EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH:
The dazzling, vocally distinctive, theatrically engaging mezzo-soprano VIVICA GENAUX continues to garner kudos for her compelling performances on the world’s great musical stages, not only for her extraordinary technique and the beauty of voice, but also for her vibrant character portrayals. She is consistently lauded as one of the pre-eminent interpreters of Baroque and bel canto music and continues to explore new avenues in this area.
In the spring of 2013 she returns to one of her most frequently-performed and cherished roles, Angelina in La Cenerentola, in three engagements, the first of which marks a company debut with the Staatsoper Hamburg; then for returns to Palm Beach Opera and Pittsburgh Opera. (source: www.vivicagenaux.com)
Operafocus caught up with the mezzo before her 82nd to 85th performance of "La Cenerentola".
You’re about to do Angelina in “Cenerentola” in Pittsburgh – a role you’ve done a lot. What particular qualities do you think you have that makes you so desirable for this role?
- I think my voice is well suited to the role of Angelina partly because of the darker colour I have in the lower register and the brighter quality on higher notes; I think that gives Angelina’s more melancholy moments a very different sound from the happy fireworks of the final aria. I’m known for my coloratura -singing very fast sequences of notes- and that of course is a big help in any Rossini role, but character portrayal is about showing as many facets of the person as possible, so the more colours, contrasts in phrasing and line of the voice that one can give, the more three-dimensional the character becomes.
In your opinion, apart from the coloratura, which qualities does a singer have to possess in order to do this role convincingly?
- To me, Angelina is the embodiment of “karma”- you reap what you sow. However, I’m sure I’ve heard actors in numerous interviews saying that there’s nothing more boring to play -or to watch- on stage than a “good” person. There’s always the challenge of keeping that feeling of altruism without becoming a cloying, “goody two-shoes” sort of person that eventually loses the compassion of the audience. It can be a difficult line to walk, allowing her to defend herself without ever becoming aggressive, and never losing that inner light, her dream of a happy ending that in some way becomes her innate force-field.
What do you think of Rossini's take on this traditional tale?
- That’s rather difficult to answer in a few words... the story or concept of Cinderella is a fairy-tale which exists in almost every culture in the world so there are myriads of differences between them, while the overall concept remains the same. Rossini’s take on the tale may have been influenced somewhat by cultural taboos. They say the glass slipper was supposedly changed to a bracelet because at the time it was inappropriate to show a lady’s ankle... I don’t know if that’s true or not. There are some other differences between the Perrault source-material and Ferretti’s libretto but the underlying story remains.
How does your leading man (in this case, I guess, Don Magnifico) make a difference to how you portray Angelina?
- We have a lot of interaction, and his actions toward me are fundamental to how strong/weak my reactions as Angelina can be. If he is realistically mean towards me, it makes my job easier because I actually feel afraid and react to that in a more natural manner. I remember rehearsals in Paris with Alessandro Corbelli as Don Magnifico- I actually started crying during the rehearsal because he was so real, so believable in his aggression and disdain towards me. I really believed him in the moment and it was horrible!! Other Don Magnificos can tend towards a more clown-like caricature of anger and abuse, and I find that more difficult to react to because I feel like I’m in a comic strip rather than in a drama - but it’s just a different style.
What do you remember from your first production of “Cenerentola”?
- Terror. My first Cenerentola as Angelina was at the Dresden Semperoper, four rehearsals and five performances. It was my first season working professionally, I had *very* little stage experience under my belt, and it was terrifying being on a revolving stage for the first time, singing in a different country for the first time. In rehearsals I couldn’t remember if I was supposed to sing in German and speak in Italian or vice-versa!. At the Semperoper at that time they weren’t so used to having guest artists -it wasn’t that long after East Germany had been re-opened to the West- and it didn’t occur to anyone to actually show me how to get to my dressing-room, or even more crucial, how to get from my dressing-room to the stage!!!! I was just petrified.
What’s been your most memorable performance of this opera?
- It has to be the creation of Irina Brook’s production in Paris at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. The cast was magnificent, and the opportunity of creating a production from the ground up is always fascinating. I also really enjoyed the production I just did with the Hamburg Opera, which I found brilliant.
What can you tell me about your background and your first few steps towards opera?
- As a kid I hated opera. My mother would listen to the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts and I would have my weekend chores to do. I would always try to vacuum-clean while the opera was on so I didn’t hear it! I loved musical theatre and had an amazing exposure to symphonic music through my dad’s record collection; he loved the more bombastic works of Bruckner, Beethoven, Mahler, Holst and Brahms, as well as their more lyrical sides. I have great memories of those symphonies and concerti.
