In Conversation with Wirth Vocal Prize Winners


Published: 12May2021
Chelsea Rus
Marcel d'Entremont
Jenny Ivanovna
Simone McIntosh
Anna-Sophie Neher

The 2020-2021 Wirth Vocal Prize competition takes place this weekend and will forever change the life of one young singer from the Schulich School of Music of McGill University. 

One of the major awards given out at the Schulich School of Music, the Wirth Vocal Prize was established in 2015 by Elizabeth Wirth to assist an exceptional singer building towards an international career. This year’s recipient will receive a generous scholarship, valued this year at $25,000, as well as a smaller likeness of the Wirth Vocal Prize logo in the form of a 14-karat gold lapel pin. The runners-up in the finals will also be awarded a $1,000 cash prize. 

This award provides significant support at a critical moment in a young artist's career, as Chelsea Rus, Simone McIntosh, Anna-Sophie Neher, Marcel d'Entremont, and Jenny Ivanovna can attest. Past winners share thoughts on their time at Schulich and the lasting impact of the Wirth Vocal Prize.

What advice would you give to your starting-at-university self?     

Simone McIntosh (MMus’17 | WVP Winner 2016-2017): Feed your curiosity and learn how to nourish it for when you leave McGill. Be open to new experiences and perspectives and allow yourself to be wrong and fail. Work and love music for the love of your community and what music can do for people, not for the compliments and praise nor the anxiety or social pressure you may have. Think of higher education as a long-term version of self-care.  

Jenny Ivanovna (MMus’20 | WVP Winner 2019-2020): I would advise her to trust in herself and have more confidence. Remember that hard work pays off. Also, I would remind her to enjoy every day, including the bad ones. They are all important.   

Anna-Sophie Neher (MMus’18 | WVP Winner 2017-2018): I feel like I was always scared and a little ashamed to sing because I knew I had this one technique issue or that one posture problem that I wanted to resolve before people heard me sing. I would definitely tell my young self to just sing and enjoy!!! Your voice is the best it can be right now and that is worth a lot! There are always going to be some things that you’ll want to work on, so if you wait to have resolve them all, you’ll never sing. 

Chelsea Rus (MMus’16 | WVP Winner 2015-2016): I would remind myself to be authentic and to find the “Why!” 
Be authentic. I wished I would have spent a little less time thinking about what will make me a great singer, or impress my professors, and more time on what defines me as an artist. To be clear, that doesn’t mean I wished I worked less on my technique, languages or performance craft. In addition to all of those fundamental tools, I wished I would have asked more meaningful questions, and had been less afraid to show myself as I really am, flaws and all. I wish I would have been more vulnerable, allowing myself to search for my truth in my artistry instead of always looking for the right answers. I wished I wouldn’t have waited to claim my inner artist until after I graduated, or even after my first young artist program. It’s a huge responsibility to be an artist, and being authentically you, onstage and offstage, is the key. 

Search for the “Why.” During a seminar, I remember my professor telling us that finding the “Why” is one of the most important steps an artist can take. “Why do I sing?,” “Why do I perform?,” “Why did I choose this career path?” etc. Back then, I didn’t have the strength to answer those questions. I wanted the answer to be something profound and firm, such as: “I sing because I MUST.” To this day, I keep a journal of my answers to the “Why.”  I’ll be honest, the answers are a little complicated and fluid, especially these days. Some days it’s, “Singing makes me feel the MOST connected to myself, and the entire universe (past and present) all in one action.” Somedays it’s just a simple need or a strong desire. I think the search for the “Why” should be your driving force as a student and an artist. It goes deeper than a paycheque or the recognition of an audience or your colleagues. The “Why” needs to be your armour that can withstand rejection, fear, and questioning. 

Marcel d’Entremont (Grad Art Dip’18, Gr Dip in Perf’19 | WVP Winner 2018-2019): I would give myself the same advice that I received and ignored! Being a successful musician does not mean that you have to go straight from high school to an Undergraduate degree to a Master’s degree to performing full time. It is ok to take time off and to allow yourself to grow outside of an academic or professional environment before you continue. My most valuable university experience was at McGill, after being away from school for two years; I was able to return to an academic environment with a clear mind about what I wanted from my time in school and was able to focus on the elements of my training that I really wanted and needed. 

