-Canadian opera star Ambur Braid reconciles being a clean freak with coloratura chic, a feat that isn’t so cultured and complex as it seems, Jay de Belen reports.-
There are certain expectations, nay assumptions, when meeting with an opera singer. Is she a loud-mouthed virtuosa, with dressing room demands like a Mozartian Mariah Carey? Is she a catty, gossip-monger, à la Nini Legs-in-the-Air from Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge? Does she bleed blue blood? I mean, historically, opera was reserved for the aristocratic crowd of the 16th century. Colour me shocked when Toronto-based opera singer Ambur Braid unceremoniously walks into the room, looking all safari tourist chic. A men’s white oxford shirt from Joe Fresh, an H&M khaki-colored midi skirt and Gucci sandals is the day’s outfit of choice. Her only request? If she could wash her hands at the bar sink of Proof the Vodka Bar, at Toronto’s Yorkville Intercontinental hotel. So much for a dramatic diva.
It’s all about fashion and feathers on this breezy summer day in August. Sitting in hair and makeup, Braid is easily distracted, but gloriously chatty. A gorgeous Lucian Matis black feather gown is splayed out on a coffee table, close to our little cosmetics corner of the room. “Oh, it’s a day of feathers! I just had a fitting this morning, it’s all ostrich feather.” It’s an appropriate sartorial choice for a bourgeoisie photo shoot, and her eyes gleam with glee. She then goes back to her usual conversation topic: opera, opera, opera.
The truth is, Braid didn’t start out as a childhood opera aficionado; the bright-eyed 29-year-old was more of a musical theatre gal before the opera bug bit her square in the vocal cords. “I was doing musical theatre until [after] I graduated high school. I grew up in a small town, where the extent of my knowledge was The Phantom Of The Opera, which is a musical. I performed it for all my stuffed animals, all the parts!”
And what a stage she had, coming from a family full of athletes from Terrace, British Columbia. She’s the self-proclaimed weird one in the family, the kid that laid out her outrageous wardrobe choices, and proclaimed of its lackluster panache as she grabbed a belt from her closet. She did her Oscars acceptance speeches in the mirror, and filmed mini-fashion shows with childhood BFF’s. She’s the quintessential small-town girl, living in a not-so-lonely opera world. Though never unsupportive, Braid laughs about how her family doesn’t, and never did, understand her need for music and performance. Softball, skiing and snowboarding were the household’s activities of choice; “it was always ‘do your thing;’ it was never ‘you can’t be a musician, that’s not what grown-ups do.’”
Opera is a crazy, glamorous world but she attributes her level-headedness to tennis pro husband Kwame Gachinga. “My husband is my rock. He’s this sane, polite, calm person. I was away from [him] for seven weeks this summer – it can be incredibly lonely. You have to be strong to deal with being alone a lot.”
But, Braid insists if you’re born to do it, you’re born to do it. Alexander Neef, the General Director of the Canadian Opera Company, is a fierce believer in this young artist’s star power – “She has a fairly unique voice… it’s a very big dramatic coloratura voice. Usually coloratura voices are smaller. That [opens] up a repertoire to her that’s not open to everybody. And she’s a very, very strong performer.”
According to Braid, all eyes are on the Toronto opera scene right now, with most of the credit going to Neef and his work with the COC. Their latest production, the German Die Fledermaus, debuts this month. Braid plays the role of Adele, a wily maid who steals her mistress’ elaborate dress and flirts with the lord of her house. And, she has a sassy solo piece in the form of “Mein Herr Marquis,” commonly known as “Adele’s Laughing Song.”
She’s debuting under ideal circumstances, with a heavily talented cast. Christopher Alden, an American opera director, is at the helm of the new Fledermaus – he’s an opera radical known for reinventing ancient material into imaginative, contemporary experiences. Excitedly, Braid muses of a darker direction for what usually is a playful opera about cheeky deceit and gallons of champagne. “[Alden] is known for being very visceral, and sexual, and very human. Instead of prancing around the stage with jazz hands… we’ll be actual humans dealing with deceit, and sex, and cheating, and alcohol. It’s great – it’s life! It’s life in Toronto!”
Besides spending every waking moment in the opera world, when she can spare the time, Braid is actually way more down-to-earth than she seems. She’s an organizational furniture freak. Hair and makeup artist Aniya Nandy heartily agrees with Braid’s home decor rants – “we were doing a shoot for Chatelaine [a few months ago]. Her house is immaculate, everything has a home, everything has a place.” It’s safe to assume she lives in an Ikea catalogue come to life. It’s an organized life for an effervescent opera singer.
As hair and makeup wrap up, stylists and assistants begin crowding around our corner of the room; Braid needs to be pulled for wardrobe, cosmetic add-ons and test shots. The black Lucian Matis ostrich feather gown beckons. A handler whisks her away, but not before Braid imparts me with words of wisdom: “Anything in the arts, there’s always someone else that can take your position. It’s 80% about timing and work ethic… talent is such a small part of [opera].”
Photographer Sandy Galli
Words by Jay De Belen
Stylist Amarsana Gendunova
Hair and Make Up Aniya Nandy