Sunday, October 19, 2014

Meet Our Singers: ALEXANDRA LOBIANCO, Donna Anna

Making her debut with Seattle Opera this fall is American soprano Alexandra LoBianco, who is also making her role debut as Donna Anna—and her first professional Mozart appearance. (Photos of Alexandra LoBianco as Donna Anna and Randall Bills as Don Ottavio by Elise Bakketun.) It’s an exciting time for this up-and-coming young soprano, and she told us a little about this intriguing character of Donna Anna, her career so far, and some recent adventures.

Alexandra LoBianco sings a passage from Anna's aria, "Or sai chi l'onore"

You’re new on our mainstage! Tell us about yourself.
I’m from St. Petersburg, Florida. I’m the only musician in my family. I started as a professional clarinetist. But I had also been singing all my life, and finally my high school choral teacher Todd Donovan (who is now a colleague) said, “You know, you have a great voice. Have you thought about opera?”

Was there much opera in your part of Florida?
Yes, there’s Opera Tampa, St. Petersburg Opera, Sarasota...there was a lot of opera, but we tended to go to the symphony or to the theater. My parents would go to opera when we traveled. When I was in middle school, my parents took me to the Met for Cavalleria rusticana & Pagliacci, and I fell in love with opera. They were very kind, they had gotten front row tickets so I could look into the pit, because I thought I was going to be a clarinetist and I wanted to watch what the conductor and orchestra were doing. But there came this moment in Pagliacci, it was when Nedda lay down on her back to sing her aria, and I thought: “How in the world...?!”

And the stage stole your attention away from the pit!
[Chuckles] That’s it exactly! And then, in high school, theater became my way of being myself. I was the fat kid, the outsider, so theater became my outlet; telling stories. That’s where I found my voice. And then came my first opera job, in the chorus at Opera Carolina, and as I was sitting in the house watching the principals work I found myself muttering, “I have to do this!” ‘Cause I tried to quit singing multiple times. I was going to go into music therapy, I was going to go to culinary school...but at Opera Carolina I fell in love with the visceral connection that has to happen with the sound an opera singer makes. Yes, I knew I could make that sound; but I didn’t understand the power of that sound until then. So I was a bit of a late bloomer. I didn’t do any of the Young Artists Programs, don’t have a Master’s in voice. I studied privately, with the same teacher, for 10 years, and only really started my career six years ago.

Now, this is your Seattle Opera mainstage debut! But this is not your first time with Seattle Opera.
I came to Seattle Opera in 2013 and covered Maria Gavrilova as Suor Angelica. It was a phenomenal experience, and to work with Gary Thor Wedow...! They were kind enough, in scheduling, to let me go onstage to sing the final dress rehearsal, and that was just an out-of-this-world experience. I remember finishing and—there’s something extraordinarily humbling about walking out onstage for a bow. When the whole place goes nuts...I started crying, because it was so overwhelming. You get hit by that sound, that wave of energy, and—whoa! It was phenomenal. Also to work with Gary, before coming back to do Don Giovanni. Honestly, I’ve been terrified. Donna Anna is my first Mozart.

Really?! Into the deep end, you go, girl!
Yes: how do I do this?

So what do you normally sing? I see you’ve recently sung Menotti.
The Consul in Santa Barbara, right. We used the same set you had in Seattle, so I came up here to sit in on a few of the rehearsals, to get a sense of the whole show. It was great to watch Carlo [Montanaro, Seattle’s The Consul conductor] and meet Marcy [Stonikas, who sang Magda Sorel in Seattle] and the cast.

What was it like to sing Magda Sorel? There’s another huge, wildly emotional roller-coaster ride...
That was one of the hardest roles I’ve ever done. You’re onstage the entire time. We played Magda slightly differently than Marcy and Vira [Slywotzky] did in Seattle; we really made her into another freedom-fighter, a little stronger, more intense, in your face.

So, speaking of intense, in-your-face women, let’s talk about Donna Anna! Her big Act One aria, “Or sai,” calls for an almost heroic, laser-soprano sound. Are you going to sing Wagner?
I do. And it’s fun!

