An interview article by Rosemary Phillips, 2007
Have you ever had an event turn your life right around? Sonja Gustafson did. There she was, waitressing days and singing jazz at nights in the Honest Lawyer in London, Ontario, when her mum told her about auditions for the reality/documentary TV series on Bravo called Bathroom Divas: So you want to be an opera star?
I checked out the web site, and recorded a couple of opera arias and a jazz tune, explained Gustafson who was raised in a musical family and had originally trained as a classical singer. It was about a week before Christmas when they called and asked me to come to Toronto for an audition. They chose six finalists to go to opera boot camp and I was one of them. We had three weeks of lessons, master classes and movement classes. After one week we had the first vote-off. They chose a location, brought in guest judges, like Richard Marsden and Stuart Hamilton, and had to perform. The judges then deliberated on who was to go home that day.
Each of the six were from very different backgrounds. The viewer got to see the process from the eyes of several individuals, to see how tough it is to be an opera singer. I got tons of e-mails, even from kids, telling me how they wanted to take singing lessons.
Gustafson finished second. It certainly made me realize my full potential, she said. I decided to come home to London and go back to school, to Western, and pursue my masters. I hadn't taken a lesson in six years, but singing is not something you forget how to do.
What Gustafson had been doing in those previous six years was performing with many of London's most talented jazz musicians, and has been recognized with two London Music Awards for most popular jazz artist and a Jack Richardson Music Award for best jazz performer. Back at Western she has appeared in UWO's The Merry Widow and Orchestra London and Pacific Opera's joint productions of Rigoletto and Don Giovanni.
It was last Christmas she collaborated with Jeff Christmas to do a concert with Orchestra London. I met Jeff when I was singing jazz at Maggies in London. We needed a drummer so I hired him. Then we just started working together. When Orchestra London wanted a show, Jeff said he could do the arrangements with some classical and some jazz. We got together a repertoire that people enjoy, that shows a bit of everything; classical, fun classical, jazz and pop.
Then this last summer Gustafson decided to produce and perform in a short opera, Gian-Carlo Menotti's The Medium. I entered it in the Fringe Festival, she explained. I paid the royalties, hired a pianist and put together the cast from people I knew from school, got rehearsal space and procured funds to pay for expenses. We spent weeks rehearsing, staging, getting props and we had great audiences coming to each of the seven shows, people who would not normally listened to opera. They came for the theatre and they really liked it. We got voted the favourite show for our venue, the most daring and best performer (for myself) in the festival. That was very encouraging.
Gustafson has set her sight on continuing her small opera company, Diva Lounge Productions. I want to bring opera to people who might not otherwise go because it's too expensive or something they don't understand.
Her dream is to be involved in music. It's a big part of who I am. I'm not necessarily looking for fame and fortune. I want to be a working musician so that I can work with the best musicians I can and produce the best musical experience possible. I really enjoy having both a classical and jazz career. And, I would also like to have a family, a personal life.
As proof of Gustafson's dreams becoming reality, she stopped waitressing two years ago. That in itself is a dream and a miracle, to make a living at doing what I love and adore singing.
For more information on her latest recordings and performances visit Sonja's website.
Note: There are many more articles on this site.
Follow the link to view the Index