Dear readers, you can find here formidable Baroque and Bel Canto specialist mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux's answers to our questions. The entire interview is now available (this space before had only a teaser with five answers). Luiz Gazzola was impressed with how lovely and charming Ms. Genaux was during the interview. [Opera Lively interview # 34]
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The dazzling, vocally distinctive, theatrically engaging singer 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.
Singer: Vivica Genaux
Born in: Fairbanks, Alaska, in 1969
Recently in: Vivaldi, Il Farnace, Opéra National du Rhin and other European cities
Ms. Genaux's professional stage debut was with the Florentine Opera in October 1994 as Isabella in L'italiana. She subsequently sang the role with numerous companies, including the Opéra National de Paris, San Francisco Opera and Turin's Teatro Regio, among others. Rosina/Il barbiere di Siviglia is her most performed role, having sung it with twenty-one companies including: the Wiener, Deutsche and Bayerische Staatsopers; Metropolitan, De Nederlandse, Washington National and Dallas Operas; and at the Dresden Festival.
Ms. Genaux's amazing repertory includes, among others, these numerous roles:
She has played Angelina/Cenerentola with twenty-two companies including the: Semperoper, Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Opera Orchestra of New York (at Carnegie Hall), Washington Concert Opera, Teatro Municipal de Santiago, New Israeli Opera, Japan Opera Foundation, and the Grand Théâtre de Genève. Among her other bel canto credentials are the trouser parts of: Title Role/Tancredi (Vienna/Budapest); Neocle/L'assedio di Corinto (Baltimore); Malcolm/La donna del lago (Caramoor); Orsini/Lucrezia Borgia (Caramoor/Minnesota Opera); Falliero in Bianca e Falliero (Washington Concert Opera); Hassem in Donizetti's Alahor in Granata (Seville); Pippo/La gazza ladra (Caramoor); Arsace/Semiramide (Minnesota & Caramoor) and Romeo/I Capuleti ed i Montecchi (Minnesota/ Pittsburgh).
In the Baroque and early-Classical repertoires her Handel roles are the most varied and numerous, encompassing everything from fearless generals to ruthless goddesses, from impetuous young men to love-sick maidens disguised in male attire, from caped Crusaders to the most nefarious of villains and finally to allegorical visions: Il Piacere/Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno (Madrid/Vienna); Bradamante/Alcina (Paris); Title Role/Ariodante (Dallas/San Diego); Polinesso/Ariodante (Paris/London/ Madrid/Vienna); Title Role/Arminio (Solothurn/Siena/Amsterdam); Title Role/Giulio Cesare (Washington); Sesto/Giulio Cesare (San Diego); the dual roles of Juno and Ino/Semele (Les Talens Lyriques in Paris, and London and The New York City Opera); and the Title Role/Rinaldo (Montpellier/ Innsbruck).
Los Angeles Opera 2003 - Orfeo ed Euridice (Orfeo, role debut)
Photo credit Robert Millard, used with permission
She has also labored lovingly to help widen the appreciation for the works of Johann Adolf Hasse, both in her many concerts and on stage: Piramo/Piramo e Tisbe (Salzburg/Montpellier); Marc'Antonio/Marc'Antonio e Cleopatra (Paris/Brussels) and Selimo/Solimano (Berlin/ Dresden). Additionally, she has made a strong impact as: Penelope/Il ritorno d'Ulisse (Munich–three engagements); Title Role/Vivaldi's Giustino (Solothurn); Irene/Bajazet (Vienna/ Yokohama/ Montpellier/ Venice/Cracow/ Paris/ Madrid/ Met); Antiope/Ercole sul Termodonte (Cracow/Vienna/Paris); Teologia in Alessandro Scarlatti's La Santissima Trinità (Palermo/Lyon/Paris); Nerone in Domenico Scarlatti's Ottavia restituta al trono (San Sebastián); Orfeo in Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice (Los Angeles); and in a pair of Haydn roles - Costanza in L'isola disabitata (Bamberg) and Ernesto in Il mondo della luna (Vienna)
Recent and future engagements:
Ms. Genaux keeps herself incredibly busy. I think I've never seen such a full schedule!
This season, with a particular emphasis on the music of the 18th-Century Venetian master Antonio Vivaldi, Ms. Genaux continues to balance her appearances in the United States and abroad with operatic engagements, concerts and recitals in new venues and countries, as well as returns to sites of previous audience and critical triumphs. She adds three characters from rarely-heard works to her repertoire, two by Vivaldi (Gilade in Il Farnace and Epitide in L'oracolo in Messenia), as well as one by J.C. Bach (Tamasse in Zanaïda), bringing her total to forty-six roles, twenty-nine of which are en travesti. She sings one of her signature parts, Isabella in L'italiana in Algeri, and performs concerts with a host of the leading period instrument ensembles. Her discography is augmented with a Baroque duo program (her first for Sony) and Vivaldi's L'oracolo for Virgin Classics.
The mezzo commenced the 2011-12 season with two debut performances at the Musikfest Bremen (September): the initial one was a Hasse/Handel concert, which was to be recorded by Sony, in her first collaboration with the ensemble Cappella Gabetta. Next, in Locarno, as part of Switzerland's Le Settimane Musicali, was the first of many performances throughout Ms. Genaux's season in which she participated in concert presentations of Vivaldi's Il Farnace with Diego Fasolis leading I Barocchisti (September). Other Farnaces take place that month at the festivals in Bremen and Ambronay (the latter, also a debut), and for her company debut at the Opéra de Lausanne (December).
