• Exclusive Interview with Mezzo Robynne Redmon

    Ms. Redmon sang Azucena for NC Opera's production of Il Trovatore. Opera Lively has interviewed her about her role, the opera, the production, and some other details regarding her career. [Opera Lively interview # 16]


    Robynne Redmon has earned international acclaim for her artistry as a singer and as an actress. Critics have hailed her “glorious singing, intense acting, excellent phrasing, ardent tone, splendid shading and solid coloratura and excellent artistic sense” (Das Opernglas) and for her “exactitude of pitch, her luxuriance of tone, her abundant animal spirit and unerring dramatic intelligence” (Newsday).

    She has performed leading roles with the major opera houses of the world including The Metropolitan Opera (Maddalena in Rigoletto, Marina in Boris Godunov, Suzuki in Madama Butterfly and Fenena in Nabucco), Lyric Opera of
    Chicago (Adalgisa in Norma, Fenena in Nabucco, Laura in La Gioconda and The Ring of the Nibelung), San Francisco Opera, the Bavarian State Opera (Fenena), Teatro alla Scala (La Haine in Gluck’s Armide and Clytemnestre in Gluck’s Iphigenie en Aulide), Berlin State Opera and Opera de Marseilles (Adalgisa), Teatro Regio Torino (Giovanna Seymour in Anna Bolena).

    In recent seasons, she added the role of Amneris in Aida in her South American debut at the Teatro Municipal in Santiago, sang Eboli in Don Carlos with the Boston Lyric Opera and the Minnesota Opera, Azucena in Il Trovatore with Opera Queensland in Australia, Zia Principessa in Suor Angelica and as Frugola in Il Tabarro for the Montreal Opera and Gertrude in Romeo et Juliette for The Atlanta Opera.

    She returned to the Fort Worth Opera to sing Sister Helen Prejean in Dead Man Walking, plus appeared in concerts with the Florentine Opera, Gibralter Philharmonic, Conspirare Artist Series, and Pacific Symphony Orchestra. Upcoming engagements include Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 with the Delaware Symphony and Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 with the Buffalo Philharmonic.

    A respected interpreter of modern music and creator of new roles, Ms. Redmon has created the title role in the world premiere of Bright Sheng’s Madame Mao for the Santa Fe Opera, the American premiere of Mathis der Maler, and the world premieres of Harvey Milk and Hugo Weisgall’s Esther for New York City Opera, Conrad Susa’s Black River, Stephen Oliver’s Beauty and the Beast, and, in June (2006), Mrs. Fairfax in the American premiere of Michael Berkeley’s Jane Eyre, all with Opera Theatre of St Louis. She also performed the Penderecki Credo under the direction of the composer at the Casals Festival in Puerto Rico.

    Equally at home in recital and concert she has appeared with many orchestras around the world including the Israel Philharmonic, Montreal Symphony Orchestra, Atlanta Symphony, Detroit Symphony, Seattle Symphony, Virginia Symphony and Nashville Symphony with whom she recorded a critically acclaimed Beethoven Missa Solemnis for Naxos Records. Concert engagements include Dvorak’s Stabat Mater with Fabio Luisi and the Orchestra of the Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk on tour across Germany. She then returned to the Atlanta Symphony to sing Handel’s Messiah and the Bach Magnificat and concluded her season as soloist in the Verdi Requiem with the Seattle Symphony. She also sang a special Chinese language version of Das Lied von der Erde at the British Library as part of the Silk Road Exhibition.


    OL - Let’s talk about the challenges of singing Azucena from a vocal standpoint. First of all, it is one of Verdi’s lowest roles for the female voice, reaching into the contralto territory. Second, Azucena has a double style: both bel canto fiorituri in certain passages such as in “Stride la vampa,” and also dramatic singing in “Giorni poveri vivea” and in the cabaletta “Deh ralentate o barbari.” What can you tell us about this?