What was the most surprising thing you learned during your degree? 

Marcel: Perhaps not a surprise, but the biggest revelation for me during my time at McGill was defining what success as a musician looked like. I have such high expectations for myself and felt like I should be considered a failure if I wasn’t singing at the biggest opera houses in the world. However, my version of success started to modify as I went through my two years at McGill. Making real, noticeable positive changes in my singing, started to feel like success. Learning a difficult aria or contemporary piece felt like success. I started to find joy in the music which I was creating, and not focusing on all of the places where I wasn’t performing. Why can’t playing music at a senior’s home, where you are making a direct impact on the people sitting in front of you with your music, be as meaningful or significant as singing at the Met? 

Chelsea: I took a seminar on Charles Burney (a great Music Historian) that changed my whole perception of music history. I still reference his letters to this day! At the time, I didn’t want to “waste time” in any seminars, because I would rather be focused on performing. However, these seminars influenced how I do my research for a composer/character/piece of music and thus have made me a well-rounded artist. 

Anna-Sophie: I’ve always wanted to be the perfect student and follow all the rules; I wanted to fit in the mold of what constitutes a perfect soprano. In time, I learned that your individuality is what makes you interesting and unique. Don’t change yourself. Find out who you are, love it and show it to the world! People want to see the real you not the perfect you. 

Simone: For me, the most surprising and valuable thing I learned at McGill hit me only this year. Dominique Labelle, my teacher, often talked in studio classes about how we are servants to the music and vessels for the message we send. "What the heck does that mean, Dominique?!?”  With the pandemic and its subsequent losses causing immense grief for our communities, it hit me like a ton of bricks! As artists we exist to serve the community in times of healing, reflect society in the good and bad, and to give and teach empathy to audiences. I am so glad Dominique continued to say this, because it is the ultimate goal for me as a singer. 

If you had a mantra/philosophy/phrase that sums up where you are now, what would it be?     

Jenny: I have two. First, never let your emotions overpower your intelligence. Second, you’ll drive yourself crazy trying to control something that isn’t yours to control. Let go. Free yourself. Allow your mind and energy to focus on something positive to build something beautiful.  

Chelsea: “Follow Through” is my mantra these days. For me, it means so many things. I tell myself to follow through while working technically on a piece of music, and while performing. I tell myself to follow through when I don’t want to send in that application, or e-mail that director/conductor. It is a mantra that has led me to found my new business (an Online Music School for Kids), and to see success with it this year. I started following through on all the little aspects in my work, and started to see the big aspects in my life change for the better. 

Marcel: Harry Potter has been such a huge part of my life; I can’t help but think of these two quotes from the series:  
"It is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities." 
“It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.” 

Simone: I recently started a small studio, for them I say “Singing is breath, mindset, and communication. The rest are just details.” (Note: We spend A LOT of time on the details) 

Can you tell us about a moment you remember from the Wirth Vocal Prize finals? Take us back there, if you can! 

Chelsea: The build up to the Wirth Vocal Prize finals was really calm for me, actually. I wanted to sing my best, and I really bonded with my collaborative pianist (the fabulous Marie-Eve Scarfone). Our rehearsals were incredible, and we set out to make excellent music together. That was our number one goal, to make great music. Once on stage, I remember feeling confident about what we had rehearsed and feeling supported by her the entire time. She was my pillar in that moment, and I owe my confidence and relaxed state, to her. I couldn’t remember a lot about the performance, as it was a blur of extreme concentration and pleasure! I felt locked into the moment, and completely exhilarated. 
When they read out the name of the winner, I was standing beside three amazing colleagues, all of whom gave incredible performances. I remember hearing my name read out, and being in complete disbelief. My best friend was standing beside me as a fellow competitor, and she gave me a big hug straight away. It was a really intense moment and I was experiencing an enormous range of emotions, and I remember thinking “This can’t be happening, I have to call my Dad!” 