- My first “steps” toward opera I suppose were through piano lessons, violin lessons, singing in school choir and musicals, dance lessons... the arts in general. In Fairbanks we had what felt like an unlimited number of opportunities to participate in the arts, and I was involved in as many as I could cram into my after-school hours. Even before school; in high-school I sang in Big Band at 7am before school started. All of these experiences influenced me and helped me get where I am today.
How/when did you first realise you had a voice?
- My mom had a cassette recording of me at about 5 years old I guess, playing piano and trying to sing along (which I pronounced “very difficult!”) and I always had a voice, good intonation and a good ear.
SINGING TECHNIQUE & VOICE MAINTENANCE
What would you consider good singing technique?
- A paradox! A good technique is the simplest way to sing, but can be the most difficult thing to learn. My favourite definition of technique was given by Frank Oz in an interview where he talked about puppeteering- he said a good technique was the rocking chair one sat in while making art. Technique in singing is based on good breath control, meaning muscle development and flexibility in the rib-cage and diaphragm, and could possibly be compared to belly-dancing where one needs to be able to isolate muscle groups, exercising certain muscles while keeping others relaxed. Language skills are also crucial to a good technique; the “placement” or resonant space of a note is hugely influenced by the formation of vowels and consonants. If the shape or modelling of that vowel or consonant is incorrect it can drag the voice down off the breath and into the throat, which creates tension and more wear on the vocal cords. Singing well should be simple, but simplicity is a very difficult thing to find!
Can you describe your technique?
- My jaw moves when I’m doing coloratura and a lot of people think that’s part of my “technique”, but it’s just something I’ve always had since I first started singing. I’ve begun teaching a bit, and most people come to me to learn how to sing coloratura since I’m known for that, but to me the trick to singing anything -coloratura included- is a solid technique. I have studied for over twenty years with Claudia Pinza and she has always insisted on the importance of good breath support, correct position of the vowels and consonants, and the idea of speaking the words while singing so that you get the full effect of the text rather than just a meaningless sequence of pretty sounds. As I said earlier, technique should actually be very simple, but it can be very difficult to transmit to a young singer since the entire mechanism is inside the body- not like teaching an instrument where one can immediately point at external factors like finger positions, elbow angles, etc. Voice technique uses more imagery and metaphor... almost like trying to describe a taste to someone, or like the parable of the three blind people describing what an elephant looks like. One man describes what the animal looks like according to how the tail felt, one has examined the leg of the elephant and the third man has perhaps touched the elephant’s tusk. The elephant in this case is technique, and in order to build it fully one has to discover all of its components. That can take time, and definitely a lot of patience.
How do you maintain your instrument on a daily basis? Do you have any "rules" before a performance?
- I’ve become more patient with myself in the past few years, partly because I feel comfortable technically and don’t feel like I’m searching for solutions as much as I used to. I give myself much more freedom now not to sing out in rehearsals, and I try to give myself every opportunity to rest both my voice and my body. Travel and rehearsal schedules are tighter now than ever, so it’s good to have kind of an “on/off” switch in order to conserve my resources. Before performances I generally eat a steak and some vegetables, then go in to the theatre about 2 hours before performance to warm-up and get in costume. I do enjoy my pre-performance routine as it helps me funnel myself in to the concentration I need on stage.
What's your learning process from you get a brand new score in your hands until you're on the stage?
- I first read through the whole opera, do a bit of research to see what source materials the libretto was based on, perhaps look at what the composer’s situation was at the time he/she wrote the piece, why or for whom it was written, etc. Once that’s done I put the background info away and just concentrate on what’s in the actual score. If it’s a Baroque opera I send the arias to my friend Jory Vinikour who writes the da capo ornaments for me. Once I have all the materials, I start off at the piano and learn the notes/words, after which I start putting it in the voice. I used to do the note/word learning while singing, but that’s really tiring on the voice and not very productive. I have finally learned to separate the two, and I’m much happier!
- Once I’ve learned the role, I pretty much show up at the first rehearsal with no preconceptions of what I want this character to be. If I’m working with a good stage director and conductor, we all work together to sculpt the character. If I feel I’m left to my own devices, I watch what the other artists are bringing to their interpretations and use them to determine where I fit in as a catalyst or reagent. After that, I fill in whatever’s missing to bridge the gaps. I like being able to walk through a show each night without knowing exactly how someone else’s performance is going to affect my own interpretation- if I have a good solid base to my character, I can react in the moment and it’s neat for me to “watch” each time how the story unfolds.
What would you consider your first big break-through?
