Julie Nesrallah refers to herself as “the girl in the chair with the big hair” on Tempo, her classical music program on CBC radio, but the well-travelled mezzo-soprano is so much more than her magnificent mane. Her vocal prowess has landed her centre stage in Paris, Vienna, Hong Kong, Amman, Macau and Goiânia. She’s sung for Her Majesty Queen Noor of Jordan and belted out God Save the Queen on Parliament Hill for Will and Kate on their first visit to Canada. (She’s also the proud owner of a coveted Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal for her cultural contribution to Canada’s performing arts.) Now, with her travels curtailed and singing gigs on hold, Nesrallah is finding other ways to get music out into the world. We called her at home in Toronto to chat about opera in Iowa, her moment with Van Morrison and what happened when she serenaded her city from her balcony at sunset.
A Canadian Opera Singer Talks Travel, Tabbouleh and Sunset Serenades
enRoute Why is music so important right now?
Julie Nesrallah Listening to music brings you joy. Singing a song brings you joy. It replenishes something that you’ve lost. Whether you choose to have a big Led Zeppelin-a-thon or play all of Beethoven’s symphonies, for that moment in time you’re somewhere else, and it’s good. It’s like an emotional recalibration. This is a winning time for the arts because they’re our survival tools – our souls need to be delighted and we go to be delighted through the arts.
ER Is there one song in particular that takes you back to a memorable travel moment?
JN “Into the Mystic,” by Van Morrison. One year for my birthday I took a trip to Belfast all by myself to see him perform. It was a dinner theatre atmosphere, with a wedding-banquet-size room beautifully decorated with twinkling lights. He was fantastic and I had a little bit of eye contact with him at the side of the stage – it was one of the sweetest moments of my life, and that song totally takes me back to Belfast.
During a recital of French music with harpist Caroline Leonardelli at Carnegie Hall.
ER As someone who travels widely for both work and pleasure, how are you scratching the itch these days?
JN I love to travel and am so built for the life of a singer because of it. I love staying in hotels (someone comes in and makes your bed every day!) and I even love packing. Anytime I have to go somewhere, I’ll empty my closet and assess, then pack all my favourite things at that moment. Now, I try to find ways to recreate action. I’ve been power walking outside when I can – movement of any kind helps.
ER What about cooking?
JN I love eating, but I’m not really a cooker. I’m Lebanese, so I can make tabbouleh and hummus and I have an Arabic grocery store where I go to get things my mom makes. Then some days, it’s like, “Tomato sandwiches? Why not?”
ER On your show, you travel the world through music, weaving in stories about the lives of the composers you feature. Why is that an important accompaniment to the music?
JN To me, the most interesting thing in the world is other people. Mozart, Chopin, Liszt, Marie Jaëll, Grażyna Bacewicz – these phenomenal people who composed outstanding edifices of music were all just people. They had marital problems and mood swings and addictions and they loved their pets and were bad with money and made mistakes. By sharing their stories, people realize they have something in common with someone like Mozart, who was utterly human. I think it’s important to connect the humanity of the past with the humanity of the present.
ER You recently delivered a sunset serenade from your balcony in Toronto (you even put on a little black dress for the performance). What compelled you to do it?
JN I’d seen an Italian tenor on Twitter singing a famous aria, Nessun dorma from Puccini’s Turandot, and I just thought, isn’t that great. I shared his Tweet with my followers and said, “Hey guys, what do you think – should I follow suit?” My Twitter feed exploded. So, I got dressed up, did my hair, put on some lipstick and sang “O Sole Mio.”
ER Why “O Sole Mio”?
JN I chose it because it’s Italian and I wanted to show solidarity with the Italians and it’s a song most people recognize (I think it’s the most famous shower song in world!). It also tells the story of how brilliant it is when the sun comes out after a big storm. There’s this undertone of philosophical hope – it’s going to be okay, the sun will come out tomorrow.
ER How did people respond?
JN It was nerve-wracking at first and I thought, What if people yell at me to shut up? But that didn’t happen. There’s a building across the street from me and I could hear the sound echoing off of it. Then, it was all cheers and honking horns. Not only was it wonderful to see all these people come out to listen and to make a connection with them, but I also felt better because I hadn’t sung in a while. I felt normal, and a little bit brighter.
ER What is the strangest venue you’ve ever performed in?
JN I’ve sung in barns, in people’s homes, in backyards, you name it, but one of the most memorable performances I gave was in Bogotá. The Bogotá Philharmonic Orchestra wanted to present a concert version of Carmen and we performed in a bull-fighting ring that was no longer in use. The orchestra was set up on a stage and when I walked out, the stands were full of people. The day was beautiful, not too hot, breezy, and the orchestra resonated out into the open air. It was thrilling to be there. Bogotá is a beautiful place and so are the people.
“Not only was it wonderful to see all these people come out to listen and to make a connection with them, but I also felt better because I hadn’t sung in a while. I felt normal, and a little bit brighter.”
ER Do you have a favourite, lesser known opera destination?
JN Yes! Cedar Rapids, Iowa. They have a terrific opera company and I’ve sung for them a bunch of times. You don't normally associate opera with Cedar Rapids (home of Ashton Kutcher!) but there you have it. I fell in love with the whole company.
ER When you’re able to pack a bag again, where’s the first place you’ll go?
JN I’ve been to Rome once, but just in passing. I was singing on a Mediterranean cruise and we stopped there for a day, but it wasn’t enough. As soon as I can travel again, I want to go to Florence. I want to stand in front of Michelangelo’s David. I’ll start off in Rome and do the whole quartet: Rome, Milan and Venice, but Florence first.