In anticipation of our partners Opera Carolina’s production of Tosca in Charlotte, NC, on October 13, 18, and 21, 2012, Opera Lively has interviewed Ms. Jill Gardner who will be singing the title role [Opera Lively interview # 62]. Click [here] for the full announcement and tickets. Also please consult our Tosca section [here], with many interesting articles analyzing the opera in-depth, including musical structure, trivia, discography, and an interview with Maestro Meena, another one with Todd Thomas who will be singing Scarpia, and with Raúl Melo who will be singing Cavaradossi.
Singer: Jill Gardner
Born in: Tobaccoville, North Carolina, USA
Fach: lyric-spinto soprano
Currently in: Tosca (Floria Tosca), October 13, 18, 21, 2012, Opera Carolina (tickets [here])
Next in: Tosca (Floria Tosca), January 25, 26, 27; February 2, 3, 2013, Arizona Opera (tickets [here])
Web site: http://www.jillbowengardner.com/
Noted for her "effortlessly produced, rich voice" (Opera News), American soprano Jill Gardner is swiftly establishing herself among today's leading operatic heroines. This "powerhouse soprano" (Syracuse New Times) continues to garner national praise for her "sparkling personality" (Coral Gables Gazette), her "lustrous, golden soprano and riveting stage presence" (Rochester Democrat and Chronicle) and for "her commitment, passion and ability to convey vocally the slightest nuance of emotion, making for gripping theater" (Opera News). Equally praised for her acting as well as her singing, Opera News observed of her Boston Lyric Opera performances of Tosca, "Soprano Jill Gardner, whose voice was fresh and focused, undertook the title role as if it were newly written. There was little of the conventional grand diva in her approach, and her character was all the more human for it. In Gardner's hands, her Act II aria, "Vissi d'arte", was not merely a famous showstopper but an opportunity to reveal layers of Tosca's character."
For the 2012-2013 season, Ms. Gardner sings the title role of Tosca in her debut with Opera Carolina as well as Arizona Opera and Hawaii Opera Theater. She will also join the roster of the Washington National Opera, covering the title role of Manon Lescaut in the spring.
During the 2011-2012 season the soprano returned to Arizona Opera and Tri-Cities Opera in the title role of Puccini's Madama Butterfly and reprised the role of Nedda in I Pagliacci in her debut with Michigan Opera Theater as well as for the inaugural season of Mill City Summer Opera in Minneapolis, MN. On the concert stage, she marked her debut with the Wichita Symphony in Beethoven's Mass in C Major.
In the 2010-2011 season, Ms. Gardner made her celebrated return to Boston Lyric Opera in the title role of Tosca as well as making her company debuts with Arizona Opera in the role of Liù in Turandot, Opera Grand Rapids in her role debut of Manon in Manon Lescaut and Eugene Opera as Musetta in La Bohème. This season also marked Ms. Gardner's role debut of Leonora in Verdi's Il Trovatore with Piedmont Opera.
Over the past few seasons, the young soprano marked her Lyric Opera of Chicago debut performing Nedda in I Pagliacci and covering Mimi in La Bohème, her Florida Grand Opera debut as Musetta in La Bohème, her Boston Lyric Opera debut as Mimi in La Bohème, her Madison Opera debut as Marguerite in Faust, as well as performing Countess Charlotte Malcolm in Sondheim's A Little Night Music in her debut with Hawaii Opera Theater where she returned in the following season as Helmwige in Die Walküre.
In concert, she made her Kennedy Center Debut with the Washington Chorus, under the baton of Julian Wachner, in a concert called The Essential Puccini, performed Beethoven's 9th Symphony and Vaughan William's Serenade to Music with the Syracuse Symphony, Brahms' Requiem with the Binghamton Philharmonic and Verdi's Requiem with the Tower Arts Series of Dallas' Highland Park United Methodist Church under the baton of Craig Jessop.
