The village of Midhurst, Ontario, a one-traffic-light kind of place north of Toronto, is a long way, both physically and metaphorically, from the corridors of Canadian high culture, which, of course, makes the story of its hometown girl Erin Lawson all the more compelling.
By her own admission, Lawson, who takes the stage with Calgary Opera’s production of Verdi’s Otello this week in the role of Emilia — wife of the duplicitous Iago and maid of the doomed Desdemona — had a less than art-centric upbringing
“I actually took a year off after my last year of high school just to kind of wrap my head around going to university to study classical voice,” says Lawson. “Because my mom was a nurse, my dad worked in a factory, my uncle was a carpenter….”
Somehow, though, the opera bug managed to infiltrate Lawson’s rural world in myriad small but not insignificant ways — from the voice teacher who suggested she try classical forms to hearing and being mesmerized by CBC Radio’s weekly Saturday Afternoon at the Opera broadcast.
Then there was the commercial, which advertised Canada Post of all things, that featured Canadian soprano Joanna Kolomyjec performing Puccini’s O Mio Babbino Caro.
“Every time that commercial would come on I would just stop and watch it to the point where I wrote Canada Post and asked, ‘What is that song?’” laughs Lawson
“I think it’s just the quality of the music that pulled me toward it — the complexity and sheer emotional fullness of it,” she says, explaining what made her favour the classical form over more commercial and contemporary ventures found in musical theatre. “And it just seemed to be so dramatically charged, more so than, say, Seven Wives for Seven Brothers.”
So, once Lawson finally “wrapped her head” around the then-foreign notion of pursuing the matter in her education, she began auditioning for schools — which presented a few more hurdles particular to her situation.
At one of these, she was asked if she had ever seen an opera. “I was, ‘No, I haven’t seen one yet, but I’ve listened to them on the radio.’ The interviewer said, ‘Well how do you know you want to do it if you’ve never even seen one?’ I said, ‘Well surgeons know they want to be surgeons before they cut into a person….’ Oh, man, I didn’t get into that university.”
Lawson can laugh about it now, because six years after graduating from Wilfred Laurier University and five after being accepted into Calgary Opera’s Young Artist program, she’s taking on her most prestigious role since turning pro.
Of course, there’s been a few more revelations working at this level, such as the emphasis on the dramatic component of the production. “I think that with opera now, the voice is just expected to be there, and there’s a real push to the dramatic,” she explains. “For the first three days of rehearsals, we spent, I think, 10 hours sitting down and reading the script together and talking about it — really in-depth. That’s new for me.”
As positive a step forward as the Otello experience has been so far, Lawson seems firmly grounded as far as her career development — in the competitive world of opera there are only so many roles, and performers live from contract to contract. And, as a mezzo-soprano, whose voice will likely only deepen over time, there’s no trading up for a soprano lead such as Desdemona (though there are plenty of opportunities out there thanks to mezzo-friendly composers such as Mozart, Handel and Rossini).
But, as long as she’s working, Lawson says she’s content.
“All I have ever wanted to do is sing in a way that is respected by my colleagues, and to move somebody in the audience,” she says. “Like I was when I was 18 and saw my first opera — to inspire someone to come back and see more.”