Toronto native Danielle MacMillan is a new member of the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble Studio for the 2013/2014 season, having competed in the 2011 and 2012 Ensemble Studio Competition. She made her COC debut earlier this season as Niece 2 in Peter Grimes. She holds a bachelor of fine arts, with honours, in classical vocal performance from York University, with additional training at the International Vocal Arts Institute in Montreal, Istituzione Teatro Lirico Sperimentale di Spoleto in Italy and the Glenn Gould School (GGS). Her credits include Rose in Lakmé (Opera by Request); Diana in Cavalli’s La Calisto, Véronique in Bizet’s Le docteur Miracle and the Cabaret Singer in Weil’s Mahagonny-Songspiel (GGS); and, Cherubino in Le nozze di Figaro (York University). This season with the COC, Ms MacMillan also appears as Dorabella in Così fan tutte (Ensemble performance). In honour of tonight’s COC Centre Stage gala, we caught up with MacMillan to find more about her operatic career and her experience of being part of the Ensemble Studio.
Tell us a snippet about you. What should people know?
I’m a Toronto native, born and raised in an Italian/Canadian family of four. Growing up, I was surrounded by music from my father’s collection of classic rock and Beethoven, and the sweet and savory aromas from my mother’s bella cucina. I was also involved in many sports, such as soccer, baseball and swimming, as well as dance. Before I began my training in the Ensemble Studio at the Canadian Opera Company, I fulfilled my bachelor of fine arts, with honours degree, in music, at York University. During my studies, I spent a semester at an academy in Florence, Italy to master the Italian language and train vocally, while earning credits towards my degree at York. Upon graduating, I began my studies at The Glenn Gould School of The Royal Conservatory of Music. That is where I caught the stage bug and wanted to pursue nothing more than a life spent on stage.
What was the first piece of Opera that inspired you to move in this career path?
Back in 1995, when I was seven, my mom took me to see The Phantom of the Opera. I was too young to really tell the difference between an opera and a musical, and whether or not I was even thinking of becoming an opera singer (although, I knew that I wanted to be an astronaut…), but what I remember the most was the chandelier exploding, sinking into my seat, and telling my mother that I was scared. A few years later, we saw Cats, and before I knew it I was singing along to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s box set and performing ‘Memory’ on stage at my grade school talent show. There was only ever one opera singer listed on the Variety Night programs throughout my elementary and high school years, and that was me. I was the tiny girl with the big voice, and I wanted to share it. My grade 11 drama teacher signed me up for the Canadian Opera Company’s Opera Jam after school program and they took us to see Norma at the Hummingbird Centre. June Anderson was Norma, and Marianna Kulikova was Adalgisa and I was at the edge of my seat. Their duet, ‘Mira, O Norma’ was sublime. However, nothing beats Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horne’s duet from Norma. It is one of my all-time favourites.
Who are some of the great voices that shaped your vocal technique, whether directly or indirectly?
You can’t really teach someone how to love music or opera, but you can watch, study and listen to those who do. Studying with Norma Burrowes throughout my undergrad was a gift. I am forever grateful for her advice, and continued support. Having the opportunity to attend Ermanno Mauro’s master classes on the weekend and participating in his dinner concerts was nothing short of inspiring. Ermanno’s passion for singing is infectious and his no BS mentality gave me the thick skin that I wear today. I am also grateful for my time spent with Jean MacPhail at the Glenn Gould School, I continue to make her proud. I am now studying with Wendy Nielsen and she has a way of sculpting the voice like Michelangelo sculpted Il David. I can’t thank her enough for everything she has done and continues to do for me.
Describe “the rush” you get when performing. Paint us a picture of what it’s like to stand in front of hundreds of adoring eyes as you belt your lines.
Surprising to some, I have always been a quiet person. I’m more of a listener than a big speaker. For some reason, the stage allows me to be larger than life and a magnified version of my true being. When I’m standing on stage in front of hundreds of people, I just want to fill the space while being guided and supported by the orchestra and conductor below. It gives me a feeling of generosity and happiness to be able to share my voice with the audience and become a vessel through which the story is being told. With a rush of endorphins, I leave the stage wanting more.
