students, ìWhat do
you feel about that?î I give them an exercise that they hate where I make
them sing, for instance, a Mozart aria in English, in their own words or if
they happen to be Romanian or French I get them to sing it in their own words
in their own mother tongue. Itís quite astounding. I mean this is not
rocket science and Iím not the first person to come up with that but itís
astounding how that simple exercise makes a differenceÖsometimes all they
have to do is sing two or three phrases and they totally loathe it. They look
at it and then theyíll laugh at themselves and they get flustered. Once
they return to the original language, it somehow comes to life because they
now understand what theyíre saying and they have an opinion about it.
Theyíre expressing. So come from the text and ask not just what it means,
but what it means to you personally. ìWhy are you singing this?î You
really have to care about the things you sing. Sometimes youíre going to be
asked to sing things that you donít particularly care about and you have to
find a way to care about them because youíre putting bread on your table.
Sometimes things are less meaningful for you but you have to make them
meaningful or they will be boring to the audience. The other aspect is to
explore your own emotional life. I go to movies and watch a lot of films. I
read a lot and I go to as much theater as I can, and I love it. ìExperience
life as much as possible.î Travel, go to other cultures; push your
boundaries in whatever ways you can. As an artist you need to have as many
experiences as possible to draw on and thatís how you open up a world to
the people in your audience. If youíve experiencedÖyouíve sat on an
Italian piazza and walked down the boulevards of Paris, if youíve tasted
Mole; whatever it is you can bring it to people listening to you and inspire
them so that they say, ìOh, I love those Spanish tangos that she sang,î
and theyíll go and take a tango class. The more young singers push their
boundaries and expand their own emotional life, the more theyíll have to
give as an artist.

Mary-Lou: And I think this is one of the reasons why you
bring so many different aspects to roles that youíve recently created like
the role of ìJessicaî in Estacioís Frobisher and previously
for the role of ìSister Helenî in Dead Man Walking. A historian
of opera tends to look at the inception of new operas as a bit of an
anachronism but also, I think, as a possible ìnew pathî for study and
performance aesthetics. Opera after 1945 is really an interesting and
eclectic study and with Heggieís contribution and new operas like
Filumena and Frobisher do you feel that we are headed for a
new aesthetic?

In the Canadian premiËre of Estacioís ìFrobisherî as Jessica.
(Calgary Opera, 2007)

Kimberly: Also an interesting question. I think so,
probably. One thing I think about some of the contemporary works is that they
tend to be extremely intellectual and I think the less intellectual you can
be the better off you are, with opera. Itís not really an intellectual
art-form; itís an emotional art-form. The most successful operas are going
to be the ones that grab you on an emotional level. Itís like they donít
even go to your analytical brain at all. Itís like they come up with a
giant suction cup on your heart and they take you on this emotional
roller-coaster and your just going, ìAHHHHH!!!î You know, the ones that
work the best are the ones that work on that level, whatever aesthetic they
might have. For instance, Nixon in China, Iíve seen that work a couple of
times and the scenes that work in that are the ones that are really
emotional. There has to be a lot of story-telling and human stories. People
like to watch people and that doesnít matter whether itís 2007 or 1693,
people watch other people. Weíre social animals and weíre interested in
other peopleís behaviour. We talk about other people all of the time.
Thatís what we do. Thatís never going to change; itís what turns people
on. I mean, some people are interested in the story-telling aspects. I mean
Iím interested sort of on an intellectual level but I want to know why that
person did that. What was the motivator for that? What was the relationship
between the two characters ëcause Iím not getting that enough? I need to
care about why. Thatís, for instance, why Dead Man Walking works
for me. Itís the chemistry between Sister Helen and Joseph. Itís the
agony of the mother. Itís that fascinating triangle. I think that thereís
something maybe that Jake could have done to bring that more to the fore. I
think there are some absolutely heartbreaking scenes in that opera,
heartbreaking. The sextet in the first act, there were so many rehearsals
when we couldnít get through to the end of that because it was so powerful
emotionally. That opera works is because it enables you to have that kind of
release and connection to the characters. Itís this sort of critical mass
that comes together in that sextet, that whatever opinion you have about
capital punishment, when you see what the lives are of those six people and
how theyíre impacted and how those lives relate to one another, itís
mind-blowing. You just think, ìI never thought about that.î Thatís the
future of opera. Itís the way we have to go so that whatever musical or
political aesthetic we have, that emotional component always has to be there.
For me, itís a constant. Itís also why Filumena works. Itís a
simple story but you have protagonists with very very big stakes. Itís also
why Frobisher, a much more difficult piece, works. There are some
very big emotions in that piece and ideas but the Johns talked about how
ìmaking the stakes higherî was an important element for them. Itís a
much less immediate piece emotionally than Filumena. Itís filled
with beautiful and profound statements but a little less direct emotionally
and that makes it more difficult. This might actually be the problem with our
modern aesthetic, that we try to be so indirect. Can we find an amalgamation
for our desire to be aloof and indirect, subtle or even vague, but with
something that is packing a really powerful emotional punch, thatís telling
real stories about real people? Itís why the Ring is so timeless. When I
went to see the Ring last year at the COC, I was reconfirmed, much as I so
love other operas. It is the ultimate art-work. It is so profound and
all-encompassing. Thereís the story of human-kind. Boom: four operas.
Thatís what keeps people going back. Why is Poppea still as
current today as it was then, or Agrippina? We are fascinated by
these characters because theyíre so motivated by the gut by deeply human
things: love, lust, quest for power. We need to find more of those