- My first big break-through was definitely my professional debut in “L’Italiana in Algeri” at the Florentine Opera. It was my first principal role with a company, and I studied like a fiend!!!!! For every hour of rehearsal we had, I went back to the apartment and studied another hour and a half- I was so nervous because I didn’t really have any stage experience to speak of, and I so wanted to perform this role well because I absolutely loved being Isabella! On my opening night, there was a knock on my dressing-room door about five minutes before curtain. I opened the door to see the Conductor and General Director standing rather ashen faced, each holding an open program in their hands. They had just read my biography, and realized this was my professional debut! I was afraid they were going to say “ummm, we think it would be better if someone else (ie with more experience) sang tonight!” but as I was already in costume, I bit the bullet and admitted that yes, it was my debut! Everything went very well, and from that performance I was offered many contracts with various companies. It really opened the door to my career, and on top of that was one of the very best “L’Italiana” productions I have ever done. Very fond memories.
METROPOLITAN OPERA DEBUT
What do you remember from your first experience at the Metropolitan Opera?
- Wow, well my first experience at the Met was as Jennifer Larmore’s cover in “Il Barbiere di Siviglia”. I was just a kid, and it was amazing for me to be allowed to sit in rehearsals watching Jennifer, Ramon Vargas, and Claudio Desderi. I had the video of Ponnelle’s production of “La Cenerentola” with Desderi as Dandini, so I was starstruck!
- A couple of years later I was called in last-minute by the Met to substitute for another artist in the same production, and I literally “met” my colleagues onstage during my debut. The following day, I was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art with my mother and a lovely gentleman approached me saying, “That was a very good performance you gave last night, congratulations!” I said thank you very much, that I was happy he’d enjoyed it... to which he gave me a somewhat quizzical look. “You don’t know who I am, do you?” he said. When I said I was terribly sorry but no, I had no recollection of having met him before, he replied, “Hi, I’m Bruce Ford. I was your tenor last night!” That’s what I remember of my Met debut!!
You've worked a lot in different parts of the world and all corners of the world have different ways of approaching things like time management, schedules, rehearsals etc. What – in your experience – are the major differences between working in – for instance – the US and Europe? What do you prefer?
- Each company has its own methods. I think the secret to this business is to be as flexible as possible- generally we don’t know our rehearsal schedule until the night before, so it is very difficult to plan one’s personal life around that. In the States one generally does one or two weeks of morning/afternoon rehearsals, then two weeks of working afternoon/evening. The transition between the two can feel a bit like having jet-lag! In larger houses where they have performances every night, the only time available for dress-rehearsals - if you get a dress-rehearsal... most often the first time you see the stage and orchestra is in the actual performance - is 10AM, so you find yourself getting into costume at 8am. In southern Spain the rehearsals are often from 5pm-midnight, in Rouen for my first Carmen we worked daily 2pm-8pm... I find that lovely because I have the mornings free to study and have additional coachings if necessary. You just try to fit things in to the time you have available that day!
What makes someone a great/outstanding conductor - and likewise, what makes someone not so?
- My teacher always says, and I agree, that a great conductor is one who sings with you. That’s not to say you want to hear a voice rising gloriously up out of the pit, it just means that the conductor is phrasing with you, breathing with you, and transmitting those feelings to the orchestra. In baroque music where one often works without a conductor, I generally prefer when the 1st violinist is “group leader” rather than the cembalist, as I feel the violin is closer to the voice than the more percussive keyboard. What you definitely don’t want happening is finding yourself on stage and only seeing the top of the conductor’s head. If he/she is buried in the score, there’s no contact or collaboration with what’s going on on stage and it makes my job very difficult.
What future roles do you look forward to the most and why?
- I never know how to answer that. I have so many beautiful roles in my repertoire which were completely off my radar before they were offered to me! I feel like I’m at my best when I’m open to the opportunities which come my way, rather than setting my sights on performing certain roles.
What’s your next big debut and where?
- I think every project for me feels like a big debut, so I’m not really focused on any one in particular. I am looking forward to my first Sesto in “La Clemenza di Tito” next year as it will be my first Mozart opera, though!
How do you cope with the sacrifices on a personal level that most opera singers face with being away from family and loved ones for most of the year?
- I think the sacrifices one makes for this career vary widely from one singer to another. I don’t feel like I’m sacrificing much at all because beyond the fact that I love singing, I also love travelling, working in different languages, being by myself... these can all be challenging aspects to artists who are on the road up to ten months out of the year, but I feel very comfortable. I find that the time I do have with loved ones is more cherished than if we were together every single day, and I find that communication is so much easier now than it ever used to be that it facilitates my life even more. I like my life!
Catch VIVICA GENAUX at Pittsburgh Opera 27th + 30th April and 3rd + 5th of May