    RR - You’re right, Azucena is very challenging because it does have a lot of bel canto, beautiful singing, but also has a lot of dramatic singing. You can’t talk about the vocal standpoint of the part without addressing these two dimensions. I’m now a more mature singer and part of this character requires a more mature voice. When I started it out in Chicago, they always told me: "don’t be in a hurry to sing these big Verdi parts," because the chest voice for the low female voice really comes in later, especially when you are really a mezzo. Sopranos, surprisingly enough, usually have more of a chest voice at a younger age than a mezzo does. That kind of singing that Verdi requires really comes with the mature voice. Over the years I’ve gone from being really challenged by the lower part to being able to integrate both of the styles more comfortably.

    OL - The risk here would be to sing Azucena in dramatic tones throughout the opera, forgetting the bel canto part, right?

    RR – That is a very good insight on your part. The chest register is very aggressive and it is very easy to get stuck in your chest voice. Then it is hard to make a smooth transition between lighter beautiful bel canto singing and very aggressive singing. The biggest challenge of this part is to be very careful about letting that aggressive character of the voice take over the entire part. I think it is possible to make Azucena a dramatically viable character but still have her sing beautifully.

    OL - Have you found inspiration in some great Azucenas of the past? If yes, which ones?

    RR – I listen to Giulietta Simionato a lot. I even listen to Shirley Verrett. She later became a soprano. This was not one of her most successful roles, Azucena, but I just wanted to hear what she did with it. I love her voice, it is very beautiful. Her voice tends to change registers in the same place where mine does, so I like to listen to what she does.

    One of the most famous Azucenas that I love is Fiorenza Cossotto. I love her singing. She is more remembered these days for her more aggressive, dramatic, big chest tone. Preparing to come here, I like to listen to a lot of different recordings; modern people to way back. I just picked a recording off of an online site that I like, and was listening to the beginning of the last act when there is more delicate singing for Azucena. And then I though, “Oh my gosh, this is the most beautiful mezzo singing I’ve ever heard in this scene!” It was so refined! She didn’t go over to the chest at all, it was completely legato bel canto; it was from a 1962 recording.

    OL – I heard her much later, from a 1978 recording with Domingo, under von Karajan.

    RR – Yes, this one I got was quite a bit earlier in her career, and this underscores the development over many years when that chest voice becomes more and more aggressive. Early on she approached it from the aspect of singing beautifully [emphatically]. You can really see the evolution in her vocalism throughout the years. As a young singer she started out very into bel canto and as her voice grew she became much more dramatic.

    OL – Yes, absolutely, different singers have adopted different styles while singing Azucena. Fedora Barbieri for example was more dramatic, while Marilyn Horne was more into the bel canto aspects. A great Azucena of the last twenty years was American mezzo Dolora Zajick, who was sort of in-between in terms of dramatic and bel canto singing. Where do you fall in this spectrum?

    RR - The thing that I love about Azucena is the bel canto aspect of it, because that’s the tradition I come from. I was trained in it, in the Italian way of singing. I did my early apprenticeship in a very Italian house and opera company. I had a lot of success singing Adalgisa in Norma and Leonora in La Favorita. I really come from the bel canto tradition, so that is the part of Azucena that I find the easiest to assimilate. I sang this time two times before in two different productions but spread out over many years. The first time I sang it was in the late nineties in Queensland, Australia. Then, I certainly didn’t have the ability to sing the dramatic part as I do now.

    OL - Verdi with Azucena gave to a low female voice a very prominent part, arguably the most important and pivotal role in this opera. Before, female low roles in his operas were subsidiary, like Federica in Luisa Miller and Maddalena in Rigoletto. It is true that after Azucena, he gave other important low voice roles to his singers, such as Ulrica, Eboli, and Amneris. But here as a mezzo you get to shine like sopranos usually shine in other operas. How does it feel for you, to be able to take advantage of this opportunity?