As Sister Helen in the Canadian premiËre of Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking” (Calgary Opera, 2006)

Mary-Lou: I think itís so interesting that the operas
that have characters who end in downfall, like Salome and Elektra, are the
most controversial operas but then we are drawn to them even more because we
desire to watch, maybe as an educative warning about what to do and what not
to do with our own lives.

Kimberly: Yes, and weíre almost perversely interested.
Why do people go to public hangings? Why do people watch executions on
YouTube? Why do we read the gossip problems in the paper, because weíre
fascinated by it.

ìThe most successful operas are going to be the ones that grab you
on an emotional level. Itís like they come up with a giant suction cup on
your heart and they take you on this emotional roller-coaster and your just
going, ìAHHHHH!!!î

Mary-Lou: You mentioned the COC production of the Ring.
Your career began around 1985 when you apprenticed for the Canadian Opera
Company. How did that experience mold you and who were your significant

Kimberly: Well, of course, it was a fantastic opportunity
and in Canada at that time there were very few opportunities for young
singers to develop themselves beyond university. Just having that available
was really extraordinary. Now there are programmes everywhere. It was a great
experience to be involved in productions; generally as a secondary performer
with really top-notch people. Lotfi Mansouri was a great mentor to all of us.
He was really the grand-daddy of the current company. He brought it up to the
international level. We had fantastic artists come through: Richard Leech,
Joan Sutherland, Jerry Hadley, Carol Vaness when she started her meteoric
rise. We had master-classes with Richard Bonynge which were quite
extraordinary; heís a wonderful teacher. Steven Lord was one of the head
coaches at that time at the COC. I learned an enormous amount from him. Dixie
Ross-Neill was there at that time and she really kick-started the ensemble
into high gear. One experience was working with Dutch director Hans
Nieuwenhuis. Wesley Balk, a tremendous educator who wrote three books that I
draw a lot from in my teaching gave a two week workshop on performing
techniques and that was life-changing for me: release inhibitions, breakdown
blocks and entanglements, as he called them. Thereís a bit of overlap with
Alexander technique, but he broke down the singer-actor into three different
components and he taught us to isolate those components and then recombine
them. It changed my perspective as and artist. If there was one single ìAh
Haî moment for me, it was that. Also, Matthew Epstein came and did a
workshop with us and taught young artists how to put together a package and
so there were a lot of really good people that came through.

Mary-Lou: You are well-loved in this country and abroad
for your portrayal of pant-roles. Tell us why playing a man is such a
particular and dramatic feat, and this interview wouldnít be complete
without asking, ìWho is your favourite character to portray?î

Barber as the Composer (Seattle Opera, 2004)