Additional engagements from recent seasons include a return to the Glimmerglass Opera as Eurydice in a new production of Orpheus in the Underworld, Margaret Johnson in the first opera house performances in The Light in the Piazza with Piedmont Opera, Hanna Glawari in The Merry Widow with the Syracuse Opera, the title role in Susannah with New York Opera Projects, Donna Anna in Don Giovanni, Mimi in La Bohème as well as the title role in Puccini's Tosca with the Mercury Opera Rochester, and multiple performances with the Tri-Cities Opera including Violetta in La Traviata and Countess in Le Nozze di Figaro. Ms. Gardner also performed the role of Madama Erlecca in Cimarosa's Li Sposi per Accidenti at Studio Lirico in Cortona, Italy.
In the summers of 2005 and 2006, Ms. Gardner was a member of the prestigious Young American Artist Program at the Glimmerglass Opera. During this tenure, she created the role of Madame Loiseau in the world premiere of Stephen Hartke's The Greater Good, which was recorded on the Naxos Label. Also at the Glimmerglass Opera, Ms. Gardner added two new roles to her repertoire in cover assignments: Elle in Poulenc's La Voix Humaine and the title role of Jenufa.
She has been the recipient of the Richard F. Gold Career Grant of the Shoshana Foundation-NYC, a Special Opportunity Award from the New York Foundation of the Arts, an Emerging Artist Grant from the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Division of the North Carolina Arts Council and participated in a Public Masterclass on Puccini Style for the George London Foundation with Catherine Malfitano. She received a Master of Music degree in vocal performance from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and a Bachelor of Music degree in piano performance from Centenary College of Louisiana.
The Exclusive Opera Lively Interview with Jill Gardner
Opera Lively – I read your reviews on Opera News about your Tosca in Boston, and they say you undertook the title role as if it were newly written. They say you were not conventional in your approach, and I got curious to know what you do that makes your Tosca unique.
Jill Gardner – Absolutely, I think that this is a great question. To make this answer as succinct as possible, I will say that Tosca is an opera about a woman who, in a lot of traditional productions, is played from the standpoint of La Diva. In the actual time of the story she has become a very celebrated opera singer, similar to any of the big superstars of today, like Renée Fleming, or in the Pop world, Madonna or Lady Gaga. She's achieved that level. So she is often portrayed in all of her actions as intended from that persona. And I tend to focus on what I think is unique about Floria Tosca, by going back even further in her story, to what her roots and her upbringing were, which I don't think a lot of people know. She grew up in a province of Italy called the Veneto, and she was an orphan.
OL – Yes, she was a shepherd girl.
JG – She was, and for me it is very important to know that as an orphan, very similar to the character of Nedda – which I have sung also a lot in Leoncavallo's Pagliacci – she was found, like Nedda was found by Canio and turned into a street performer – Tosca was found in the field as an orphan by the nuns of the convent. And they took her in, and discovered that she happened to have this God-given ability to sing. And they fostered this gift, and ultimately the Pope blessed her, and told her to go out into the world and offer this gift on behalf of God, which is why Tosca is so devout! Her famous aria is actually a conversation that she is having with God.
The issue that is important to me, particularly in this 24-hour period of what the plot within Tosca is – it is a very short period of time, it happens in less than 24 hours – that she is put into a situation because of her love for Mario, who I think is the true love of her life, and the Chief of Police, Scarpia. And because of this triangle, she is put into a real-life hot moment, very dramatic, very survival-induced. It has nothing to do, really, with the fact that she is this celebrated singer. And therefore she becomes very primal. We see aspects of her that are the true woman that she is – how she is completely driven by the impulses of her heart – and she not only violently kills Scarpia, but ultimately jumps to her death. And I just think that all of that is much more about the real woman that she is as opposed to this persona of a Diva that she projects. Does it make sense?
OL – It does.
JG – I mean, think of the stars of today in the tabloids. The stars have a kind of persona that they put up in the public eye, but what their private lives are is something totally different.
OL – If I understand you correctly, I’ll risk a guess that you portray her as a very troubled person; instead of fierce and proud she'd be more in turmoil in your portrayal of her, right?
JG – Well, yes, but not entirely. I still think that she is fierce and strong. She hasn't achieved this star status in her life without being someone who is strong, particularly in the confrontation she has with Scarpia. The reason why that is so huge is that these people are parrying on the same level. It's like a boxing match. They are almost equal in their sense of power.
