Being a performer during the pandemic can be a tumultuous experience, to say the least. If you’re lucky, you’ll come out more-or-less unscathed; and if you’re really lucky, you can emerge refreshed and restored. Or, if you’re vocalist Brett Polegato, you can fill your lockdown days with books read, bikes ridden, and songs sung. One of Canada’s premier baritones, Brett’s artistic sensibility has earned him the highest praise from both audiences and critics. Born in Ontario, Brett has travelled the world to hone and share his art, including a few hops across the Northumberland Strait to grace the stage at Historic St. Mary’s. We’ve been vocal (pun very much intended) about how much we love having Brett sing at Indian River Festival—and now, we’re handing the mic over to him in a different way. Keep reading for an interview with one of Canada’s most lauded baritones—and although he’s expressing himself through text instead of song, we think his musical virtuosity can still be heard loud and clear. To paraphrase Brett: we look forward to the day when his voice will once again fill our hall.
Tell us about your background. We want to get to know you!
I was born in Niagara Falls, Ontario, into a very non-musical family. While I had myriad interests growing up, it seems that singing occupied much of my free time, much to my father’s chagrin. I’m sure he would have much preferred if I had been a hockey or wrestling fan like he was. I always really enjoyed school and graduated high school with a 98.8% average, thanks largely to my math and science courses. When it came time to choose a university (and a major), I had the option of a full scholarship from the University of Waterloo in Computer Science, or a large scholarship from the University of Toronto to study Vocal Performance. To the dismay of my high school teachers, I chose music and the rest, as they say, is history! After graduating from the University of Toronto, I went straight into a performing career – Figaro in Le nozze di Figaro for Opera Atelier was my first “gig” – and I have been singing ever since. When I am not busy singing, I love to read. I collect signed first editions of books (mostly contemporary fiction), and my To Be Read pile currently sits at around 1,300 books! Lately, I’ve been an avid biker as well.
What are some of your fondest memories of performing and being in the music industry?
I consider myself quite fortunate to have had a very rewarding career. I have sung in over 30 countries in the world on most of the greatest stages with many of the great conductors and singers of our generation. My career has always been equally split between opera / stage work, concert / orchestral work, and recitals, and for that I am grateful. Along the way, I have had the pleasure of making friends with amazing people, both in and out of the business, many of whom are still part of my life today. You should see my Christmas card list: it’s very, very long! One of my fondest memories was representing Canada at the Cardiff Singer of the World Competition in 1995. While I didn’t win the competition, I did make it to the finals and was the top male to compete that year. Joan Sutherland was one of the judges and after the competition was over, she wrote me a very lovely letter which I still have to this day.
As a performer, what have been the most challenging aspects of lockdown for you professionally and personally?
This pandemic has been quite difficult for all of us in the arts. By the second week in March, I had lost 50% of this year’s income due to cancellations. The rest of my contracts for the year were cancelled or postponed shortly after. Fortunately, I had a very busy year last year and I am perhaps in a better place than many of my colleagues to weather this difficult period. It has been made easier by the knowledge that I have five operas on the books for 2021. I just hope that the business will be in a position for them to go ahead, but only time will tell. Of course, it’s been tough emotionally for all of us but I have enjoyed the chance to be home for an extended period of time; in almost thirty years of singing, I have not had the luck to be in Toronto for seven months at a time. I could get used to this!
What have you been doing to keep yourself busy during this time? Do you have any projects in the works?
I am thankful that I have had much to occupy my time. I have made a concerted effort to go for a bike ride four or five times a week, and with the gorgeous weather this summer, it’s been a very easy habit to maintain. I sing most days and I have a lesson (via Skype) with my teacher in New York every week. None of us knows what the business will look like when this is all behind us, but I decided early on that not being in vocal shape wasn’t going to help me prepare for what lies ahead so I made it a point to keep practising. I’m very thankful I did. I have also spent my time doing 15 years of “spring cleaning” around the house, talking to friends, running errands for people who are less mobile than I am, reading, and learning new music – I’m meant to start rehearsals at the Met on December 20th.
We loved having you perform at Indian River Festival in the past! What’s your favourite IRF memory?
My favourite Indian River Festival memory? That is a difficult question! It is always a pleasure making music with Robert Kortgaard and Peter Tiefenbach for the audiences at the Festival, but I would say my greatest memories are the ones that occur in between the concerts – when we get to explore the hospitality of the people of PEI. No matter who opens their doors to me, I always feel right at home. When you spend most of your life on the road, who could ask for anything better?
Any words of wisdom or advice you might give to fellow performers and colleagues during the pandemic?
First, I would say to my colleagues (and to our audiences), we will be back. We have to trust that our creativity will find ways to keep Art alive. But in the meantime, we must look on this difficult time as an opportunity to hone our craft: read, practise, think of what you want to say and how you want to say it, and – above all – rest up. I think a lot will be required of us when performance venues reopen. We will in some ways work harder than we have done before, but I am confident that we will rise to the challenge. Our voices, silenced for a while, will once again fill the halls.
Written by: Dani MacDonald