Measha Brueggergosman takes on spirituals

Measha Brueggergosman —no stranger to challenging opera’s conservative instincts—digs into her own history with her new album, ‘Songs of Freedom’

Opera singer Measha Brueggergosman. (Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail/CP)

Opera singer Measha Brueggergosman. (Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail/CP)

Opera singers rarely get political. And the spiritual—the politically charged songs that brought solace and empowerment to enslaved African-Americans, a musical tradition carried on by the likes of legendary sopranos Jessye Norman and Kathleen Battle—rarely earns the spotlight, much less radio play or stage time.

But that hasn’t stopped Canadian opera singer Measha Brueggergosman from seeking to further the art and history of spirituals in her latest album, Songs of Freedom. Her interest is hard-earned: She started to explore her own roots with a documentary in 2015, also called Songs of Freedom, which traced the 39-year-old’s journey from her hometown of New Brunswick to her past familial roots in Cameroon. It was there, in Central Africa, where Brueggergosman discovered her family’s link to the Bassa tribe and learned about the struggles of her ancestors, who managed to escape slavery in the late 1700s. Brueggergosman captures these moments of self-discovery on the album and in a detailed essay that outlines her ambitions for the project.

During a rehearsal break from a German production of The Tales of Hoffmann at Dresden’s Semperoper opera house, Brueggergosman spoke with Maclean’s about the pathos, politics and process surrounding her newest musical journey.

Q: Songs of Freedom couldn’t have come at a better time. Was there any apprehension after the U.S. election to release this?

A: First of all, I try to ignore that mess as much as I possibly can. It’s easy to do that over here in Germany. It’s just a blip on the radar for the German culture. They’re like, “Y’all are crazy over there. Next segment.” I’m not saying they’re not scared. They’re just wondering when people are going to wake up and see the pattern they themselves lived through and could see coming from a much greater distance. They don’t have the hubris of youth to luxuriate in. According to the Germans I’ve spoken with, [Trump’s rise] looks very similar to what happened prior to Hitler rising to power.

Q: “We had no spirituals,” you say in the Songs of Freedom documentary. “I was in a beautifully racially mixed school but we never had that kind of education.” When did you first encounter spirituals, and how?

A: I was raised in a spiritually rich home, for sure, and a musically rich congregation, but it was in a classical tradition. Hymns like “Amazing Grace” and “His Eye is on the Sparrow” were sung in the context of the hymnal we used in our church. It wasn’t until later on—as an adult—that I was able to get to the bottom of their origins. I had no idea about the richness of John Newton’s journey. When I sing things like “Blessed Assurance,” I think of how we are all just one tiny song away from being saved. I truly believe that in the offering of this album—particularly in this political climate—I have to make my contribution a hopeful one. I can’t see the world any other way. To whom much is given, much is expected. You can’t come to me and expect that I’m going to be giving up on people, or on our society.

Q: What makes you rise above any negativity?

A: It is particularly challenging looking how I look, but I think of my beautiful, swirled-up babies and I think, “You know what? I will be an example for you.” I believe you can set the tone for any room or any conversation by being the first one to lead with love.

Q: What was the artistic lure that made you want to explore the history of the spiritual?

A: It was how [prima donnas such as] Jessye Norman and Kathleen Battle used the spiritual as an encore option. They gave the rest of us permission to treat this subsection of music culture with the respect it deserved. I saw my documentary Songs of Freedom as an opportunity to dig deeper—not only into my own genealogy but also into the musicological journey of the spiritual. I wanted to give it its due. Opera contains music that reflects a culture of poetry and aesthetic. Spirituals are no different. What separates a spiritual for me is that I also happen to love Jesus. When I’m approaching these songs, I’m not approaching them like Mozart. I see my faith and the struggle of my ancestors and of a people seeking freedom beside what these songs are going to be in terms of their arrangement and delivery. “Miss Otis Regrets” is a tune that sometimes gets an up-tempo treatment—which breaks my heart because it’s about a lynching. I feel like when I approach a tune like “Swing Low,” it’s not necessarily about a raucous, roaring chariot crashing through time. It’s about the slow and steady drudgery of believing something you don’t know will ever come. You’re at a crossroads and instead of giving up hope, you choose to believe.

Q: Were you ever worried that people who don’t tap into the same spiritual beliefs as you do would be turned off?

A: Belief is a choice. Not everyone is going to love Jesus. I’m not asking them to. I’m not asking them to come on the same spectrum as me. No matter where you fall on the faith spectrum, the spiritual can instill a sense of hope in you that’s undeniable. The spiritual doesn’t ask you to believe any one thing. It just opens you up.

