When you hear the word “soprano,” what comes to mind is often a larger-than-life, dramatic voice in the higher register, passionately conveying love and heartbreak in the world’s greatest operas.
But Nancy Washeim’s light, resoundingly clear soprano voice delivers that same passion through early music, not mainstream dramatic opera scores. An early music specialist with a Master’s Degree from McGill, Nancy’s preferred realm is that of the oratorio. “I have a lighter voice, which lends itself to early music,” Nancy explains. “Music from the Baroque period [1600-1760] really speaks to me and fits with me vocally.”
Nancy will be appearing in the Sooke Philharmonic Orchestra (SPO) and Chorus’ Season’s Greetings concert, December 3 and 4, which will feature the Sooke resident in two Baroque pieces: Part 1 of Handel’s Messiah and Bach’s “Flosst mein Heiland” (Christmas Oratorio). The orchestra will also perform Haydn’s Toy Symphony, Vaughan Williams’ Fantasias on Christmas Carols and Greensleeves, as well as other songs and carols.
Oratorios, the most famous of which is the Messiah, don’t include a cast of characters or staging in the way traditional opera, like musical theatre, does. Written primarily to communicate sacred texts through music, oratorios feature a chorus, often representing the people as in Greek theatre, and soloists who take on different roles in the storytelling. “At one point, I’m an angel, then I’m a narrator,” Nancy explains. “The Messiah is a cast of many different characters; I’m just one of a number of people telling a story,” she says. “You’ll even hear the orchestra being sheep!”
Having performed the Messiah many times, first in her youth as a choir member, and again in recent years as the soprano soloist (including last year with the SPO), Nancy knows the music inside out, has spent years exploring the phrasing, ornamentation, and meaning and crafting beautiful, expressive lines. “Even though I’ve sung the Messiah many times, there are so many layers to discover. As I continue to learn more about my voice, I bring something new to the piece.” She laughs, a gentle, musical laugh: “I joke with [SPO conductor Norman Nelson,] that every year [I sing the Messiah] he gets a new soprano because I sing it differently every time, as I apply the new things I’ve learned over the year!”
Coincidentally, Nancy studied for her Bachelor of Music at the University of Alberta at the same time Norman taught there. “I didn’t get the opportunity to work with him while I was at university, but I worked with the orchestra he conducted, the Academy Strings,” Nancy remembers. “I like watching him work, how he conducts, how he works with the orchestra. He has a vision, but he is also open to new ideas and collaboration.”
Nancy also appreciates Norman’s support of local talent, both by giving her repeated opportunities to sing with SPO and by inviting young musicians to perform with the orchestra. “Two of the students from my studio will be singing the echo part in a Bach Christmas Oratorio aria in this concert. That’s really exciting for a young singer. I didn’t have the chance to sing with an orchestra until I was in university.”
While Nancy’s start singing with an orchestra may have been delayed, she is certainly making up for lost time. In addition to performing with Sooke this December, she is also appearing in Respighi’s Laud to the Nativity with the Victoria Choral Society, and in May she will sing Bach’s Non sa che sia dolore with the Victoria Baroque Players. In February, she will perform Handel’s Dixit Dominus and Haydn’s Lord Nelson Mass with the Okanagan Festival Singers. The choir’s Music Director saw a YouTube video of Nancy performing Dixit Dominus, and he was so enchanted with her voice and performance, he invited her to travel to Kelowna to perform with them!
But not to worry, Nancy won’t get swept away from Sooke; she insists she has a fondness for the SPO that guarantees her loyalty to the orchestra. “I love singing with the Sooke Philharmonic Orchestra, and I will always gladly say ‘yes’ to work with Norman.”
And what does she hope for this concert? “There are a lot of things that resonate very deeply with me in the Messiah. I look at it as a platform to go out and do my very best. I hope the audience is moved in some way, touched in some way. I hope that it affects them, and changes them, and moves them. I hope they walk away with joy.”