What makes a diva?
With Measha Brueggergosman, it's a presence that captivates, yet still has the allure of understatement. She's as much of a vision as any opera star could be, but is quick to extend her hand and smile personably. And then she starts describing a year that would have left most people in tatters.
"If I ever wrote a biography, I think it would be called 'This Isn't What I Thought Life Would Be,'" she says.
After she cleared her 2011-12 opera season so that she and her husband could have a child, her prenatal twins died during her pregnancy at the end of last August. Brueggergosman speaks of this openly and succinctly, adding that many people may not realize this is why she has had fewer performances on her calendar this year.
She was, however, already signed up to be one of the celebrity judges on CITY-TV reality talent contest Canada's Got Talent, which began airing this month. In fact, she describes the show as "a real blessing for me. Although I'm not working in my day job, I do have a job. There's a financial burden that is lessened there."
As the series continues, she predicts she may be a little harder on singers than the other judges, but laughs at the idea that she might come across as the stereotypical "mean judge." While it's obvious the show is a lot of fun for her, it hasn't kept her as busy as her usual hectic schedule. Used to a packed calendar, she was itching to perform and have more on the go during this slower year.
So, she recorded an album of pop standards, to be released April 17 by Ottawa-based Kelp Records, a label far smaller than the international Deutsche Grammophon and CBS, which she has previously worked with. The attraction to lighter musical fare this time around, she says, was to work far less intensely than most classical sessions, which are "just such an expensive endeavour that it can be very pressurized."
This allowed her to get deeper into the recording process itself. She says she's a little surprised by the attention the album is getting ahead of its release. "I think I always underestimate people's interest in what I'm doing," she adds with a laugh. "When I go to embark on a project, it's rarely motivated by anything besides what interests me."
Based on a repertoire of songs that she worked up with arranger and composer Aaron Davis, the album ranges from pop standards such as the Gershwins' I've Got a Crush on You and Embraceable You, to contemporary songs such as Feist's Cicadas and Gulls and traditional material, like the Spanish cancion Nana.
In order to do the album how and when she wanted, she paid for its production herself and recorded it live in front of small audiences in Halifax and her native Fredericton. The songs represent, she says, a musical side of herself that she wanted to tap into more.
"Even though I am an opera singer, and my day job is a classical singer, one of my vocal icons is Ella Fitzgerald, because she had such precision and adherence to intonation, and such a close relationship to the composers and interpretation," Brueggergosman explains.
Releasing the disc through the tiny Kelp Records was also partly due to the fact that she had gone to school in Fredericton with label founder Jon Bartlett. "I don't think I really knew that much about Kelp Records or Jon's work on his label. I just knew that he was from Fredericton, and that if things didn't work out, I'd be able to call his parents and say, 'What's going on?'" she jokes.
"Let's face it, I want to be able to use my work as a vehicle for other people to grow their businesses as well. So why not go with a small label? It's the reason I wear Canadian designers. It's the reason the people I work with are helped by whatever I've built here," she says. It's also why she welcomes helping new acts on Canada's Got Talent.
"I was free to do whatever I wanted and go with whomever I wanted. And I have not really enjoyed that since the beginning of my career," she adds.
Still, for an international opera singer used to having her years planned for her, this has been an unusual, at times difficult period. She is now letting new projects carry her through. "With all of these things, I just kind of allow them to take natural shape and don't feel the need to put a cap on how big they get," she says, as she sits in her diva finery, as casual as can be.