Wednesday, April 21, 2010

A Chat with Jennifer Zetlan

Jennifer Zetlan, a recent Juilliard graduate, is making her Seattle Opera debut as the Flier in Amelia. This character, based on Amelia’s namesake, Amelia Earhart, is a figment of the opera heroine’s imagination. As she’s working to create her character, Zetlan keeps a photo of the famous aviatrix close by for inspiration.

The image, which Zetlan has taped to the back of her Amelia score, is a photo of Earhart in her plane cockpit in December 1930, donning her classic aviator cap, goggles, and leather jacket.

“She is looking towards the sky, with a beautiful combination of joy and moxy,” Zetlan said. “Anytime I feel I am not quite ‘there,’ I flip to the back of my score and look at this photo. I feel it tells me who she is.”

When we first meet the Flier, she appears in her airplane above Young Amelia’s bedroom. As Amelia’s mother, separated in time from her father, learns of his disappearance, the Flier sings some of the actual words from Earhart’s final transmission before she disappeared. “It’s a fantastic juxtaposition of missing-in-action characters,” Zetlan said. “The music is searing, especially in combination with what is happening below.”

This opening scene is one of Zetlan’s favorite parts. The haunting words—“There’s the moment of realizations where I sing, ‘Soon, the shudder/And the hush of the sea’”—are paired with equally stunning music, a descending scale that starts at a high A and moves from fortissimo to piano. “I get chills all over,” she says.

Composer Daron Hagen’s music is part of what Zetlan loves about her role. Although Hagen tailored some of the music specifically to those who will perform in the world premiere, “Daron had not heard me sing when he wrote this role,” Zetlan says, “but I could swear it was written just for me. It fits like a glove.”

Interestingly, despite her character’s affinity for flight, Zetlan has always had a terrible fear of flying. As an opera singer, traveling is unavoidable, so her constant flights around the world help her deal with her fears, and so might Amelia. “I keep saying that with this opera and the repeated rehearsals of the crashing of a tiny plane…it will either get much better or I’ll be taking the train to my next destination!”

Photos: Jennifer Zetlan; Ann Hould-Ward's costume design sketch for the Flier.

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