Kimberly Barber, mezzo-soprano

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With a Song in her Heart
Grand MaGAzine, Sept-Oct 2015

Download and Read article in PDFYou know that old cliché about an opera not being over until the fat lady sings? Scrap it. According to local mezzo-soprano Kimberly Barber, today’s opera star is closer to a high-performance athlete than delicate centrepiece.

“It’s diet, it’s being aware of the kinds of things that give you too much phlegm. You don’t need to look like a supermodel or a sprinter but you need to be fit,” says Barber who runs and cycles to stay in shape.

“An opera is three hours long … some of them … some are longer, and when you sing you sweat a lot and you use a lot of moisture. You have to hydrate a lot, drink a lot of water and you need to live a relatively clean lifestyle.”

It’s that attitude and dedication that has shot Waterloo Region’s Barber to the top of the Canadian opera scene and landed her a gig showcasing local female musical talent as a co-host on a home-grown, internationally beloved radio show.

Barber is poised to join host Tom Quick on the Women in Music radio series on FM 98.5 CKWR for a monthly look at the amazing music Canadian women are making. The first show in this new format will be broadcast on Sept. 7.

The Women in Music radio series looks at music outside chart-topping pop. Barber will act as the colour commentator. She’s the one on the ground, in the scene and able to offer her insight as a music industry insider.

“Tom has tremendous knowledge as an audiophile, he has tons and tons of recordings,” says Barber. “He is really knowledgeable about the audio side, but I have the insider information as a professional musician. I’ll be able to talk about background stuff. A bit like Vinyl Tap with
Randy Bachman.”

Anyone familiar with Bachman’s show knows he’ll often bust out his guitar to provide an impromptu, musical accompaniment to his stories. Is this what Barber has in mind?

“Maybe … maybe,” she says with a hint of mischievousness. “We haven’t started scripting yet. I think we want it to be spontaneous,
tough, I think people tune in to listen to the music. I don’t want it to just be a dialogue, or just about me. It’s important that it’s about the music.”

Much of Barber’s own life has been all about the music. But whether she was born for this kind of thing isn’t clear. “I really didn’t even know opera existed when I was growing up,” she says. But when an observant music teacher noticed traces of vocal greatness in a young
Barber, he urged her to begin training her voice. He even sponsored her lessons.

The experience was life altering for the burgeoning talent. “While I was taking voice lessons, I got tuned into and turned onto the athleticism,” she says. “It’s like being a vocal athlete. It’s a highly physical process, it’s very technical, it’s a lot of very fine motor skill and you have to treat your body well to do it well. It was the challenge I enjoyed.”

The Guelph-born and Toronto-raised Barber did a postgraduate degree in Toronto and then moved on to the Canadian Opera Company as a member of their ensemble.

Barber’s career really took off when she accepted a position with the Frankfurt Opera in Germany. She relocated, met her husband Markus Philipp and began travelling the world performing at the highest level.

Running through Barber’s accomplishments is mostly futile. Pick a major city, find its opera house and she’s likely graced its stage in one starring role or another.

But what exactly is a mezzo-soprano? Barber describes it as a standard soprano but with a voice that’s “a little bit darker or warmer colour, maybe not quite so high.” It’s a versatile vocal range, allowing her to fill her operatic repertoire with more than 40 roles, many of them
exclusively at from 20th-century and lesser-known works. And her concert repertoire stems from nearly every genre.

Barber still travels the world teaching, performing and speaking German, English, French and Italian — languages she knows fluently. When she’s not jet-setting she’s sharing her expertise and experience at Wilfrid Laurier University as an associate professor of voice as well as the coordinator of its opera program at its renowned Faculty of Music.

Barber accepted the professorship while still in Germany and returned to Canada in 2001. Her husband, unable to continue his career in publishing, became an entrepreneur and exports custom furniture to Europe. The couple has two daughters, Jana and Alice, both studying locally.

Barber has direct access to the wealth of musical talent springing up right here in the region. In her new role on the airwaves she plans on sharing that talent with the world.

Though Barber and her co-host Quick haven’t worked out all the details, the plan right now is to do at least two shows entirely devoted to local talent. “There are just so many fantastic Canadian women musicians and composers and instrumentalists right here in Waterloo Region. Especially at Laurier’s faculty,” says Barber.

Showcasing successful and talented women in music is nothing new. But Barber feels there is another dimension she can add. “There’s always been lots of women on the creative side, but not as many who have been in positions of authority. Even still, there aren’t as many women conductors, there aren’t as many women artistic coordinators, there aren’t as many women stage directors, but there are getting to be more. There are a lot of young women who are beginning to feel encouraged,” she says.

Part of that encouragement comes from recognition. “Radio, or media in any form has the power to educate people without talking down to them in any way. Just making them aware of things.”

This isn’t Barber’s first time on the other side of the spotlight. In the past she’s been a TV commentator for CBC’s broadcast of the Montreal International Musical Competition, a kind of Olympics for voice, violin and piano.

“I was an on-air expert. It was a total blast the whole time I was on,” she says. “I always have my feelers out for any opportunity
that might come along.”

One of Barber’s feelers turned out to be the social network LinkedIn, though she sounds surprised when mentioning it. During her year-long sabbatical friends convinced her to join the social network. “Tom Quick was also on and he contacted me,” she says. “‘I see you’re in K-W. Let’s get together and talk about music.’”

Barber accepted his offer.

“She’s such a lovely lady,” says the affable Quick. “I’d been aware of Kimberly for many years. When I saw her profile on LinkedIn, I just thought this is a great opportunity to promote women in music.”

Quick is one of those rare people with a deep collection of classical music recordings and the encyclopedic knowledge base to inform listeners about each recording’s unique significance.

“Kimberly has the ability with languages that I don’t have so she’ll be able to introduce listeners to new artists,” he says.

As a high-profile co-host, Quick plans on giving Barber lots of freedom. He has only one rule: “The chat will be limited. I have a policy that I will not play excerpts of music. I will only play full works. Unless it’s opera … we only have a two-hour show,” he says, regretfully.

What listeners likely won’t get a lot of are songs they are used to hearing on mainstream radio.

“I love all kinds of music. I’m not a snob in any way,” says Barber. “I like artists I find interesting. I’m a big fan of Amy Winehouse; I even like some country artists. There is something to learn from everybody as long as they touch me. k.d. lang and Annie Lennox … I love all kinds
of artists as long as they are expressive with their voice.”

Though she’s not a snob, it’s been a bit harder for this dedicated professional to warm up to the glut of reality TV shows relying on the worn-out tropes of how talent rises to the top. “I kind of resent the idea that somebody just gets plucked from somewhere and they have this innate talent and all someone has to do is shine a light on it and they’re fantastic with no training at all,” she says.

According to Barber, it takes at least 10 years for an opera singer just to get up to par. Beyond that, staying at the top takes total mind and body commitment.

There is nobody — absolutely nobody — in the performing arts or athletics or anything who got there without having to do anything,” she adds.

Despite her feeling that voice shows are “gimmicky,” a part of Barber’s job as a teacher isn’t all that far off from that same format.

“There is something fascinating about the backstories of people and how they come to do what they do, and how they can really bloom under the supervision of experienced artists. That’s what I do when I teach,” she says. “These students come in and audition and it’s a bit of a crap shoot. You listen to them and you watch them, and you say, I think I can work with that. Then it’s kind of up to the universe.”

Written by Sam Toman, Photography by Jennifer Bedford.
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