You’re new to Seattle Opera. Welcome! Can you tell us a little about your background, like how you became involved in opera?
I’m from Apple Valley, CA, which is about two hours outside of Los Angeles and two hours south of Las Vegas. I started singing when I was about 5, and my father was an opera singer, so I grew up listening to all the great singers, like Leontyne Price and Plácido Domingo. My father would walk around the house singing all the great arias, so I just fell in love with it that way. When I was 9, I started doing something called PAW (Performing Arts Workshop). It was more a summer thing, but it took the entire summer and you prepared for it the whole year. It was mainly musicals, so we did shows such as Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and Les Misérables. And then when I was 14, my parents enrolled me in LACSA (the Los Angeles County School for the Arts) and I studied piano, opera, musical theater, and acting. For college, I went to the University of Redlands and got my Bachelors of Music there, and then a Masters of Music from UCLA.
What has been the highlight of your career so far?
One thing I am very proud of is that my mentor, Plácido Domingo, sent me to Operalia in 2009. I was competing in the Zarzuela category—Zarzuela is Spanish operetta—and I knew how much Zarzuela meant to him because of his heritage. So it was a goal of mine to win that category, and I did. So that meant a lot to me.
Do you have a favorite composer for the voice?
I don’t have a favorite composer, but I have a favorite singer. Leontyne Price is my favorite singer, and she sings a lot of Verdi and Puccini. Because of that, those would be some of my favorite composers, but it’s because of her!
Photo by Alan Alabastro
Much of this cast has a great deal of experience performing Porgy and Bess. What about you? What’s your background with this opera?
I had only seen it once before I performed it, and that was when I was about 16. I totally didn’t get it; I thought it was a musical! Like so many people, I recognized a lot of the music but I didn’t get the depth of it. Then, two years ago at San Francisco Opera, I made my debut as Clara. Since then, I’ve been singing “Summertime” a lot in concerts and such.
What have you found to be the biggest challenge of this role?
I started studying the role in 2008 and the hardest thing for me to grasp is how people lived their lives back then. So I’ve really been trying to bring myself into the character and understand all the themes that make Porgy and Bess what it is, because we’re so far removed from that now. So when I began studying the role back in 2008, I was thinking to myself, “No one talks like this anymore!” But I’ve been to Charleston—my dad’s side of my family is from the south—and that has helped me a lot with the dialect, because the dialect is very different. So basically, I’ve been trying to get myself, in 2011, to think what I would have been like in 1935.
”Summertime” is a song that nearly everyone knows, even if they don’t know it comes from Porgy and Bess. How do you make such an iconic piece of music your own?
I think for me, the words really mean a lot. Sometimes you have a really good, iconic song and it stays in your head and you can always remember the melody. But with “Summertime,” what sticks with me are the words. For example, my grandmother grew up picking cotton and when I first sang the role two years ago, I asked her about these lyrics, and she explained to me, “Oh, when cotton is high, picking it is so much easier.” And there’s the greater understanding of Clara, and knowing that in Catfish Row, Jake is probably one of the richest men there, and they have stability with their young baby, knowing that the cotton is high and people can work, and her husband is working, and she herself is beautiful. I think those words mean a lot to me because I connect it to my family history. So that’s how I make it my own, instead of being intimidated by all the great singers who have sung the part.
Photo by Alan Alabastro
”Summertime” especially has been performed by so many artists over the years. Do you have a favorite non-operatic rendition of it?
I have two that I can think of. One is Ella Fitzgerald with Duke Ellington, and it’s just a beautiful rendition. It’s really low but, of course, it’s Ella and she can do that. She doesn’t scat on it or anything; it’s written exactly the way Gershwin wrote it.
The other rendition I like is by a band called Sublime (I like rock music a lot). It’s not the whole song, just parts of “Summertime,” but I love it so much. They were a wonderful band.
What other rock music do you like listening to?
Well, on my way in this morning, I was listening to “Black Hole Sun” by Soundgarden, because it’s definitely appropriate. I love Pearl Jam, and I’m a big fan of Nirvana. I’m in Seattle so I have to mention these bands! I listen to everything, but I love rock and roll, and I’m definitely a grunge person. Maybe I shouldn’t say this, as an opera singer, but I used to be into metal. And then I got into screamo kind of stuff.
That would definitely mess up your voice!
Definitely. So I think I’m sticking with my grunge phase.