I still play her as a very strong and fierce woman, and someone who knows who she is. But in those private moments that we see her in with Mario and Scarpia, and particularly in the intimacy of the third act, I want to show more of her vulnerability, her true love for Mario. I mean, of course she is jealous, which people always overplay. But she is jealous because she loves; she doesn't want to lose him, it comes out of an insecurity. And then with Scarpia she kills him. She murders him, which is a very strong and fierce action, but is done out of total survival. It's not done because she thinks she is a Diva.
It's out of survival, which is why she thinks in her mind that she has controlled all of the circumstances to a point that she and Mario are going to overcome all of these incredible political forces that are taking place in Rome at this time, when the revolution is happening and Napoleon Bonaparte is ruling. It's a highly charged political environment in Italy, and she thinks that if she and Mario can just get through the simulated execution that she thinks sh has put Scarpia up to doing, then they will ride off into the sunset together and will be happy ever after. She believes this with all her heart, because this is what she wants.
So I think that for me it's about playing her not with just this fierce, proud, passionate Diva that she is, but this fierce, proud, passionate, vulnerable woman who totally lives from her heart, and then you get her. Then you like her.
OL – Yes. Let me ask you about one aspect that I've seen in different productions: some will go that route, others won't. Do you see some chemistry between her and Scarpia? Is she tempted?
JG – Absolutely! Absolutely! We talked about this yesterday, actually, in our sing-through. She is highly attracted not only to creative people – which is what Mario is; these two people have not only met in a meeting of their minds, but they are also both artists – but to Scarpia as well, because she is highly attracted to his power. He is a bad man. What he says, the inner intentions of his heart that he sings out in those little ariosi that he has in act two, tell you that this man is driven by very deep, dark passions to control, to have, to possess. She on some level because of that inner power and that style of bravado that he has, of course she is attracted to that. Because that is why she's gotten to the place where she is. And that's why I think when they meet in act two that they are very much contemporaries. They are on the same level as sparring partners. It's interesting to take this as not just about man versus woman. There's more of a chemistry that is taking place. When she agrees with having a sexual relationship with him in order to vie for Mario's life, she is not doing that lightly. She has not found an outlet yet. She's not come to the conclusion that she has to kill him to get out of this situation. So why would she agree to that, if there isn’t something there? I mean, if he wanted to just rape her, he could. But he places her in such a predicament that she agrees, because there is some sort of attraction there, even if it is subconscious.
OL – Yes! Great. Let's switch a bit to the vocal part now, if you don't mind.
JG – Absolutely.
OL – You know, the tessitura goes from C3 to C5, and there are five C5s in the score for the role of Tosca, and a lot of mid-range that needs volume, because it's a good-sized orchestra you have to sing over, even though you have low notes as well. So, singing the role has its difficulties. Can you tell us about the vocal challenges you find there?
JG – I think the real cluck of a part like Tosca is between the singing and the acting. This is valid for any of these Puccini heroines that I do, because I do sing a lot of Puccini which I really love and I'm getting known in the business for Verismo spinto parts – that's a very specialized field in many ways. Because you're not only working for the most pure and integrated Italianate sound possible, but you're also in these parts - and that's where the duality exist - marrying this fantastic vocal writing which is in so many moments very beautiful and very lyrical and needs lots and lots of color, with this really real dramatic situations.
As a singing-actress – which is what I call myself; I'm not just a singer, and not just an actress; I'm a singing-actress – I work very hard as part of my artistry to find the balance between the beautiful full-on power of that lyricism – through not only the music but especially the text, because all of these parts are text-driven, which is a part of what makes them Italianate – with the intentions of an actress who finds herself in these extremely emotionally tense situations. Sometimes as an actress when you're in an emotionally extreme situation you have to find the strong center core within yourself. It's not about just screaming your head off. There's a real artistic balance that has to be achieved to make these parts live, and that's how I approach them.
OL – Yes, and Tosca has a lot of parlando; a lot of almost declamation, so you really need a strong actress to do this well.
JG – That's exactly it, you're absolutely right, that's exactly what I'm speaking about. You must be able to find that kind of freedom of delivery, but you also need to be able to pack the punch when it's needed, because like you say the tessitura is not only a very intense range, but those upper As, Bs, and Cs that she sings have to come from the gut, the core of your vocal sound. And that's what is thrilling, and why I love it.
