It’s been a remarkable year for mezzo-soprano Clara Osowski.
In March she placed second at the prestigious Das Lied International Song Competition in Heidelberg, Germany, the first American singer ever to win a prize there.
Three other prizes — at the Houston Saengerbund competition, the Handel Aria Competition in Madison, Wis., plus an award for best performance of a Schubert Lied at London’s illustrious Wigmore Hall Song Competition — confirmed what many Twin Cities music lovers already knew: Osowski, 31, is a singer of enviable charm and artistry, poised to take her career to new heights.
Yet, if the stars had aligned differently, Osowski might not have become a singer at all.
Raised on a farm near Turtle Lake, N.D., Osowski spent her early years immersed in agriculture, with long afternoons spent wandering the family property.
“We had about 50 head of beef cattle,” she recalled. “I followed my brother around, we made friends with our pet cows — and we conquered combines.”
Osowski’s mother, a music educator, ensured that her daughter took piano lessons from age 5, but music still played second to other childhood interests — hanging out with friends, rollerblading on the sole sidewalk in town, breaking her arm in a daredevil tumble.
Several things changed that. One was hearing the quality of her mother’s voice. “Mom was a church choir director,” Osowski explained. “Sitting in the pew, I would always try to make noises just like her.”
Another was the encouragement of a certain music teacher. “This one teacher really talked to my mom and said, ‘She should be in voice lessons, she has something special.’ She knew I had the skin for it, too — I didn’t get too nervous.”
Osowski’s voice developed impressively, yet the teenager’s musical pathway was still far from settled.
Intending to major in microbiology at North Dakota State University, she was persuaded by her voice teacher to add vocal performance as a second major.
Then, in Osowski’s sophomore year at NDSU, the eureka moment arrived. Osowski was cast to play Venus in a staging of John Blow’s baroque opera “Venus and Adonis.”
“I remember thinking, boy, I really like being around people,” said Osowski. “I like this better than organic chemistry.”
The young baritone playing Adonis to Osowski’s Venus also proved of interest. In Blow’s opera, he died in Osowski’s arms, wounded by the angry boar he was hunting. In real life, Joseph Osowski became Clara’s husband, and the pair eventually moved to his native Minnesota.
“We got married after my first year at grad school, when he was in Worthington,” said Osowski. “That fall he applied for a job at Anoka High School as choir director, and got it. So we moved up to Minneapolis, which was really helpful as I really had no idea what I was going to do in Worthington.”
That was seven years ago. Her profile on the Twin Cities classical scene has been building ever since.
Five years in the elite Ensemble Singers section of Philip Brunelle’s VocalEssence choir established Osowski’s credentials as a performer of rich expressive potential and strong collegial instincts. Regular appearances with the Rose Ensemble, Consortium Carissimi and Lumina deepened her appreciation for different performing styles and small-group singing.
An advocate of contemporary music, Osowski also developed close relationships with Minneapolis composers Libby Larsen and Dominick Argento. Not only does she perform their music regularly in recitals, but she also programs their compositions in her role with the Source Song Festival, an annual Twin Cities event she co-founded four years ago with pianist Mark Bilyeu.
Osowski is beginning to spread her wings beyond the Twin Cities, too. She just completed her debut season with the Grammy-nominated vocal group Seraphic Fire, and will soon return for the 2017-18 season. The opportunity to rub shoulders with the finest chamber ensemble singers in America is the main reason Osowski is more than happy to make the round trip to Miami for the group’s concerts. “Talent-wise you get absolutely the best singers in the nation, but also commitment-wise,” she said. “Everyone is willing to give their best, and then some.”
Unsurprisingly for a singer whose onstage manner is so warm and ingratiating, Osowski’s immediate future is full of exciting projects: A solo recital at the University of Minnesota featuring songs by Schubert, Poulenc and Britten (Sept. 25). A shared platform at Crooners Lounge & Supper Club with tenor Tesfa Wondemagegnehu for the premiere of a suite of “jazz art songs” by Minneapolis composer Jeremy Walker (Sept. 30).
Osowski professes a certain bemusement at the distance she has traveled professionally during her seven years in the Twin Cities. “I walk around in a state of disbelief,” she says. “I feel extremely lucky.”
There’s one thing, however, Osowski feels absolutely sure of — she owes a debt of gratitude to her adopted state.
“There’s no way I would have had access to the same resources if I lived somewhere other than Minnesota,” she said. “The audiences here are clever and empathetic. They know what excellence is, they know what moves them. Being here has helped my career 100 percent. I finally realized I can sing for a living.”
Terry Blain writes about classical music and theater.