This is sort of a Christmas gift for me, but it is now one I can give to you guys!
Sonja Gustafson is a singer from London, ON, Canada that you may or may not know from a little-known documentary TV series titled “Bathroom Divas: So You Want To Be an Opera Star” that aired on Bravo Canada (It aired here in the US on Ovation TV). On that show she was one of five finalists that were chosen from a large number of applicants that auditioned. The show itself was focused on the finalists and the work that went into training and nuturing their vocal skills for operatic performance, and the winner got to sing an aria with a symphony orchestra (She came in second place, but did really well). Sonja Gustafson had started as a classically trained vocalist (The program showcased her giving an operatic career a second shot after initially abandoning it), but ultimately decided to try her hand at jazz with some fellow musicians, performed locally in her hometown, and made a jazz CD as her debut recording, as well as a follow-up, her holiday release Comfort & Joy. Before we got into any of that, Sonja, currently a happily-married mother of two (She had her one-month old with her during our Skype conversation) talked about the origin of her music career.
“My parents are both musicians–classical musicians, so I grew up in that realm. My mom is a vocalist and taught at the local university here [UWO], and my dad taught music history there. That’s where I ended up doing my musical education as well. Anyway, I just got dragged to tons of concerts and rehearsals basically from birth. I always sang in choirs and stuff as a kid, but the lessons I took were on violin, so I didn’t actually study voice or really do any solo singing until I decided I wanted to go to Interlochen in the states. I auditioned there on voice, and that was the beginning of my taking voice lessons, so I did my last year of high school there, and then I came back home and went to the local university, studied voice there–that was sort of my undergrad on and off, and by the end of undergrad I wasn’t certain what I wanted to do with the singing.”
During that period of uncertainty, Sonja was more or less intervened by a music god of some sort. “I started singing jazz kind of by accident during that point with a friend who is a pianist. They got a gig for New Year’s Eve, and it was a jazz gig. They wanted a vocalist accompanied by piano, and I said ‘I don’t know any jazz songs, I’m not a jazz singer’, and he was like ‘Well that’s no problem, we’ll learn some’, so I learned some and sight-read the rest! [laughs] It was fine! I had never sung with a microphone before that! He would occasionally get these gigs and call and ask me to do them again, so we started rehearsing together a little bit. The more I did them, the more I enjoyed it, and then I started working with a guitarist in town, Oliver Whitehead, and he said we should do some gigs together. He knew all the jazz repertoire and he [showed] me some stuff I hadn’t heard before, so we put together a book of tunes. We just kept getting gigs where we’d be playing in a pub every Friday night, and then that led to the odd concert here and there, and it just kind of took off. Because of him I met other musicians–drummers, pianists, bassists, and started working with all kinds of different people in the London area, and that was it! Basically my musical education in jazz was just doing it, and learning from these guys that had been doing it their entire lives. And it’s funny, I learned a lot about my classical singing, which I wasn’t doing very much of at all. It’s kind of hard to get paid to sing classical on that sort of level. You’re not going to get paid to sing opera arias in a pub. It’s not something you just pick up and do with anybody, it requires rehearsing. Jazz is great because you can just get together and jam and it can sound just as polished as a completely rehearsed performance and that’s simply because you make sure you’re speaking the same musical language as the other musicians–you get onstage, and you communicate.”
And then another opportunity knocked when her mom informed her about the audition for the Bathroom Divas TV show. After sending in an application and a CD, Sonja was asked to come audition in person for the show, and was ultimately selected as one of the 5 finalists to compete for the chance to sing with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra conducted by Bramwell Tovey.
One of the highlights of the show was Gustafson’s work on the famous Mozart aria “Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen” from Die Zauberflöte.