OL – Yes. Take for example a moment like in the third act when she is singing her "Senti efluvi di rosi?" – she goes from this sensual singing to a parlando, but then needs to confront the torturers with a rousing high B flat, and you need to really move through all this acting and vocal range to reach dramatic soprano territory.
JG – That's exactly right.
OL – And you as a lyric spinto are well equipped for it.
JG – That's right. That's what I'm working on, and that's what I feel is my true ability. A singer – and that's what I really have to respect in what I do – is always finding every big dramatic moment, the beauty of lyricism that somewhere exists in that. Because nobody wants to come to the opera and just have somebody scream at them. We've lost a little bit in the lyric spinto tradition, that pure ability to spin the sound and to create not only color from the standpoint of a big, full-forte color, but also beautiful spinning, shimmering, luscious color. And that palate is what I constantly try to traverse.
OL – OK, let's talk a bit about the Toscas of the past. We had Tebaldi, Callas, Régine Crespin, Leontyne Price, Birgit Nilsson, Montserrat Caballé; do you listen to them, or do you rather avoid them in order to create your own style?
JG – It's a very good question. Every artist has to create their own style. When I sing I don't want to necessarily have someone listen to me and think, "oh, she's emulating Tebaldi" or "she's emulating Callas," etcetera. Even though I'll say that Italianate-wise my favorites are Tebaldi, Diana Soviero, who is just another fantastic Verismo singer who not only sings a lot of Verismo parts but also sings a lot of Toscas too. I listen to these singers like you say, out of respect. I'm a huge fan of Régine Crespin. And also I have a couple of old recordings of Zinka Milanov as well. I also love her because of the control she utilizes in her singing. They are out of my husband's collection which is an LP collection that I also find extremely interesting.
So, I listen to all of these singers that you've mentioned. I'm also someone who loves to do research and to investigate as many different approaches as possible. Lighter voices sing these roles as well as the full-blown lyrico-spintos or event dramatic sopranos later in their careers. So it's all very good for information, and just to be able to hear how different people approach different lines and different parts of the tessitura. I also have quite a big visual library as well, but even in that the latest recording that I saw was a new release with Pavarotte and Shirley Verrett from the Met. I hadn't even thought that Shirley Verrett ever sang Tosca. It came towards the end of career, and it's interesting to see what she does.
That gamut of discovery and seeing what artists have done in the past in their approaches is very educational. But I think in the end it's only food for thought and process, because in the end you are the one out there delivering that performance, and I want it to be uniquely my performance. So, to listen to these people is mainly for education, not for emulation because I want to be my own artist.
OL – That's right. And what do you think of the modern ones like Eva Marton, Daniela Dessì, Sondra Radvanovsky, and all – are there people you currently respect as singing good Toscas?
JG – Oh, absolutey!, No, totally! The last production at the Met by Luc Bondy with Karita Mattila was controversial for a lot of reasons, and later Radvanovsky came in with Patricia Racette. These present day singers who are at the height of their careers right now tend to bring a more Italianate approach, in a way. Mattila has a wonderful shimmering quality in her singer but she is somewhat more of a detached performer, which I think is due to her Nordic background. It's a completely different quality and sound to someone like Radvanovsky.
I love Eva Marton. There was a craziness about her that I always respected, just like Aprile Millo's sound. She has a power behind her that is fiery in a wonderful phonetic way. I think it is also very interesting.
I also really want to respect the true Italianate nature of this. I keep working very hard as a Southern American soprano – because I'm originally from North Carolina – to find as Italianate a production as possible.
OL – Can you tell our readers what you mean by Italianate style?
JG – Well, the Italianate style in essence is one that is not only very melodic but it is also extremely driven by the parlando textual aspect of Puccini's writing and the Verismo composers. But the short way of saying it is that the basis of the Italianate style is one of balance between the chiaro – which directly translates as light – and scuro – dark. You're working always to find the balance between the light and the dark of every vocal and dramatic situation.
It goes along with what we were talking about earlier. You want to be able to have the quality and the power but you also want to be able to create shimmer and resonance and spin. And that's true Italianate singing. I think that is the heart and soul of these characters.
That's what separates opera from stage plays or film, because not only you are in a dramatic situation but you also have to portray that through the singing. So you have to be able to have that kind of flexibility. It's not one or the other; it's constantly balancing those two extremes all the time.