Q: Alvin Ailey used the spiritual to reach anybody from any faith or background. Did something like Alvin Ailey or gospel house music inform your recordings or your approach?

A: The idea of the nightclub and house music is interesting to me; I can’t wait to hit that circuit! The Bible says, “Where two or more are gathered in my name, there am I also.” When you sing, dance, or open yourself up to being fed by a performer or edified in the experience, there is this possibility that you’re going to leave better than you got there.

Q: Was there a connection to any album that helped inspire certain methods you employed?

A: There’s all kinds of imagery that comes to mind when I think of an album like this now. Can we talk about The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill? Because I have never stopped listening to that album. I’ve always wanted to pay homage to that album. I feel like, in some respects, if I had to pinpoint anything that influenced me, it would be that little microcosm of perfection.

Q: Many see you as a symbol of great change with regard to Canadian opera. Have there been adversarial forces that tried to prevent you from getting to where you are now?

A: Well, I read nothing. I watch nothing. I haven’t even seen myself in the opening ceremonies of the Vancouver Olympics. I don’t look back. I don’t allow myself to be influenced by people who don’t know me. I’m incredibly thin-skinned. When you wander through this life as an exposed nerve, you have to make sure you remain insulated to a certain extent. Canada’s Got Talent? [She was a judge on the 2012 show.] I was truly feeling it because I wanted to know more about this country. Spirituals? You can’t get a repertoire much closer to my heart that still allows me to be who I am as an artist. It allows me to utilize my full range and aesthetic.

Q: Do you see your career as something that has created change?

A: I can’t speak to being a force for change, but I take it and wear it proudly. I’ll never deny it or be one of those people who are like, “I’m just trying to do my best…” No! I’m all about total world domination.

Q: Yet the opera world is famous for its exclusivity. Only certain types of people are allowed into the inner circles of this art. How did you penetrate those circles?

A: First of all, I’m good. That helps. It helps that I sing well and show up with the Mozart and the right repertoire. Then it takes them a minute to realize, “Wait. In addition to all that, she also happens to have this seedy underbelly that she’s willing to expose for the hell of it.” If the piece calls for it, I’ll do it.

Q: What is an example of you exposing this seedy underbelly?

A: In this Hoffmann production, I’m blessed to work with Johannes Erath. At one point, he was like, “I feel like you could sing this portion of the aria down an octave to create this sultry vibe. You’re in the cabaret as a courtesan courting Hoffmann.” I’m like, “That’s totally cool.” You could probably hear the collective gasps of the opera world at the very suggestion of having a microphone onstage. He was pushing the envelope.

Q: What gives you the confidence to go about against some of opera’s extremely conservative ideals?

A: As I get older and more secure in what I have to offer, I end up orbiting the planet of great artists like Johannes Erath. There’s also Michael Tilson Thomas, who’s always asking himself, “What is classical music?” These people have landed on top of the heap. You don’t just become the conductor of the L.A. Phil or London Phil. You don’t just happen to be the new director of a production at the Dresden opera. I am the girl they call who will go through the process of discovery with them and also be well-sung.

Q: Words such as “diva” and “prima donna” get thrown around ad nauseam in popular culture. Care to define what they represent to you?

A: A prima donna is someone who makes the process all about them. That’s no way to work in a team. I’m a team player and always have been. I wasn’t ever good at team sports because I’m a soloist through and through. I pray to be the best thing ever but I also pray that for my colleagues. You’re only as good as the person who can distract from what’s meant to be happening. That distraction can be in the form of bad singing or bad collegial behaviour. I’ve always hid behind the music despite the fact that I have a huge personality. I’m thrilled that the music is bigger than me and will outlive and outlast me. It frees me up to take risks. I was raised to love before all else and I’ve been loved beyond my wildest expectations.

Q: We are nearing Black History Month. Did you feel, as you were making your documentary, that you had a responsibility to educate?

A: I really started doing that film for my dad. He was raised in such poverty and had no education. His parents were both dead by the time he was 13 so he had to go to work to take care of himself. He had this fire in the belly, or kernel of strength, that radiates to this day. What a hard life! I wanted to be part of a process that would show him that we came from really tough stuff. In some respects, I was resistant. I haven’t watched the doc from start to finish but my family has and they loved it. I just know if I watch something this epic, it might affect my decisions moving forward. Maybe if I’m in palliative care at the end of my life and I have time to relive all of the things that happened.

Q: That idea sounds like it would actually make for a great dramatic play.

A: At the end, I just want to be counting the bodies and the receipts, do you know what I mean? I want to have a minute to do that. I’m not pushing myself forward in denial of the moment. I’m pushing myself forward and enjoying every moment voraciously. I’m thinking about the next thing but not at the expense of the present.

