A Canadian in Paris

The latest Rosina in Scottish Opera’s popular Barber of Seville has been winning hearts at every performance. Simone McIntosh talks to Keith Bruce.

Scottish Opera’s revival of Sir Thomas Allen’s debut production for the company – beginning what has proved a fruitful relationship with the veteran baritone-turned-director – has won unanimous plaudits.

Revisiting his staging of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville for the second time, Allen has honed the comedic detail to perfection, with a dazzling repertoire of sight gags involving everyone on stage, and perfectly-timed delivery of the witty translation by Amanda Holden. The casting is as strong as has become almost commonplace from the company, and particular praise has been heaped upon the vivacious Rosina of Canadian mezzo Simone McIntosh.

Elsewhere on VoxCarnyx you can read Ken Walton’s review of the opening show. “She commands every scene she inhabits,” he wrote, commending “a vocal performance capable of assimilating virtuosic agility with lyrical enchantment.” Opera magazine’s Andrew Clark described her as “a classy, confident comedienne with a strong top voice, a rich lower register and an evenness in between.”

In the gap between the opening run at Glasgow’s Theatre Royal and the ongoing performances at the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh, McIntosh and her Quebecois partner were moving home, from Zurich, where she was a member of the Opernhaus Zurich Studio until earlier this year, to Paris. She still found a few minutes to tell VoxCarnyx about her career so far.

Although her biography describes her as Swiss-Canadian and she has both passports, McIntosh says she is “fully culturally Canadian.”

“I’m from Vancouver, which is a really beautiful city surrounded by lots of lovely scenery – although I didn’t realise that until I moved away! As a child I was keen on sport, but when I was ten my parents put me in choir and Saturday practice was what brought me the most joy. Near the end of high school I realised that I really liked singing and I really liked acting, but I didn’t really know what I wanted to do.

“I liked both jazz and classical, and while music theatre was on the table, it wasn’t something that I was really drawn to. Opera, which combined singing and acting, seemed like a good path at university.

“I did my undergrad in Vancouver and then auditioned for several places. McGill in Montreal was the only one that accepted me, but for me it was a perfect fit.”

In particular that meant finding the teacher with whom she still studies, and to whom she turns for advice on everything from repertoire to dealing with hay-fever.

“I found a lot of my artistic expression through the teachers that were there, but I also found the teacher that I go back to frequently, Dominique Labelle. She has had a full career herself with European tours and has faced all the challenges singers have to deal with on a day-to-day basis, so I am in touch with her regularly for practical advice.”

From McGill, McIntosh went to the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble Studio for a year and a half before a summer school led to a place on San Francisco Opera’s Adler Fellowship programme. That was a fortuitous place for a young singer to find herself during the Covid pandemic, when work for singers was hard to find.

“It was atypical, but because of Covid I was there for three years. After that I went to the Zurich Opera Studio, which was an opportunity to understand the Swiss side of me.”

But what of the Scottish side of the Swiss-Canadian? That surname certainly suggests Scots heritage.

The mezzo says her family has to go back eight generations to find someone who emigrated from Scotland to Canada, but that hasn’t stopped them taking pride in their roots.

“My grandfather was very proudly Scottish. He wore the kilt and loved bagpipe music, and honoured and cherished that part of his background. I know the family came from around Inverness so when we tour there, my aunt is coming over from Canada and she and I plan to do a clan tour.”

As well as her succession of studio placements with opera houses as a young artist, competitions have played an important role in McIntosh’s early career. It was the Concours de Montreal, where Thomas Allen was a judge, and which she won, that led to her being recommended to Scottish Opera. She was also a finalist for the Song Prize at the most recent BBC Cardiff Singer of the World, where she represented Canada.

“Throughout my life I’ve had these goals that are important, whether I hit them or not. The Montreal competition had been one of my goals since I learned what it was. It was a dream experience.

“Cardiff Singer of the World was a little more intense. I enjoyed the competition and the organisation of it – they were really lovely people – but the extra bit of pressure gave me a lot more nerves than in my home country.”

Nonetheless, McIntosh exudes the confidence of someone who knows where she is going. Guarded about her personal life, she is clear about her professional direction. As Allen told VoxCarnyx before Barber opened, after she was cast as Rosina, she expressed misgivings about the decision to switch to English for this revival.

“I could see that if we did it in English it might have better results with a mostly native-English speaking cast performing in an English-speaking country. There’s an immediacy there. And it is much more fun – how it changes every night.

“But some translations seem kitschy and not as effective as the original. It was only after we had our conversation that he sent me this translation and I thought it was very effective.”

She also arrived at the voice she uses and the roles she now wants after a journey that involved making decisions.

“I was a soprano at one point, but I really liked doing mezzo stuff and for a number of years I was in between and I didn’t know what to call myself. I had the option of training as a soprano or training as a mezzo and I ended up going to the mezzo side and I’m very grateful for that.

“I have always had the range, but the older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve been able to access the low. But the top has always been there.

“In terms of repertoire, my bread and butter is always Mozart, Handel, Rossini, a little bit of French music – I love Berlioz. I also quite like singing in Czech because there are a lot of consonants and it is very expressive.

“The things that I’m doing right now are good, but I’d like to be doing more bel canto roles. I’d like to do more Rossini opera seria, and the roles he wrote for Isabella Colbran. She had exactly the voice type that I have and could sing a lot of coloratura but also had that bel canto line.”

As for forsaking her homeland to be based in Europe, McIntosh has no doubts.

“In general a lot of the work is in Europe. I felt that in North America there would be a limit to how far I could go. And since I’ve been here, the artistic vision is much more aligned with what I hope to achieve. It feels like a really good fit, it’s so diverse and I really enjoy that breadth of work.”

Scottish Opera’s The Barber of Seville is currently at Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre and tours to Eden Court, Inverness (November 16 & 18) and His Majesty’s, Aberdeen (November 23 & 25).

Pictures: Simone McIntosh as Rosina by James Glossop and at BBC Cardiff Singer of the World by Kirsten McTernan