OL – Right. And how would you differentiate that from the French repertoire? You have in your repertoire soprano roles in Manon, Thaïs, Faust… You know, we had aimed for a 15-minute interview but you've been so interesting that we may as well keep going and pick your brain to treat our readers to some explanations about these differences.
JG – [laughs] Of course! Yes, yes, and I love it, you can tell I'm passionate about this. Well, the majority of the repertoire that I sing is Italian – I've sung French and German and English and I've done a few crossover things as well into musical theater which I also enjoy from the standpoint of the singing actress.
OL – Yes, like The Light in the Piazza.
JG – Yes, I love Guettel’s The Light in the Piazza. It's a fabulous piece and I really hope to do it again in my life because it is very well written and very well constructed, and I love being able to go between the song moments and these pure dialogue acting moments. I love it. I think it's terrific, and therefore I want to discover more of that in my career as I go along.
But to go back to the question of how this translates into French or even into German, I'll say that the root of my technique is based on the Italianate production. You always use your voice in whatever opera that you are in. Régine Crespin was French but she had a lot of success in Italian repertoire as well. From that standpoint, the first entry of an Italianate technical singer into a language like French is through the text, and through the stylistic approach.
Another thing that is happening in the opera world which is somewhat of an unfortunate thing is that we are all losing, due to shall we say the opera globalization – meaning the continuity between all of these art forms – we are losing at times particularly the music style and the textual delivery that is extremely different between French music and Italianate music, regarding where the stress of the language lies, and where the stress of the music lies.
The characterization is different as well. Even though Marguerite is a very enlightened character in many ways, her whole demeanor as a French girl is very, very different. Like Massenet's Manon and Puccini's Manon Lescault, which I'm starting to also sing more. Not only Puccini and Massenet choose very different scenes in the life of Manon to portray, but stylistically they're very different in their musical and textual approaches. It might seem subtle to some people, but as we all know, the subtleties of life are what makes it interesting.
You have to work a lot with language coaches and with music coaches to really bring out the definition of those musical styles. I hope that opera as we transform and continue to grow – and I say this as someone who was very strong in the musical background, because I was a pianist first, and studied all my life and still play – continues to respect the styles and the traditions because that's what makes music so unique.
OL – What would you say are the main characteristics of the Italianate style that are different from the French style?
JG – The biggest aspect is that the stress of the language is different. Italian tends to land on strong stress and that's what makes it declamatory, and it is akin in a way to how we English speakers talk – there is stress on beat one and three. [She says, alongating the vowels:] Ascoooolta, noooon posso piuuuuù – you have the stress falling on the stronger beats. In French those delineations go away because of the way the stress tends to be on off-beats. It's very un-French to stress beats one and three in a musical line. Therefore it has a very strong effect on the legato not only in the musical language but particularly in the textual language. French has a tendency to use much longer lines. They don't delineate that stress like the Italians. Not that Italian doesn't have a fantastic legato, but its drive is completely different.
For me, the way I move along in my career for someone who was absolutely a wordsmith – I adore words – the more that I study languages and study the librettos of these operas, the more I see the differences and the beautiful intentions and intonations of the language. And that's what separates us from all the other musicians, all the other instruments, is that we not only have a voice, but we are singing on words.
OL – And what about the orchestration part, pardon the cliché, but do you feel that the French are a little more delicate and the Italians go a little more for bombastic pomp?
JG – Absolutely. That's very well said, the French style is delicate in its palate of colors. It's not like it doesn't have its power like Italianate opera does; just the approach is extremely different. And that's why education is so important – being able to go to the opera and hear those differences.
The classical example is to compare the orchestration and the quality of Massenet's Manon to Puccini's Manon Lescault, which is probably one of the most passionate operas that he wrote. It is full on singing and orchestra all the time. The reason why I think Puccini is so accessible to audiences and why people love it so is because he has such a unique ability of being able to create these incredible melodic lines – because we all love a tune – that keep singing in your head, with these incredible emotional driven orchestration. So much of the context of his operas lies within that orchestral world!
OL – And he's a great scene-setter.
JG – Oh la la, yes.