Interspersed amongst these were her role debut as Tamasse in a concert performance of the recently-rediscovered Zanaïda by Johann Christian Bach at Paris' Cité de la Musique (September), marking her premier pairing with Opera Fuoco, led by David Stern; she had a quartet of dates as Isabella for her first engagement by the Asociación Asturiana de Amigos de la Ópera in Oviedo, Spain (October); concerts at San Francisco's Herbst Theater and elsewhere in the Bay-area for a new collaboration with Nicholas McGegan and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (October); she was a guest artist for the German AIDS Foundation's benefit concert on the stage of the Deutsche Oper Berlin (November); and an all-Vivaldi concert introducing her to audiences of Prague's Strings of Autumn Festival (November).
Photo Credit Christian Steiner, used with permission
The Alaskan-born mezzo-soprano began her new year in the company of one of her most frequent musical partners, Europa Galante and their leader, Fabio Biondi. They performed another Vivaldi-rarity in concert, with Ms. Genaux taking on the role of Epitide in L'oracolo in Messenia, for the first time, initially in Caen, France and then at Vienna's Konzerthaus, with the latter serving as the venue of the Virgin Classics recording (January). The same musical forces then embarked on a six-city U.S. tour presenting Vivaldi arias, as featured in Pyrotechnics, their 2009 Grammy©-nominated recording, at Los Angeles' Walt Disney Concert Hall, in Las Vegas, Tucson, Denver, at Carnegie (Zankel) Hall, and in Kansas City as part of the Harriman-Jewell series (January/February). She made her debut in Luxembourg at their Philharmonie in a program of 18th- and 19th-century repertoire (February). The Farnace team reassembled in Strasbourg and Mulhouse for a fully-staged production by Lucinda Childs for France's Opéra National du Rhin (May-June). In between the runs in the two Alsatian cities, the artists traveled to Amsterdam's Concertgebouw for another concert presentation (June). To conclude the season she makes her International Gluck Opera Festival debut in a concert featuring opera arias by Gluck and his near-contemporaries, W.A. Mozart and the Czech composer, Josef Mysliveček.
L'Atenaide (Teodosio) – Vivaldi
with Modo Antiquo & Federico Sardelli, conductor
NAÏVE OP30438 3 CD
U.S. Release 22 August 2007
Handel & Hasse Arias & Cantatas (solo)
with Les Violins du Roy, Bernard Labadie, Conductor
VIRGIN CLASSICS (1 CD) 7243 5 45737 2 9
U.S. Release September 2006
Bajazet (Irene) – Vivaldi
with Europa Galante, Fabio Biondi, Conductor
VIRGIN VERITAS 45676-2
U.S. Release May 2005
La Santissima Trinità (Teologia) – Scarlatti
with Europa Galante, Fabio Biondi, Conductor
VIRGIN VERITAS 5456662 (1 CD)
Released May 2004
Bel Canto Arias (solo) – Donizetti/Rossini
with Ensemble Orchestral de Paris, John Nelson, Conductor
VIRGIN CLASSICS 7243 5 45615 2 8
Released September 2003
Rinaldo (Title Role) – Handel
René Jacobs, Conductor
HARMONIA MUNDI HMC 901796.98
Released May 2003
Arias for Farinelli (solo) – Various Artists
with Akademie für Alte Musik, René Jacobs, Conductor
HARMONIA MUNDI HMC 901778
Arminio (Title Role) – Handel
with Il Complesso Barocco, Alan Curtis, Conductor
VIRGIN Veritas 5 45461 2
Released August 2001
An Evening of Arias and Songs(solo) – Various Artists
EPCASO 93515 04012
Released June 1999
Photo credit: Axel Zeininger
Exclusive Opera Lively interview with Vivica Genaux
OL - Though you’ve been singing Baroque roles, you’re also a bel canto performer, with quite a few roles (especially trouser roles) in your career. Given your past work with Fabio Biondi, would you consider recording his version of Norma, singing Adalgisa? Or is it a role you don’t think will suit you, even in this version and a recording?
VG - While Adalgisa is a beautiful role, I don’t think my voice is suited to it. I have had the opportunity of singing a couple of bel canto operas with original instruments (Il barbiere di Siviglia and La Cenerentola) and I really loved the sound palette the period instruments provide in this repertoire. It is a much less polished sound, and I think that humanizes the music and the drama all the more. Then again, that seems to be my taste. I love the chamber orchestra version of de Falla’s El amor brujo much more than the full orchestra version. I like it when music has a bite to it, not merely a smooth, glossy patina. The other issue that is brought up when using period instruments is that one most often has the opportunity of working at a slightly lower pitch, A=430, which I feel warms both the orchestral and the vocal color. Singers have been faced with increasingly higher tuning for decades, and where at one time the musicians would have been asked to transpose to another key in order to suit the voice, now scores are treated almost as sacred, untouchable material and the voice is somehow expected to keep singing higher and higher. The higher pitch also produces a much brighter, louder sound in the orchestra, meaning that the voice, in comparison, has a very hard time being heard over it. The trend now of bringing these works back to what I consider a more “human” dimension is wonderful.
OL - You have performed Tancredi in Vienna and Budapest. How did you approach such a dramatic trouser role? Do you plan to sing it again in the future?
