BWW Interview: Brenda Rae of LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR at Santa Fe Opera

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Brenda Rae, a fast rising opera star in Europe, is now spreading her wings across the United States. She has a sound reminiscent of molten silver, a wide range, and a great deal of flexibility. At Santa Fe this summer she will sing Gaetano Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, a romantic, Bel Canto opera about a real Scotswoman who lost her reason when forced to marry a man she did not love.

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.

Q: What do you like best about the role?

BR: I must say, the mad scene is really fulfilling. There are so many chances to make a different dramatic choice, and that makes it continuously interesting to me. The extended cadenza in the middle of the scene is a chance for me to really let my imagination go wild! Since there are no words, I get complete freedom to choose how I color each phrase, and that can change from performance to performance!

Q: What will be particularly interesting about your Santa Fe Lucia?

BR: What will be a great treat to audiences is the fact that we'll be using a glass harmonica instead of a solo flute during the Mad Scene. The quality of this instrument is incredibly haunting, and brings such a special atmosphere to the scene. It'll be a rare treat for the audience.

Donizetti used glass harmonica to accompany Amelia's aria "Par che mi dica ancora" in his 1829 opera Il castello di Kenilworth. He also originally specified its use in his 1835 opera, Lucia di Lammermoor, as a haunting accompaniment to the heroine's "mad scenes." Unfortunately, just before the opening, he was asked to rewrite the part for two flutes. For a while the glass harmonica was popular for its otherworldly sound, but it lapsed into oblivion around 1830. Since the 1980s, composers have again written new music for it and it can again be heard in works for which it was originally specified. George Benjamin's 2012 opera, Written on Skin, includes a prominent part for glass harmonica and Natalie Dessay sang with it in Mary Zimmermann's 2007 Met Opera Lucia.

Q: Which are your favorite roles?

BR: I love Lucia, Violetta, Zerbinetta, Amina in La Sonnambula, the Governess in The Turn of the Screw, Aminta in Die schweigsame Frau, Fiordiligi... The list goes on! Of course I love the music these women get to sing, but I see a pattern in their temperaments: intelligent and feisty, but with a deep goodness in their hearts.

Q: Do you use decorations from any past singer?

BR: I pick up ornaments from other singers from time to time, in addition to writing my own. The final product is usually a combination of some other singers' fiorature, my own, and often the conductor's ideas.

Q: How do you feel about the emergence of the stage director as a major force in opera?

BR: Personally, I'm happy about it. However, I do think there needs to be a balance in power between the conductor and director. The director should understand the specific needs of an opera singer. I love the acting side of being an opera singer just as much as I love the singing. Having a good stage director only enhances the experience.

Q: What recordings do you have out?

BR: Right now I have a live recording of Ariadne auf Naxos, a studio recording of Offenbach's Fantasio, a live video recording of Handel's Rinaldo, a live recording of Wagner's early opera Die Feen, a studio recording of songs by Lowell liebermann, and the first recording of L'Orestie d'Eschyle by Milhaud.

I came to the Milhaud recording very late, since I took over for a singer who discovered the part was simply too high for her voice. It was a massive undertaking for everyone, and one of the most difficult pieces I've ever had to learn-and I only had a few weeks to learn it! The orchestra was enormous, with the biggest percussion section I've ever seen. There was actually a part in the piece in which I needed to wear earplugs to protect my ears!

Q: How do you feel about downloads replacing compact discs?

BR: As someone who travels a lot, I love downloading music, but I still like having a music library at my home base, with real CDs and LPs. One thing that bothers me about downloads is that you don't always get the program notes and libretto or lyrics. I wish that those were always included with a download.

Q: What live performances do you have coming up this season and next?

BR: I'm currently singing Gilda in Rigoletto at Oper Frankfurt, while rehearsing Arabella in which I will be singing the role of Zdenka. Also at Oper Frankfurt, Arabella will open in May. This summer, I'll be singing Lucia di Lammermoor at Santa Fe Opera. After that, I will start the 2017 - 2018 season on tour with the Bavarian State Opera singing The Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute in Tokyo, followed by a concert of Rameau arias in Melbourne, Australia. Not all opera houses have announced their seasons yet so I can't give specifics, but I'll be singing at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, the State Opera in Berlin, and Oper Frankfurt before coming back for another summer at Santa Fe!

Q: Do you ever have time for a private life?

BR: Certainly! It's a priority. I think a work/life balance is very important and only makes my performing better.

BR: I met my husband at music school in Wisconsin. Later, he decided to change fields and go to law school. He and my son currently travel with me, but that will change when my son gets a little older. We hope not to be apart too much in the future, but before our son was born, the longest we had gone without seeing each other was seven weeks. After three weeks, it starts to get really painful! Being apart from my family isn't ideal, but I'm lucky to have a partner who understands that this career demands a lot. Our outlook has always been to stay open minded about the future with regard to where we'll live, how much both of us will work, etc. Then, if something stops working, we make a change.

Q: Do you have time for any hobbies?

BR: I've been an avid reader since I was a child. In addition to wanting to be a singer, I wanted to be a writer for many years. I also love being outside, so Santa Fe with all its great hiking is a paradise for me. I'm kind of nerdy, too, and enjoy playing video games with friends, as well as watching a wide variety of movies. I also loved the visual arts when I was younger. I was always drawing, painting, and taking photos with my old Olympus film camera. These days I unfortunately don't make the time for it, but I hope to pick it up again someday!

Q: Do you have a humorous or otherwise interesting story to tell us?

BR: Since more and more companies are producing opera in a more modern style, I've worn a variety of costumes. My most interesting costume experience had to be when I sang the role of Armida in Rinaldo at the Glyndebourne Festival in 2011. On the first day of rehearsal, after the presentation by the production team, the assistant to the costume designer, a very sweet, rather soft spoken elderly British woman, came up to me to talk about my costume fitting. She informed me that we'd have to travel to London, since my costume would be produced by the House of Harlot, a store that specializes in designer latex fetish wear! The costumes were rather tight, and during the show, my dresser had to use lubrication in order to squeeze me into them! Quite a unique experience!

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From This Author Maria Nockin