Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Meet Our Singers: DEBORAH NANSTEEL, the Foreign Woman

Mezzo soprano Deborah Nansteel made an incredible first impression on the opera-goers of Seattle last spring, when she sang at the “Viva Verdi!” celebration with our Young Artists Program. She appeared on the mainstage a month later in Puccini’s Suor Angelica, and returns now as the unnamed “Foreign Woman” in The Consul. I checked in with her the other day about being the only character in an English-language opera who sings in Italian...and about how this role has tested her boundaries.

Deborah Nansteel (with Colin Ramsey) singing a scene from The Consul

On the first day of rehearsal for this show, the cast and staff shared a number of real-life The Consul stories, of themselves or their families fleeing to escape persecution.
Yes, it was interesting to see how many people had had this kind of experience. There were many more stories than I was expecting.

What about your family?
My grandmother’s family came over through Ellis Island before she was born...she was first-generation Italian-American.

So basically, the character you play in The Consul was your own great-grandmother!
Yes. I don’t know exactly where they came from in Italy. I know my great grandfather moved to the main peninsula of Italy from Sicily before he married my great grandmother.

Costume Design by Melanie Taylor Burgess for the Foreign Woman

Tell us about the character you play in this opera.
She’s called “the Foreign Woman,” there is no name. I think she’s widowed, because if she had a husband he’d probably go to the Consulate for her. Her daughter is probably the only family she has. Menotti didn’t give me a backstory, so I had to make one up myself! My daughter, Giulia, left with a foreign soldier when she was young and I haven't heard from her for three years. I receive a letter from her the morning I go to the consulate telling me she is ill and has a three month old son. Her husband has abandoned them and she needs help before she dies. So the Foreign Woman tries to get a visa in order to save the lives of her daughter and grandson.

So how old is the Foreign Woman?
Well, my daughter probably ran off when she was 15, or earlier. So I’m probably not all that old...maybe early 40s, late 30s.

Just people age quickly, wherever this takes place.
Right, she’s very worn down and has been through a lot.

Does she have any money?
No, she’s broke. If she has any other family, they’ve died.

What’s an Italian woman doing in...wherever this opera takes place?
She’s already fled here from Italy; she thought she would stay here. But then her daughter ran away with a soldier from yet another country. So the Foreign Woman isn’t fleeing from anything; she just wants to get to her daughter, to take care of her.

Everybody else is singing in English, but you’re singing in Italian! Does that make your life easier or harder?
[Laughs] Well...for the type of lyric music Menotti writes, it’s easier. It’s a more singer-friendly language, because of the pure vowels, because of where the consonants are far as memorization goes, I find it a bit more difficult because it’s not my native tongue. But I’ve been learning the language, not just the pronunciation—I have lessons twice a week—and that helps!

Deborah Nansteel in rehearsal with Colin Ramsey. As Mr. Kofner, Ramsey translates for Nansteel’s Foreign Woman
Bill Mohn, photo

Is it weird to sing the only Italian character in an all-English opera?
It’s not as awkward as I thought it would be...but yes, it’s a little weird.

Your big scene is said to be a pastiche of Puccini. Do you think that’s the case, musically?
I don’t have a whole lof of experience with Puccini...

Oh, of course! Because he never wrote for mezzos!
...but from the experience I had last year with Suor Angelica, yes, I’d say it’s very Puccini-esque.

Deborah Nansteel sang the Nursing Sister in Suor Angelica last May.

Does that affect how you perform it?
I’ve started to look at it that way. That’s certainly what Carlo [Monatanaro, the conductor] and Peter [Kazaras, the stage director] are thinking. They keep bringing up Suor Angelica!

That scene is extremely emotional. Is it difficult to get into character for that scene, or is that emotion easily accessible?
It’s there; sometimes it’s hard for me to put away the singer brain and access the emotional brain. I have to stop thinking, “I wonder whether this high note is going to sound pretty,” and just go for it. You have to turn something off, in order to let go.

Sarah Larsen (Secretary) and Deborah Nansteel (Foreign Woman) in rehearsal
Bill Mohn, photo

Does the emotionality of it pose a danger to your vocal technique?
There’s a fine line...I’m figuring out where it is and how not to cross it. Because yes, in such an emotional scene, it would be easy to go overboard. Most mezzo roles are a lot more controlled. It’s good, it’s testing my boundaries. Nerve-wracking...but I like it.

Why should people come to The Consul?
It's such an amazing work. The music and the story are very interesting and different than most of the standard repertoire and it’s incredibly emotional. It’s very dark, but I like things like that! That's one thing I love about opera—it will make you laugh and cry.

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