• Exclusive Interview with young American soprano Jessica Cates

    Ms. Jessica Cates was Lise in our partners NC Opera's production of Glass' Les Enfants Terribles in January of 2012. Opera Lively interviewed her at the time - a delightful young lady who is very insightful about her role and opera in general. This is a very interesting interview, not to be missed! [Opera Lively interview # 27]

    OL- Is it more challenging to sing contemporary opera as opposed to the more traditional repertoire?

    JC – Yes, absolutely, it’s much more challenging to tackle a 20th century opera as opposed to 17th, 18th, and 19th century composers who wrote a lot just for the voice, versus something that was written more so for the music. Tackling this Philip Glass opera has been very different for me because I’ve always been a huge Philip Glass fan. In grad school I listened to a lot of his instrumental music, you know, which is very ambienced in the 20th century minimalism. When you are trying to learn a vocal line over the same repeated measures, you know, you think “which measure am I at” and the counting never stops. Once it’s ingrained in you it somewhat goes away but even now after having learned this opera, even now on stage I have to stay with it; I have to have every measure, every beat.

    Philip Glass’ libretto is so much more colloquial than French grand opéra, or some of the other French composers that write for the voice with vowels while Glass has lots and lots and lots of syllabic singing. [laughs] I laugh when I get to about three fourths into the opera when I get to sing one vowel for about three beats, and I think, “wow, this seems so out of place!” It’s very different, in addition to his vocal reading being semi-atonal.

    OL - Being this opera by Glass relatively obscure, what kind of material have you used to prepare yourself for the role?

    JC – Living in this day and age we all have this privilege of social sites such as Facebook and upon receiving my offer from North Carolina Opera I researched who had done this opera, who sang this role, being that I couldn’t get my hand on a score immediately. So I found a recording because there is only one that exists, and contacted the soprano herself, Christine Arand, and asked her what the challenges were, vocally demanding, what kind of role was it, wide range? Her response was very candid, and she said nothing about the vocal demands, she only responded how demanding this is psychologically. I asked, should I read the book? She said, 'more so watch the movie and read as many articles about the opera and the book as you can,' which I did and honestly it helped me so much to develop this character!

    OL – How long did it take to do all that?

    JC – Let’s see… in addition to my crazy schedule in the fall… [laughs]… I received my offer sometime in September. I read the book in October; it was probably maybe four weeks to two months for this process, reading the book and watching the movie, because there is so much to discover with Cocteau, he is so cryptic in everything. There is double meanings, and it is mythical.

    Watching the movie at the beginning wasn’t the same as when I learned the role and watched the movie again. So in rehearsals we watched the movie scenes and talked about what we had done the night before, and it brought so much to the table. All and all you prepare beforehand but the preparing never stops. I still continue to find great articles and reviews online, or critic reviews of the opera and the movie. It never stops, but I tackled this role in October.

    OL – You know, this one came out better the second time.

    JC – [laughs] I know, sometimes I’m better the second time around.[laughs again]

    OL - Tell me about your character.

    JC – Lise, she’s out there, she is crazy. But she is not as… you know, I really try to meet her on a personal level, you know, playing a villain. And I don’t necessarily think that she is a villain. She is definitely the antagonist of the story. Everybody has a good sight into it, you have to know the character from all angles. She is seen by various people as this monster, and she is even called ‘celle monstre’ in the very last number. But she is not just that. She seems shameless… that she is, and semi-sociopathic. Maybe more sociopathic to others, but I think that she is just enclosed in a bubble inside this room, she is a product of her environment.

    By the time she is 18 she is taking care of her invalid mother and her bed-ridden brother. Maybe she is the enabler for why Paul is so weak. You know, there is no father figure in the story so she has had to be very strong as a result. And I think she takes a lot for that reason, she is very rough around the edges. She never cares how people interpret her because she’s never had people around other than one outsider friend in the story which is Gerard, and you know, he is part of their story more as an audience than a participator.

    I constantly learn things about her, like, she needs to constantly be around people all the time. There is this sense of co-dependence theme, quasi-incestuous with her brother Paul, you know, never consummated, and I think that they are sensual, but she is more maternal to him so it appears different; she just doesn’t see… you know, she just grows up in a room with just her brother so by the time they are teenagers, she says – ‘what, is it weird that I take a bath with my brother?’ – because there’s never been any socializing activity outside of their house and their home.