VG - I would love to have the opportunity of singing Tancredi again. I was battling a recurring tracheitis for about three years, and the Tancredi performances fell right into the middle/end of that period, which was a huge challenge for me. I prefer some of the later Rossini opera-seria, for example Semiramide, Bianca e Falliero, Maometto II. I found the thematic material in Tancredi’s arias not as fully developed as it exists in the later operas, and as a performer it was difficult for me to fully explore the music in such short segments. Perhaps that’s the Baroque inclination in me, where one has the opportunity of revisiting the melodic theme fully in the da capo, but Rossini himself used a modified da capo form in most of his arias. I just missed that in Tancredi’s music.
OL - Most of your operatic roles are from Baroque to bel canto. Have you ever been offered to perform some XX century/contemporary opera? Would you be interested? Which roles? Would you be willing to participate in a world premiere of a new opera?
VG - I have been offered roles in contemporary opera, and I did participate in a world-premiere of a new opera commissioned by San Diego Opera some years ago. I enjoyed the experience, especially as it gave me the opportunity of working with Jerry Hadley. My issue with contemporary opera is that I’m a very happy person and generally the contemporary operas (or at least the roles I’ve been offered) seem quite dark. Given the amount of time one needs to spend learning the music, especially contemporary music where you have to learn the composer’s “language”, and the amount of time one has to live with a character in order to develop an interpretation, I’ve just not been willing to immerse myself in that kind of environment for that long.
OL - You once said in an interview years ago that you would like to have Ewa Podles’ voice, with a full rich sound in the lower register. Has your voice evolved in this direction?
VG - I just think it would be fun to have a huge voice for about five minutes, just to see what it feels like! That said, it’s not the answer to all life’s evils; we all have to deal with vocal technique, we all have to deal with orchestras that, no matter how large a voice we have, will always be able to play louder than we can sing! I don’t really know how my voice is evolving; I never had children, and I always hear or read about how that can change the voice timbre and range. I suppose the thing I like most about my voice is that it still has a distinctive sound. That said, as a listener you either like that sound or you don’t, but you know it’s me.
OL - Please tell us about what it is like to work with Maestro René Jacobs in the Baroque repertoire.
VG - I feel very lucky to have begun my work with Maestro Jacobs. I was very nervous to sing Baroque music for the first time because I had always thought of the Baroque style as a very constrained, limited way of singing. On the contrary, working with Maestro Jacobs I continued using the bel canto technique, but also learned just how much further I could take the voice.
OL - And Fabio Biondi? Are there significant differences in their musical languages?
VG – It is very interesting to compare and contrast the two, because while René was a singer, Fabio is a violinist. I played the violin a long time ago, but I remember seeing interviews with Isaac Stern, who used to say that his violin teacher always told him he had to sing with the violin. It’s been really interesting doing Vivaldi with Fabio because Vivaldi was a violinist, so there is that similarity between the two of them, the oneness of the violin and the voice. I mean, the violin has the bow and the voice has the breath. You need to find phrasing in the music that just goes on, and on, and on. You have those long phrases in Baroque music, and you have to find a place to change the bow direction because it is impossible to keep going on forever, and it is also impossible to keep exhaling ad infinitum.
I like working very much with Fabio because I find that the strings in his orchestras are really strong and I can learn a lot from their phrasing. And from him, he is like René, he pushes me and gives me new ideas. There was the Ercole sul Termodonte recording; I was doing interviews in Paris at the radio station, and they played a part with a real parlando [she sings the part] and I listened to it, and said, “I did it that fast?” I never would have thought of doing it that fast, but Fabio told me to really eat the words “ta-ta-ta-ta-ta” [she makes a sound like a machine gun].
It’s really exciting as an artist to find yourself pushed beyond limits that you impose for yourself, and both René and Fabio do that. But they do it with an understanding of the voice, that’s the difference.
OL – Since we are on the topic of maestros and orchestras, what is your opinion on “Historically Informed Performances” by specialized, period-instrument orchestras? While we find it wonderful, conductors like Sir Colin Davis have criticized the movement saying that it limits the ability of regular orchestras to play the Baroque repertoire, and he’s not sure if the sound is any better. Any comments on this controversy?
VG – I’m a big fan of period instruments for Baroque repertoire. As a matter of fact I’m a big fan of bel canto or any 1700’s, 1800’s, early 1900’s music also with period instruments. The sound is softer, is not the metallic strings, so it’s not such a brilliant bright brassy sound that you get; I find that it is much more cohesive with the voice.
The voice melts and comes through much easier with that kind of a sound. If you have a modern orchestra the sound is so bright and so loud! Even if they are playing as softly as possible, the nature of the modern instrument is to be louder. Our society has gotten louder and louder as we’ve gone on, and our ears have become more accustomed to louder noises. Music has to be louder and louder. The voice unfortunately, or fortunately, only projects to a certain point. I was at Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s house a couple of years ago, and he had an original spinet from the late 1700’s, Mozart’s time. It was so soft, you could barely hear it. And you would think; some of these pieces Mozart or other composers wrote for this instrument and voice, how loud one would have to sing with an instrument like that? Not! The whole emphasis was on the color of the voice, and the expressivity of the sound. And now you always have to sing as loud as you can, and that’s it! And that’s the only thing: if you sing loudly they consider you to be a good singer.
So I think that the original instruments are beautiful because of the colors that they give; they provide a much greater variety of color than in the modern instruments, and I think it’s a much more human sound with which to pair the voice.
