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BWW Interview: Emily Fons of San Diego Opera's THE BARBER OF SEVILLE at Pechanga Arena Drive-in.

Life as a Glamorous International Opera Singer in a Time of Pandemic

BWW Interview: Emily Fons of San Diego Opera's THE BARBER OF SEVILLE at Pechanga Arena Drive-in. Rising star mezzo-soprano Emily Fons has made several exciting role and company debuts in recent seasons that have set her apart as a powerful and engaging performer. Opera News described Fons as one of the best singing actresses of her generation. She received a Grammy nomination for her work on the recording of Jennifer Higdon's opera Cold Mountain. Fons has been lauded for her virtuosic abilities in the Baroque and Bel Canto repertoires and for the dramatic commitment and musicality she brings to modern works. The organizations with which Fons has sung recently include: Canadian Opera Company, Santa Fe Opera, Seattle Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Dallas Opera, San Diego Opera, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, and Opéra de Lille, as well as the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Berlin Philharmonic, and Cleveland Orchestra.

Emily Fons looks forward to the rescheduling of performances of Die Fledermaus in Tokyo, and Ariodante with the International Handel Festival in Göttingen that were canceled because of COVID-19. San Diego Opera presents Fons as Rosina in the rescheduled live drive-in performances of Rossini's The Barber of Seville on April 25, 27, 30, and May 1, 2021, at Pechanga Arena.

What have you been doing to keep your spirits up during the past year?

I have been making sure to connect with friends and family as often as possible. I have played cards online with friends, done online trivia nights, frequently had dinner with my parents, and visited with my nephews. I have been able to take care of some projects around my house, I was home to garden last summer, and I have spent a lot of time outdoors, rain or shine! I have found non-singing work projects to fill my time, and have ended up involved in some things that I never would have predicted. There have been some very low lows, but this year has taught me to try to stay in the moment and do my best. Sharing my vulnerability with those close to me allows them to support me and strengthens those relationships.

As a child, did you study piano or other instruments?

I studied piano with my great aunt Ruth. I wasn't the most committed student at the time, but I am so glad that my parents had me learn! I enjoy playing for fun and playing piano is one of the most useful skills a singer can have! I eventually took saxophone lessons briefly, and then clarinet.

When did you see your first opera?

The first opera that comes to mind may not even be one that I saw live. I have really clear memories of a production of a Cosi fan Tutte on PBS that was set in a diner. I was just fascinated by the updated setting and everything about it. My mom is a voice teacher and both my parents performed in operas at one point, so it was never a strange thing for me to be around opera, or see or hear opera. When I was in high school in Milwaukee, we would go down to Chicago to see performances at Chicago Lyric Opera. Everything about that felt special. The gorgeous Art Deco theater is one of the most beautiful in which I have ever attended or performed opera. I always loved movie musicals as a kid. My love of music and performing more likely came from watching Gene Kelly than from watching opera. Opera grew on me later as I started studying voice more seriously in college.

Where did you study after high school?

I studied at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, Luther College, and Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. I did young artist programs at Indianapolis Opera, Santa Fe Opera, and Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Are there any artists or musicians from the past whose work has significantly influenced you?

The two mezzo sopranos who I have listened to the most were probably Frederica von Stade, and Anne Sofie Von Otter. I have always appreciated the honesty, clarity, and immediacy of their singing and artistry.

Who were your most important teachers?

I have had the amazing good fortune of working with the same voice teacher, Connie Haas, since I was nineteen. During that time, I also was incredibly fortunate to study with several other fantastic teachers and coaches who enriched my singing and my personal life with their advice, support, and friendship. Every teacher and coach shared their knowledge and passion with me so generously, and I am thankful for everyone I have had the opportunity to work with. My first voice teacher, Helen Ceci, gave me the gift of confidence and joy in my singing. That is just about the best thing a first voice teacher can do for a student.

What did you learn from your teachers that you would like to pass on to the next generation of artists?

I have learned that good singing comes from self awareness, being in the moment, putting in hours of hard work, knowing your body, loving it along with the amazing things it does to create sound, and having the courage to tell stories from a place of honesty.

Have you won any big competitions?

I was a semi-finalist in the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions competition, but no, I have never won any big competitions.

What are your thoughts on singing Rosina in Rossini's The Barber of Seville?

I have sung Rosina several times. Rossini, and Rosina in particular, challenges me sometimes mentally more than musically! I love Rosina's feistiness and determination. The biggest challenge for me is keeping the spontaneity in the music. When you have as many notes to sing as Rosina does, you can't stop and listen to yourself, you just have to trust the work you have done and GO! I love the ensemble feel of Barber. There may be famous arias, but the story telling depends on great ensemble chemistry. It's a lot of fun.

What are you singing for the Lesson Scene?

The Lesson scene has actually been cut. Because of COVID regulations, we had to reduce the show to 90 minutes, so unfortunately a lot of music had to go. We will still do our best to tell a great story! I am ornamenting my lines throughout the show, however. I will try out some new things and just enjoy being back on stage.