Kimberly: Thatís always hard. I think my favourite
character is the Composer in Ariadne auf Naxos, of the characters
that Iíve portrayed, although thatís such a hard question. When youíre
doing it you love whatever youíre doing. I mean Iíve loved playing Sister
Helen, too. The Composer is so demanding. A lot has to do with timing and
itís very mercurial. He can be extremely romantic and philosophical and
then he can be in a rage and in the depths of despair and all that can be in
one phrase (laughing). So itís very difficult when youíre working with a
director on that, and Iíve had some very good directors that Iíve worked
with. I love that opera and I love a lot of the things that the Composer
says; theyíre very profound. Itís thrilling to sing and Iíve had many
great colleagues to work with and so I have a lot of good memories of that
role. Playing pant-roles is really; well, I grew up in a family of two
brothers and until I was 12 there were no girl cousins in the family and we
have a pretty close extended family so I knew my cousins very well and we
visited often and I really had to learn to get along with boys. Obviously, I
had lots of opportunity to observe boys and their behaviour and even through
high school I had a lot of good friends who were guys. In some ways I related
to them better than girls just because I had to suck it up a little bit when
I was little. I had no patience for cry babies and even if I wanted to be one
I couldnít because I would have been ridiculed (laughing). I had to play a
lot of boy games and I was a bit of a jock in school although I did a lot of
extra-curricular in schoolÖlots of sports. I was used to being very
physical and I just liked the challenge of gender-bending. I liked trying to
portray that difference of sexual energy. But, it does propose a particular
challenge and you know obviously you can never truly suspend disbelieve
entirely. I mean everybody knows that you have a breast-binder on and that
youíre being made-up to be a man and I actually really hate having to wear
facial hair or sideburns. I try to resist it because weíre not fooling
anyone. Everyone knows that Iím a woman but I want to get as far as I
possibly can, to suspend disbelief. I think one of the greatest compliments
Iíve ever had was a colleague who I saw a couple of years after Xerxes who
said, ìI wanted to write you a letter after that performance cause I wanted
to tell you that I was really really attracted to you. Sheís heterosexual
right; she really believed that I was a man. I was very pleased by that
compliment and thatís what I do try to project and I guess it comes
naturally to me but I do think about my posture, my gait and the way I stand
and gesture. Itís also the sense of male entitlement that this element has
to be there; a sort of cockiness if you will that we attribute to women being
too masculine or too ballsy and they sometimes give us the creeps a little
bit, maybe.

As Xerxes for the Seattle production in 1997.

Mary-Lou: Well, there is no question that that
performanceÖwell, letís just say that I donít think anyone who was
there will forget it. You also give a master class revolving around the theme
of Trouser Roles called ìCall me Mister: Defining the Trouser Role.î Are
these all elements you talk about or do you discuss a certain methodology in
this sense?

Kimberly: I do talk to the singers about what they can do
posturally: how they sit in a chair, how they get up from a chair, how they
stand, how they walk. There are some certain physiological things that you
can do that are very technical that can help you to find where your weight
is, where your center of gravity is in the body; a certain kind of stiffness
in the hips. The way womenís pelvis are constructed we get that sway in our
hips and men donít have that. There are other things like the way women and
men differ in the way they put on a coat. You learn by observation. Those are
just a few little tips that I give to that class and I try to give them a
certain freedom of being in their bodies more than how women feel theyíre
able to be physically in the world. It depends on the context of the class.
The first time I did it was for the Vancouver Opera Guild. They had just done
Rosenkavalier and there was a lot of controversy about these two women
kissing on stage. The audience didnít get why it couldnít be a man and
they didnít understand the tradition of trouser roles. So, I talked about
the history of where it came from and why that tradition existed originally
in the theater and so forth. You know, I get really annoyed and have had
arguments with directors and opera general managers when they say that itís
kind of titillating to have a counter-tenor play Cherubino. And I think, you
know, Mozart would have rolled around in his grave, not to mention
Beaumarchais. I mean, Beaumarchais really had specific reasons why he had a
woman playing Cherubino and why he wanted that quality and I feel very
strongly about that. Itís very trendy at the moment to have counter-tenors
in everything and there are many wonderful ones around and so I can
understand that, but I think there is certain repertoire in which it is just
not right to let that happen.

Mary-Lou: I agree. You also have a workshop called
ìFinding Your Individual Voice. Since youíve been teaching for several
years now and many of your students have gone on to opera programmes,
festivals, and Masters programmes. What can you tell young singers who are
searching for a career in opera or starting to hone their skills at finding
their own voice?