Anna-Sophie: I will never forget the day I won the Wirth Vocal Prize. At around noon that day I started to have a searing pain in my lower left stomach area. It intensified as the day went on — to the point that I couldn't even stand up straight. An hour before I had to sing, I was still in my bed crying and in pain. Then my boyfriend told me to just get up and to go WIN THAT PRIZE! He helped me and stayed with me the whole time. I didn’t have time to shower and I can’t even remember how I managed to put make-up on. I walked on stage and sang. The pain was nearly gone for those 30 minutes. I learned that day that adrenaline can do actual miracles. I spent the next three days at the hospital being treated for a partly twisted ovary! 

Marcel: I remember so many moments from that day and from my performance very clearly! One moment which stands out happened during my performance of Schubert’s Erlkönig, when I made an error in the words. I remember feeling so frustrated when I finished the song that I had messed up something that I knew so well and being so surprised by how well the audience seemed to be reacting the performance. (To be fair, the ovation may have been directed at the truly sensational piano playing by Dakota Scott-Digout). I had to quickly remind myself in that moment that one small error does not define an entire performance. Another memory which stands out is the feeling of immense relief when I walked off the stage after my performance. The competition was something which I had been working towards for such a long time, and I was so pleased that it had gone as well as it had. It was probably the most successful that I have ever been in delivering a performance which lined up with all the things that I had practiced. To this day, I feel like some of the best singing of my life happened on that night. 

Any words of wisdom for future Wirth Vocal Prize candidates?   

Simone: Text! Text! Text! You’ve done the work on your singing technique, now tell us a story - bring us on a journey. As thoughts of judgement, criticism and anxiety enter your mind (and they will come), treat them as if in meditation; breathe, acknowledge their presence, let them go, and return to your text/intention. 

Jenny: I would advise them to enjoy their repertoire and their singing. I would tell them to focus only on themselves and avoid knowing what the other candidates are singing. To challenge themselves to sing from their heart and to give it all. 

Anna-Sophie: Have courage, be kind (to yourself and others), be yourself and ENJOY! 

What changed for you after winning the Wirth Vocal Prize?  

Jenny: It changed the way I prepare for a performance. It gave me the extra confidence to believe in myself and my work. Lastly, to keep challenging myself into being a better singer and performer.  

Chelsea: After the Wirth Prize, I felt recognized as a singer in a way I hadn’t before. I was all of a sudden very visible to prospective agents/directors and companies. It was absolutely life-changing for me. More importantly, I finally took myself seriously. I really stepped up, and took responsibility for finding out what a career as a singer looks like, beyond McGill Opera. Winning the Wirth Vocal Prize, gave me the confidence to set in motion a plan, and follow through with my ambitions of having a career as a performing artist. I am forever grateful to McGill, and Elizabeth Wirth for this life changing opportunity.  

Anna-Sophie: Winning the Wirth Vocal Prize definitely gave me a confident boost that I really needed. It showed me that I belonged in this crazy world. It also opened many doors for me. I am so very grateful to have won the Vocal Prize and to have had the support of McGill University.

Simone: Well… I remember not being able to pay for a meal the week prior… It was nice to not worry about that! The support that I received and continue to receive from McGill is incredible. I learned so much from people who care about higher education and the resources that were available to me were unlike what I’ve experienced since (you have no idea how much I miss that library!). The Wirth Prize pin is one of my most prized possessions, because it perfectly encapsulates my time there.  

Marcel: Some great performance opportunities were offered to me after winning this prize, and I ended up signing on with an agent. I also felt some relief from the burden of financial stress which will inevitably plague so many young singers, which felt like a weight being lifted off of my shoulders. Every audition didn’t feel like a do-or-die scenario where not being successful meant not paying my bills. I do also want to take a moment to say a sincere thank you to Elizabeth Wirth; classical music in Canada truly relies on the generosity of people like her, and she has made such an incredible difference in the lives of so, so many young musicians. McGill University is incredibly lucky to have a person like her who believes in supporting the education of the next generation of musicians, and I am eternally grateful for her support! 


 The sixth edition of the Wirth Vocal Prize takes place this weekend

Semi-Final Round: Friday, May 14, 2021, 7:00 PM (Webcast from Pollack Hall) 

Final Round: Sunday, May 16, 2021, 2:00 PM, (Webcast from Pollack Hall) 


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