OL – The HIP orchestras are multiplying a lot; there are several of them now. You’re very well positioned to weigh in on this, given that you’ve worked with most of the world’s important HIP orchestras. Do they differ in their approach – for example, in how they pick their instruments? Do you see big differences in the experience of the conductors and musicians of these ensembles? Do you have your favorites?
VG – It’s not so much the kinds of instruments that they pick; it’s not so much the conductor. The difference for the orchestra is the consistency of the players – the same players. You have to not only be a specialist in your instrument but you also have to learn the intonation of the whole group, and this is very important when you work with those instruments because it’s very easy to go out of tune, and not have the exact thing, because you are not working with a wider vibrato, you are working with a straight through tone. So you can hear a big difference between an orchestra like Fabio Biondi’s – Europa Galante – where he guarantees them a number of concerts per year in order to have that loyalty, that fidelity from them, that he always has the same players, so that when you go to hear them, you know who you are going to see on stage, who you are going to be working with, and you know the sound quality that you are going to get. A lot of other orchestras cannot guarantee that work for their groups, and so they end up showing different faces every time you’ll be working with the orchestra, and you hear that. You hear the difference in the sound.
The big difference is that with the period instruments we are talking about a lot more precision. And you can’t just pick up and come in to substitute for somebody else and read the bowings that your predecessor left for you two hours ago. It’s much more precise.
The conductors… I mean, with a lot of the Baroque music you don’t even work with a conductor. It has to do with the first violinist who needs to be the one who is giving the beat.
OL – Because they didn’t even have conductors at that time, right?
VG – No, they didn’t, because they’d be based on the first violinist, and the first violinist would be in contact with the singer. At that time, the Baroque style maintained formulaic phrases for the music! You knew when the cadenza was coming to a close because of a trill. You knew what kinds of ornamentation figures were standard, so the first violinist would be completely with the singer on stage. Also, you weren’t standing forty meters back. You sang at the front of the stage. You had much more contact with the orchestra.
OL – Other than Europa Galante, which ones you find to be really consistent, loyal, and good?
VG – There are a lot. I have to say that there are a lot of great groups. I love Concerto Köln. I have a special place in my heart for them because they were the first group that I worked with in Baroque music in 1999 or 2000. I still work with them. The Farnace that I just did in Strasburg was with Concerto Köln. They are amazing because they have such dedication! They will show up one hour and a half before the performance even if you are doing a run of the same performance. They’ll rehearse for an hour before every show. And it is so great to be sitting there, putting your make-up on, getting your costume on, and hearing them, analyzing the aria, and talking about what the critical points are, where they need to punctuate, where they need to accompany! The Akademie für Alte Musik out of Berlin is one of the best as well. The Freiburger Orchestra out of Freiburg also… Les Talens Lyriques with Christophe Rousset is fabulous.
OL – Oh, yes!
VG – I’ve been working now with Ottavio Dantone and the Accademia Bizantina also, and they’ve been really wonderful. We did a couple of performances of Judita triumphans by Vivaldi, which were just a hoot, were really fun. And there is the Prague orchestra now that is doing really well, Collegium 1704. They have a great sound also, they work out of Prague.
OL – We have an American one, now, Apollo’s Fire, out of Cincinnati.
VG – [Enthusiastically] Yes, I saw that, they were in Berkeley when I was working with Nick McGegan. They were playing with Philippe Jaroussky, we had a concert the same day in Berkeley of all things.
OL – Yes, Philippe Jaroussky is so good, I’m such a big fan of his, too! So what do you think of the Apollo’s Fire, are they good?
VG – I don’t know them, I couldn’t see their concert because I had a concert that day also.
OL - Baroque opera has had an extraordinary revival with modern and updated productions that are, frankly, a lot of fun for the audience. How do you feel Baroque opera needs to be staged, these days?
VG – A modern production is good as long as it makes sense. I think it is a lot easier with Baroque opera to modernize it, because generally, thematically it has to do with basic human emotion, basic human conflict. You are not dealing so much with exact historical things like you would have in Tosca, so that they have to precisely stage Tosca by using the actual monuments in Rome and the time. The Baroque for me is much more a paradigm of human emotion that doesn’t change, and it is incredible to look back now three hundred years and see what emotions were part of it. If you are talking about Rinaldo by Handel which was based on Tasso’s – Gerusalemme liberata – which was two hundred years before that and talking about even before, it’s a great tide of seeing how human emotions, reactions, and instincts haven’t changed. We did a production at New York City Opera of Semele, with Steven Lawless, which was brilliant.
New York City Opera - Semele (Juno/Ino)
Photo credit Carol Rosegg, used with permission
It was set in JFK’s White House, and it was really fascinating and fun to do. It was fun for the audience also. Another one of my favorite productions – I love David McVicar’s productions, anything he does is fabulous; I did a Semele of his also, which I thought was fantastic. That wasn’t modernized but it was kind of taken out of any period. It was just kind of stasis of time, any time period pretty much. He also did an Agrippina which I loved. I thought I was in a Broadway show, because we were just so involved! I hardly breathed for the whole piece; it was so fascinating and so well done, because he explores the psychology of the roles with the singers. He really develops characters and personalities. There is nothing that doesn’t match with the character that he is asking you to portray. It’s a really tridimensional psychological character that McVicar develops.