    RR – To be honest, for me it’s not really the fact that this is a mezzo featured part; I just love to sing this opera because the music is so great. It’s not about having an opportunity to shine. I love to sing my music but I love to be backstage listening to other people sing their music, because there are no bad numbers in this piece, they are all exciting. When you listen to great singers singing this music you can’t help but be in awe of them. I’m just happy to be part of the group.

    OL - Now let’s talk about the psychology of this character. She is constantly changing her moods, as one can tell from Verdi’s music. She is menacing and terrifying, but then also motherly and protective. Here is what Verdi himself said of Azucena: “Don’t make Azucena go mad. Exhausted with fatigue, suffering with terror and sleeplessness, she speaks confusedly. Her faculties are weakened, but she is not mad. This woman’s two great passions, her love for Manrico and her wild desire to avenge her mother, must be sustained to the end.” He wanted Azucena to be the leading character and to be treated with great compassion. How do you read this character?

    RR – I think Azucena has lived her life with post-traumatic stress syndrome. Though she may appear to be normal at times, it’s similar to when you talk to someone with mental problems and they may seem absolutely normal; you may think that there is nothing wrong with them, and then all of a sudden they start exhibiting behavior or saying things that are bewildering. Azucena is walking through the world probably clinically depressed. She is very self-serving, she needs Manrico to take care of her. She is consumed with guilt and grief, and is traumatized by both seeing her mother burned to death and by the fact that she killed her own child. I think she just never recovered from that.

    OL – This is a bit of a silly question but I still want to hear your take on it. Many detractors of Il Trovatore complain that it is impossible for a mother to be mistaken about what baby is hers and toss the wrong baby into a bonfire. I know that opera often requires suspension of disbelief, but what are your thoughts on this problematic plot device?

    RR – Oh, I don’t think that it is problematic at all. She says in her aria that she is carrying her baby in her arm and she grabs the other baby. Her mother is being burned to death. There is a fire going on. There are all these soldiers, she is in danger also of being captured, and I think she is just in sort of a daze, she just throws this baby into the fire, and then “Oh my God, it’s the wrong baby.” I think she is just really out of her mind at that point.

    OL - Now, let’s talk about this NC Opera production. Il Trovatore is considered to be difficult to stage, with its eight scenes in different locations. The story is very convoluted. But then, a staged version anchors the action a bit. How different is it for you to be in a semi-staged production like this one? You did for instance what I presume was a fully staged Trovatore when you sang Azucena for Opera Queensland. Can you describe the challenges, pros and cons, and different preparation needed for staged opera versus semi-staged?

    RR – Interestingly, I’ve done this opera always semi-staged. I did it in Toledo a few years ago as well. As you say, it is an incredibly challenging opera to stage, and I can imagine, very expensive. It's not in every opera that you need five lead soloists that are featured! There are five lead parts and you need five lead singers to stage it. The multiple locations requiring different sets, the large chorus, they all add to the expenses. To do it in a semi-staged version affords the public the opportunity to experience this great work within the realm of financial responsibility of an opera company. It’s a great solution.

    There’s not a whole lot of interaction between the singing characters, the leads, and the chorus. In this opera the chorus is very much in the background, so I don’t think it hurts the storytelling at all to have them staged in a certain way that they are in the background. I think the story is still very understandable through the soloists being in the foreground.

    OL – Is it a problem for the singer/actress when you don’t have the acting to inform you, or is it easier because your breathing and your counting are easier if you don’t need to move as much?

    RR – I can’t speak to every opera, but in this opera there are only a couple of scenes in which the solo characters interact with the people in the chorus: the beginning of the opera when Ferrando is telling the story to the troops, and the top of act III when the troops are getting ready to go into battle. But my character pretty much never interacts with the chorus, really. Leonora, the soprano, she comes on with the nuns, but she does not interact with the nuns. In this production the director is strategically staging it so that you get a sense of them being involved without them being all over the stage.

    For my character there is no problem with the chorus being in the background. We’re still moving; for me everything is still the same standard.

