Measha Brueggergosman - How the Soprano Sensation Embraces It All
By Jennifer Wood
Known primarily as an internationally celebrated soprano, Fredericton-born Measha Brueggergosman thrives in many genres, most notably opera but also classical and popular music. Her voice, as eclectic, passionate and accomplished as the woman herself, has graced the world’s most significant stages, including London’s Wigmore Hall, Madrid’s Teatro Real, New York’s Carnegie Hall and Washington’s Kennedy Center. Some of her most prestigious audiences have included Nelson Mandela and members of the British Royal family, and her chilling performance at the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Olympic games was telecast to over 3 billion people around the globe.
As a child, Brueggergosman sang at the local Baptist church where her father served as deacon, and she started voice and piano studies at age seven. From there, her faith and her commitment to music continued to grow. Today, at 41, the sixth-generation Maritimer has won numerous awards and received countless recognitions, including two JUNO Awards, a Gemini Award, an East Coast Music Award and a Grammy nomination. She also holds an honorary doctorate from Concordia University.
The diva also has a knack for writing, as demonstrated in her autobiography, Something Is Always on Fire: My Life So Far, where she openly and honestly recounts the trajectory of a career that seems synonymous with personal heartbreak; namely, the loss of two babies, emergency open-heart surgery and a painful divorce.
However, through it all, she maintains a keen respect for gratitude and her “life’s blessings.” In turn, she gives back. She is a champion for a nationwide campaign that promotes music education for children, and she has served as a goodwill ambassador for the African Medical Research Foundation. Most recently and closer to home, she donated proceeds from her performances at the Fredericton Playhouse to the city’s Housing First initiative, whose team work with individuals who are affected by homelessness or are in danger of losing their homes.
[EDIT’s] senior editor, Jennifer Wood recently had a chance to sit down with the singing sensation to discuss her remarkable career, performing barefoot and her gratitude for Bikram yoga, paradigm shifts, and what she loves most about the idyllic life she has created for herself and her children in Atlantic Canada.
[EDIT]: You have performed all over the world, to royalty, at an Olympic opening ceremony and for the toughest critics in the industry. Do you feel additional pressure when playing for certain audiences?
MEASHA BRUEGGERGOSMAN: Every performance is equally important, but I do feel the status of certain occasions. There have been many moments where I would say to myself, “Measha, you know exactly how important this is. Don’t screw this up!” But I don’t shut the situation out. I don’t pretend it’s not happening and no, I don’t picture the audience naked! Rather I put myself right in the middle of the tension. I think about how insane it is, that of all the people and all the places and all the opportunities that I could find myself in, I am the one fortunate enough to be having that experience. I put myself in the very centre of these moments. I know that with the flap of a butterfly’s wings, these opportunities could’ve been awarded to someone else. I am very aware of how much God has blessed me. I really mean that. I try to stay in a perpetual state of gratitude.
[EDIT]: Have you always been this self-aware and grateful?
MEASHA: Don’t get me wrong, I can bitch and complain with the best of them. When I start to go off the rails, I think about where my family is and within one generation, and the sacrifices that my parents made that set me in this position. I am not going to pretend that what I do isn’t both an honour and an incredible journey. From the outside it looks more glamorous than it is. People make a lot of assumptions about classical musicians and opera singers, and of course these are not true. You know, my colleagues complain too. And I can easily get sucked into that, but I tend to take a step back and think, “Come on, guys! Are any of us doing this for free? Or all we all getting paid? Are we getting paid to bitch and moan, or do we want to literally win at our careers and at life?”
[EDIT]: Your book, Something Is Always on Fire, is an amazing reflection on your success and your difficult experiences. You clearly did not hold back in sharing the details of your life. Can you tell us about writing the book? Have you always considered yourself a writer?
MEASHA: Let me tell you it was a lot easier to get a book deal than to sit down and write it! The book was predicated on the fact that people knew who I was. That’s how it was for me. I wasn’t a writer striving to get published. I have always written, but I never knew that my voice was so strong, which is a funny thing for a soprano to say. I started the process with a wonderful ghost writer, Sylvia. I handed over all my journals and my emails, even my voice memos to her, and she followed me around for three years to get a better sense of who I am. When she handed me the first draft, I honestly could not read past the first two pages. And it is not because Sylvia is a bad writer — she’s incredible! It just didn’t sound or feel like me. How could it? I knew there and then that I would have to write it, and I cried and agonized over my ability to do so. I needed to get honest with myself and admit that I had a book in me. I decided to embrace the process rather than fight against it. At that time, I was reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic. The book’s premise is that we are all creatives and through the process of letting go of our fears we can be creative in infinite ways. Her book helped me understand and live this concept. Now I know that my calling is more than one thing, that I can be whatever is required of me. I also realized that if I said no to opportunities because they didn’t involve singing, I would only be halfway to where God wants me to be.
