East Yorker Charles Sy is onstage at the Four Seasons Centre this spring in the Canadian Opera Company's production of Rossini's Maometto II.

From Barney to Rossini

Once a shy kid, Charles Sy strides the operatic stage

There’s a rising opera star living in East York — but you probably wouldn’t have predicted it from his youth.

And he wouldn’t have either.

Charles Sy (pronounced “see”) lives in the Danforth-Woodbine neighbourhood, and until May 14, he’s onstage in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of the Rossini opera Maometto II. But the auditorium at the Four Season Centre and the good reviews that the production has been garnering isn’t the situation that this young tenor — just a year out of the University of Toronto — imagined himself in as a child and teenager.

He grew up in an extended family of doctors and lawyers, and as a youth, he was thinking of cardiology. So at Cawthra Park Secondary School in Mississauga, he focused on courses to prepare him for university science and an eventual career in medicine.

Looking back, he says he was a shy kid anyway, and he didn’t picture himself in the spotlight.

Still, there were hints of what was to come — even when Sy was a very young child. Like singing along to children’s television programs.

“My parents would play Barney tapes for me and I would always sing along,” he recalled in an interview, “and as soon as the Barney tapes were over, I would start screaming and crying instantly.”

A later childhood achievement was his thorough memorization of the entire Disney movie Aladdin, and his ability to speak and sing his own version of the entire soundtrack on long car rides. Sy now thinks that singing and piano lessons helped him get through some rough childhood patches, like his mom’s serious illnesses and the separation of his parents.

It was later, as a teenager, that Sy’s singing really began to take hold. One factor was the influence of the highly regarded music program at his Mississauga high school, Cawthra, one of the leading arts secondary schools in Canada. Another was the Ontario Youth Choir, in which he was the youngest chorister — a 15 year-old among 20-somethings with university degrees.

“It was through that experience that I met all these people at such a young age…. It actually really inspired me to catch a glimpse into this world of training to be a professional opera singer,” Sy said. “It was just seeing those young singers who were a step above me, and seeing their passion and drive that made me go…. ‘This is something I would really love to try.”

The University of Toronto followed Cawthra, culminating in a master’s degree from the Faculty of Music’s opera performance program. But Sy hadn’t even officially completed graduate school when he won first place in the Canadian Opera Company (COC) Centre Stage Ensemble Studio Competition, along with the competition’s Audience Choice Award. It was a national competition that involved seven finalists participating in a weeklong boot camp and concert in Toronto, and Sy’s win got him a place in the COC’s Ensemble Studio.

“Members of the Ensemble Studio receive a blend of advanced study and practical experience,” explains the COC website. “In this one-to-three-year program, singers receive vocal, theatrical and practical career development…. understudying major roles, the annual Glencore Ensemble Studio School tour, art song recitals, and a special Ensemble Studio performance of a COC mainstage production, as well as roles in COC mainstage productions.”

Sy said one word helps explain what makes opera unique compared to other forms of singing: resonance. He said opera singers spend years developing the vocal ability to create “optimum resonance.” Successful opera singers have learned to create beautiful sound that can be clearly heard, with no amplification, over an entire orchestra and across a cavernous opera house full of people.

“To me, it is the extremely visceral and full-body experience that makes me love opera,” Sy said. “It is interesting and moving that people push their voices to the extreme, but in a very healthy and beautiful way.”

But there’s something else to opera, he added, and that’s the component of musical theatre:

“The virtuosity and the Herculean nature of it is exciting, but opera singers also are storytellers and actors that must be able to have their techniques so lined up that they can communicate with an audience — while at the same time insisting on extreme particular demands from their instrument.” That “instrument” is, of course, the singer’s voice.

Even with his considerable gifts, Sy acknowledges that the life of an opera singer — like many artists — can be difficult. For one thing, there are the countless hours of training and practice. Sy acknowledged that he sometimes feels overwhelmed by the amount of work that he has to put into his operatic career.

He added that besides the long hours, an operatic career involves a “nomadic lifestyle” that often requires travel, and that can also put a strain on relationships and personal life. But he’s still hopeful of one day balancing his singing with settling down and having a family life.

“We live in a world now where there is so much pressure on focusing your efforts on either your personal life or your career,” Sy said. “To me, it’s so inspiring to see successful people who have found a healthy balance between the two that really worked for them, and that’s something I hope to one day achieve.”

And then there’s the conflict between the onstage life of Sy, the up-and-coming opera star, and the natural shyness of Charles, the youngster. He buffers those two contrary pulls with a very practical outlook.

“I like to joke sometimes that my job involves me being extremely vulnerable to the world and exposing myself and who I am to everyone around me, and having everyone tell me what I’m doing wrong,” Sy said. “At the end of the day, I have to put myself out there. I acknowledge that I’m a product and I have to make someone else money. As much as this is about art and as much as I am as an artist, I still need to make someone money. This is a business.”

But it’s also personal.

“Like most experiences, you either benefit from it or it can hinder you. It’s just like how adrenaline in a performance can hinder you like nerves or it can give you energy to give an exciting performance. It all depends on how you take it,” Sy said. “Unlike other instruments, singing is something very personal, because it’s your voice and it’s your body. Your instrument is your body. When someone tells you, ‘I don’t like your voice,’ it is very easy to take it as ‘I don’t like you.’”

As for that shyness:

“At heart, I wouldn’t consider myself as shy anymore, but I am a person who likes to keep to himself. My natural instincts aren’t to take huge risks and put myself out there,” Sy said. But when he competed for that spot in the COC Ensemble Studio, “I wasn’t scared at all. I felt so comfortable up on-stage. I was so happy — not because I’d won, but because I was so comfortable with myself and being a singer.”