What do you sing?
Brünnhilde. Just a little Brünnhilde here and there! [laughs] No, we’ve been doing the reduced version of the Ring, by Jonathan Dove, which is perfect for me right now. My first one was Sieglinde, in a fully staged Die Walküre with piano when I was 26 years old. That was my first soprano role, in fact.

Gee, when you’re not in a Young Artists Program, you’re allowed to do all sorts of crazy things!
Well, my teacher said, “Of course you can do it, it’s with piano, you’ll be fine!” But to answer your question about “Or sai,” yes, I think it’s much like Elektra. Vengeance, power. I was just singing Brünnhilde in Siegfried before I came here, and this is much more fierce.

Tell us what “Or sai” is about.
This is her big realization—not only is the man who killed my father someone I know—but it’s my fault that it happened. I made that choice. The pain, the realization that all her choices in her life caused this. I think it turns at this moment into post-traumatic stress disorder.

So even though you’re singing this aria to your fiancé, Don Ottavio, it’s not really about him; it’s about you.
He’s there, because I want him to take vengeance for me. I don’t think I can do it myself, really.

You give him that job, in the aria; but the emotion of the aria is about herself and her father. Poor Ottavio is just caught in the cross-fire.
I think Anna and Ottavio have been connected for a long time. There are political reasons for the marriage; there is friendship. There is love, but I think it’s not a passionate love. We’re taking it to the point where, she cannot touch another man because of what she’s done.

And in the recit before “Or sai,” when you’re telling Ottavio how Giovanni crept into your bedroom and tried to rape you, you say, “At first I thought it was you.”
Yes, that’s a bold-faced lie. She knew it wasn’t him. At least in my opinion.

Has she ever touched Ottavio, do you think?

Anna’s second aria, “Non mi dir,” comes from a much more fragile person.
She’s spiraling into madness. She’s going into the angst, the “What do I do, how do I continue?” Maybe, maybe one day we might be able to make it work. As she sings the aria she’s wondering: “Am I ever going to be ok again? Or am I just making things up, to make him feel better, and to make me feel better?” That’s why there’s all that coloratura at the end. For me, that’s all this struggle between hope, which is the higher notes, and despair, when it all comes cascading down.

Randall Bills (Ottavio) tries to comfort Anna (Alexandra LoBianco), who has fainted upon finding the corpse of her father (Jordan Bisch)

And how is that coloratura for you? Sometimes you people with big, Wagner-sized voices don’t have to worry too much about coloratura...
I like coloratura, I enjoy it. It keeps my voice moving, it keeps it flexible. I’ve covered Norma, I enjoy singing Bach. But spending the time I did, learning to sing with my wonderful mentor, Carol Kirkpatrick...she insisted I learn how to sing coloratura, and it’s always in my voice, there’s always something I’m working on, to try to achieve clear coloratura. It never feels clear on the inside! It always feels like mush, even if it sounds right on the outside.

Which is trickier to sing, “Or sai” or “Non mi dir”?
“Or sai,” because of how it stacks. It steps up and up and up, and there’s no time to breathe. I worked it backwards; figured out how to do the ending, and then backed up and eventually learned how to do the recit.

Yes, that recit, where she tells the story of the attempted rape—that is fierce.
Yes, and you have no time at all between the end of the recit and the beginning of the aria. Whereas, with “Non mi dir” you have time to breathe here and there. And she uses that time to think. Whereas, in “Or sai” there is no time to think. She’s just exploding: “This must happen now!”

Why should people come to see Don Giovanni this fall?
You know, it’s awful to say, but I have not been that big a fan of Mozart’s operas up to now. I love Mozart; love his Clarinet Concerto, symphonies, etc.—the way Chris Alexander is staging this, it’s so beautiful, and it’s such great storytelling. You have really vibrant, three-dimensional characters onstage, real people. Everyone can identify with somebody in this story, at some stage. You’ll be able to find yourself in here. That’s what’s important to me, as an opera singer--to be able to bring the audience into the story. And it will happen here.

Don Giovanni runs for seven performances from October 18 – November 1st. For more information, please visit



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