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‘Music is almost a manifestation of some otherworldly power’

By Kate Spencer

Mary Lou Fallis is an opera singer with an international career who’s also known for her comedic theatre works. Her one-woman show, Prima Donna, based on her life as a singer, won an ACTRA Award. She was made a member of the Order of Canada in 2011 and is a member of Trinity-St. Paul’s United in Toronto.

On music: I grew up in a really musical family. I lived with my grandmother from when I was little until I was about five. She was a church organist and a singer herself. She had her own choir, and she took me to concerts from the time I was about four. So music’s always been there, and I don’t think I ever felt like I was going to do anything else. For me, it’s almost a manifestation of some otherworldly power. I’m not saying the power is mine; I’m saying the music is the power.

On choirs versus a solo performance: When you’re singing in a choir, your responsibilities are to the people around you. If you’re a soprano, you sing that soprano line as best you can, while blending with the other people. You just don’t sing with so much focus and resonance. If you’re doing a recital, it is [about] your relationship with the composer and giving it out to the audience. And that’s the difference.

On words versus music: Much of my life was spent singing in church choirs. I was there a lot of the time. And I think, you know, in the United Church, we talk a lot. We’re so wordy, and sometimes we don’t think carefully on the meanings of words — it becomes a little jargony. But music doesn’t really have a jargon unless you’re talking about it. Music is experiential, and music can lift you into places that words can’t. And in that way it’s spiritual. It’s as if someone’s saying to you, “I know how you’re feeling.” Music happens, and it’s so profound. It’s a gift, and it can make you cry. It is about being understood more deeply than
you understand yourself.

On esoteric discussions: I love reading texts on Freudian analysis. It doesn’t matter how esoteric it is or difficult, I just find it absolutely fascinating. I’m interested in esoteric theological discussions: How many angels really do dance on the head of a pin? I love that. I don’t like esoteric stuff about music, even though I’ve sat around and thought, “How long is that rest in Schubert?” “How do you put colour into your voice?” Esoteric stuff in music bores me. I’d rather say to people, “Can you hear the beauty in this? If you’re not moved, I would suggest that you think about it a bit.”

On the United Church: I’ve toured all over the place — there are no places in Canada I haven’t been, practically. [When touring] if I can, on a Sunday, I’ll go to the local United church. There is something the same about all the people I meet at United churches. It’s the spirit in those churches . . . people who are good-hearted, they want to see a better world, and they believe in the spiritual dimensions of life. 

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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