Julie Nesrallah is not exactly the shy, retiring type.
But even the thought of singing O’Canada and God Save the Queen on Parliament Hill on Canada Day for millions of people – including Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge Catherine Middleton – had the Carleton alumna a little nervous.
In early June, the National Capital Commission contacted Nesrallah, who is a mezzo-soprano and is the host of CBC’s radio show, Tempo, and asked if she’d be interested in the singing assignment.
“I wrote back immediately saying, ‘Are you kidding?’ The answer was yes, on all counts. It was very exciting but I had to keep it quiet for a while until the official announcement,” recalls Nesrallah.
While she sings professionally all the time, this was a bit of a different gig. So, how did she prepare?
“You brush up on your God Save the Queen, is what you do. I remember singing it in grade school before they cut it. You get asked as a singer to sing various kinds of anthems but for this, you practice it every day,” she says.
“It’s only really under a minute of music. But when you’re singing someone else’s national anthem you can’t make a mistake and when you know you’re singing it for British royalty and 1,300 media outlets and, I don’t know how many million people were watching, you just know it cold and hope for the best.”
But what could possibly go wrong if you’ve practiced and know the words cold?
“What happens to the best of the best, even when you know something cold … it is still very easy to have a moment when you blank out on the words because you are under so much pressure and people are watching,” she explains. “Plus, you’re outside, what if wind happens? Often times, if I am singing outside and my hair is down, the hair goes in my mouth. I accidently swallowed a bug once … but luckily it all went off without a hitch, no bugs, no wind. It was just perfect, it was just beautiful and it was really one of the great professional experiences of my life.”
After the Canada Day program concluded, the Royals took time to meet all the performers and Nesrallah happened to be first in line. Meeting them was “an incredible dream.”
“Prince William got to me first and we shook hands. He said, ‘That was really well sung, that was so well sung!’ And I said ‘thank you’ and he moved along,” says Nesrallah.
“Kate came to me next and I said, “Your Royal Highness, it’s nice to meet you. You look beautiful,’ and she said, ‘No, you look beautiful! Enjoy the rest of your day,’ and I said, ‘Enjoy the rest of you trip.’ … So I had this really kind 30 seconds with each of them that was just great.”
As soon as she accepted the NCC’s offer to sing, Nesrallah knew exactly what she was going to wear for the occasion.
“I have this gorgeous strapless satin red dress with a tiny bit of crinoline. It was right colour, it was perfect for the season because it was a strapless gown but it wasn’t over the top. It was just simple, red, floor-length. I just knew that that was the perfect thing.”
Despite being prepared and looking perfect, she admits she was still nervous before she took to the stage.
“That was the biggest crowd I have ever performed in front of. It just showed me that I was capable of being excellent under the most pressurized conditions. That is really important when you are a singer and you have to perform at this kind of level in front of that many people,” she says.