Q: Did featuring your family in this project create any issues or problems in the filming of it?

A: Yes, but I got to know [documentary film director] Barbara Willis Sweete and her incredible filmmaking ability. I know how close we came and the conflicts we had. I had a fight with my own self because I was so protective of my family. I was so protective of our home. I knew I had to give them all access but at some point in the process I also understood that the part of me—the best part—is inaccessible. It’s untouchable. There was a real depth and profundity to the process for me. It was humbling because I didn’t know it would mean so much.

Q: In terms of the most surprising discovery in Cameroon, what would you say that would be?

A: When [Bassa tribe leader] Mbombog cleansed me of the otherness in order to bring my Bassa-ness to the fore. That, to me, was incredibly powerful because they took for granted that I was a sister stolen from the family who had returned. It wasn’t even a question of being as stranger. They thought, “We just need to clean her of the impurities of injustice and bring her home.” That broke my heart a million times. My son being able to watch this unfold was huge for me. Also: I’m a singer with a capital S. I know every note on this album is what it’s supposed to be. I would go back and change nothing. That’s never happened before.

Q: Joni Mitchell says she’s constantly disappointed with her art. Is it the same for you? Does the disappointment drive you to be a better artist or communicator?

A: God love her, but no. I feel like I go from strength to strength. What exists in between is the stuff that makes it worth it. I don’t know what a triumph is unless I know what a failure is. I welcome both in equal measure because I know they’re both temporary anyway. I know they’re both unavoidable anyway.

Q: The definition of spirituals in your notes is interesting. You describe them as a person, a woman, writing things like “she is our ally and the mother of our enemy.” Why?

A: Sometimes we depersonalize people who we don’t agree with or who we see as targets for hatred. If you think of anything as having a mother, that’s going to change everything. All of us have mothers and came from a womb. Buddha says you can’t hate anything you understand. It brings tears to my eyes to think of how all slaves had to cling to was “Go Down, Moses.” That was their only comfort in some circumstances…as they were being whipped, singing, “Wade in the Water.”

Q: Annie Lennox told me she felt some flack for doing a cover of “Strange Fruit.” Do you think some of this reaction or criticism was valid?

A: People feel that you’ll never be able to recreate the birthplace of a song that has, at its core, the hardship of a people. Unless you underwent the respect that it takes to appropriate those songs through a ritual, then perhaps you should think twice before simply picking them up. That’s not the case with “Strange Fruit.” That’s not the case with music in the public domain, as far as I’m concerned. Annie Lennox’s situation has happened before. I don’t judge a cover based on whether or not somebody has earned the right through a certain repertoire. I judge it based on the execution of the product. That still comes down to my own personal taste. People will always have something to say. People will always feel legitimized by politics. It’s a divider; let’s not forget that.

Q: So many critics have tagged Lennox as a “white soul singer,” which has frustrated her. Have you had similar experiences?

A: Yes. People are fooled by the colour of my skin. I grew up on the north side of Fredericton in a Celtic culture with an Acadian choir. Don’t let the black fool you. I’m actually quite white. When people give me permission to do anything, I simply say, “I would have taken it anyway, but I appreciate you thinking I care what you think.” I don’t do it with a sense of belligerence. I really do mean well.

Q: The monologues between the track on Songs of Freedom are as moving as the songs. What drove you to choose the ones that made the cut?

A: I picked ones that signified a journey and a connection for different audiences. Modern-day slavery exists. It’s not just a black thing. There are people held against their will and forced into work. Whether or not it’s an economic slavery or actual human ownership, it still keeps people from the freedoms that they deserve. I wanted to reveal not only the multiple layers in generational perspectives of my story, but also the fact that we’re all enslaved by something. Often the most specific stories end up being the most universal. I wanted for the people that spoke most to me—especially in French when we got to Cameroon—to be represented.

Q: Maria Callas thought it was important for people around her to respect her experience at all times and didn’t care if that would affect friendships she had at work. Does that type of aggressive behaviour toward co-workers help or hinder a production?

A: Frankly, no. I’m not even the best woman around but I do know I’m the one people will remember. My social game will always be more important than my professional game. As I get older, my truest successes are in the marriage of the two. My business is also my pleasure. Maria’s my jam. I don’t think we’ve had as balls-to-the-wall of a singer as that woman. She left blood on the dance floor every single time. I want that element of risk in my artistic life, but I don’t want it in my personal life. I don’t need to live my art and almost die to understand my heroines. I want to love my sons, live quietly, eat good food, have meaningful friendships in and out of work and have a very large wine collection.

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