By HOLLY HARRIS
Four short years ago, Winnipeg-based lyric colouratura soprano Lara Secord-Haid, 28, had just graduated from New York City’s prestigious The Juilliard School, a song in her heart as she embarked on establishing an international opera career.
Fast forward to now, and the rising star has become a singer of note, with future performances planned for Austria, Russia and Korea, in addition to a rigorous, 15-city tour of China completed last October, and her second role with Manitoba Opera slated for this spring.
“Obviously, these are incredible opportunities that I didn’t have until very recently, so it’s pretty special,” the gracious singer, and only child of Winnipeg entrepreneur/philanthropist Elba Haid - with Lara’s name inspired by her mother’s own legendary great-grandmother, Laura Secord - and late architect Marshall Haid, says over tea. “I’ve had some time off between each project to prepare and get a few roles under my belt, which I’m so grateful for. I’m ready for all these great things that are happening.”
A graduate of Joseph Wolinsky Collegiate, Secord-Haid began voice lessons at age 12 with (then) Manitoba Conservatory of Music and Arts’ Diane Berger. Her innate musical talent and crystal-clear voice quickly earned recognition and accolades, including the 2005 Silver Medal for her Royal Conservatory of Music Grade Seven singing exam, as well as the Winnipeg Music Festival’s Alma Wynn Memorial Trophy the following year.
She graduated from Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music in 2011, where she studied with Lorraine Nubar, before furthering her vocal training with Saskatoon-born coach Edith Wiens at Juilliard, where she graduated with a Master of Music degree in 2013.
One of her recent successes includes garnering First Prize for Canadian singers, chosen out of 18 North American finalists at the 46th annual George London Foundation Awards competition held this month in New York City. Named for its Jewish, Montreal-born founder George London - hence, a special prize given to a Canadian each year – and founded by his devoted wife Nora, the notable win promises to open even more doors for the gifted artist, in addition to a career-boosting cash prize of $10K (USD).
“I certainly didn’t expect it. It was a thrilling surprise, but I feel so honoured to be a recipient of this prestigious award, and I’m hugely grateful to Nora London for her tireless work in the name of her late husband’s tremendous legacy,” Secord-Haid states eloquently.
She was also named a laureate of the 2015 Jeune Ambassadeur Lyrique (JAL) national audition hosted by Montreal’s Théâtre Lyrichorégra 20, that led to a solo concert performance in the creative arts hub of San Miguel, Mexico last January, as well as her Chinese fall tour. The annual competition, founded in 1976 by tenor Alain Nonat, offers international training programs and performance opportunities for emerging Canadian opera singers age 18-35, who are able to gain invaluable experience and cut their musical teeth both here and abroad.
“It was intense! We travelled every day by plane and performed 21 concerts over four weeks, and often five shows back to back without a day off,” Secord-Haid recounts of her whirlwind Asian tour - and first time to China - where she performed works by Verdi, Bellini, Donizetti, Mozart, Gounod, Offenbach, Delibes, joined by mezzo-soprano Kristin Hoff, baritone Pablo Aranday and pianist Jérémie Pelletier. “But artistically it was incredibly rewarding, including getting to share music with these very enthusiastic audiences that were often composed of children.”
The experience also impacted her in other ways. Immediately following her four-week Chinese tour, Secord-Haid flew directly to Montreal to perform in this year’s JAL competition. Facing gruelling pressure of performing four high-profile concerts for a panel of 15 European and North American directors, Secord-Haid’s topsy-turvy jet-lag resulting from a 12-hour time zone difference, plus sheer physical exhaustion from the tour itself forced her to be completely in the moment, without being able to succumb to any natural stage fright. She simply felt too fatigued to experience performance jitters and sang with utter freedom, her two-plus octave voice soaring to new heights.
It did the trick. Once again, Secord-Haid achieved first place standing with her three prize package bursaries including future engagements with Austrian opera company Landestheater Linz, concert recitals at the Jeonju International Sori Festival in Korea, and potentially a multi-city tour of Russia, with details still being hammered out.
“The whole week of the competition, I was a total zombie,” Secord-Haid recalls with a laugh. “But the interesting thing about that is that it forces you to just accept, ‘This is what I have today.’ There was no time to think back on a particular performance; you had to just focus on the next one and make sure the words were on the tip of your tongue. I didn’t have energy to over-analyze my performance - I just did it.”
Berger sings praises for Secord-Haid, who began studying with her revered mentor as she prepared for her Bat Mitzvah at Shaarey Zedek Synagogue, and still works with her whenever she’s in town.
“I can’t even think of the words,” the veteran vocal coach enthuses when asked how proud she is of her protégé. “Lara is just so amazing, but as a person too. She’s just so lovely and thoughtful and caring. That all comes out in her music, as well. She’s so genuine. And Lara is really hitting her stride with all these successes.”
Secord-Haid performed her first major role in August 2013 as “Donna Elvira” during The Banff Centre/ Vancouver Opera’s co-production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, a propos her effervescent portrayal of “Giulia” in Juilliard Opera’s 2012 production of La Scala di Seta, lauded by The New York Times for its “flinty acuity.” She marked her MO debut as “Marzelline” during its 2014 production of Beethoven’s Fidelio, wowing audiences with her charismatic stage presence and compelling vocals.
She’ll next be appearing as “Sophie” during MO’s upcoming Werther that opens April 29th at the Centennial Concert Hall. She plays younger sister to Jewish Canadian mezzo-soprano Lauren Segal’s “Charlotte,” who also performed in the company’s season-opener of Verdi’s “Falstaff.”
“Sophie is just starting to see the world with the tint of adult eyes,” Secord-Haid reveals of her youthful character, who helps takes care of her siblings after losing their mother. “And Massenet’s music is just delicious. There are certain sections of “Werther” that are among my favourite moments in opera.”
MO General Director and CEO Larry Desrochers has had his eye on the soprano for the last several years. “I think she’ll do really well as Sophie. She has a girlish quality that’s just right for the character, and we are delighted to have her in the company,” he states in an email. “This is another good opportunity for Lara to continue her growth as an artist, build her stage experience and continue to develop her craft.”
The opera world can be notoriously fickle, demanding that its dedicated artists develop rawhide-thick skins, while paradoxically expressing the most vulnerable frailties of the human condition. In addition to nurturing super-human voices able to project over an entire orchestra, singers must equally hone all-important life skills to stay grounded, and weather whatever storms may come their way.
A dedicated yoga practitioner for the past nine years, Secord-Haid completed an intensive four-week teacher training at a local yoga studio last summer. She is now a certified Ashtanga yoga instructor, meditates regularly, as well as practices her poses daily. She also relishes spending quality fur time with her floppy-eared rabbit Savanah, which she adopted in the Big Apple, as well as cooking gourmet meals whenever possible. Her even deeper commitment to her craft, insight, and unwavering focus is palpable since I last interviewed her for the Jewish Post and News in March 2013.
“I think the transition from student to artist is very important, because in school we’re always trying to be correct, and sing our arias in the ‘right’ way,” Secord-Haid muses on her own artistic trajectory and burgeoning opera career – thus far. “It took me a long time to realize that there’s no one correct approach, which ultimately becomes freeing, but also more difficult as it demands that you ‘interpret,’ rather trying to find ‘the answer.’ There just isn’t one,” she adds. “That’s been the biggest shift for me; trying to honour my work and figuring out what my interpretation sounds like. I’m now taking ownership of my art.”
Holly Harris has been a classical music/opera/dance critic and columnist for the Winnipeg Free Press since 2004, and is a contributing writer for Opera Canada, among others.