    OL – I was asking your colleague Mr. Bonner about not having the conductor’s eye contact. You can see him in monitors, but is that a problem?

    RR – That’s a little scary, because he’s our security blanket. We are humans, you can forget something, you can make a mistake, and having him right in front of you giving you encouragement and urging you on is reassuring; I’ll miss that. But it will be fine.

    OL - You have done quite a lot of modern and contemporary opera, including English-language ones. Can you tell us a bit about how you relate to this repertory, and what particular challenges it entails?

    RR – The contemporary English and American repertory, I love it. I will say that it is the closest thing that we as opera singers get to feel like being a rock star. By that I mean that you’re are on the cutting edge of creating something. It’s your interpretation, there’s nothing to compare yourself to. In Trovatore there is this history of great singers that you are looking up to and you are compared to. In contemporary operas you are free and you are not constrained by any expectations, I love that aspect of it.

    Also, usually the subject matter is very interesting for a mezzo. They often say that we are the witches and the bitches (laughs). I had the opportunity to portray some extremely interesting characters and do things that normally you don’t see in a mezzo role. I had an immolation scene when I was doing Madame Mao, I stabbed, I shot people in the head, I smothered people with a pillow … It’s foreign and interesting and brand new.

    Musically it is always extremely challenging. Every composer has a unique musical language that you have to learn. If you pick up Mozart, we all know what Mozart’s language is; therefore it is pretty easy to learn. In a contemporary piece with a new composer you have to first try to learn their language, and then their music starts making sense to you. I find it challenging and rewarding on so many levels.

    OL – And do you see a new genre coming up of contemporary American opera? We’ve had these great pieces full of action and current events, like Doctor Atomic, Satyagraha

    RR – Oh, very much; The Heart of a Soldier, Nixon in China, they capture the public’s attention and imagination. Unfortunately the public also needs to learn their musical language so it’s not always accessible at first hearing. The audience coming to the show for the first time may say, “oh, I don’t like this; the music doesn’t make sense to me.” It’s challenging to the ear. The more companies can do to educate their public before the opera, of course, the more these operas will be enjoyable.

    OL - Finally, I’m curious about something. How was it for you to sing a Chinese version of Das Lied von der Erde? Was it very difficult to learn?

    RR – Yes, it was challenging. But when you are gifted with the ability to sing, one of the other gifts you get from the universe -- God -- is also an ability to hear the language and to assimilate those kinds of sounds. I think that the language ability is part of your gift as the package of being a classical singer. Quite honestly, I don’t speak a lot of languages, but being able to reproduce the sounds is something that is part of what I am able to do. I got some excellent coaches, worked hard, and I was told that my Chinese was actually very good! (laughs)

    OL – Nice (laughs)! Do you have any closing statements, something we haven’t addressed?

    RR – I’d just like to say to the public of Raleigh: give yourself the gift of coming to see this production. The singers, I’m speaking for my colleagues, the soprano [Leah Crocetto, winner of the 2010 Met National Council Auditions] is one of *the* up and coming Verdi sopranos that you are going to be going to the theater to see in HD from the Met, and you have the opportunity *now* to see her. The tenor has just released a crossover album in Europe, he is the real deal, he is going to be big and famous, and he is right here. You have a chance to see great singers up close and personal, live, and it’s a gift to give yourself.

    OL – Great! Thank you so much for doing this! It’s greatly appreciated.

    RR – Thank you, and I thank you for what you are doing because without the audience we don’t have the opportunity to do what we do, to perform, so what Opera Lively is doing is very important!


    Comments 1 Comment
    1. Schigolch's Avatar
      Schigolch -
      Coincidentally, I've just heard a few weeks ago Madame Mao, with Ms. Redmon in the leading role, an interesting performance.

      I also remember her, but this time many years ago, singing Isaura at Chicago, in a Tancredi with Horne , Cuberli and Merritt.

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