As long as it makes sense, which I think it is very easy to do, I think Baroque opera is perfect for using all of the new technologies available to us. In Baroque times, they used the most progressive, the newest smoke machines or thunder machines or this and that. So we have all of these great progresses we’ve made in modern day theater and film, and I’m all for using them. I think they all have a great place for that.
OL – I saw a Cadmus et Hermione by Lully, they staged it exactly as it used to be at the time, even with candlelit lighting.
VG – Hm, hm… dangerous! [laughs]
OL – I don’t know, I didn’t like it that much. They had all the slow movements and mannerisms that were authentic at the time. But I actually found it a little boring.
VG – It changed, you know? When I did the Farinelli recording everybody said, “Do you think your voice sounds like Farinelli’s?” I said, “I don’t think so.” But I mean, who knows if Farinelli would have been popular now? Because our ears, our eyes have changed.
For me, the first time I hear or see something I don’t like it. The first time I heard “Va, pensiero” from Nabucco I didn’t like. The second time I heard it, I was like, “Hm, hm… yeah…”, third time “That’s kind of nice,” the fourth time I heard it I fell in love! As a society right now we give ourselves very little chance to learn something and to let something grow on us, in terms of a new experience. We have this thing in Italian, “Usa e getta” – use it once and throw it away – and that goes for theater too, and it makes sense because if you are paying $160 for a ticket, who is going to go twice? Who is going to go once, most of the time?
So I understand what you are saying; society has changed, it’s gotten louder and faster. Society has gotten immediate results, so it is very difficult to slow oneself down in the theater in general, because we are used to having something happen every three seconds. But I think there is a place for it also.
OL – Yes, sure. I liked the music on the period instruments, but I would prefer something like what Les Arts Florissants did with Les Indes Galantes, which was so much fun. Have you seen that one?
VG – No, I haven’t seen it. There was a great production by Marianne Clermont in Strasbourg three years ago, and they’ll be doing it again next year or two years from now, which was a big success. It had brilliant costumes, and was really beautifully done. You’re talking about the very successful DVD of it with Les Arts Florissants, right?
OL – Yes.
VG – I saw part of it. She has music score papers on her dress and she pulls them off as she is singing. I know her, but I didn’t watch the full DVD.
OL – We’ll be watching his Les Troyens next weekend in London. [Editor's note: see our review of that performance on 7-1-2012, by clicking here]
VG – Oh that was supposed to be Jonas Kaufmann, but he cancelled.
OL – Now it’s Bryan Hymel and Anna Caterina Antonacci.
VG – Oh, she is brilliant!
OL – Yes, she is! And we’ll be interviewing her [Editor's note: done, read the interview here]. By the way, Now it’s Sir David McVicar. He got knighted. Did you know that?
VG – [enthusiastically] Did he?? Oh, good for him, no, I didn’t know.
OL - Yes! But I digress, I don’t want to take too much of your time. Let’s move on and talk about Haydn. We have enjoyed your performance in Haydn’s Il Mondo della Luna, preserved on DVD. But frankly, we didn’t like the opera that much. While Handel’s operas have enjoyed great success in their recent revivals, Haydn’s did not. Any opinion on Haydn as an opera composer? Why is it more difficult for modern audiences to relate to Haydn than to Handel?
VG – I don’t know. I was offered a lot of Haydn in those two years. I did Il mondo della Luna, I did L’isola disabitata also. I have to say I wasn’t a huge fan of it either, but I don’t sing much of the classical music period. It’s not a musical language that I’m really fluent in, not one that I sing very often. I don’t sing Mozart, I kind of finished up with the Baroque then skipped to the bel canto in my rep, so I don’t want to be too critical of it. I know that Il mondo della Luna was a huge success at Westerhaus when it had a debut there. There are accounts of people just laughing and laughing and laughing, they thought it was hysterically funny. Again, there is a modern production that we did in Vienna; you either like the production or you don’t. Maybe I didn’t understand everything in it.
OL – I’m fine with the production, I like updated opera.
VG – Is it just the music?
OL – Yes.
VG – Yes, I mean, Haydn is a little bit more neutral, isn’t it? Anyway in terms of music, even Haydn’s symphonies are not as popular, as well known or as highly thought of as Mozart’s. He’s a valid composer, of course, but…
OL – OK. Now, around the same topic, we’re firmly convinced that Vivaldi is just as good as Handel – but again, he hasn’t been as revived as Handel – a situation that is slowly changing and you’ve worked to correct, as well as your colleague Philippe Jaroussky. We’ve attended a recital with him where he picked for half of the program well known Handel arias, and the other half, poorly known Vivaldi arias, with the intent of proving to the public that the quality of the latter was just as high (we were convinced). He said, “We think of Vivaldi as lighter music, but Vivaldi was composing as the master in an orphanage for 16-year-old girls!” In that phase of his career he wanted to compose something fun and accessible for them. But his operas are a totally different matter, and just as good as Handel’s, but still, they haven’t been revived as much as Handel’s.
VG – Well, they have now; they’re starting to get revived like crazy.
OL – So, please educate us on why Vivaldi’s operas deserve more prominence.
