Last fall, soprano Shannon Mercer's performance as Rosina in the Opera Ontario production of Il barbiere di Siviglia delighted audiences and critics alike. It was another triumph for one of Canada's most sparkling young talents, her silver-streaked voice and lively personality shining in a role normally taken by mezzos. In the previous season, she had sung Oscar in the Canadian Opera Company's Un ballo in maschera, and despite the robust Verdian voices surrounding her, Mercer's impish and amusing Page still shone through. Little wonder Maclean's magazine included her on its roster of Leaders of Tomorrow.
Music has always been part of Mercer's life. Her late father was a tenor with the Gwalia Singers in Ottawa, and her ability manifested itself at a young age. "It came easily to me," says the Ottawa-born singer. "The Ottawa Welsh Society would have family talent nights, and, as a little girl, I would go up and sing a tune. I still have a recording of my father and I singing 'Somewhere Out There' from An American Tail."
In 1994, Mercer enrolled as a voice major at McGill University in Montreal, where she took a degree in opera and early music. "I quickly learned to approach opera and early music in the same way," she says. "The tools and style may be different, but you still need to support with your breath and sing with your full instrument. I learned a lot about period performance; how to ornament, read chant notation, the subtleties of French style."
Mercer's ties to early music remain strong. In addition to taking on the role of Nerine in Opera Atelier's 2002 production of Medee, she has sung the title role in Purcell's Dido and Aeneas for the Studio de Musique Ancienne de Montreal. She recently completed a Western Canadian tour with Les Voix Baroques and soon records her first CD with the group Masques, a Montreal-based early-music ensemble. The Spring of 2004 saw her in Alcina under Bernard Labadie and Les Violons du Roy.
In fact, Mercer easily traverses the worlds of opera, early music and song. Her voice is light, but possesses a sweet, crystalline quality that shines over an orchestra with ease. Her middle and bottom are unusually comfortable, allowing her to deliver the lowlying passages of Rosina's tricky ensembles with clarity. Like Dawn Upshaw, Barbara Bonney and Sylvia McNair, Mercer is the quintessential light soprano: not a coloratura, but with excellent coloratura facility and with no pretensions to being a full lyric. In addition to her gorgeous looks and personal style, Mercer wins with beauty of tone, musical intelligence and a keen dramatic instinct. …