Opera singer Martin Renner Wallace knows what it’s like to sing the same song over and over.
When he started out as a tenor in the Vancouver Opera, he sang a truncated version of The Barber of Seville 137 times for schools across British Columbia. Now, the 34-year-old Delta resident will be performing in his 60th rendition of Handel’s Messiah. Not that he minds.
“Yet again, Handel has paid my mortgage,” Renner Wallace said, laughing.
“Thank you Handel.”
Renner Wallace will be the tenor soloist in the Surrey City Orchestra’s performance of the Messiah on Dec. 8. The orchestra will be performing with the Vancouver Bach Choir at the Bell Performing Arts Centre at 7:30 p.m. Renner Wallace will be performing alongside Surrey soprano Elaina Moreau, counter-tenor Shane Hanson and bass-baritone Tyler Simpson.
“It’s always fantastic to see new arts organizations like this doing a relatively large-scale production like the Messiah,” Renner Wallace said. “I think it’s great to see them able to put together this sort of production.”
And the Messiah is a production. The opera-like oratorio runs three-and-a-half hours long in its original version, and covers the three main acts of early Christian history: the birth of Jesus, the crucifixion and ascension of Jesus, and Paul’s teaching of the resurrection. At Christmas, the performance is cut significantly, focusing primarily on the birth of Jesus with a couple of movements from the two other parts.
Renner Wallace, as the tenor, is the one who begins the concert.
“It’s a lot of fun because you get to introduce it; you get to set the tone for how everything is going to be delivered in the evening,” Renner Wallace said.
“And for myself, for the tenor, that’s it for the first half of the show. I actually just sit there and enjoy everyone else’s performances.”
It’s in the second half of the show the Renner Wallace gets to sing a solo again — although then he does five songs in rapid succession.
It’s quite a bit different from the first time Renner Wallace sang in a performance of the Messiah; back then, he was an elementary school student in Victoria, taking part in a children’s version of the oratorio.
As a boy soprano, Renner Wallace sang “this beautiful little piece … right in the story around Christ being born,” he remembered. “That was sort of my first experience.”
Over the years, Renner Wallace has sung many, many Messiah‘s — sometimes as many as three or four a year. But that hasn’t made the production boring for the tenor.
“Your job as a soloist … is to deliver the text in as meaningful a way as possible,” Renner Wallace said. “So, when I pick it up, the first thing I [do] is go through the words again.”
“What does this mean to me today? What does this mean to me now? And then my goal over practicing … is to figure out how to sing that,” he continued.
In Baroque music like the Messiah, there’s lots of room for soloists to figure that out. Solos give singers the opportunity to create musical ornaments and deviate from what’s written on the page.
“We all create stuff that’s not on the page and put it in there,” Renner Wallace said. “I take things a little bit slower so that everything can come through clearly, whereas some tenors will do it a little bit faster.”
Generally, soloists will have a rehearsal with the conductor the day before a performance, to give the conductor a sense of what embellishments they might add to the music. Because Renner Wallace knows Surrey City Orchestra conductor Leslie Dala quite well, they will likely skip the initial practice and go right in to rehearsal with the orchestra.
“There’s something about performing for your colleagues that is interesting,” Renner Wallace said. “Most singers I talk to say that rehearsing with your colleagues for the first time is almost the most difficult thing.”
With the Surrey City Orchestra, at least, Renner Wallace will already know a couple of the orchestra members, and many of the singers. No such luck in Prince George, where Renner Wallace will be performing the Messiah with the Prince George Symphony Orchestra for the first time on Dec. 15.
“I’ve never sung in Prince George. I do not know the conductor,” Renner Wallace said. “So that one’s a little bit more of a unique experience.”
Tickets for the Surrey City Orchestra’s performance of the Messiah start at $21 and go up to $65. Tickets are available online at tickets.bellperformingartscentre.com/theatremanager/1/online?performance=1054.