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Once a physicist: Lauren Segal

Lauren Segal is a South Africa-born Canadian mezzo-soprano.

Lauren Segal

Why did you decide to study physics? I always loved maths and science – I loved the whole "right and wrong answer" part of it, and I also loved how beautiful it was. It came very simply to me. When I went to university, I knew I wanted to study science, but I didn't know which science, so I started with biology and physics. I found with biology, you have to memorize a lot – there's a little bit of problem-solving, but it's mainly memorization. Physics is the opposite, and that really appealed to me. I love how you have one little equation, and it just explains everything.

What did you do for your Master's degree? I was at the University of Toronto and my research was in laser cooling. I built a titanium–sapphire laser – oh my God, I haven't used these words in so long! – that was used as a barrier to study quantum tunnelling. We had a gas of atoms and we'd put the laser in and study how (and if) they would go through.

How did you get into music? I always had two sides, the artistic creative side and the more analytical (but also creative) scientific side, and at school I sang and played the piano and the trumpet. But when I went to university, I decided I shouldn't do music as a career without something solid to back me up, just in case. And I loved science, too, so it wasn't like "Oh no, I'll have to do physics." In my second year at university, though, I found I was missing music, so I joined a choir and met some people who were studying opera. That's when I really started listening to opera – I was more Broadway-bound before that.

What was it about opera that attracted you? I think opera is one of the ultimate forms of expression. To get such beauty, and to touch the depths of your soul, with one note or one chord – I found it mesmerizing. But then I was stuck, because physics was also getting more and more exciting, and at some point I had to choose because I couldn't do both properly anymore. So, after my Master's, I decided to focus on opera. I took language courses, studied music theory and read history books – stuff that my colleagues had done in their music courses – and I did lots of competitions and workshops. Eventually I joined the Canadian Opera Company's apprenticeship programme. That was when I became a professional and started working much more and becoming more recognized.

What are some highlights of your career so far? I just finished a run of a show, Falstaff, with the Canadian Opera Company. It was an amazing production that had debuted at Covent Garden and it had a lot of English and Scottish themes in it. My favourite role is Carmen, which I've recently sung in Italy, so that was a highlight, too. But there's always something interesting with each gig, whether it's the actual music or just meeting and working with interesting people. My next project will be some recitals in eastern Canada, which will be great, because singers don't often get to do recitals because they're more (shall we say) artistically fulfilling than otherwise. Then in 2015 I'll be in Tampa, Florida, during Canada's winter, which is going to be lovely. I'm singing in Rigoletto and Madame Butterfly, two of my favourite roles.

What skills are required to succeed in your field? You have to, of course, know how to sing, and language skills and movement skills are also very important. The days are gone where opera singers would just stand on stage and sing – we're running around and dancing and hopping, so you have to have very good movement and acting skills. Offstage, you need to be able to speak to people (including donors), and it's good if you have a thick skin, because sometimes things work and sometimes they don't. Staying calm and not letting your head take over is important too, because a lot of singing, like most performance sports, is psychological.

Does your physics background ever come in handy? Well, I've often compared the singing apparatus to a laser. Your laser source is like your breath support, and your laser cavity is like your resonances, and your output is just coming out like this: Ahhh! I definitely think about that. And on stage, when I'm moving props around, I sometimes think "Okay, this is difficult. How can I make it easier? Where's the vector? Where's the momentum?" Sometimes that helps. But I also appeared at a science and art festival a couple of years ago. It was called the Beakerhead Festival, and at one point I came on stage and started singing Carmen out of a double helix that lifted up. Then I got the audience doing "laser style" singing, and I had them singing a chord as the astronaut Chris Hadfield walked on stage. The energy and excitement in the air was incredible. I definitely love it when I can have both sides of my brain working at the same time.