Do you sometimes say no to a concert piece or an opera role because you don't think it suits your voice?

Yes! As tempting as it can be to say yes to things, we all go through different phases of our career where something might not be useful to us. Sometimes we don't know if a role is a good fit until we do it; other times we sing through it and know immediately that it's not right for us. There are roles that I would turn down now that perhaps I will do at some point, and there are roles I have already sung that if asked again, I would turn down because I learned that they were not quite right.

Which are your favorite roles?

My favorite roles are a lot of the trouser roles: Cherubino, Siebel, L'Enfant, Hänsel, Sesto. I also love anything by Handel or Mozart.

What important performances do you have coming up this season and next?

I am looking forward to returning to the International Handel Festival in Göttingen Germany for my role debut as Ariodante. It is an absolute honor and joy to sing with the orchestra and work with the entire team in Göttingen.

How did your role in Cold Mountain affect your career?

The biggest thing that singing Ruby in Cold Mountain did for me, was teach me not to be afraid of new music. I realized that it's hard work for everyone putting together a new piece and learning newly composed music, but it's doable, and incredibly rewarding! It definitely allowed me to be excited about the possibility of singing new music, rather than doubt my abilities.

What music are you singing for the Santa Fe concert in March?

The Lyric Opera of Chicago was kind enough to let us record in their building. I am singing an aria from Moniuszko's Strasny Dwór (Haunted Mansion). I originally learned the piece to perform on a recital at the Polish Center of Wisconsin. My dad's side of the family is Polish and I have always been interested in learning more about my heritage, and singing in Polish was a part of that.

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

I think we have some really talented young directors working in the field. As technology plays a larger role in productions, and as we tackle social issues etc., I think it will be exciting to watch our director colleagues work to produce modern and relevant art. I look forward to being a part of it! I don't think a director ever asked me do something I can't or won't do while singing. I enjoy being pretty physical on stage and I would always give something a try before saying no. The only time I might hesitate would be if I felt there was a true safety issue. Most directors I have worked with are respectful and conscious of that.

What recordings do you have out?

I perform on three commercial recordings which I believe all have some tracks on YouTube: Handel's Faramondo, Handel's Susanna, both with the festival in Göttingen and, of course, Cold Mountain in Santa Fe. I have various other performances that show up in clips on YouTube. I created a holiday video series in 2020 called Fonsy After Five in which I interview colleagues and surprise them with performances of songs they have requested for someone in their life. I only sing in one of the videos, but the project was very meaningful and enjoyable to put together.

What do you see yourself doing five years from now?

Probably more of the same! I am keeping an open mind, especially after the last year. I feel very fortunate to be able to participate in the opera industry, and I will work hard to be able to continue that work.

How much modern technology do you use in your work?

Before 2020, I didn't use much. Of course the Internet is a huge resource in terms of accessing recordings, finding translations etc. but I only began making and editing videos because of the pandemic. I also started teaching via Zoom, and have taken a few voice lessons myself via Zoom. I have had pianists record accompaniments for me to practice with in place of live coachings, and have had ornaments written and emailed to me. I suppose when all is said and done, I use a lot of technology these days.

How do you feel about downloads replacing compact discs?

I think the convenience is wonderful. I know that perhaps it impacts the ability to profit from recordings in the same way, but being able to take so much music with us wherever we go is pretty incredible.

Do you ever have time for a private life?

Yes, definitely. I have enjoyed focusing on my personal life and having more time with my family over the last year. My two sisters, parents, and two nephews all live within 30 minutes of me. I have a dog, Lupita, who is my baby. As for the other part, I don't kiss and tell :).

Do you have any interesting hobbies like cooking, painting, or reading in three alphabets?

My main hobby is trail running. Wherever I am singing, I try to find trails to run. In San Diego it is Mission Trails Park. I run in all weather, but I do have to say, I will be happy to say goodbye to running on snow covered-trails and start running in the California sunshine. Through trail running, I enjoy exploring areas of cities and countries that I otherwise wouldn't get to see. I have run in the mountains around Kyoto, Japan, in the Stadtwald outside of Göttingen, Germany, and in at least seventeen states, as well as Canada!

What kind of music do you listen to for relaxation?

I don't often listen to music. If I have a long drive, I usually put on podcasts. Sometimes I will put on some Jimmy Buffet and pretend I am on a tropical island :)

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

My dog Lupita always warms up with me. She was my foster dog before I adopted her. I will never forget the first time I began warming up and she started to howl along. I just knew she was my dog. Every day, to this day, when I am singing scales, at a certain point in my voice she joins in. Sometimes she won't even sit up, she will lie on her side and sing along. It always makes me happy to hear her chime in.

Photos of Emily Fons alone and in scenes from Don Giovanni courtesy of San Diego Opera.

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