As a beloved radio host Jean Stilwell has interviewed many respected personalities including Yo Yo Ma, Maya Angelou, Barbara Hannigan Toronto Symphony Orchestra Concert Master Jonathan Crowe and Broadway’s Audra McDonald.
As a mezzo-soprano, Jean has performed Carmen, her signature role, in over 25 productions all over the world and received rave reviews for her interpretations of the famous Gypsy. She has performed, recorded and toured with a diverse group of respected artists, including upcoming fellow High Notes Gala for Mental Health performers opera star Richard Margison and pianist Robert Kortgaard.
She hosted our first High Notes Gala in 2014 and is reprising the role on April 28th at the Richmond Hill Centre for Performing Arts with Luba Goy as cohost.
“I am happy to lend my voice to help raise awareness of mental Illness, to help remove the stigma and fear and to enjoy an evening in celebration of mental health and the power to heal,” she says as we chat at her favourite Queen Street café.
“Singing is a language that is very centering and grounding. Through it I find myself, my worth and peace of mind. Music is an expression from the heart. I can’t think of a more beautiful and compassionate way to honour the journey so many suffer and struggle with than by raising awareness and creating empathy through musical expression. It’s a direct line to love.”
“Dealing with emotions such as discouragement, anxiety, loss, isolation, fear, pain, and/or sadness is something most of us can relate to. But sometimes the feelings become overwhelming and bring with them a despair that can be so unbearable that some people might try to bury those feelings through substance abuse—losing control by living a life of self-harm and wanting to end it however they can,” she says. “That’s mental Illness.“
“Artists are highly sensitive and intuitive and able to access their emotions to tell the story. As singers/actors we have a responsibility to know ourselves to the best of our ability. We research our hearts in order to allow others to understand theirs.”
“By dealing with and facing my own emotions, I have learnt more about myself and am able to access more about my life and my relationships. I’ve worked through the feelings and even embraced them in order to be a better artist,” she continues.
“Our job as artists is first to tell the story hoping others get peace of mind and experience something beautiful. We help the listener hear and feel what is going on deep inside them. Then when their tears start flowing when they listen to, for example a Brahms symphony, they allow themselves to feel.”
Jean is not your stereotypical opera singer—whatever that is. She enjoys David Bowie, the Rolling Stones, Coldplay and the lesser known bands Snarky Puppy and Sam Roxy along with her favorite classical composers Richard Strauss, Wagner, Mahler, Shostakovich and Prokofviev. She has several tattoos, including one of the goddess Psyche. Psyche is beauty incarnate. She is also the butterfly of transformation and the bridge between heaven and earth. She teaches that the soul is developed through suffering and commitment to love.
Just like Psyche and the butterfly Jean is constantly transforming herself and learning. “I think it is important to never feel that you are a finished product”, she says. Surprisingly she is taking the occasional singing lesson from her respected teacher, Neil Semer. “There is so much more to singing than singing. It is very therapeutic to walk in to the room and talk about what’s going on emotionally before even making a sound. A huge part of singing is doing the emotional work,” she says. “Mental and emotional problems are not something that just go away. You have to learn to deal with them to get to a place that is healthy.”
Jean is lending her voice to the High Notes Gala to support the many mental health organizations that offer help—and to create awareness and lessen the stigma surrounding mental illness. For tickets call 905.787.8811 or visit rhcentre.ca.
HIGH NOTES AVANTE PRODUCTIONS INC is a non-profit organization that is using the power of words and music to help those touched by mental illness move forward and connect them with the organizations offering help and support in recovery while sharing the success stories of mental illness survivors. Other HIGH NOTES GALA performers include opera singer Richard Margison and singer/songwriter daughter Lauren, Grammy-nominated flautist Ron Korb, 14-year-old violin prodigy Mercedes Cheung, pianist Robert Kortgaard, Ballet Jorgen and spoken word artist Julie Everson. Dr. David Goldbloom of CAMH will speak and Bill MacPhee of MagPie Media will also share his story of living with schizophrenia. Paul Radkowski, Founder of the LifeRecoveryProgram will give insights to some composers’ lives. Young winners participating in the High Notes Gala at the North York Music Festival (where Jean Stilwell also is an adjudicator) will also participate. Together we can move forward on higher notes!
For tickets call 905.787.8811 or visit rhcentre.ca.