Singing is Storytelling – Debi Wong and her story

The Canadian mezzo-soprano writes about her doctoral studies in Helsinki and about her fascination in re-thinking Classical performance.

I ended up in Helsinki by a strange twist of fate: there was a conductor in my Masters program who was interested in the doctoral programs at Sibelius Academy and he, being very familiar with the direction my work was headed, urged me to look into the programs as well. I was planning to go to London for my Ph.D studies, but I took my friend’s advice and started researching the programs at SibA. Even though it was November when I first visited Finland, I still fell in love with Helsinki and with the music scene and my friend was right: the doctoral program sounded perfect for me.

What I love about the Finnish early music scene and the whole Helsinki music scene, is that there is so much diversity in the cultural offerings. I often think back on my first projects in Helsinki and realize how lucky I was to meet so many musicians and performers that would take all my bizarre ideas very seriously and be open to trying them all out. When I first came to Helsinki, I was some weird (and loud…) kid from Canada who wanted to do away with certain classical music performance traditions and try new things. I’m really grateful to my collaborators and my audience for affording me the opportunities to play with tradition, historical repertoire and ways of performing.


To be honest, before starting my doctoral studies, I was really struggling with my stage nerves. I was always uncomfortable and unsettled on stage, even though I love singing and performing. It seems silly to say it now, but I realized that my nerves and discomfort were connected to an idea I had in my head of how all Classically-trained singers had to perform. I believed that my voice had to sound a certain way, and that I had to present Classical music in a very specific way, and I thought that there were right and wrong ways of being and performing on stage. I know now that these things are absolutely not true, but there are a lot of traditions in Classical music performance and it is daunting (especially as a young singer) to face those traditions and realize: these don’t work for me…so now what?

For me, it meant stepping back from what I thought it meant to be a Classical singer and focusing on what I love about performing. In my case, I am obsessed with storytelling and history and theatre and how the voice so easily resonates with all people.

My doctoral project, ”The Art Of Storytelling”, is about looking at my performing as a form of storytelling and looking at my voice and body as the means through which I communicate stories to an audience. For me, this has meant developing a style of performing that combines gesture and movement, speaking and singing, and it has meant programming and building concert experiences that are structured like stories. I usually start with a character that I find interesting: Lady Macbeth, Medea, Bilitis, Ophelia; then I choose a part of their story that speaks to me and my contemporary world and then I figure out how to tell that story using music, sound, gesture, the voice, the body.

My doctoral project is a platform for me to experiment with this way of programming and performing, but I also hope that it will demonstrate to other Classical singers and musicians that there are endless ways to engage with and present Classical music.


When I attend a performance, I want to be close to the performer. I want to feel like I am a part of her world, and I want to see all the emotions and thoughts running across her face. What I love so much about lute song and performing lute song is that the instrument demands this kind of experience. The instrument has a gentle kind of sound and it resonates best in spaces that are intimate.

Another thing I love about the instrument is that it is portable. If Solmund Nystabakk (from my duo, White Sparrow), is standing to play a song, I can stand beside him and we can be on the same level. If we both memorize all our repertoire, then we are free to interact and move about the stage as if we are both actors. In our newest program, ”Romeo & Juliet”, we are experimenting with using the stage as actors. And Solmund might even have a few lines to recite….

I enjoy performing with the piano and the harpsichord as well, but there is not as much flexibility with the instrument. Or, actually, maybe I simply haven’t been creative enough when working with the piano or harpsichord!


Opera, or the “O” word, is a funny genre that I feel like is going through a bit of renaissance right now. On the one hand, there are the big established companies, like the Metropolitan Opera or La Scala, that present the grand, historic, productions that we might picture when we immediately think of opera, but on the other hand, there are smaller companies and groups, for example Prototype Festival in New York and Indie Opera Toronto collective in Toronto, that are creating performances that are innovative and very contemporary in feel.

I think of opera as an epic and powerful form of storytelling: it combines all different art forms to depict stories and because it evolves around the human voice, it has the potential to really envelop and affect audiences. My idea of present day opera is sort of a culmination of everything else I’ve been talking about: it is intimate and dynamic, it depicts stories that speak to contemporary issues and communities, it is experimental, interdisciplinary and collaborative.

With my opera company re:Naissance, I adapt historical operas by finding ways to restructure the story and music so that contemporary audiences can more quickly connect to them. I also commission new operas that play with history in creative ways, or that use instruments and voices in innovative ways, or that foster unique interdisciplinary collaborations.

Under these definitions, I think a lot of the projects I have produced in my doctoral concert series can be considered as operas too. I’m still hesitant to call them “operas” because there are still such strong connotation and expectations with that word. But maybe I’m just being too cautious…

Debi Wong