Kimberly: I think what Iím trying to get at with that
workshop is ìWhat do you want to say?î I mean first of all, ìWho are
you?î Who are you as a singer and what is particular about you that makes
you different and would make me want to listen to you rather than the person
standing next to you? Each of us has our own unique self and set of
experiences and filter with which we perceive the world. I use a lot of
different exercises and techniques to try to get the singers in touch with
that and to go back to the very beginning of the interview where we were
talking about text and communication and say, ìWhat is it that I want to
say? Not, what do I think the director wants me to say or what do people in
the audience want me to say.î Those are all interesting things to think
about but what do I want to say as an artist. Thatís a complaint that
people often make about North American singers. They tend to be very
well-trained their languages are good, they sing well, they look good, they
show up on time, etcÖbut they donít project anything unique and sometimes
you canít tell one sound from another. It all just sounds generic, just a
pleasant, generic North American sound. Thatís one of the things I loved
about working alongside Kassarova. Sheís just so fiercely not cut from any
mold; or Kirchschlager, working with those ladies. Theyíre just making
their statement and theyíre not just sitting there saying, ìHere I am
making my statement,î theyíre just doing what they do. And if someone
says, ìwhy did you do it like that?î or ìthat was an ugly sound,î
they donít care. Thatís just their truth. Theyíre singing the truth
thatís inside of them and I really learned a lot singing alongside of them
and it was thrilling. I really try to encourage young singers to stop trying
to be right all of the time. There is no right. There are certain stylistic
parameters that should be respectedÖbut maybe not. I donít know. Who am I
to say? Try it out for yourself and see if it really is your truth or if
youíre just trying to provoke something thatís different. The crux of my
workshop is to get people to experiment and move your boundaries. For the
most part, people are just relieved to have permission to do something

ìSinging the truth thatís inside of them.î

Mary-Lou: You are also the coordinator of the Voice
programme at Wilfrid Laurier University. What goals do you have for that
program and how are you establishing your position as a pedagogue in

Kimberly: Goals for the program: I have a really great
set of colleagues there. I would like to see if we can go along and attract
other pedagogues to the programme. At the moment weíre at a state where we
have a good cadre of teachers. Itís a good atmosphere there, very collegial
and weíve begun to create an atmosphere of exchange, and we share lots of
discussion and idea sharing. I think itís very positive and I want to grow
that. I think thereís some interesting areas of research Iíd like to
explore, pedagogically, that Iíd like to pursue and I want to involve my
colleagues in that. Iíd like to see Laurier become a kind of think-tank for
pedagogy and pedagogical innovation. I apply a lot of the techniques that I
use in my workshops and use physical work; my colleagues do so as well. Iím
encouraging them to be as creative and innovative as possible. Weíre all
interested in creating total artists not just singing machines. The other
thing that I would like to see grow at Laurier is the Opera programme. At the
moment, because of the size and budget at our school it is difficult because
we donít have much of a budget but the size also allows us to rely on
undergraduates. Our undergrads get to sing leading roles in the excerpts and
in the opera we put on. This is all before they graduate and most donít get
a chance perform a role until grad school. It would be wonderful if we could
get a great performance space, but the one thing that the space we have has
allowed us is to be creative in our productions. Iíve always been
fascinated by minimalist productions; by that I mean productions that focus
on characters and their relationships and not so much on production elements.
I know itís possible to really engage people in a powerful way and what we
try to do, at the moment, is wow people by effects. Itís quite exciting
with the innovations of theater technology nowadays, to see live explosions
on stage but it costs and exorbitant amount of money. When I go to the
theater what Iím really interested to see is the story and how the
characters move within it. Thatís one of the things that is great about
Laurier, it forces the students to learn that it is possible to present vital
and interesting theater on a very small budget. It teaches you to be
resourceful and use your imagination. I would love to see us get a wonderful
space to work in with a pit and I would love do productions in an edgy,
interesting, exploratory, creative kind of way. This is how you can really
bring opera to the people.

Mary-Lou: True, and I think thatís really what weíre
lacking today; the concept that really drives opera is the characters and
more than anything, the voice. And speaking of that, letís talk about the
current caliber of singers and performances in Canada and abroad. Do you feel
that we are progressing on a technical and dramatic level, or do you feel
that is a sense of mediocrity than what weíre willing to accept? If there
is, what do you think causes it and what can we do to change it?