[EDIT]: Is there a moment or a performance that stands out, when your life changed and you realized that you were dead centre of a paradigm shift — that your ambition and hard work were aligned, and you were being recognized for your talent?
MEASHA: I don’t think there is that one performance or experience for me, and that is probably because when it all started to happen, I was still so focused on building my career and my brand that I didn’t recognize the shift. I don’t think there is a big mystery to why success happens. It doesn’t happen by chance or through strokes of luck. Rather, I believe that the work we put into things is a direct relationship to what we get back.
I will tell you this though. The experience of having children represented an enormous paradigm shift for me. I became incredibly grateful for the opportunity to get out of the house and, for the first time, my job felt like a vacation! I didn’t know what work really was until I had children. It puts your blessings in context because being a parent both exacerbates and heightens all the attributes about you that are good. And bad! You become way more impatient but also way more loving and compassionate than you ever imagined possible. My children have added to my life, but I would not be the mother that I am now if I had had them in my twenties. I used my twenties to build my career, and I can now enjoy the freedom of knowing when and where my next job will be.
[EDIT]: There would be a handful of people on the planet who could say that they performed for 3 billion viewers. Can you tell us about performing at the Olympics in 2010? Have you watched it repeatedly?
MEASHA: While I was performing, I decided that I would never watch it. I was very aware that I was having an incredibly unique and surreal experience, and I wanted to keep my memory of it from where I stood. I didn’t want to taint my memory by watching it from any other viewpoint. I am grateful to have protected it.
[EDIT]: Can you tell us about your experience of needing emergency, life-saving surgery?
MEASHA: The things that I thought would be traumatic about my experience ran incredibly smoothly. It has never been a better time to have heart problems! My condition, a dissected aorta, has an extremely high mortality rate. That’s a hard truth to wrap your brain around. It’s funny, but I first realized the severity of my situation when I read a feature about me in Chatelaine magazine! But rather than give it a lot of weight, which would arouse anxiety and a ton of other issues, I have chosen to embrace the miracle of the body and how it has served me. My favourite part of the aftercare was when they handed me a pamphlet that said something like, “So you have an enlarged aorta!” I thought, “Will this pamphlet fix my aorta? No? Right. You keep the pamphlet; I’m going to carry on.”
[EDIT]: We have met many singers who have expressed their commitment to and the stress they feel about maintaining their health. They understand how their health is a vital component to maintaining and propelling their career. With a busy performing schedule, travel and two young children, how do you stay healthy?
MEASHA: I think that you must be living optimally as opposed to getting by on the reserves you have in the bank. The voice is a reflection and a symptom of a healthy person: when someone is talking when they have a cold, their voice reflects what is going on in the rest of their body. Practicing Bikram yoga is a key to my health, and it has helped me recognize when my body is not at its best. Eating and sleeping well are hugely important. But that goes without saying.
[EDIT]: Have you always performed barefoot? How does it serve you to do so?
MEASHA: I am super clumsy and not particularly graceful! I decided early on that thinking about getting from point A to point B in high heels was a mental burden I was not willing to entertain! But performing barefoot eventually took on a new importance. Thanks to Bikram yoga, I became more comfortable with the points of my feet. It rendered my body more efficient, and I no longer had to use muscles in my body that aren’t meant for singing. Now when I sing, the tension is not absorbed solely by my vocal cords.
[EDIT]: When you are on tour what do you miss about home?
MEASHA: I miss being a full-time mom and having my own car! I don’t like congestion and traffic. Traffic and noise pollution are why I have chosen to live in the country. The villain in my story is often the city. Where the city once represented opportunity, vibrancy and great food, I now see it as a death trap of pedophiles because I have kids! I fully appreciate the serenity of the country. My driveway in Falmouth, Nova Scotia, is half a kilometre long, which means you don’t arrive at my doorstep by accident. I miss that kind of privacy when I am touring through the noise and the fuss of metropolitan areas.
[EDIT]: Did you always know that you would return to and build a big portion of your career in Atlantic Canada?
MEASHA: Absolutely. I wasn’t trying to stay away and live in Europe. I was there because I had to be. My job can’t be done from here, so I always knew that I wouldn’t be here full-time. I can now structure my life so that I can choose where I want to live. I get very anxious around noise pollution. It always bothers me. I knew for my own mental health that I needed to be in a place where I could isolate the sounds. I enjoy this serenity in terms of my children, and I am able to give them the upbringing that I had: outside playtime is over at our home when the door is unlocked! Our neighbour lives half a kilometre away, and my boys will often visit her. It’s a destination. This is the life I wanted for them. I’m very happy, but I know that we are expected to be happy wherever we land. I love Falmouth and its surrounding areas like Windsor, and I am grateful for the wonderful community that has adopted me. It’s a beautiful place to live and raise children. But don’t tell anybody about it!
Facebook: Measha Brueggergosman
Something is Always on Fire by Measha Brueggergosman is available now published by Harper Avenue
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