“No matter who it is you’re dealing with in an organization or outside of it, you have to treat them well, and you have to be respectful,” says soprano Gabrielle Haigh, a second year master’s degree candidate in the studio of Sylvia Anderson. “If someone gives you an opportunity, you need to appreciate it.”
The attitude is befitting of one who is gracefully balancing a growing list of notable performances. In addition to engagements as a soloist in Mozart’s Requiem and a performance of Vaughan Williams’ Hodie with the San José Choral Society and Orchestra, this December she took on her second solo role in multiple performances of Handel’s Joseph and His Brethren with the Philharmonia Baroque under the direction of Nicholas McGegan.
“Singing with Nicholas McGegan is wonderful because he is a lovely collaborator,” says Haigh. “He has such a clear understanding of how the music should be. It’s no work at all to sing with him. He’s someone who is really well rounded as a person as well as a musician, and that’s something that I strive for, too.”
Haigh’s own understanding of the varied bonds that make up the musician she so greatly admires began at an early age. “I come from an incredibly musical family; my parents are both orchestral musicians. My mother is a composer, my aunt is a composer, my grandparents are both composers.”
The company of musicians also exposed her to a community strengthened and uplifted by music. She remembers fondly, “We have this really fun tradition in my family. Every year on New Year’s Day, we invite a bunch of my parents’ colleagues—freelance musicians and Cleveland Orchestra musicians—to come over to the house and read chamber music together. We have some wine, food, and leftover Christmas cookies. People just sit down and play this amazing music—and seem to have so much fun doing it. Eventually, it got to the point where sometimes at those parties I would get to participate in that.”
As a result of her family’s love for music, she was exposed to opera early on. “I didn’t really watch Disney movies growing up—except for Fantasia. Instead, we had these old VHS tapes of all the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. That was my version of Disney as a kid,” she laughs. She participated in Gilbert and Sullivan summer programs held at her school where she sang in children’s productions of The Pirates of Penzance, HMS Pinafore, and Patience.
Taking after her mother and aunt, Haigh wrote several symphonic works while still in high school and was fortunate enough to see her compositions performed. She also began to take on larger singing roles. “Some of the first solo singing I ever did was as a teenager with Apollo’s Fire, the Cleveland Baroque Orchestra. I was one of what they called Apollo’s Musettes, which was a small group of children and adolescents who sang the solos—for me, most notably in the Praetorius Christmas Vespers.”
By the time she began applying for undergraduate programs, however, she had carved out her own dreams of becoming a professor of Greek and Latin, beginning her post-secondary education at Princeton. “I met incredible people who were so passionate about reading books and talking about philosophy and art. I was suddenly surrounded by people who were so well read and well rounded for freshmen in college.”
“It was a stressful environment—lots of papers due, lots of late nights, lots of extracurriculars,” she explains. “I was in two choirs, and I was working as a dishwasher in the cafeteria. We would have these intellectual conversations at two in the morning after writing a paper... because it was interesting. We were encountering all of these ideas for the first time.”
Despite the supportive community she found at Princeton, Haigh chose to fulfill her lifelong ambition of studying at Cambridge University, transferring there after one year. Upon moving to England, singing slowly began to consume more of her life.
“At Cambridge I found that people were willing to put me in Gilbert and Sullivan shows. I auditioned for The Pirates of Penzance after two and a half years at Cambridge, not expecting to really get in… I don’t know what they were thinking—they gave me Mabel. It’s the lead role.”
Haigh was beginning to rediscover her remarkable gift, practicing intensely while balancing her course load. “I was heavily involved in the Choir of Clare College Cambridge, which is a pretty well known chapel choir in the UK,” she explains. “Through the choir in Cambridge, there were a number of fairly significant public performance opportunities with soloists. We did Bach’s St. John Passion and I had one of the soprano solos. We did the Bach B Minor Mass. We worked with Lars Ulrik Mortensen and the European Union Baroque Orchestra.”
Haigh realized that she was spending an average of 15-20 hours per week on singing outside of the Christmas season, a schedule she describes as “a pretty considerable job.”
“I was pretty sure I was going to teach Greek and Latin at a university until my last year of undergrad at Cambridge. I realized at that point that I had been singing a lot, and it meant a lot to me. I realized that if I didn’t pursue it, I’d never forgive myself.” Upon graduation, she returned to Cleveland and made preparations to begin her career in music by auditioning for conservatories and studying business practices. After one year, she found a home at SFCM.
“I feel that here at the Conservatory I’ve learned a tremendous amount from the people I’ve worked with,” says Haigh. “My teacher, Sylvia Anderson, is so wise and experienced and calm and serene at the same time. I feel like I work really well with both my vocal coach and Sylvia’s husband, Maestro Matthias Kuntzsch, who had a very illustrious career conducting opera and has been so kind working with Sylvia’s students in master classes.”
SFCM faculty and alumni encouraged Haigh to become involved in Lamplighters Music Theatre, known for their Bay Area Gilbert and Sullivan productions. Last year, she performed in Patience and The Yeoman of the Guard. “That was one of the most fun shows I’ve ever worked on,” she says of the latter. “Really wonderful, supportive colleagues and incredibly talented people as far as the eye can see… I love working with Lamplighters. They’re such a wonderful community as well as a company that puts on really high-class shows.”
At SFCM, Haigh has performed in Conservatory opera productions such as Dido and Aeneas (directed by Jose Maria Condemi and conducted by Corey Jamason) and can be seen on the Opera Scenes programs. She’s also preparing an upcoming recital. “I love to find music that people maybe haven’t often heard. I found these wonderful Respighi songs and another set by Bizet that people largely don’t do very much. I’m really excited about it because they’re not the default option when you’re planning a recital.”
Haigh finds inspiration in a slightly more intellectual approach to preparing a piece. “Having a background in literature, history, philosophy, and linguistics provides a lot of perspective,” she explains. She also credits her background in piano, composition, and chamber music with her holistic approach to score study and practice.
“It’s a desire to really know everything there is to know about the music that I’m performing and the composer who wrote it, and a desire to use that to make the performance as faithful as possible to what the composer probably would have wanted.”
2018 is set to be a big year for Haigh because, in addition to singing in her recital, she is also getting married and premiering a new opera by her mother, Margi Griebling-Haigh (an SFCM alumna, class of ’84).
“It’s exciting because it’s the first opera she wrote, and one of the lead roles was written for me. She’s written the libretto herself based on a short story by an early 20th-century English author.” Working with her mother has also allowed Haigh an outlet for her love of composition. “We’ve talked a lot about writing for singers and what goes into making an opera work rather than a short story.”
Haigh’s schedule for the coming months is ambitious, but she remains undaunted. “I don’t really think that much about the scale of it. Honestly, I think about how these people are wonderful. They’re great colleagues, they’re giving me these opportunities, and I’m just grateful to be doing it and to have an chance to perform and sing for more people.”