VG – Educate, no, I wouldn’t pretend to do that, but for me, Vivaldi is always a little more singable than Handel. In my experience, Handel has a tendency of remaining quite German in his structure because it’s always a very heavily and intricately structured piece of music that he gives you. So for me, it’s more like singing - I would imagine anyway – Mozart, because with Mozart you always have to be right on the line. You can’t really open up and just let yourself go, you have to know where you are and where you are going. Vivaldi is more Italianate, and for me his music has more raw and expressive possibilities to it. Not as much as composers like Scarlatti, Porpora or Hasse, which is why I always like to combine Handel and Hasse’s works. Hasse is also a German composer who studied in Italy, and yet he really embraced and was embraced by the Italianate style. Whereas Handel always kept his own more Teutonic kind of voice in what he wrote. So, Handel is much more complex than pretty much any other Baroque composer. Vivaldi, because he was a violinist, had a great understanding of the voice, of the phrasing, and harmonically is much simpler than Handel. The harmonic progressions are much simpler, but in this simplicity, there’s incredible, amazing music.
OL - You’ve sung works by Scarlatti, Vivaldi, Handel, Hasse, and others; what are some other gems of the Baroque repertoire that are waiting to be discovered by the opera-loving public at large?
VG – Now, here in Europe, they are doing all of them. Very soon, I’ll be teaching for two weeks and I have one soprano doing an aria by Graun which is really beautiful. Kind of Vivaldiesque, actually, in the same kind of style that Vivaldi would be, a lot of fun. Bononcini has a lot of beautiful music that people don’t really pay much attention to right now. Vinci, Orlandini, Leo… I did an aria by Veracini last week in Greece for a recording. Ann Hallenberg is going to do a complete opera by him next year. I mean, basically whichever composer you pull out of the hat, somebody is interested in doing a revival or doing concerts, and it’s a great, great moment right now.
OL – Let’s talk about your recent role of Gilade in Vivaldi’s Il Farnace at the Opéra National du Rhin and other European cities. Can you describe for us the psychology of your character?
VG – Psychologically the role of Gilade is kind of standard for what I do; I have lots of pants roles in my repertoire right now. Basically the role is a young juvenile who is not quite a man yet; not having taken responsibility as a man into his own hands. He is still kind of following other people, he’s young. He’s similar to Sesto in Giulio Cesare. Something happens through the course of the opera that forces him to make the decision of “Now I’m going to take my life and the lives of the people that I brought here into my hands, and I’m going to react instead of just following instructions. I’m going to decide and make my own decisions.” So Gilade is a soldier who is the head of Berenice’s army. He follows orders very well for her until he meets Selinda, who is Farnace’s sister, and he falls in love with her. Because of her influence, he realizes that Berenice is not really a wonderful person and decides to turn against her in order for Farnace to regain power. Generally, roles like Ariodante, all of my pants roles, and all of my Rossini bel canto roles like Malcolm, are cut from the same cloth.
That’s why I like programming bel canto with Baroque, because there is a true progression. The roles that were generally given to castrati in the Baroque, then by Rossini, were given to mezzo-sopranos – the same altruistic passage that you take throughout the opera. There’s great development of character and a lot of internal conflict that you have to express throughout the arias. For me, it’s the most important and most interesting role in the opera.
OL – What’s the next role you are doing?
VG – In September, I’m debuting Carmen in Rouen and will be singing it again later in Versailles. In July, I’m doing a concert with a new group I’ve just organized called V/Vox. We are doing a concert together of Baroque cantatas based on mythological characters in a festival in Denmark. Then I have a concert at the end of July with Ottavio Dantone of mostly Glück and a little bit of Mozart as well in Nuremberg.
OL – To end on a bit of more personal questions for a more humane dimension of the person Vivica Genaux rather than the opera singer, if you don’t mind; we’ve learned that you are a relative of a famous Belgian soccer player, and you now live in Italy with an Italian husband, and everybody is crazy about soccer there. Are you a soccer fan?
VG – Yes.
OL – Are you?
VG – Well, I’m not crazy about it; I don’t understand it at all. I’m not a sports fanatic, anyway. In the States I don’t watch sports either. I do like watching tennis sometimes; I find that relaxing somehow, I don’t know why. And snooker, I love snooker! I’m a big snooker fan. But I’m not one who would mind watching a soccer game either. There are a lot of women here in Italy who say “Oh, my husband is watching soccer again!” I’ll watch soccer. But I don’t understand it at all, I must say.
OL - Your husband is, among other things, a Sommelier, right?
VG – My husband? Yeah, a Sommelier.
OL – Do you like wine?
VG – Oooohhh!!! (laughs) We live in a fantastic wine region. Italy is an amazing country for wine, and we live in a great area of Italy. We have Prosecco here, and there is a fantastic red wine which is one of the only vines that survived the infestation of… how is it called?
OL – Phyloxera?
VG – Yes, it survived that, so it’s a wonderful red wine, really fabulous, and it’s only produced in this little area, it’s not known really outside it. It’s called Raboso.
OL - What about living near Venice, a city so beautiful but so full of tourists all year long? How many miles – or kilometers – there are from Motta di Livenza to Venice?
VG – I can tell you how much to the airport, it’s about forty kilometers to the airport, that’s all I know! (laughs)
OL – So you don’t go much to Venice?
VG – I don’t go to Venice that often, no.
OL – Do you think the locals in Italy still love opera more than people in the United States?
VG – They love verismo very much, more than we do in the States, definitely.
OL – Do they recognize you on the streets?
VG – No, because I don’t sing verismo.
OL – So verismo is very popular, huh?
VG – They love Puccini and they love Verdi, it basically stops there.
OL – So they don’t go back to the Baroque masters at all?
