Maureen Batt: This Storyteller Means Business

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This page is also available in / Cette page est également disponible en: Francais (French)

“I’m always interested in what makes a ­storyteller a good storyteller,” says soprano Maureen Batt. “Whether we’re singing one vowel, one poem, or a whole role, there are stories to be told!”

Maureen Batt has been telling musical ­stories professionally for the past 10 years, both through her new-works-oriented ­company, “Essential Opera” (co-founded with ­soprano Erin Bardua), and through her ­international recital series “Crossing Borders,” which has toured Canada, the United States and Colombia, and recently generated a new album, Breathing in the Shadows, for which Batt sings works by Iranian-Canadian ­composer Saman Shahi.

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Fireside Chat

“I really hate the elitism around classical music and classical singing,” says Batt, intent on ­supplanting any aura of sterility or formality clinging to the art form. “You’re trying so hard to get everything so perfect, but that’s not the point at all.”

Instead, to epitomize what she believes vocal performance at its best can and should be, for singer and listener alike, Batt makes ­recourse to a novel and arresting image.

“Like guitar around a campfire,” she says. It seems to conjure the time-shrouded wellsprings of Western epic – the sagas sung by ancient Norse skalds, Greek aoidoi or Celtic bards.

(Interestingly, Batt’s debut album, Lady of the Lake, includes a recording of Schubert’s entire Opus 52, based on an epic by Sir Walter Scott. Batt’s ravishing rendition of Schubert’s famed “Ave Maria” (“Ellens dritter Gesang”) is a highlight.)

Back to School

Batt’s academic preparation is impressive, with a degree in languages from St. Thomas University (Fredericton, New Brunswick); a music baccalaureate from Dalhousie ­University (Halifax); and a master’s degree from the University of Toronto. But none of that necessarily anticipated Batt’s current – and unique – career as a vocal entrepreneur.

“When you get out of school,” says Batt, “it’s, ‘Well, I am a soprano, and there are 5 million of me auditioning for the very same role.’ You can either wait around for something to fall into your lap, or start planning things.”

Batt started planning things – and started realizing all the additional skills she’d have to ramp up to accomplish them.

“You don’t go to school thinking, ‘Can somebody talk to me about sole proprietorship businesses? Can somebody teach me how to grant-write?’”

Batt taught herself. And, some 10 years on from the completion of her formal training, she has a recording relationship with Leaf Music, numerous original opera and song commissions to her company’s credit, and an impressively varied roster of current and ­future projects in tow as well.

“It’s really important to think about our work as a business,” Batt says of professional singers generally. “Some people are really turned off by thinking that way, but I think it’s really necessary.”

Body of Work

Batt’s prowess as a singing storyteller is on full display in “Mirror, Mirror,” one of Essential Opera’s recently completed projects. A film version of a mini-opera by Ukraine-born Canadian composer-librettist Anna Pidgorna, the work is a provocative “feminist” riff on the Snow White story, with Batt portraying the free-spirited and selfie-obsessed heroine pitted against Bardua’s villainous if maternally conflicted Queen.

Slyly subversive, the film proves to be a monitory vocal and visual tone poem turning on themes of envy, vanity and self-absorption, with Batt evincing not only impressive feats of vocal acrobatics, but a performance of freewheeling and imaginative physical plasticity, capering on a beach, luxuriating in a sensual application of cosmetics, and gazing appreciatively at herself in her own cellphone camera.

“Mirror, Mirror” is intelligent and challenging musical fun – but it also seems to echo issues of serious interest for Batt, such as the pitfalls of diva-esque delusions and the ­expectations of female glamour promulgated by much of the classical music establishment.

“I could go on for too many hours about people policing women’s bodies and appearances,” Batt says. “I think glamour’s really fun, but I don’t feel like I have to subscribe to ­anything. I’m comfortable in my body. I’m comfortable embodying a character, embodying a word or a color or a shape. A beautiful sound isn’t enough for me.”

I Grant You

Despite COVID-19, 2020 seems to have proven an unexpectedly productive watershed for Batt’s pursuits.

“I started the pandemic writing 14 grant ­applications for different album projects and recordings,” Batt explains. “And I got a whole bunch of those, which never happens.”

Among the work for which Batt has realized funding are “December,” the premiere recording of a new short opera by Monica Pearce in which Batt portrays the hilariously officious if maddeningly unhelpful voice of a recorded customer assistance phone line; “Aunt Helen,” another short opera by Pearce in which Batt becomes the voice of celebrated Canadian folksong preservationist Dr. Helen Creighton; and the highly poignant and personal “Dear Ashley,” a song cycle composed by Toronto-based Greg Harrison (aka grej) with text ­derived from journals by Batt’s brother-in-law in which he reflects on the life and early loss of his own young wife to cancer.

Marshmallows for Amadeus

“I love the Western classical European canon,” Batt says, “but I’m interested in commissioning works by living people.” Then, with a note of mischief, she adds, “Imagine if we could call Mozart on the phone!”

Delicious images of that guitar-and-­campfire idyll rise: Mozart beguiled by Batt’s equal measures of artistic blandishment and solid business sense. The grant application practically writes itself.

This page is also available in / Cette page est également disponible en: Francais (French)


About Author

Charles Geyer is a director, producer, composer, playwright, actor, singer, and freelance writer based in New York City. He directed the Evelyn La Quaif Norma for Verismo Opera Association of New Jersey, and the New York premiere of Ray Bradbury’s opera adaptation of Fahrenheit 451. His cabaret musical on the life of silent screen siren Louise Brooks played to acclaim in L.A. He has appeared on Broadway, off-Broadway and regionally. He is an alum of the Commercial Theatre Institute and was on the board of the American National Theatre. He is a graduate of Yale University and attended Harvard's Institute for Advanced Theatre Training. He can be contacted here.

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