OL – Like in Il Tabarro, he sounds like a film soundtrack, because he paints every scene with the orchestra, it's fantastic.
JG – Yes. Anyone who has not seen Moonstruck, with Cher and Nicolas Cage, should see it. This is the perfect film to show how accessible Puccini is. Do you know it?
OL – No.
JG – You need to watch Moonstruck, and tell your readers to go and watch it, because it is such a fantastic illustration of using so many elements of Puccini's Bohème, which is another very well loved, very well known work – the movie is so well done in the fact that so many snippets of Puccini's melodies from Bohème are interspersed throughout that movie like John Barry’s cinematographic music for Out of Africa for instance. Anyone who doesn't know Bohème doesn't realize that's what is being used as the musical heart of a movie like Moonstruck. That's a perfect illustration for what you just said in the fact that Puccini can be seen as such a cinematographic composer.
OL – Great, we have a Film section on Opera Lively, I'll place an article there about that and make a point of watching it. Let's talk about 20th century opera. I saw that you have in repertorie La Voix Humaine, Les Mamelles de Tirésias, Dialogues des Carmélites… and you have Britten as well in your repertoire, and that is a challenge in terms of musical structure and vocal difficulties, so what can you say about modern and contemporary operatic vocal writing?
JG – What I can say about that is that one of the most challenging pieces in my career was when in 2006 at Glimmerglass Opera we premiered there a piece by the composer Stephen Hartke, The Greater Good. It was one of the most difficult pieces – but very rewarding – that I participated in, because the writing was extremely angular, the rhythmic meters would change sometimes almost every measure, because he was completely driven by the text. English itself also has another whole difference as compared to French and Italian, with a completely different set of rules regarding how that text should be delivered.
So, it was extremely challenging because in these contemporary kinds of work you are constantly as a singer working to take not only the language and the angular nature of the melodic lines as well as the dissonant and atonal structures, but you’re also trying to create for yourself a melody, a sense of rhythmic structure, a sense of color and quality in the type of sounds that you are creating, to really highlight the words and highlight the emotional textures that are often very dissonant.
Hartke as a composer is a fantastic orchestrator. We recorded this on the Naxos label. [available on Amazon.com, click [here] to get it, $16] It wasn't actually until I sat down and listened to the recording – which I love – that I discovered how wonderful the context was. Because the doing of the piece, the singing of my role in that, was so challenging that I was on a one-point focused track to be able to deliver what I was doing, and therefore I was not always aware, because of the difficulties of that piece, of the overall structure that we were creating. So then to sit down a year later and listen to the recording and actually hear and see it within its full canvas was very, very intriguing.
OL – I see. On the other hand you also do some very light lyric repertoire like Fiordiligi and the Countess. Is Mozart honey for the voice, to rest from all those vocal challenges?
JG – Hm, hm. Yes. [laughs] And that's what I talk about actually with my management. I have had some incursions into the Mozart heroines; I sang the Countess and I also sung Donna Anna, but at this point there is not a lot of Mozart for me to do because of the thrust of my career and where I feel my voice wants to go.
OL – Yes, it moves to darker and fuller and then you leave those roles behind.
JG – That's exactly right. But I do want it. I'd love to find a place where I'd be able to sing a Fiordiligi, and more importantly a Donna Elvira. So many aspects of my own personality resonate with a character like Donna Elvira!
And I'm also very interested in Wagner. I had the good fortune of participating in a production of Die Walküre, with Hawaii Opera Theater; I was one of the Valkyries sisters, I sang the role of Helmwige in that, and I definitely want to also find some Strauss and some Wagner to do. I'd like to find a Sieglinde down the road, as well as a Chrysothemis in Elektra.
OL – But I saw in your repertoire roles in Lohengrin, Tannhäuser, and Die Meistersinger, you've already done them, right?
JG – No, I have not. Those are roles I want to discover. I'd love to do an Elsa, and Elisabeth from Tannhäuser, and the Strauss heroines too that unfortunately in this country are not done as much. They fit the lyricism of my voice and my musical taste – I have a penchant from long-line singing. I love to suspend and pull out those long, long lines, which Strauss is the king of. And just like with Britten, I really would love to find an Ellen Orford in Peter Grimes, because in so many ways when you look at that character, she is so much the heart of that piece, but also there are so many moments when you'd be able to say that she has so many beautiful and Italianate lines; the approach is very similar even though it's Britten.
