BWW Interview: Brenda Rae of LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR at Santa Fe Opera
Q: Where did you grow up?
BR: I grew up in Appleton, Wisconsin. Thankfully our school system had a great music program, so I've had music classes since the first grade, and I definitely developed a greater love of music during those classes. There's also a wonderful music conservatory at Lawrence University in Appleton, so I was exposed to very high quality music through attending performances there. I have a twin brother and he is very musical, but he decided not to go into music professionally. We used to sing together all the time, performing at coffee houses and such, with him playing the guitar as well.
I started studying piano when I was nine years old. My parents didn't want to put me into lessons until I specifically asked for them. I love the piano, but I was always nervous to play in front of people. That doesn't happen when I sing! I don't have a piano currently, but I dream of the day when I can have one, since I would love to pick it up again. My fingers are so clumsy now! But it helps to have some ability to play since that means I can prepare roles on my own.
Q: When did you see your first opera?
BR: When I was eleven year old, I saw my first full-length opera, Madama Butterfly, but I was exposed to opera through the movie Amadeus when I was five. Although Appleton doesn't have its own opera company, the nearby city of Oshkosh has a historic opera house that presented opera, musicals and plays from time to time, Appleton has quite a rich musical community for a small city, which I think has a lot to do with the University, and I was always incredibly grateful for being exposed to such wonderful music! I remember loving the shows at Oshkosh and wanting to be up there onstage.
Q: Where did you attend classes after high school?
BR: I did one year at Lawrence University, then transferred to the University of Wisconsin at Madison where I completed my Bachelor of Music degree. From there, I went to Juilliard for my Master of Music degree. After that, I obtained an Artist Diploma as a member of the Juilliard Opera Center.
Q: Are there any artists or musicians from the past whose work has significantly influenced you?
BR: Anna Moffo made a big impact on me when I first really started getting into opera while at Madison. A teacher had given me her album entitled La Bellissima - the Debut Recordings, and it made me want to sing everything on it. Her voice was so beautiful, especially when she was younger.Q: Who were or are your most important teachers?
BR: All of my teachers have been important to me in some way, but I suppose my most important teachers would be: my current voice teacher, Edith Bers, with whom I've studied since 2004, my opera director at Madison, William Farlow, and my voice teacher while I was there, Mimmi Fulmer. I'd also like to credit my high school choir director Kevin Meidl, and my very first voice teacher, Carol Jegen, with whom I started studying at the age of fifteen.
I learned so much from them. To the next generation of artists I just hope to pass on the generosity of spirit that so many teachers have shown me. When I was younger, I was quite shy, so I can imagine that it would have been easy for a teacher to just move on to the next student, but many of my teachers took the time to help pull me out of my shell and give me more confidence by believing I could do something special. If I ever end up teaching someday, I hope to help my students find their own unique qualities.
Q: When you finished at Juilliard, did you look for work in Germany?
BR: I already had my job in Frankfurt lined up after I finished at Juilliard. I was very lucky!! Before I even started my second year at the Juilliard Opera Center, my agents had me audition for Bernd Loebe, the General Director or Intendant of Oper Frankfurt, and I was delighted that he offered me a full time position!
The way German opera houses work is that they have a core group of soloists who perform a variety of roles, from supporting to leading. It's called the Fest System, but Fest doesn't refer to festival; it actually refers to being engaged full time by the opera house, as opposed to being a guest singer. When I started in Frankfurt in 2008, there were only a few other American singers in the house, and I was the only female American. That's changed drastically, as more and more singers are gravitating towards Europe, especially Germany, since there's simply so much more opera being performed, which in turn means more opportunities. The opera house in Frankfurt has quite an international roster of singers, so I didn't feel out of place even though I was American. In fact, many times it was an advantage, since many rehearsals would take place in English because of the international makeup of the singers.
Q: You do a great deal of coloratura. What is the secret of clean and clear fiorature or ornaments?
BR: There are different techniques to singing coloratura, but mine is about an even, supported stream of breath, and just thinking the notes. If the throat gets too involved, things will slow down and become choked. I'm not great at talking about technique, but I know what works for me!
Q: Since you will be singing the title role in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor in Santa Fe this summer, would you tell us your concept of the role?
BR: Each new production can bring out a different aspect of Lucia's character, but I think she has a defiant spirit, as well as a fragility that eventually causes her madness. I believe she loves her brother Enrico, as well as Edgardo, and having to choose between those two loves absolutely tears her into pieces.
A few years ago I bought Sir Walter Scott's novel The Bride of Lammermoor and unfortunately left it in the States when I moved to Germany and haven't picked it up since! When we move back and finally unpack those boxes, I'm looking forward to reading it!
The novel is based on a real-life family tragedy that Scott had heard about from his great-aunt Margaret Swinton. Scott's heroine, Lucy, is based on Janet Dalrymple, daughter of the great jurist James Dalrymple. Janet became secretly engaged to Lord Rutherford but had to reveal it to her parents when they insisted she marry a man of their choosing. Forced into a loveless marriage, she wounded her bridegroom and lost consciousness. Two weeks later she died without having regained her senses. Janet's husband lived to tell the tale.