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Jane Archibald: Banking on her 'money notes'

Opera soprano Jane Archibald

Kevin Van Paassen/Kevin Van Paassen / The Globe and Mail

Actors who fret about typecasting should maybe take a look at the opera world, where careers are often launched or sustained through the narrowest of pigeonholes. Nimble high sopranos, for example, are steered into coloratura roles, and once you've show you can nail the most feared assignments in that category, you may be asked to do nothing else.

Jane Archibald, a star Canadian soprano making a belated Canadian Opera Company debut this weekend, came relatively late to coloratura. She had finished her undergraduate studies (with senior voice guru Victor Martens) at Wilfrid Laurier University and sung a few competitions before it dawned on her how big a draw her high "E's" might be.

"No one had used the term "money note" with me before," says the 34-year-old singer. "That concept came to me a little bit late, but better late than never."

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She set about foolproofing those valuable notes - or as she puts it, "perfecting my three-pointer shot" - and after a couple of years in San Francisco Opera's training program, sang her debut at the Vienna State Opera as Queen of the Night in Mozart's The Magic Flute. With that role, her career was launched and also somewhat chained to a pair of fearsome arias for which the demand is great and the supply of capable singers is small.

She sang the part all over Europe - or rather, waited around everywhere for her little portion of rehearsal time and even shorter time on stage. She's grateful for the golden ticket the role afforded her, but often felt isolated from her colleagues and dramatically underused.

"It's lonely doing Queen of the Night," she says, "and after you do it a few times you think, this is a lot of stress and not very much fun." I mean, it's Mozart, and that's always a joy, but people listen for your high "F's," and if you miss one or two, that's all they remember, no matter how well you do everything else."

In retrospect, the part also looks like a metaphor for the early, lonely days of Archibald's life in Europe, during two years undercontract as an on-call company singer at the Vienna State Opera. She was a young woman from Truro, N.S., not fluent in German, having a hard time finding her way in a big impersonal theatre and a city that's not always welcoming to strangers.

"It was the best thing I ever did for my career, but it was incredibly difficult personally," she says. She sang a lot and debuted several important roles (including Sophie in Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier, which she'll perform in her La Scala debut next fall), but mostly as a fill-in singer in productions that were already running. Rehearsal was minimal, stress was high, and her support network was on the other side of the ocean. "It was sink or swim, and I doggy-paddled my way through it, and became more confident."

After two years in Vienna, she felt bold enough to go freelance, partly on the strength of another door-opening role: Zerbinetta, the part she'll play during the COC's production of Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos. She has done the role many times in several productions, including Canadian director Robert Carsen's version for Deutsche Oper Berlin. Compared to the "two-dimensional" Queen of the Night, the light-hearted but thoughtful Zerbinetta offered a banquet of possibilities.

"Coloratura roles can be a bit coquettish, and I can access that, but it's not really me," says Archibald. "Zerbinetta's very showy, but she also has a lot of depth. Her soliloquy to Ariadne about her take on love and men and life is quite profound. There are so many different layers, and ways to play her."

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She's had significant breaks with other roles, most recently Ophélie from Thomas's Hamlet, which she debuted at short notice at the Metropolitan Opera one year ago, replacing French soprano Nathalie Dessay. Archibald says she couldn't have faced that kind of high-pressure gig without her hard apprenticeship in Vienna.

She has a new album of Haydn arias out on ATMA Classique, and though Haydn's operas are seldom as theatrical as his symphonies, a few numbers on the record are linked to a dramatic plot twist in Archibald's life. She was singing a concert performance of Haydn's Orlando Paladino with the Berlin Philharmonic in 2009 when she met her fiancé, the Austrian-American tenor Kurt Streit, a recent widower 17 years her senior. Much of her time between productions is spent at the house in a small Austrian village that Streit shares with his teenaged son.

"Maybe there'll be a Lulu in our future," she says, referring to one opera in which they could appear together. Well before that comes about, she'll play another non-coquettish, non-singing role: that of bride, at a wedding in her hometown of Truro. That's a part, along with its sequel, that can never be fit in a pigeonhole.

The COC's Ariadne auf Naxos runs at Toronto's Four Seasons Centre from Saturday through May 29.

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About the Author

Robert Everett-Green is a feature writer at The Globe and Mail. He was born in Edmonton and grew up there and on a farm in eastern Alberta. He was a professional musician for several years before leaving that task to better hands. More

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