    Then her mother dies and she has to get out and work and interact with people… She is so cool and calm, but I think she is very obsessed with the outside world and the higher status of living, you know, her friend Gerard, his uncle is rich and she gravitates towards that, and they talk about her Greek profile and her nose, and she talks to Paul about his chin, and she tries to look proper. Although it’s not included in the opera they go away on a trip to the beach and she is very composed, she keeps her cool a lot.

    Then there is her final act, she has a sort of mad scene towards the end, but I think she is a character about survival. You know she buries her mother, a month later she buries her newlywed husband… You know, the director and I talked about crying over Michael’s grave, her husband, and we discussed that she wouldn’t cry. She is not a mourner. She also didn’t… I don’t know that she loved him. She goes immediately, on the next scene, from taking care of her mother dying to playing with Paul, there is no mourning over her mother.

    OL – She seems asexual to me.

    JC – Yes, she is kind of asexual. Somebody asked me – ‘did you get to have any moments with anyone in this show, you know, romantically’ – and I said [emphatically] no!!! – And it made me think about that. Lise is not… she doesn’t have this void in her life. Maybe she does, maybe she just puts it away because she had no father figure, but she has no need for a romantic partner in her life. I think Michael is more of… I think she admires him and marries him for this opportunity – how cool it is! She is also into make-belief, ‘let me try this hat on, try to live with this rich man and this huge mansion with 18 rooms,' you know, but she is never affectionate with him. She is affectionate with Paul but like I said I think it is a maternal thing.

    OL – One of the interesting things I’ve noticed in the movie is that when the surroundings are biggest – the huge mansion – it’s when things become the most claustrophobic. The camera takes show these empty spaces while the relationships seem to turn more and more confined.

    JC – Yeah, and there is a scene when Paul has set up his room and she comes to see Paul, and she has all these people living with her, her best friend Gerard and Agathe and her brother have come to live with her in this mansion. Paul’s coping method with stress or trauma is different than Lise’s; he encloses, he seeks solitude and she doesn’t, she needs to be around people. Her sense of co-dependence is much stronger. She comes to Paul and says – ‘I feel lonely’ – you know, rightfully so. She lives in this huge house, has space, and inherited all this money, and everyone is there, but you see the seams growing between everyone and splitting everybody apart.

    OL – The doctor [a relatively important character in the movie] is not in the opera?

    JC – There is someone who comes at the beginning to diagnose Paul’s illness right after his being hit with the snowball, but no, the doctor is not a character of the opera.

    OL - What is your opinion of this North Carolina Opera production? How is the work going so far? And while I asked this question of all of you, for you it’s even more specific because you are a native of this state, so how is it for you, being back to your home state?

    JC – Having my debut in North Carolina is a privilege, to be singing on the stage as a principal in my home state, is definitely a huge opportunity and honor. It’s been great to help with public relations - I have family and friends in Raleigh, and Eric Mitchko [NC Opera General Director] and Tim Myers [Artistic Director, conductor] are great, they love to be in this community.

    A few years ago Capital Opera and The Opera Company of North Carolina had this hope to reach out in the capital of this state but were struggling, and there was also Charlotte, and Greensboro Opera, and Piedmont Opera. When the two Raleigh companies merged, it was such a good idea, and also it was great for the state to bring these two guys, they are definitely reaching out to the community. We did concerts, we sang some parts of the piece at the Busy Bee downtown, and also sang pop music.

    They really want to give the message that this is appealing to a new generation – 'hey, these people are just like you, they’re young, they work, they are versatile' – I think the response was really great. This process itself is new for North Carolina Opera, so to learn this parallel genre of art, Classical Ballet, and how different it is, it just strengthens everything about us as performers and myself as a musician. There were many invaluable lessons in doing something that is not always performed, you know, 20th century, different language, entirely different altogether and it is at home, I’m so happy to be here!

    OL – Have you looked at doing anything with Opera Carolina?

