When Toronto native Charles Sy lost his voice at the end of his senior year in high school, his world fell apart. “I was devastated. I had complete aphonia, due to the extreme swelling of my vocal folds. I couldn’t speak for a month, and I couldn’t sing for three months. But singing was my life! I was terrified that it was all over.”
Sitting in Lincoln Center’s Indie café with Charles as the words tumbled out of his mouth, it was hard to imagine him being unable to talk. Nor was there any evidence from the smiling, outgoing 25-year-old that he had ever been shy and socially awkward. But the path to where he is now—a member of the highly selective Juilliard Opera Studies program and poised to make his Carnegie Hall debut in Bach’s Christmas Oratorio—has been strewn with obstacles.
Charles’s parents, immigrants from the Philippines, had a contentious marriage, which ended in divorce when he was very young, forcing his mother to support him and his sister on her own. Difficult as that already was, Ms. Sy developed cancer three separate times and was sick for much of Charles’s childhood.
He was an excellent student, wanting to please his mother by getting the highest marks. He especially loved science and dreamed of becoming a doctor one day. But between his schoolwork and caring for his mother, there was no time for Charles to make friends. He was isolated, terrible at sports, and very insecure. But the Catholic school had a choir, and it turned out he had an aptitude for singing. This became his one hobby, his one social event at school.
In seventh grade, when his voice changed, he found that he couldn’t control his voice anymore. “I had to deal with octave displacement. I couldn’t make the connection between my brain, my ear, and my vocal folds.”
It was clear that he needed voice training to correct this, and although the thought never occurred to his family nor to him that he might become a professional singer, he auditioned and was accepted at the Cawthra Park Secondary School which is specialized in the arts. That is where his life began to change.
In addition to the usual subjects, music majors learned theory, harmony, and music history. They learned to sing pop, musical theater, ensemble singing, and classical music, and although Charles loved musicals and still does, he did not have the brassy belting voice required to sing in them. (He did perform in a school production of West Side Story, however, playing a member of the Puerto Rican gang, The Sharks. “My Asian face passed for Latino.”). Charles met other students like him who were passionate about music, many of whom hoped to pursue a career in it. It started to dawn on him that that might be an option for him, too.
At the age of 15, Charles was urged to audition for the Ontario Youth Choir, a summer program for young singers aged 15 to 24, where the older members were studying voice at the university level. Charles decided to follow the same path. He found a voice teacher, Barbara Prins, who prepared him for auditions at the top-rated University of Toronto’s voice studies program. He was accepted, eager to graduate high school and start his professional training, when he lost his voice. “It was extremely traumatic for me, but I got through it and it taught me to take care of my voice and my health in general. So now I am very careful about using my voice correctly, not overtaxing it, and about diet and exercise.”
His mother was sick again and couldn’t work, and Charles had to help support the family as well as paying for his college tuition. Unable to afford living on campus, he lived at home, which was about two hours away by bus. In addition to that daily commute, he worked in a restaurant in Oakville, another hour and a half each way by train, from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. But in spite of the grueling hours, he actually loved that job.
“The place was called ‘Seafood, Steak, and Song,’” he recounts with a smile. “It’s closed now, unfortunately, but I was glad to have that job. No other restaurant would hire me as a waiter because I had no experience. But at the Three S’s they had singing waiters! We were all singers and they taught us how to wait tables. That’s a lot easier than hiring experienced waiters and teaching them to sing! I’d be taking someone’s order or picking it up from the kitchen when a bell would ring, and I’d say, “Excuse me a moment,” then set down my tray and break into an aria. I can’t tell you how many times I sang ‘O Sole Mio.’”
But he was exhausted and his academic grades started to slip. His voice teacher and mentor, Dr. Darryl Edwards, noticed he was losing focus and helped him find resources to apply for grants and scholarships, which eased his financial burden considerably, all the way through to his master's degree. (For a complete list of Charles’s accomplishments during and since his academic studies, see his website: http://charles-sy.com.)
An epiphany of sorts happened when Charles saw a Metropolitan Opera HD broadcast of Der Rosenkavalier, with Renee Fleming as the Marschallin. The final trio, where she relinquishes her lover Octavian to his true love Sophie, was performed with such depth of feeling that Charles found himself overcome with emotion. “I actually wept. I had always cried a lot privately as a child, worried about my mother. But I was never moved to cry at a performance, only paying attention to technique. Suddenly it struck me that being an artist is about connecting emotionally with one’s public, one’s stage partners and, above all, oneself. I realized how I had gotten through my difficult childhood by blocking out emotions. Now it was my job to make myself vulnerable in front of thousands of people, connect with them, take risks, and not be afraid of making a mistake. For me, singing is learning to understand myself.” (J.W.)
BIOGRAPHY, CHARLES SY
Toronto native Charles Sy has been recognized internationally as a promising young artist with a “softly lyric sound, a natural sense of phrasing coupled with a rare willingness to project beyond the apron” (National Post). He is described as “vocally and dramatically mature with a delicious dark tenor sound that [stretches] easily into shining high notes” (Schmopera). Sy is a recent graduate of the Canadian Opera Company’s Ensemble Studio and received both First prize and Audience Choice in their 2014 Centre Stage Competition. He is currently completing an Artist Diploma in Opera Studies at the Juilliard School.
A graduate of the University of Toronto (BMus, MMus), Sy is also an alumnus of several training programs including Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, the Art of Song Fellowship at the Toronto Summer Music Festival, and the Opera as Theatre program at the Banff Centre.