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From the physics lab to the Four Seasons

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Mezzo-soprano Lauren Segal exemplifies the diverse routes a U of T student can follow after graduation. Segal is currently playing the role of Mercédès in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Carmen, but the opera singer recently obtained a Master of Science degree from U of T’s Department of Physics.

“I sometimes think of singing opera as being like building a laser,” Segal told The Varsity last week. “I was constructing one for my Master’s and everything had to be in the perfect position for something to come out which was much greater than what was put in.”

Opera singers are known for their unique ability to sing without amplification over the volume of orchestras and into large opera houses. This requires an extremely disciplined technique. The body must be perfectly aligned, the tongue, jaw and facial muscles in place, the intercostal muscles expanded, and a steady and energized breath moving from the diaphragm.

“That’s my strange way of thinking about it,” Segal continues. “The body is this big laser. Everything has to be in the perfect spot and it amplifies itself, and that’s how we can sing over orchestras.”

An opera singer’s technique takes years to develop and training usually begins in the mid-teens. Bachelor and Master degrees in Music Performance typically follow. Lauren Segal, however, discovered the art form later in life.

“I did my undergrad at York,” the mezzo explains, “and in my second year I joined the choir so I could get some sort of music back in my life—I was studying science. I started listening to opera there because of my friends in the choir who were studying it and loved it.”

This love led to Segal’s decision to begin training. She started taking vocal lessons in the third year of her undergrad and continued throughout her undergrad and graduate years. Eventually, Segal had to choose between a opera or a PhD in physics.

“I couldn’t really do both properly at the same time anymore,” she admits. Finally, she decided that the science-student phase of her life was complete. “I just chose opera. My heart pulled me there.”

Yet Segal’s heart didn’t pull her to immediate success. An opera singer needs an extensive knowledge of languages, a solid technical command of his or her vocal chords, as well as connections and professional recognition.

“After my Master, I realized I didn’t have the same background that most of the other singers had through their studies,” Segal explains.

She caught up through hard work. Segal took language courses in French, Italian, and German, studied music history, and carried on with her lessons. It wasn’t until she started doing workshops, auditions, and competitions that she slowly worked her way into the business.

The first major recognition of Segal’s talent came with her acceptance into the COC’s Ensemble Studio. The ensemble is an elite training program for young professionals that has produced some of Canada’s most celebrated singers. Members perform small roles in COC productions and understudy larger roles, while receiving full-time schooling.

“They have very intensive training,” she describes. “Lots of coaching, lots of role study opportunities as performances … you work a lot and you learn a lot.”

Despite Segal’s lack of a music degree, she believes her physics training helped her as a singer.

“My background was in optical physics,” Segal says, “and light and sound behave in the same way. When people talk about singing resonance, I think about it in the scientific definition.”

What Segal is referring to are the vibrations of sound waves against facial acoustic cavities that happen when singing or speaking. Opera singers resonate over orchestras by producing sound waves that vibrate at a very high frequency, through manipulation of the throat and well-developed technique.

Lauren Segal is not the only Canadian opera singer who has pursued studies in a seemingly unrelated field, and at U of T to boot. Internationally renowned soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian completed a Bachelor of Biomedical Engineering here before joining the COC Ensemble. Segal still credits not pursuing a music degree as being to her advantage.

“I think it’s very easy when you’re in a music program to get bogged down in some things,” she ventures. “I think pursuing something different allowed me to have a fresh outlook.”

And is there any fresher image than an opera singer who can draw on her experience building lasers to explain her unconventional success?

Lauren Segal can be seen in the COC’s Carmen, which runs at the Four Seasons Centre through February 27. For more information, visit coc.ca.