You and your roommate Andrew Stenson, fellow Minnesotan, have had big years: Carmen, Werther, now Butterfly for you and recently a Met debut and "Save the Day" cover performance as Orpheus for Andrew. Florangela Davila of KPLU did a story on the two of you last fall. Is it easy for young singers to be close friends, or do you end up in competition with each other?
Interesting question. Yes, Andrew and I met at Glimmerglass in the summer of 2010 and were also there in 2011. Since we're both from Minnesota we immediately had to be best friends.
Oh! So last summer, after he'd already spent a year in Seattle, he must have told you where all the good restaurants are and so on...
You know, I was accepted into the Seattle Opera Young Artists Program after auditioning three years in a row. Andrew kept saying, “You should come to Seattle!” and I told him: “I'd love to, but it’s not really my choice!” But this year has been great, I lived with Andrew and Lindsay Russell, another Seattle Opera Young Artist. None of us are the same voice type, so we’re not directly in competition with each other. And Andrew is one of those people who’s just naturally talented and nice, so as much as you want to be jealous of him, you can’t, because he deserves everything that’s happening. I’m proud of him and really happy for him, and I hope he takes the rest of us up with him!
Alan Alabastro, photo
We most recently heard him as Ernesto in Don Pasquale. But you weren't in that production.
No, during that time I was traveling—I did a couple of auditions, saw my voice teacher, and worked on Suzuki with Lynn Baker [one of the YAP coach-accompanists] in New York. She was here this winter, we did a recital together, and I really loved working with her so I asked her to coach me on Suzuki because I knew she'd whip me into shape.
Speaking of Suzuki, what research have you done to play this very special role?
Before I wanted to be a singer I wanted to be a dramaturg. So I read everything I could get my hands on in terms of the source material—the play, the story, articles. It’s interesting, the things they decided to put into the opera. Kate Pinkerton’s part is much more prominent in the original material. But in terms of the role, when I told everyone I was going to sing Suzuki they all said, “I hope you have good knees!” Lynn Baker put me in touch with Michael Phillips, a director and dancer in New York, and I went over for a coaching with him—we basically set up an obstacle course in his apartment and worked on walking, kneeling, standing, serving, picking things up. I’m happy I did that, because without it I would have been lost on the first day.
Alan Alabastro, photo
Is it like doing yoga?
[Laughs] It’s definitely along the lines of yoga. I’m more conscious of my whole body while doing these movements. If I’m not, I’m going to go home hurting, especially on our raked stage. I had worked so hard on getting up without starting with one of my legs first—I wanted it to be seamless, but then I got on the raked stage and all that went out the window.
Patricia Racette, who sings Butterfly, was saying that the control and economy of movement necessary for these characters can be physically exhausting.
You need to be focused. But it’s easy to develop tension when you’re constantly thinking, "This hand needs to be this way for this amount of time.” You have to be aware of your body as a whole, how everything fits together.
Alan Alabastro, photo
Now, Suzuki stays loyal to Butterfly even after everybody else in Japan has rejected her. I asked Patricia why, and she joked, “I don’t know, Puccini didn’t give Suzuki an aria!” In your fantasy, what would that offstage aria for Suzuki be like?
I find a lot of similarities in the relationships between Suzuki and Butterfly with Neris and Meda in Cherubini’s Medea, which I sang at Glimmerglass last summer.
She's also a mezzo who's the servant to a high-powered soprano?
Yes. Their stories are almost parallel.
Ok, but unlike Butterfly, when Medea's tenor husband turns out to be a jerk, Medea kills her kid, not herself...
Fine, there is that big difference. But in terms of the loyalty factor for the mezzo, it’s the same. Neris has a great aria in Medea where she sings, "I’ll always be faithful to you; no matter how many tears I may weep I will still always be there for you." When I was working on Butterfly, I had Medea in my mind, because they’re so similar. At the end, Suzuki knows what Butterfly is going to do, she knows it’s wrong, but it’s not her place to directly intervene. That's why she takes this loophole, of pushing the child onstage. If anything is going to stop Butterfly from killing herself, this is going to be it.
Everyone loves the “Flower Duet” you and Butterfly sing at the end of Act Two while scattering flowers around the house to prepare it for Pinkerton’s arrival. Is that piece difficult, musically?
I love the Flower Duet because it reminds me of Così fan tutte. Any time I am singing in 3rds with someone I am the happiest person ever. It’s like the feeling you had in your school choir, but on a more intimate scale. You have to listen and clock their body movement, how they’re approaching different sounds, so you can match them. It’s like a sport.
Alan Alabastro, photo
Do you sing a lot of love duets? As a mezzo...
No, no one wants to sing duets with us mezzos.
What about Lakmé and Mallika?
Oh, I love the Lakmé Flower Duet. It's the same thing, in 3rds...
Puccini was ripping that off in Butterfly!
Yes, and Così is all that kind of writing for the two sisters.
What about operas where you’re in love with the tenor, in Werther, or in Rossini...
It’s interesting with Werther, I think we had a total of about 2 bars where we were singing together. I’ve been exploring Rossini...I’m used to letting the soprano hold the reins, where she makes the decisions of how long the high notes should be, so it’s really weird for me to be in charge, when I sing with the tenor.
Oh, I see, the higher voice is the one that’s more apparent to the audience, so it always leads. Do you ever sing a duet with a baritone or a bass?
Well, there’s “La ci darem,” from Don Giovanni, but it’s different.
Elise Bakketun, photo
You're singing the only mezzo role in Puccini (except Il trittico). Do you wish he, or Verdi for that matter, had written more for mezzo? What Italian rep do you sing the most?
I do a lot of Handel. I always warm up with it every day, no matter what role I’m singing. Right now I’m working on Ariodante...I just sang the aria 20 minutes ago.
I need to make sure I can do that. If I can do the coloratura in that, then I can do anything that day! And if I can’t do the coloratura, then the day is probably not going to be so good.
Is there anything else you sing in Puccini?
I think there’s a mezzo role in Edgar...
What about Verdi?
I love Verdi, but as a lyric mezzo I only sing Meg Page, Maddalena...I spent two seasons with Sarasota Opera, which is doing a Verdi cycle, at least one Verdi opera each year. There I did I lombardi and Giovanna d’Arco, and I learned so much. They’re a little dense—you really have to spend time with the score to understand what’s going on. And I was in the chorus for Un giorno di regno at Wolftrap, when Brian Garman conducted that there.
On that note, tell us about your upcoming plans!
Yes, next fall with the Seattle Opera Young Artists Program we’ll be doing Un giorno di regno! I play Giulietta di Kelbar. I’m really excited, she’s a young girl, so I get to wear a pretty dress, which doesn’t always happen. And we'll do a Verdi concert after that, in honor of his bicentennial.
What are you doing this summer?
I’ll be in Santa Fe, with Lindsay Russell and our dog, Sherlock. I’ve never been there before, and any time I tell people I’m going to Santa Fe they get this mystical, happy, content look in their eyes. So I’m really excited.