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New Artist of the Month: Soprano Sarah Dufresne

February 1, 2024 | By Clive Paget, Musical America

LONDON—The Royal Opera House’s Jette Parker Artists Program is outstandingly good when it comes to raising an up-and-coming singer’s profile. Take 29-year-old Canadian soprano Sarah Dufresne, now in her second year. Over two seasons, she’s taken minor roles in Salome, Tannhäuser, and Don Carlo, sung Humperdinck’s Dew Fairy, as well as Mozart’s Papagena and Barbarina, and played the stratospherically demanding role of Lucia in Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia. This April she sings Frasquita in Damiano Michieltto’s new production of Carmen. Reviewing the Britten for Musical America in 2022, I highlighted her “effortless top notes and glittering coloratura” as “a thing of wonder.”

Jette Parker Artists are also encouraged to gig outside of the house. Last year I heard Dufresne with Ian Page’s period instrument band the Mozartists singing rediscovered music by Paisiello and Myslivecek. “Canadian soprano Sarah Dufresne shone, caressing the vocal line while engaging here and there in some impressively snappy staccato coloratura,” I wrote.

“Jette Parker has given me more visibility than anything I’ve done,” she admits, chatting over Zoom from her London base. “It’s given me confidence and comfortability simply by doing it so many times. I sang 40-something performances last year—that’s probably more than I’d given in my entire life. You learn the reality of the job too. Some nights you have to go on the stage even when you’re not in the mood. But then it becomes, ‘OK, this is what I do.’ It normalizes performing in a very beautiful way.”

Dufresne was born in Burlington, Ontario, the only musician in a family where having a trade is the norm: teacher, electrician, nurse etc. Musical talent emerged early, however. “Fun fact: I actually whistled before I talked,” she laughs. “I was making up tunes and annoying my parents. My mother and my grandmother swear it’s true.”

An enthusiasm for the voice followed swiftly. “There’s a tape of me singing Christmas songs when I was six years old that I recorded on my grandfather’s old cassette player,” she tells me. “I listened to it a few years ago and it’s not like a normal kid fooling around. ‘Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer’ is taken very seriously—every note is almost in tune.”

Joining her local church choir, she soon earned solos and by 13 she was taking singing lessons. Although music at university seemed an obvious choice, what kind of musical career she might have seemed less clear. Her bachelor’s degree was in voice performance at Wilfrid Laurier University, but it wasn’t until her third year that she took part in her first opera. Uncertain of what to do next, she spent a year as a nanny for her voice coach before enrolling for a master’s in voice and opera at Montreal’s McGill University.

Carolyn Holt as Bianca and Sarah Dufresne as Lucia in Royal Opera House's Rape of Lucretia

“The first year I didn’t get cast in any operas,” she admits, “so I did a lot of work on my vocal technique and shifted a few things. The next year I was cast as Queen of the Night and as Miss Wordsworth in Albert Herring. That’s when I thought, ‘Yeah, this is it.’”

The voice was always high and flexible—these days she self-identifies as a lyric coloratura—but Dufresne prefers now to pass when offered obvious showboat roles. “I don’t like an aria where success or failure is riding on one note, that’s just not me,” she shares.

From McGill, she was accepted onto her first young artist program, a two-year residency at L'Atelier lyrique de l'Opéra de Montréal. There she made her professional debut singing Nora in Vaughan Williams’s Riders to the Sea. Other notable performances back home include her Montreal Symphony Orchestra debut singing the ethereal soprano solos in Carmina Burana under Rafael Payare.

Competitions, which Dufresne considers a necessary evil rather than something she relishes, have played a part. In 2019 she was an award winner at the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions (Buffalo/Toronto District). In 2022, she carried off second prize in the Concours Musical International de Montréal [see video] where Opera Canada admired her “tremendous dramatic presence,” and “astonishing clarity and vocal dexterity.” It also led to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) naming her one of the country’s “Top 30 Hot Classical Musicians Under 30” and being signed by Askonas Holt.

A welcome vocal shift

The last five or six years have seen her soprano strengthen in the middle register, something she believes happens to a lot of people with her voice type. “For a while there was just not enough there,” she admits. “I had a little chat with Lisette Oropesa last year and she mentioned she had a vocal shift round about 28, 29, 30. I’ve definitely felt that over the last couple of years.”

She admires Oropesa not just as singer but as a particularly well-rounded person (“not all singers are, and that’s fine for some people”). From the past she singles out Joan Sutherland and Edita Gruberova. “I also like a pure sound, so the school of Barbara Bonney and Sylvia McNair is for me.” Her most important mentor remains Tracy Smith Bessette, who has coached her from McGill onwards.

In her down time Dufresne dabbles in song writing (pop, mostly), sings musical theater for fun, and longs for the day when she owns a corgi (as we speak, the wall behind her is filled with a gallery of the little critters). Looking ahead, this month she makes her North American debut with the Toledo Symphony Orchestra performing Mozart’s Exsultate jubilate and then it’s back to London for Carmen, which will be broadcast worldwide as part of ROH Live in Cinema.

Meanwhile, she’s making the most of her remaining time at the Royal Opera House. “It gives us the chance to watch people who are where we want to be, which is incredible,” she says. “It seems like one moment you’re a music student and the next you’re in a rehearsal studio with Nadine Sierra or Jonas Kaufmann. It’s very cool.”

Top photo by Brent Callis; ROH photo by Camilla Greenwell



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