Kimberly: (Laughing) I donít know, I think thatís
interesting. You know, on some levels, Canada is producing an extraordinary
number of world-class singers which is really impressive noting the size of
our population. Just think about it? The generation starting from Judith
Forst, whoís still very active professionally. Sheís probably one of the
senior members of our clan and then moving through John Fanning and Jean
Stilwell and myself. Our generation: Russell Braun, Michael Schade, Isabel
Bayrakdarian, Jane ArchibaldÖI mean itís an endless list of singers:
Brett (Polegato), Ben (Heppner), Richard (Margison), James (Westman), Gerald
Finlay, Philip Ens and of course Adrianne Pieczonka (I donít want to forget
anybody)Öitís really quite amazing. Yes, there is mediocrity. There
always has been but I think it goes back to something we were talking about
before, blandness. There was a really interesting article in the Globe (and
Mail) that I cut out awhile back and it was called: ìWe aim to passively
suffice.î It was a plea to Canadians to stop accepting mediocrity and I
think there are those of us who are trying to do that but as Canadians
weíre sometimes too apologetic and weíre afraid to not be right. As an
artist you have to be absolutely fearless and I tell my students this all of
the time. You cannot be afraid; itís part of the deal and contract that you
make when you want to be an artist. We have to train our students to be

Mary-Lou: What about the public?

Kimberly: I think that the public doesnít really know
what they want. They just donít get their buttons pushed often enough. If
they were getting their buttons pushed more often theyíd really notice the
difference between this and that. Theyíd say, ìI think I like that one
better. I like the one where she made me feel more uneasy and crazy.î I
think people need to be shown more. Weíre too safe and too unobtrusive.
People can sit in front of a DVD player or CD player and sit safely at home
and so we have to shoot them off their armchairs and force them to get up. We
have to be different.

Mary-Lou: I think thatís really interesting. I was
going to ask you about the way that opera is perceived by the general public.
Awhile back it was more an issue of social strata or class but I donít
think itís this so much anymore, itís really a problem of people having a
hard time accepting those types of emotions and being penetrated by them.
Everyone feels safer by being in their comfort zone whereas if someone came
to see you in Serse and had no idea what the opera was or they were a first
time opera goer, it would have just blown their mind.

Kimberly: One of the key elements of that production was
that it was in the vernacular; in English with surtitles in a great
translation by Steven Wadsworth and it was a very simple set; fabulous
costumes, but a simple set. A house front and tree so that the audience could
focus on the characters and thatís what got people. They really got the
story. Some people thought it was cheesy but we also came out at the
beginning of the opera and gave a little mission statement, kind of, about
who we were and what our character was. Mine was, ìI am Xerxes, I am King.
I want to be in love.î Weíd always make jokes about it, you know, like
ìHi, I am Kim and I am scared.î (laughing) But so many people came up and
thanked us for doing that because it helped them to understand. We have to
make opera accessible to audiences without dumbing it down. I always
preferred opera in the original language until I did that piece in English
and people laugh in the right places and I became a complete convert to

Mary-Lou: Kimberly, how do you balance teaching and
performing and being a mom? (As Kimberlyís daughter Alice came and sat on
the grass in her soccer uniform, fresh from soccer practice, eagerly
listening to her momís commentary on this question).

Kimberly: Itís a constant balancing act. Iím very
grateful to my family for understanding my craziness. I have a wonderful
partner and my children are very supportive and understanding of what I do. I
have great support from all my family, from my mother, my mother-in-law who
traveled with me a lot when my kids were little, from my sister-in-law, my
full extended family who has come to countless performances. They keep me
grounded and humble and they remind me continually of whatís real. I could
come home in the evening from a performance and feel a little disappointed or
something, and my husband and I would go into our daughterís room and watch
them sleep and say, ìThatís real, the other stuff doesnít matter.î
And thatís really important and it ultimately also feeds you as an artist.
I say to my students, ìYouíve got to have a life.î Itís not just
enough to have your art because what are you going to do when youíre old?
You have to have interests and they have to be rich. Thatís how I balance.
I have a lot of interests and I have a rich family life and also my family
allows me to do what I do. Itís kind of like my performing feeds my
teaching and my teaching feeds my performing, a sort of symbiotic

Mary-Lou: Youíve accomplished so much already, and you
have so much ahead of you still. What are your future goals and what projects
are you looking to work at?