OL – OK. Let's talk about North Carolina for a bit. I saw that you are from here, and that you did at least three productions with Piedmont Opera, and this is your debut with Opera Carolina, right?
JG – That's correct.
OL - We partner with both Opera Carolina and Piedmont Opera, and we love Maestro Allbritten and Maestro Meena. Piedmont Opera is a neat small company but with lots of resources from the Fletcher. How was your experience of singing for them?
JG – Oh my Gosh, terrific! I have loved every association I have had with Piedmont Opera, and I agree with you, I think it is a little jewel within the state of North Carolina. Jamie Allbritten is just a terrific musician. For every singer our relationship with our stage directors and very importantly with our conductors is extremely important. Interestingly, I had a very wonderful collaborative relationship with Jamie Allbritten in Piedmont Opera, like I have with Jim Meena here. Jim Meena is another fantastic singer's conductor. I did Liù in Turandot with him last season at Arizona Opera. That was my first experience working with Maestro Meena, and again he is very so detail-oriented, and his focus is really on the stage. A wonderful aspect about Meena is that he conducts totally from memory!
OL – I know, yes!
JG – So he is fully with you, and it is so exciting, because you don't often get to have that luxury. His passion, his incredible knowledge, particularly of the Italianate repertoire, and his facile ability make of him an incredible conductor to work with.
What I love about Allbritten is his ambitious desire to bring not only the traditional operatic staples to the Piedmont region – because I grew up north of Winston-Salem in a little town called Tobaccoville, where one of the last R. J. Reynolds plants is – but he's done things like The Light in the Piazza. I had the real fortune of playing Margaret Johnson in it, and we premiered; that was the operatic premier of that piece.
OL – I know! He was courageous to bring something like this to the audiences in Winston-Salem, and also The Crucible by Robert Ward.
JG – Yes, that's what I was saying, and I saw that production; it was a terrific production!
OL – Me too, I saw it. It was great.
JG – Not only their relationship with the UNC School of the Arts and with the Fletcher Institute is wonderful, but it is also really great given the repertoire they are able to bring there. I've done Turandot there, where I sang my first performances of Liù, and I did also Mimì, and my first Leonora in Trovatore.
OL – You're in for a treat, because Opera Carolina is also outstanding – they are so organized and so professional… Their productions are always world class. I'm amazed at how good we have it in North Carolina. People from elsewhere say, "Oh, North Carolina is a Southern backwards state" and it is not true.
JG – It is not true.
OL – We have fabulous opera here and spectacular opera companies.
JG – Yes, and I'm very fortunate. I love to sing for my own people. I've been so fortunate to having been able to work with Allbritten and now I'm working with Meena. I hope to be able to go down to Raleigh and work with Timothy Myers of the North Carolina Opera, because I also think he is doing some wonderful things there, and he is a terrific conductor.
OL – And there’s also Eric Mitchko who is a great director and is really revitalizing the company.
JG – Yes!
OL – Timothy and Eric have great ability to cast and bring good singers here.
JG – They are like Jim Meena in this regard. I think they are very similar.
OL – Yep. You went to school in Greensboro, right?
JG – Yes, I did my Masters at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro.
OL – What about Greensboro Opera?
JG – They are struggling.
OL – I hope they recover.
JG – I do too.
OL – I have had no contact with Ashville Lyric Opera. How are they?
JG – I don't have much contact with them, but Ashville of all the opera companies in the state, is the most emerging. The roots and potential are there, because that whole area there in the mountains is not only growing but is becoming a huge retirement area.
OL – Oh yes, I hadn't thought of that. Plus, all the visual artists are there.
JG – Yes, exactly. You're correct. They have a fantastic visual and graphic art scene in Ashville. Therefore for the performing arts, the roots are there for growth, with the influx of retirees. Some people refer to Ashville in my travels as sort of the Eastern Sedona, because it also has that aspect of New Age, holistic, spiritual environment as well. Within the context of Opera Carolina in Charlotte being the largest, and then you have Piedmont Opera and NC Opera, I think that Asheville is on the lower runs of that ladder, but they are emerging. With the right kind of leadership and the proper kind of funding I think that they can also become a very viable force within the regional world.