What does being part of the COC’s Ensemble Studio mean to you?
Being a part of the Ensemble means that I can continue to do what I love every single day, alongside great colleagues as well as teachers, coaches and guest artists, with whom I feel so blessed to be training with. Not a day has gone by where I am not thankful for being here. It means so much to have such seasoned artists, teachers and arts administrators see something great in me and have them support me every day, with endless amounts of encouragement as well as opportunity. Being here means that I will accept the inevitability of trial, put quality into my performances and work hard everyday to strive for excellence towards a successful career as an opera singer.
Let’s dredge up the past. What’s the most embarrassing audition/performance/in-class happenstance you can (or care to) remember?
The most embarrassing moment has to be in 2006, during my undergraduate audition for UofT. I think Darryl Edwards and Lorna MacDonald were there and I remember singing a German art song with horrible diction, not knowing any better. They were smiling, but I was singing thinking that ‘this can’t be right.’ Darryl then moved to the piano and said, ‘Okay, now for some cadences.’ I said, ‘What’s a cadence?’ (Silence)….I believe my audition ended and I continued to a different room to write the entrance theory exam. Having no previous training in counterpoint, harmony, rudiments, etc… I never received the results from the exam and was too scared to find out but I later received a rejection letter.
When you’re not singing or practicing technique, you’re _________________.
Work can become quite busy, so when I’m not singing, I’m spending time with my family and friends. Whether it is a night out for dinner and dessert or a movie at home, it’s always spent with those I love the most. I also love watching The Vampire Diaries (yes, I know it’s a teeny-bopper vampire show) and The Voice #GoTeamBlake.
What’s one Opera that would convert someone new to the genre into a diehard fan?
I don’t know how anyone, opera lover or not, would not be moved by listening to Puccini’s La Bohème. My parents saw it for the first time this fall, at the COC, and tenor Michael Fabiano blew their socks off. Now they’re all about what’s coming up next!
What’s your favourite restaurant in Toronto?
I have my favourites and they come in this order: Asuka (red carpet roll), Terroni (everything), and The Black Hoof (their olives and bone marrow are delish).
Favourite drink and where you go to get it?
Hendrick’s and tonic. I had my first at Pure Spirits Oyster House and Grill in the Distillery District paired with a dozen or so oysters. Two parts Hendrick’s over ice, filled with tonic water and a garnish of cucumber. Can’t go wrong.
How would you describe the Ensemble Studio Competition in three words?
Well, I’ll need more than three words.
· No holds barred.
· Too close for comfort. (Sorry that’s four).
· Music bares all.
· ‘Powerful beyond measure.’
· Eat, Pray, Sing.
· Pray, Sing, Eat.
What do you think Centre Stage brings forth that no other event has done in the past?
The fact that Rufus Wainwright is hosting is just too cool. There are wardrobe fittings for the competitors, a cocktail reception, onstage gala dinner and this has opened up the experience to an audience of over 1,000 people. I think that it is so exciting and the stakes are at a much higher level with the singers being accompanied by the COC orchestra under the direction of Maestro Debus. I’m really looking forward to the whole evening.
How have you seen the Ensemble Studio Competition evolve since your involvement in it last year, to what will become Centre Stage?
I was so thrilled to hear that this year’s competition was going to be put on the main stage. When the first and second year of the competition were sold out in less than a few days and people were standing and sitting all around me, I wondered what would happen in the coming years with the extremely high demand for tickets. They must have seen its potential and promise to please the masses of opera lovers and supporters alike. Not only is it a very important music event in the city of Toronto, but it is also a major social event. It is no longer an intimate setting, rather a monumental black tie affair.
Let’s get social for a moment. Have you any online profiles where people can stay up-to-date on your operatic self?
I most definitely do. Twitter is my main source for the public. You can follow me @MezzoSopranoDan. Currently my tweets are all about our school tour production of The Brothers Grimm!
The Canadian Opera Company’s Ensemble Studio Competition Gala will be held Tuesday, November 26th at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto. For more information, visit coc.ca.