Rock on, gypsy woman!
Call it an impulse, a tick or an obsession, but Julie Nesrallah says she must sing Carmen at least three times a year, even if it’s in the middle of her own flat (lucky neighbours). “It has to come out,” says the mezzo-soprano, CAI’s Canadian Arab to Watch this month.
Julie has sung for Prince William and Kate, Dutchess of Cambridge, and Queen Noor of Jordan; she has been called “inspired,” “riveting,” and “infectious” in Canada’s top publications; and has hosted CBC’s classical music radio program, Tempo, for six seasons.
But Julie doesn’t quite fit the opera singer stereotype. One media profile refers fondly to her affinity for cursing. She says music is a blue-collar job. She talks about the classical music model being broken, performs in small venues in her Carmen on Tap to counter opera’s snobbery and expense (“that’s not how it’s supposed to go”), and aims to take her show to Las Vegas.
Though Julie’s parents moved to Canada when she was a child, her upbringing in Ottawa was “very Lebanese,” surrounded by a large family, close cousins, and “a lot of tabouleh.”
She remembers clearly the moment she understood her life’s calling. “I was sitting on the couch with my mom one night, watching people perform on an awards show, and on some really fundamental level, just knowing that I was one of them. I’m one of you guys.” She was four years old. At that time, she didn’t know what form it would take but the lure was “definitely, definitely,” being on stage. She calls that intuition “part of the magic of being alive.”
Early on, a teacher recognized she had a big strong voice. And so it was that she was cast in an Ottawa opera production.
Her talent may have started young, but that was no guarantee of smooth sailing within the insecure and competitive world of opera. Though many of her trained peers would not ultimately get work in opera, Julie says she never had a Plan B. “I could never come up with anything. In a lot of ways that was a blessing, because it really kept me going at points that were … extraordinarily challenging…. I didn’t want to do anything else.”
The greatest challenge occurred after 9/11 due to dwindling opportunities in the arts. Things were tight for six years and even an award-winning, charismatic singer like Julie Nesrallah can begin to worry. “The world was not your oyster anymore.”
That was when – “right on schedule” – CBC approached Julie about hosting her own show. For a confident outgoing extrovert like her, performing on stage comes naturally. It was radio that caused her to fear, doubt and feel anxious.
Radio has affected her profoundly. In many ways, radio is the opposite of opera. Where everything is big in one world, she explains, everything is small in the other. Where the stage forces a performer to hide oneself, radio is very intimate. While the prospect was “terrifying,” it has been good for self-esteem. “Whatever you’re saying is just as good and valid as the next guy.… It teaches you about yourself and that you are fundamentally allowed to express an opinion about something and share it.… How do you know who you are if you can’t do that?”
A 1997 McGill profile quotes Julie's professor describing “the strongest work ethic that I have encountered in my experience as a teacher.” Julie says the article rings as fresh as ever but also attributes her success to tenacity, “and so much hope.” “Hope tempers ruthless ambition.... Hope means a different thing. It’s drive but it’s almost because you can’t help it.”
And what of her own hopes at this point? For one, she dreams of taking Carmen on Tap from east (Dubai) to west (San Francisco). She also aspires to sing at the Met and in Baalbek, Lebanon, which she concedes would open up the flood-gates for her.
Finally, Julie maintains that she dreams of being the first opera singer to grace Rolling Stone’s cover. The headline?
"Rogue diva takes Las Vegas by storm,
Rock on, gypsy woman!"