“[During the show], we talked about that piece–I just mentioned it, and [the producers] were very keen on me singing that. We sang through it just for fun. We were choosing repertoire with Michael McMahon [Accompanist and mentor on the show], and they were like ‘Can you please pick that piece?’. I was kind of like ‘What am I getting myself into?’, but at the same time, I always liked that piece, and it certainly was a stretch for me character-wise because I tended still at that point to be on the shier side, and that role is anything but, because you have to be so over-the-top, dramatic and mean! It really made me push my limits. You’re concerned about hitting the notes, you’re concerned about singing them in tune, and all the other technical aspects, and then as well, you’re trying to master a character, and that’s the thing, trying to portray a part that is far from yourself is the biggest challenge. And it certainly was for me. Tom [Diamond; instructor that worked with the singers on their roles] really had his work cut out for him!”
Gustafson has found a way to make a record that encompasses both her classical and jazz styles–She made a double Christmas CD titled Comfort & Joy. “That would be the one time where it wouldn’t seem strange for one person to mix genres on a CD, because on Christmas, I actually think of what I would be looking for when I buy Christmas CDs or when I make a Christmas playlist, and I’ve never made a separate playlist like “Christmas jazz” or “Christmas classical”–I’ve taken all my Christmas tracks, whether they were Kings College Choir, Pavarotti, Canadian Tenors, or Ella Fitzgerald, and put them all on one playlist and mixed them all up, and I think that’s what a lot of people do at Christmas–They put their CDs in their changer or they make a playlist on iTunes, and just have it cycle through randomly, and the thing is that it’s Christmas, so that’s what ties it all together. I thought ‘Well, that would be kind of cool’ because, I can sing the different styles, I could jump back and forth and have some classical stuff that’s really straight-up classical, I could have jazz stuff, and I could have stuff that kind of falls somewhere in-between, but the idea is that it’s all of my favorite Christmas music–I’m a pretty big sucker for Christmas music! The music brings out emotion for me. Whether I love a film or not, is often very dependent on how well the soundtrack really helps further the film, and for me, music is like that, a soundtrack of your life, so when I hear a piece of music that I love, I have to have it, and it gets a really emotional response from me.”
As for opera, yes, Sonja still performs, in fact, she runs her own local chamber opera group called Diva Lounge Productions. “Every year we enter the fringe festival in London [London Fringe], and fringe festivals are actually theater festivals, they’re not music, but theater can sometimes involve music, so, I was like ‘You know what? I’d like to put on an opera every year’–Actually, Tom Diamond was the person that inspired me, he’s the one that gave me the idea to do it. I said ‘I’d love to put on an opera, but it’s so expensive by the time you buy your venue…’, and he said ‘Well, you should enter a fringe festival, because then a lot of those things are taken care of. You just pay an entry fee to be part of the festival, and then you get a built-in audience’, and I was like ‘Great!’–I researched it, and that’s what I did, and the first work we did was Menotti’s The Medium. It was fantastic, and I actually had Tom come to town and work with us, workshop the show for 2 days. So, I’ve done 5 fringe festivals, basically I just do it every year, and I’ve signed up again to do it next year, I’m still trying to decide what show we’re going to do. If I were to do it completely on my own and just rent a venue, I’d really have to pound the pavement to get people out there to come to the show, and even then, I’d still get a certain crowd, I think, whereas the fringe festival, you get people who might even hate opera. They might even come to your show not knowing it’s an opera, they’re just curious, or they bought a pass and are going to as many shows as possible, and they come into your show and they love it! And you kind of change their mind a bit about opera, and they think ‘Wow! That was pretty cool, I could actually understand everything they were saying! And it actually did seem kind of real! I actually got caught-up with the theater instead of thinking this is just ridiculous!’ because there are some things about opera some people don’t like, like they find it to be more about the singing than the theater, or maybe they don’t like that sort of vocal production, but it’s funny how people don’t like opera singing, but when they actually go to see a show live, they’re completely wrapped-up in it, it’s so different live than it is recorded for a lot of people”.
Menotti: “Monica’s Waltz” from The Medium
Video: LFPress.com video piece on 2011 production of The Old Maid and The Thief
London Fringe: The Old Maid and The Thief
Sonja’s official website
The Glass wishes you and yours the happiest of holidays!!