Kimberly: I sort of take it as it comes. I used to do a
lot of five-year plan and things like that but I donít do that anymore.
Itís easier to respond to whatís happening and Iím starting to get some
really interesting roles offered to me that really surprise me. Iím going
to be doing the Canadian premiËre of Marc Blitzsteinís Regina out
in Victoria (British Columbia) in the spring and Iím reading it going,
ìOh my God, sheís in her mid-50s and Iím not even 50 yet! This is
terrible!î And then I read the play and realized what a gift it is to play
this character that is larger than life, or to play Sister Helen. That was
also huge and a real departure for me, really challenging but extremely
rewarding. I donít limit myself anymore. I let things surprise me. Iím
doing a lot more consulting and adjudicating. I got called out of the blue to
do the broadcasting of the Montreal Jeunesses Musicale Competition a few
years ago and I totally loved that. Iíd be interested in doing anything
like that. Iíd be interested in doing something more political concerning
the arts: Canada Council or in an administrative aspect at an opera company.
The skyís the limit. The things Iíve had no expectations for were the
things that were really fertile that sent me in new directions. I try to live
for the moment and do the most with the things Iím doing right now. My
husband is a great advisor and heís always spurred me on to my dreams.

Mary-Lou: Would you like to say a few words about Richard
Bradshaw and his sudden passing?

Kimberly: Thatís an enormous shock. Itís kind of like
a seismic, 8.6 on the Richter scale of the Canadian opera scene. No one was
expecting this. He was such a force of nature on the Canadian operatic scene
and what he did for that company for the last 18 years. The kinds of operatic
productions, the innovativeness; it is incalculable that affect that his
unbelievable doggedness and perseverance in getting the opera house done just
completely changed the playing field in Canada. It really put us on the map.
It was that opening night in the Four Seasonís Center with Wagnerís
Rhinegold that was one of the greatest moments for me, ever
(crying)ÖÖHe brought the whole orchestra up on the stageÖpeople were
crying, it was huge. Itís a terrible shock. In a way, though, he completed
his lifeís work. Thereís something almost divine (voice breaking),
umÖbecause he created this thing and completed it and maybe now he left it
for someone else to take on and take to the next stage. So, um, I always try
to put a bright spin on something cause I know that my colleagues at the COC
are absolutely reeling at the moment. They donít know what hit them. From a
practical perspective, whoís going to lead the company and for right now
whoís going to conduct the operas that he was going to conduct? He was just
such a steersman and itís going to be very very difficult indeed to fill
his shoes, no question. He was a great operatic statesman. He left us a
legacy and he has the company absolutely on the right track, in their opera
house and he gave us a face. They have 99% attendance and itís all very
positiveÖhe left everything in a good state. He received the Order of
Canada and received honours and was justly celebrated and so I feel that his
importance had been justly recognized and so I think we can all feel
satisfied in that respect. There will be post-humus awards but we have
recognized clearly what his contribution was.

Mary-Lou: The multifaceted, Kimberly Barber, continues to
amaze and enthrall audiences from coast-to-coast. Iíd like to thank you for
taking the time to speak with me and giving your long-time admirers and fans
a glimpse into your perspectives, opinions, and persona. You are indeed a
treasure in the Canadian opera scene and it has been my pleasure to interview
you for Opera Today.

Kimberly: It was a pleasure to be interviewed, great
questions, and thanks.

A Review of her solo CD, ìFaustina Bordoni: Faces of a prima donnaî
(CBC Records) can be found here on Opera Today, as well as a recent live
review of her performance in Elgarís ìThe Dream of Gerontius, Op. 38
for the opening of the Elora Festival. Also, please check out Kimberlyís
website at for more on this
fabulous performer.

Upcoming performances:

October 26, 2007, 7:30: Recital with Pianist Peter Tiefenbach and special
guests, Waterloo Entertainment Center

January 8, 2008: Recital with Pianist Anya Alexeyev, Cellist Paul Pulford
and others. Music at Noon Series, Maureen Forrester Recital Hall. Waterloo, On.

February 7 and 9, 2008, Charlotte, ìWertherî (Jules Massenet). Opera Ontario.

image_description=Kimberly Barber
product_title=Above: Kimberly Barber