OL – Back to this Tosca production in Charlotte, you have had the sing-through but not yet the full rehearsals. Where do you see it going? What are your first impressions of your colleagues and of the stage director?
JG – Oh, it's terrific. Jay Lesenger who is the artistic director for Chautauqua Opera in upstate New York will be directing. We start stage rehearsals today. This will be my first time working with Mr. Lesenger, but he is a very generous man, and someone who very clearly challenges you and is willing to work with you to create very viable interpretations, because this is what we call a very traditional production of Tosca, set within the times that it was written.
My colleagues are also just terrific. Working with them and singing with them yesterday was so inspiring! Raúl Melo, Cuban-American tenor, will be singing the role of Cavaradossi and my lover, and Todd Thomas, the American baritone will be singing the role of Scarpia, and they are just equally exciting and beautiful singers and just very generous colleagues.
I think we have all the elements to do a wonderful production of Tosca for the Charlotte and the Carolinas audiences. I'm very excited.
OL – We're clocking almost one hour of interview. As much as it's been so interesting, I think in the name of our attention span [laughs, she laughs hard, too] we should wrap it up.
JG – Absolutely.
OL – One interesting thing: in our website one of our collaborators and staff member who goes by the pen name Amfortas is writing a novel about the continuation of the story of Tosca, and I think you'd love to read it. It's very interesting, very well written, and very well researched in terms of the historical aspects of life in Rome at the time of these characters.
JG – Oh, I would love to read it! Definitely.
OL – He pretends that she survived the fall from the Castel Sant'Angelo and the story takes off from there.
JG – How interesting!
OL – Yes, he is publishing it on Opera Lively chapter by chapter, almost 30 so far, as an experiment, so that people give him feedback before he prepares the final version of it. We also have an In-Depth analysis of Tosca with articles about the musical structure, circumstances of composition, trivia, past singers, and all that. We have a full folder on Tosca that we wrote to support Opera Carolina's production.
JG – Great, send me the links. [here are the links to Amfortas' novel - click (here) - and the series of Tosca articles - click (here)]
OL – Well, you don't need to learn about it, you can teach us about it.
JG – [Laughs] No, there's always something to learn! This is great! I'm so thankful for all your enthusiasm, and what you offer putting all of this out there! I look forward to going into this website and checking this out. I always love to learn new things, it's really great.
OL – We do what we can. I appreciate your time.
JG – Will you be coming to the opera?
OL – Yes I will. I look forward to meeting you in person.
JG – Yes, how wonderful!
OL – Yes, I love to take some souvenir pictures, not for publication, with the artists I interview. I have some sixty of them in my Opera Man-Cave at home.[laughs]
JG – [Laughs hard] Oh, I'd love it.
OL – Thank you so much for this wonderful interview.
JG – Right, it's been a delight, and I'm so glad to have had this time to talk with you, and I look forward to reading your website and meeting you in person in a couple of weeks.
OL – Thanks, and good luck!
JG – Thank you so much. Ciao, ciao, bye, bye.
Let's listen to the soprano in the role of Liù in Turandot:
If you came to this page through a link from another site, please consider exploring our other exclusive interviews (Anna Netrebko's, Joyce DiDonato's, Anna Caterina Antonacci's, Luca Pisaroni's, Thomas Hampson's, Piotr Beczala's, scholar Dr. Philip Gossett's, veteran singer Sylvia Sass', and stage director Thaddeus Strassberger's are especially good, among many other artists - about 60), news, and articles by clicking on the Articles tab above and using the Section Widget on the top left of the page; our very active discussion Forum (of course, by clicking on the Forum tab - and please notice that over there we also have an area with content in Spanish, German, French, Italian, and Portuguese), and our Wordpress area where we place our educational content, accessible at www.operalively.com/learn - and then, if you like what you see, consider registering as a member so that you can post your own comments (it's entirely free and will remain so) and please use our social media share buttons to "like" our site and "tweet" about it to your opera-loving friends. Thank you for visiting Opera Lively!
Bookmark our site and come back for more - several new and exciting interviews are always coming to Opera Lively - next is video director François Roussillon from outstanding blu-ray disc recording label FRA Musica.