VG – No, not at all. In fact I do most of my Baroque work elsewhere, not in Italy. We rehearse here, but then we go somewhere else. Even when we do it with the Italian bands, we go elsewhere. We go to Germany, Spain, and France to do the performances.
OL – Interesting. So it’s kind of lost on them that Vivaldi was from Venice?
VG – I mean, they will program his music sometimes. La Fenice will put on a Vivaldi opera or something; we did Bajazet at the Malibran Theater. They did an Agrippina also some years ago. So they’ll do some Baroque music sometimes but basically, no, it’s basic verismo for them, it’s what sells. For the people coming to Italy as well, the tourists; when you talk about the big companies, the Arena di Verona, they are heavily based on tourism also, that’s what you come to hear, huh?
OL – Probably because of the crisis in governmental funding.
VG – It’s the same thing in the States. Basically, the States have a top ten list of operas that they perform because they know they can sell tickets to it, and it doesn’t matter if they’re doing Carmen or Aida four times in ten years, people come to see it, so… that’s the important thing. I mean, opera is so expensive! Nowadays in Italy they are starting to feel the prices, before it was all subsidized, so they could do some interesting things, now of course their strings are much tighter.
OL - You once said in an interview that you are a “weird” person. Would you elaborate, please?
VG – I’m weird. (laughs) I guess because I like being by myself, but I also like being a singer on stage. It’s strange, because when you are on stage, you are by yourself most of the time, especially in the Baroque music. But you are by yourself with a thousand people watching you, wherever they are.
I don’t listen to opera, I don’t listen very much to music. I listen to a lot of pop music, I guess just to take my mind off of work. I work for the pleasure of working, not for being known for what I do. I do it because I love it and I work with people whom I like working with. I don’t follow the main track, I guess, for the normal singer who is looking to be known and all that sort of thing, that’s not so interesting to me. Weird person? Yeah, I guess I’m kind of simple. I’m easy to please, and I like that. My sister has a saying: it’s nice when the best is enough. I like that saying very much, because I find that about 99.99% of my life is the best, and I really appreciate that and I enjoy it. I enjoy having a life outside of the theater also, and I really like what I’m doing, so…
OL – You said you’re a happy person and that’s why you’re not into contemporary opera because it is dramatic.
VG – More depressing than dramatic. I like drama. I just don’t like depression! (laughs).
OL – You didn’t mention which contemporary opera you did.
VG – It’s called The Conquistador [by Myron Fink, March 1997] and it was commissioned by the San Diego Opera. Jerry Hadley was in it.
OL – That busy schedule, is it very challenging vocally and for your personal life?
VG – Yes, I guess so, yes. It can be very stressful, and very hard on your body and hard on the voice, having to move around so much, travel, and sing so much. I think now with the groups having to really fight for money, you end up having less concerts. In the Baroque music, of course, very often you’re doing something for the first time, so you don’t have the luxury of having rehearsals for it as much. You have to really come prepared, which is difficult to do because if you have not heard the piece before you don’t know; when you hear the interpretation of the conductor or the first violin, whoever it is who is setting the pace of the piece, when you start as a vocalist to develop what you are going to do, because you have to listen and you imitate, and you find moments when you can lead and the orchestra can imitate. Until you get into rehearsal that’s very difficult to do. With rehearsal being limited now because of the lack of funding, everything gets much more compacted, and again society moving so fast, now we have email and people want an answer yesterday for an email that they sent in the morning. That’s difficult also for a singer to delineate one’s own time, I think, because you have to set aside the time to study, the time for business, the time to relax, to eat, and it just becomes that your entire life is really rigorously delineated by these little boxes of time: this is studying time, this is eating time, this is relaxing time, this is performing time, this is family time. When you have that luxury, you really have to defend each of those little boxes, because otherwise you are the person who pays for it afterwards.
OL – How long can this go like this? Do you think of quitting at some point and doing something different, like, I don’t know, teaching?
VG – No, you know, I mean when I first went to college it was to study biology. I wanted to be a biologist but I was so miserable not to have music as the focal part of my life that I decided to go into music. I’m very glad that I had the experience of a biology major first because I know what that was like and I was not happy. I love working with the people that I’m working with now, I love the opportunities that I have. I mean, I have someone who makes dresses for me so that I can do concerts, you know, he designs them. I tell him what I’m going to sing and what I like, the kind of atmosphere I want to create with the dress and he makes something for me. I mean, I get to work with such amazing people, everyone, I have such a great team around me participating in this experience, working with the musicians I’m working with, and also meeting the audience members.
There’s a friend of mine in Strasbourg, she’s Italian, but she was telling me when I was there what it means to her to be able to go and see an opera, to see a concert, and to experience live theater. She works in finance. That is something that I as an artist lose track of, because I’m always in the theater, I’m always doing that kind of thing. Every time that I’m performing I’m immersed in the expressivity, I’m in the moment, and I’m enjoying myself, but I don’t really ask the question, “Is the audience enjoying itself?” Because as far as I’m concerned if I’m enjoying myself, I think they are going to have a good time. If I’m not, then we are in trouble. She told me that it’s important for her to be able to get out of work, go to a concert and just lose herself in the music, watching the musicians and the interactions between the musicians and the characters. She said it’s fundamental; for her, and for a lot of audience members, and I agree. I remember that as a kid I was going to see concerts in Fairbanks, and the concerts that I was able to attend were fundamental to me, so I’m really pleased to know that I’m carrying on that tradition in some way. It’s an honor, and I’ve also grown so much as a person through this, because being on stage, if you have any kind of personal foibles or limitations or boundaries, they come out immediately. So I had to do a lot of psychological work inside to try and overcome as many of those as possible and I feel much freer as a person than I ever used to, because of my experiences on stage.
