The Opera Canada Awards—‘The Rubies’ makes a return to ‘live’ on November 15, 2021. Click here for more details to secure your ticket to this wonderful celebration of Canadian opera talent.
2021 Rubies honouree, Canadian/American soprano Erin Wall (1975-2020) enjoyed an illustrious, 19-year international career, sadly cut short when she passed away in her prime, at the much-too-young age of 44 in October 2020. Erin graced the cover of our Winter 2020 issue in which we paid tribute to her incredible artistry.
Sincerity. Simplicity. Authenticity. Honesty. All precious qualities to have in a performer. And when these are combined with a luminous voice, uncommon musicality, strong dramatic instinct, and a lovely stage persona, you have the makings of a treasured artist. These qualities defined soprano Erin Wall, the singer and the person.
With her passing from metastatic breast cancer in 2020, we lost one of the brightest stars in the operatic firmament. Wall left this world at the young age of 44, at the height of her artistic powers. News of her death brought forth an outpouring of grief and sadness in the music world, underscoring how beloved she was. Opera is full of tragic heroines who die young, but when it’s no longer make-believe, the passing is all the more poignant.
Born in Calgary to American musician-parents, Wall grew up in Vancouver, studying piano and flute, before starting voice lessons. It was when she studied at Marilyn Horne’s Music Academy of the West that Wall caught the attention of Matthew Epstein, a legendary impresario and artist manager with a sharp eye for talent: “When I heard her the first time, she told me she couldn’t sing as she was suffering from allergies. But I convinced her to sing. She was in spectacular voice!” Epstein brought her to Chicago Lyric Opera’s Ryan Center, the company’s young artist program. He was instrumental in her career development.
It was at the Ryan Center that Wall met Lyric Opera’s then music director and principal conductor Sir Andrew Davis. “I remember her audition very well,” Sir Andrew recalls: “I was blown away by the beauty of her sound. She joined the program and studied with my wife [soprano Gianna Rolandi].” The proverbial big break came when Wall stepped in on short notice as Donna Anna for an indisposed Karita Mattila at the Lyric’s opening night Don Giovanni. “It was a huge hit; everyone was raving and the critics went crazy!” says Sir Andrew.
In July 2002, Wall made her British debut in Britten’s War Requiem at St Paul’s Cathedral with Sir Andrew, a work they performed many times subsequently. He recalls a particularly emotional performance in Amsterdam in 2014, during the time of the KLM plane disaster over Ukraine: “In the Sanctus and Benedictus, the poignant text, and the way her voice soared in those phrases…it gives me goosebumps just thinking about it!”
To be sure, Wall was more than just a gorgeous lyric soprano with silvery tone and enviable flexibility—she also had impeccable musicianship, and was a perfectionist by nature. “She was seldom happy with herself,” remembers Michael Benchetrit, her long-time manager. “She sang Mahler 8 over fifty times, and I have never heard her sing it not well. But she was pleased with only one performance, in Edinburgh with Donald Runnicles.”
Being self-critical is at the heart of an honest artist. Baritone Russell Braun and his pianist-wife Carolyn Maule were colleagues and friends of Erin, and they feel a special kinship with her: “As an artist, her honesty was palpable; as a friend, her honesty was disarming and inspiring” says Braun. Baritone Joshua Hopkins, a frequent colleague in the last years of her career including a much acclaimed Toronto Symphony Orchestra Thais (see our review, Opera Canada, Fall 2020, p. 57), echoed that sentiment: “I admired her honesty, her deep passion and devotion to her art, and her infectious laughter. If I made Erin laugh, it made my day.”
Others have also remarked on her sense of humour: “She was a lot of fun…we had a lot of laughs,” recalls Sir Andrew. Her generosity of spirit and unstinting support of her colleagues were also very much part of her legacy. Since her cancer diagnosis in early 2018, she managed to fulfill engagements in between treatments, as well as maintaining as normal a homelife as possible. She even ran the New York Marathon on her 43rd birthday!
Her realistic attitude, her strength of character and determination to face challenges head-on is very much in evidence in “Cancer Journey,” a guest column she wrote for the COC. A word of warning—reading it may bring you to tears. As her agent of many years, Benchetrit likely knew her better than most. He recalls Erin saying: “Cancer will kill me, but until that day, I’ll live life to the fullest.” The end came all too suddenly, as her husband Roberto Mauro told me over the phone: “We thought she had weeks if not months more—we’re in a state of shock.”
Erin Wall’s last engagement was two Mahler 8 performances in January 2020 with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla. It was a fateful end to a glorious career, in a work she likely performed more than any other, by a composer dear to her heart. Benchetrit pointed out a rather eerie coincidence during our conversation—Erin passed on the same day (October 8th) as the great British contralto Kathleen Ferrier, who also died of metastatic breast cancer. While I am not old enough to have heard Ferrier live, listening to her recorded legacy tells me in no uncertain terms that the two artists shared similar qualities, that of sincerity, simplicity, authenticity, and honesty. Erin Wall, you are in the best of company.
Erin Wall: November 4, 1975 – October 8, 2020
Don’t miss your chance to join in celebrating Erin Wall and all of our honourees at this year’s live Rubies event on Nov. 15th. Click here for complete event information.
Opera Canada depends on the generous contributions of its supporters to bring readers outstanding, in-depth coverage of opera in Canada and beyond. Please consider subscribing or donating today.