    JC – In Charlotte? No, other than watching their productions and competing in their competitions when I was in college at UNC in Greensboro, I never sang for that company. But I heard really good things about it, I have lots of friends who sang for them, and they speak highly of the administration there.

    OL – What do you think of the fact that the oldest company in the Triangle, Long Leaf Opera, is folding and doing their last production in June?

    JC – Long Leaf is known for their competition, they’ve always promoted young singers, given out money and grants to young singers which has been great, but what do you do in a time when the economy is tanking and people can’t put food on their table? Some people view art as a luxury that is not necessary. I think it’s a hard world. I think it is inevitable.

    People say it’s a dying art, but it’s never a dying art, even if we have to perform opera in a barn or somebody’s garage, I think it will continue to die and be reborn. It’s so sad, it breaks my heart that even Greensboro Opera had to fold on their production of La Bohème this past fall, but you live and you learn and then people rise to the occasion. Patrons then say – hey, this is not how it should be. You know, people come together and they reach out, and we are all stronger for it, I think.

    OL – Wow, great answer! It wasn’t part of the questions I’m asking of all members of the cast, but I will include it. Back to the original questions, tell me about your career so far. What would you highlight as your best successes?

    JC – I will definitely put this experience here at the top of my list [laughs] more because it is more challenging and needs more musicianship skills, to tackle such a novel opera that is not in my first language and is not natural to my ear, you know, this atonal 20th century music. And this role, man… you know, being a soprano you play so many ingénue roles, just like, those called Barbie roles [laughs], you smile and look pretty, and you fall over the tenor, and you’re happy, and you’re knocked over, and you die at the end, or you get happily married [laughs]. This path with Lise is so much different, I get to be crazy, and wise and wild, and to do character role, it’s such a bigger journey.

    I really had a great, great time in Fort Worth with Darren Keith Woods, he was so generous to me, such a huge mentor for my career – he started my career. I was fortunate enough to be in a position in his summer program in 2008 called Music Colony in upstate New York, that was my first real opera opportunity. I was able to be in his production of The Mikado, a very very very updated version, which is great – you know, we talked about reaching out to the community, we had iPods, fluorescent colored wigs, and hip-hop dancing – I mean, it is great to be able to do that in a community.

    Also high in my list was the role I was able to cover at Glimmerglass in a totally different role in terms of fach to the ones I’m used to singing – a huge Handel role which was very different from everything I’ve ever sung, and it was a challenge to me as a soprano, as a vocalist, you know. I learned so much from so many different proficient artists and performers there.

    Then I moved to New York and was challenged as a singer, you know, one of my mentors told me – 'In New York we will feed you, or we will eat you.' In my first year in New York… you know, you take for granted the resources you have in an academic setting or a young artist program setting and you are all programmed, but when you are in New York you have to put a roof over your head and put food on your table if you want to keep studying; you have to be a private contractor or entrepreneur, you have to work with people who are well connected.

    Of course New York is the Mecca for all pristine resources for opera singers, in addition to being the prime spot for auditions. You have to find the time for auditions in your real world work schedule, I definitely got a taste of that when I moved to New York over a year ago, and I do get a chance to perform and work and work and work, so it’s worth it.

    OL - What are your plans for the immediate and distant future, in terms of desirable roles?

    JC – This is my fourth new opera. If somebody said, would you make a career out of doing new opera? I’d say, yes, sure, whatever. Not that my dream role was to do a Philip Glass opera, but I’ll tell you what, huge experiences with new operas… as challenging as they are, they give you back everything that you put into them. So at this point, we talked about – Oh, this is too big for me, one day I’ll do this role…

    As an artist at this point in my life I’m happy to take any experience, grab it with both hands, and yes, yes, yes… because my career – my budding career – has gone in many different directions to which I never planned for. I love Handel operas and I love French grand opéra, and I love Verismo and Puccini. I’d love to have an opportunity to sing Violetta or even a Juliet, something like that. I’m just open to anything.

    OL – You know what, I think the second interview was even better than the first one, so my digital voice recorder was wise enough to malfunction. [Editor's note: we had to repeat the interview due to a problem with the recorder]

    JC – [laughs] There you go! I’m glad! Thank you so much!


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