OL – Wow, great answer. How did you get from Alaska to opera?
VG – When I was growing up in Alaska the Russian airspace was closed, and so we had world class musicians coming over from Europe on their way to the Orient. They were going to Japan or to Korea, and would have to stop in Anchorage. All the planes at that point stopped in Anchorage. We had great concert associations in Anchorage and in Fairbanks, which mostly convinced the artists to stop over. There is also the curiosity factor of Alaska, you know, people have never been to Alaska and they are curious about what it’s like, so it was easy I think to convince these great artists to come and stop over and do some concerts. So my exposure to great art was amazing.
It was just remarkable, and I don’t think that I would have gotten that growing up anywhere else because in New York, Chicago and San Francisco the ticket prices would have been impossible for us, and also sometimes getting a ticket for those things can be difficult. For us, we just bought the tickets for whatever the season was, and you knew what every concert was. Then the arts, I remember my mom telling me how they had moved up to Alaska, I think in 1948, before it was even a state and at the university they had a lot of community outreach programs; there was a poetry reading group, theater, anything that would give the community an opportunity to get together, to socialize, because people at 40 below don’t want to go out of the house, and it gave you an excuse to go out. This was something that continued while I was growing up and still continues today in Fairbanks.
I studied ballet, I studied tap, I studied jazz dance, I was in three different choruses, two jazz choirs, the school chorus, orchestra, youth symphony, a chorus at the university that would allow community members to come. I studied pottery, I studied stained glass making, my sister graduated in percussion; she plays jam band. She made a steel drum, I studied water ballet, there was everything available there, everything. And everything open, so it wasn’t like you had to go in front of a committee and do an audition where they had to determine whether or not you had a talent, you were allowed to continue with any discipline of your choosing. You were welcome to come, but you were requested to apply yourself and to learn to the best of your abilities, regardless of what your raw talent was.
The arts for me is like a big sandbox and everybody should be welcome to come and build sand castles and dig in the sand and see what they find. For me, it is important that people be allowed to participate without fear of being criticized and without fear of being judged, because again, it’s an amazing tool for psychological development and expression that you don’t have available in other formats.
OL – We are at forty-six minutes, I had asked for half an hour.
VG – I talk a lot, that’s why I can’t write the answers to an email interview because I have too many things to say!
OL – No, it’s great for us, the more the better, but I don’t want to hold you for too long. I loved it, you are very enthusiastic about the art form, and this is what we need. We had Joyce DiDonato tell us in her interview [click here to read it] that we need to shout out loud that opera is great and stop being apologetic for opera. Opera has a social function too – some opera companies these days have outreach programs for disadvantaged kids and when they get involved it’s been shown that grades are higher, drug use is lower, and gang involvement is lower.
VG – They’ve done brain development studies in kids who are exposed to classical music as part of their curriculum and it involves a whole different part of the brain. It’s very valuable for mental development as a child, and again, I know how much I’ve developed in the almost twenty years I’ve been doing this. That’s why I’m such a proponent for people to continue to have opportunities to have arts. Non-critical, though, because the problem for singers, or any artist, is when you are making this beautiful music and somebody is there filming it for YouTube. If something comes out wrong then in 20 minutes it’s on YouTube and you have all these vile and hateful comments. “So and so is so much better than her. What was she doing, what was she thinking?” That kind of stuff doesn’t have any place for me in what we do. I think when one goes on stage, one does absolutely the best he or she can do. You give the best interpretation that you have in you at that time and the audience is there to catch a moment of magic, if there is one. There isn’t always a moment of magic, but what could be magical for one person, may not be magical for the person sitting next to them. It’s the suspension of judgement and the willingness to open oneself up to new experiences that allows that to happen.
OL – OK, so, thank you so much!
VG – Thank you!
OL - I loved the interview; you are really a gifted artist and a wonderful person.
VG – Thank you very much, I appreciate your patience, and I appreciate your interest. Ciao!
Photo credit: Karen Kriendler Nelson, used with permission
And hey, this lovely and lively lady likes to cook, and shares this recipe with her fans:
Bistecca alla Vivica
VG - Flank steak is *totally* easy- I'd eat it every day, but I use lots of garlic and it's kind of mean if you eat it before running off to rehearsal...
So: the trick is, you make parallel slices about 1/4 to 1/2 way through the meat, going *across* the grain of the meat. You can cook it like that, but I usually slice again perpendicularly to the first slices, making "X" shaped slices all along the piece of meat. The flank steak can be kind of tough because of the grain of the meat, but making the slices before you cook it make it easier to eat later.
So then you put as much garlic as you want in the slice-marks (I usually just bash two cloves of garlic and then break them up into little chunks that fit into the slice-marks) If the garlic is nice and deep into the slices then it won't burn, if it's just on top of the meat it gets all charred.
Then you put the steak into the broiler, and depending on how cooked you want it, in about 7-10 minutes it's done. I add salt or herbs afterwards.
Vivica with Sam Ramey at New York City Opera Gala in 2006
Photo Credit Karen Kriendler Nelson, used with permission
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