Music Issue: Flexing vocal beauty, strength on stage

Editor’s note: As the Juno Awards 2013 prepare to celebrate the best of Canadian music this weekend, Western Journalism students help us celebrate the best in Western Music. Read the full Music Issue.

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In the quiet halls of the Don Wright Faculty of Music building, a female soprano voice reaches for the high notes. A piano accompanies the singer and each time it pauses, a second, stronger voice shows how it should be done. Then the other tries again.

Inside room 302b, Christiane Riel, almost hidden from view, is on the piano. She’s in the middle of a lesson with one of her master’s students.

An accomplished singer-actress, Montreal-born Riel has been a performer for more than 30 years and opera voice teacher at Western for three. Recognized for the beauty and strength of her voice, the soprano has performed with companies such as West Australia Opera and the Boston Symphony Orchestra throughout Canada, the United States and Australia. Her repertoire includes demanding roles in Don Giovanni, Otello and the title role in Tosca.

Riel was born into a musical family and her earliest memory of being moved by music is from when she was 3-years-old, she said.

“My dad’s at the piano and my mom’s singing an excerpt from La forza del destino by Verdi. And it’s very, very dramatic.” Remembering that moment, Riel suddenly bursts into song: “Ma chi giunge? Chi profanare ardisce il sacro loco?

As she sang with gusto what she had heard from her mother all those years ago, her powerful voice, rising and falling with precision, filled the small room. “Maledizione! Maledizione! Maledizione!

“It was so overwhelming that at one point I started sobbing and hid under an ashtray table.”

As she got older, Riel grew to further appreciate music.

To be an accomplished musician requires three things: natural gift, total devotion and luck, Riel said. Possessing the first two, she has also been lucky in having met great people that have helped her along the way. One of them was her first music teacher, Lina Narducci.

“I don’t remember exactly everything she taught me technically, but I remember her passion.”

And Riel is now passing that passion onto her students.

Erin Stone, 29, said Riel was her inspiration to apply to the master’s program. During her undergrad, Stone went to one of Riel’s concerts at Western to see her perform the lead role in Tosca. She was so impressed when she learned Riel would be teaching here, she decided to apply.

“She’s one of the most influential people I’ve ever met. And it would be an understatement to say she’s changed my life,” Stone said.

Stone graduated this year with a master’s in music, specializing in voice, and had her core classes with Riel. She said the reason Riel is successful as a performer is completely reflected in her teaching: she’s never satisfied with anything.

Even today when she sings, Stone said she can hear Riel’s voice in her head instructing her. “She’s a teacher for me for life, for sure.”

Remembering her first teacher Riel said, “I want to do for my students what Madame Narducci did for me.”

The essence of what she learned from Narducci, Riel expressed in a French saying: “Le savoir-faire, le savoir-vivre et le savoir être.” It means, “The knowledge to do it, live it and be it.”

She reminds her students music requires dedication and they must love every aspect of it in order to succeed. A quote, which she heard from her husband, says it best: “You’ve to be born an artist to be able to endure its labour.”