Looking Back and Looking Forward: Art of Song Fellow Charles Sy Reflects on His Time at TSM

By Marlene Murphysy

Charles Sy is a 22-year-old tenor juggling a daunting schedule of singing commitments and classes, but on a rainy December morning in Toronto he wasn’t doing either. Instead, Sy was at the offices of the Canadian Opera Company, autographing photos. It might not be an everyday occurrence in his life, but it’s clear winning first place and the audience choice award at the COC’s annual vocal competition has had an impact. Sy’s talent and promise had already been on display for Toronto Summer Music Festival audiences in 2012, when he was one of the fellows in the Art of Song program. But it almost didn’t happen.

“I actually missed the first application – I don’t even know why,” Sy says in an interview about his experiences at TSM. Bundled up against the chilly weather outside, the 22-year-old is warm and personable as he settles in at a table in the mezzanine of a hotel near the Four Seasons Centre, where the COC performs. Sy’s win has put him on the radar nationally, and he’s clearly getting comfortable with questions about how he got to this point in his musical career.

Interested in both music and science during his high school days, Sy says he made the decision to commit to singing when applying to university. “Science will always be a part of my life. The singing that I wanted to try and I wanted to do, I realized I had to do it now.” That commitment meant juggling studies as an undergraduate in the University of Toronto’s vocal music program with a job as a restaurant server to help out at home, where his single mother was battling serious health problems. Tight finances meant that in the fall of 2011 he couldn’t even consider applying to a program that involved any fees. The Toronto-area student hadn’t done any auditions for summer programs in the fall, knowing he wouldn’t have the money to cover his costs if he was accepted. The Toronto Summer Music Academy – with fellowships that included tuition and accommodation – made attending a summer program possible. “The fact it was free was the main reason I could go,” he acknowledged. That, and an extension for Fellow applications until February. “Honestly, it was a godsend,” the 22-year-old says of the fellowship. “I don’t like not being busy. I don’t like not singing for long periods of time,” Sy said, pointing out that while he is now older and can take the initiative to organize something like a recital in the summer, the Fellowship came at an opportune time in his university career. “I find personally the most growth I have ever had as a singer has always happened in the summer in between school. During school I had to work, I had to commute home, I had to do all sorts of things, so of course it’s focused but it’s not as concentrated.”

Sy, who will finish his Masters in Music in the spring, spent two weeks in the Art of Song program. He spoke glowingly about the opportunities it afforded him. “The year I went Gerald Finley and Craig Rutenberg were there. Those two people are amazing. Gerald Finley – world class, world renowned opera singer. Craig Rutenberg is a coach with the Metropolitan Opera,” he said, his expressive voice emphasizing his respect for the two men. Sy says ongoing access to the Mentors was part of what made it a high calibre program. “To be able to meet them and work with them one on one all the time – we had classes every single day with them.”

Sy is also quick to praise vocal coach Steven Philcox, a professor at the University of Toronto who has also been a part of the TSM faculty. “He was the one who would prepare and coach all of our rep before we brought it forward to the visiting mentors or public masterclasses,” Sy explains. Sy had worked with Philcox in masterclass settings at school, but TSM provided the opportunity to work with Philcox one on one. “I was still fairly young when I attended the program so his guidance and patience was an integral part of my development,” Sy goes on, saying Philcox was a big influence on his artistry and musicality.

Sy, who grew up in Mississauga, just west of Toronto, said it was fascinating to meet participants from so many backgrounds, with different approaches and outlooks, all invested in getting the most out of the experience. He pointed out fellows had the chance to take in any of the scheduled concerts. “They bring artists from all over, the best people,” he noted of festival organizers. Sy says the experience was a great way to concentrate on creativity. “Everything is cumulative. You pick what you can from it and you add to your skill sets. The thing about the Toronto Summer Music Academy is learning how to really collaborate with one another and create art.”

The young tenor also appreciated the chance to on focus on art song, the only such program he’s participated in so far. Sy explained that for singers in operas, the stories are already created, with plots and characters, but that art song offers different challenges. “Because it’s so open-ended it requires you to really create your own story sometimes. It stretches your imagination and it stretches your artistry. That’s really what I got out of the summer music festival – really understanding how to portray emotions and stories.”

Sy says the fact that the festival is in Toronto meant he had friends and family on hand for his time as a Fellow, but he says the audiences were supportive of all the young artists who took part. “You have all these people who come to so many things, they’re so committed. It’s so exciting. People would come up to me and they’d tell me about the growth that they see in your singing. They’re so kind and so focused and so committed to the work that they’re excited for you. You have people in the audience for you cheering you on.”

As for what’s ahead for the singer, January brings the chance to perform at historic Campbell House in downtown Toronto, in a newly created operatic entertainment developed by the University of Toronto about some of the residents of the landmark. In the spring, there’s a stop in Missouri, where he will take part in the Gerdine Young Artist Program at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis. With his schooling close to completion, there are also plenty of auditions and applications – he was named as the winner of the Canadian Opera Company’s competition in November, and has recently been invited to join the COC’s ensemble studio.  Asked about longer term goals, Sy points out that at 22, he’s still young for an opera singer and his voice hasn’t matured yet. With engaging honesty, Sy says that while he would love to sing at such renowned venues as the Metropolitan Opera, Covent Garden and La Scala at some point, his main goal right now to be able to support himself with art, and make a living singing.

Asked how he would describe the Toronto Summer Music Academy to anyone who was considering applying to the Art of Song program, Sy had this to say. “It’s just so concentrated with a high standard of excellence for everyone involved. That building is full of the best of the best,” he emphasizes. “The singers and pianists you get to work with are amazing. The coaches and faculty are just so inspiring.” He points out that while each year is a different experience with different Mentors, the level of who they are is just as high. His final message, delivered with the exuberance of a young singer ready to take on whatever opportunities head his way: “Sing art song, go to the Toronto Summer Music Academy, because it’s just amazing.”

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