BWW Interview: Alexandra Schoeny of MOZART REQUIEM at Pioneer Center, Reno NV
Alexandra Schoeny's repertoire ranges in period and style from the time of Claudio Monteverdi to that of today's composers. Schoeny is known for her versatility and engaging stage presence. Critics have described her voice as "hauntingly beautiful." Her onstage portrayals of characters are said to be "idiomatic and memorable." Her opera roles include: Donna Anna and Zerlina in DON GIOVANNI, Adina in L'ELISIR D'AMORE (THE ELIXIR OF LOVE) other leading parts.
Also active as an educator, she is the founder of Crossover Camp, a program for performers who wish to successfully straddle the divide between musical theatre and opera. I spoke with her after her exquisite rendition of the role of Pamina in the Pacific Opera Project's THE MAGIC FLUTE.
When did you see your first opera?
I grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, where I studied piano, cello and music theory. As a child, my first exposure to opera was listening to the Three Tenors with my parents. I was definitely under the age of ten. When I was twelve, Pavarotti sang a concert in Columbus, and we drove up to see him live. The first full-length opera I saw was LES CONTES D'HOFFMANN (THE TALES OF HOFFMANN) at the Opéra Bastille in Paris. My grandfather scalped tickets outside the opera house, and we saw Natalie Dessay sing Olympia. I was fourteen.
After high school, I got a Bachelor of Music degree at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Following that, I moved to London to attend the Royal Academy of Music for my Master of Music degree. I then moved to the Hague to participate in the Dutch National Opera Academy. After my two years of training there, I lived in the Netherlands for five years, using it as my home base for singing in Europe.
Are there any artists or musicians from the past whose work has significantly influenced you?
I have always been a fan of the work of Anna Moffo. We exist on the same "family tree" as it were. My teacher in Europe, Diane Forlano, studied with Moffo's teacher, Eufemia Giannini-Gregory, around the same time Moffo did. To me, there has always been something familiar in her approach to singing. I find her versatility and fearlessness coupled with outstanding musicality inspirational.
Another artist whose work I admire greatly is Cesare Siepi, for the sheer beauty of the voice, that mellow, enveloping sound. His recording of Cole Porter standards is one of my sure-fire ways to cheer up a gloomy day.
Who were your most important teachers?
My first teacher, Karl Resnik, with whom I studied from age ten to eighteen, introduced me to my potential to sing classical music. My first exposure to singing Schubert, Mozart, Handel, and Bach came from him.
Diane Forlano, with whom I studied for 8 years in London and the Netherlands, was very important to my development as an artist. She gave me the tools to open up my voice in a natural, organic manner. The simplicity of her technique has allowed me to go onstage knowing that my voice will be there for me when I ask it to perform. Unless I'm truly sick, I'm never afraid of what will come out of my mouth.
Another is Ken Shaw, who has been working with me for the past three years on my transition out of pure coloratura/soubrette roles into more lyric repertoire. With him, I've been exploring the warmth, freedom, and color available to me now.
What did you learn from your teachers that you would like to pass on to the next generation of artists?
I was very lucky to study with teachers who believe in helping singers develop their understanding and knowledge of their own instruments. With that knowledge, they can go out in the world and do the day-to-day work with their voices without having to consult with a teacher every time they experience a challenge. My teachers have all taught me a series of questions to ask myself when things aren't going as planned so I can get myself back on track.
I've talked a lot about technique but learning about style and musicality has been equally as important to me. I worked with Stephen Alltop at Northwestern, and his lessons on style, especially in Baroque and Classical repertoire, have been very important to me in my career.
Peter Nilsson, a vocal coach at Dutch National Opera, has had a huge influence on me, particularly in Bel Canto repertoire. He has a vast knowledge of 19th century Italian music. We would spend lots of time exploring repertoire to find the right things to showcase my particular assets-that's the beauty of that era. There is an abundance of riches in the repertoire so we can all find something to showcase our own individual gifts.
How finished an artist should a young singer be when leaving school?
As artists, we are never finished. We are constantly refining our techniques. Our voices change with age and new horizons open to us. The colleagues I admire the most are the ones who have continued to learn and grow after they finished formal training-if they even completed formal training. Adaptability, curiosity, and an internal drive is what keeps people growing as artists.
A doctorate is not necessary for professional success as a singer. If someone has specific goals for it such as to deepen their understanding of pedagogy, or musicology, to do research, or to be qualified to teach at the university level, I think it's a great idea. However, I do feel that singers get the most from a Doctorate of Musical Arts degree after taking a few years out of the academic system. I went back for my DMA after working exclusively as a singer for seven years. I wanted to develop my skills in stage direction, and I did musicology research on gender and politics in opera and vocal music.
In fact, outside of academia, there is a stigma against singers with DMAs. There is an assumption that they stayed in school because they were unable to sustain a performing career. I was recently at an audition where the auditor saw my doctorate listed on my resume, and said, "You have a doctorate? But you can really sing!"
I think this attitude does a disservice to many fine singers who hold a doctorate. Musicians are almost never exclusively performers, and they sustain their lives through a variety of employments. Holding a DMA means that there are more options open to you as you build your life in music.
Have you sung the Mozart Requiem before?
Yes, I have. I enjoy the purity of Mozart's writing for the soprano in the Requiem. Mozart loved sopranos, he loved women, and I believe his relationships with women were the most important of his life. There is something about the vocal writing in this piece that reflects his fondness-the confidence and comfort the soprano brings in her two solo movements which bookend the piece, the "Requiem Aeternam" (Eternal Rest) and the "Lux Aeterna" (Eternal Light) Why did Mozart want to begin and end the piece with just that solo voice leading the chorus? I think about that when I sing those movements, about what he was trying to communicate with that choice.
Which are your favorite roles?
The role of Pamina in Mozart's THE MAGIC FLUTE contains some of the most beautiful and most challenging music one can sing. I love its absolute simplicity and purity. I also enjoy portraying the complex character of Adina in Donizetti's L'ELISIR D'AMORE (THE ELIXIR OF LOVE). Francis Poulenc's vocal writing for the role of Thérèse in LES MAMELLES DE TIRESIAS (THE BREASTS OF TIRESIAS) fits me like a glove. I love the surrealism of this opera. Miss Lightfoot in Gregory Spears' opera, FELLOW TRAVELERS, isn't a long role, but I loved creating a villain in this opera.
Do you sometimes say no to a concert piece or an opera role because you don't think it suits your voice?
Yes, particularly when I think it will take me backwards to a place beyond which I have grown.
What important performances do you have coming up?
Beginning April 14th, I'm singing Bach's B MINOR MASS in Cincinnati, Ohio, with the Collegium Cincinnati conducted by Christopher Eanes. Then I go to Reno, Nevada, for the MOZART REQUIEM on the 27th and 28th with the Reno Philharmonic under the direction of Laura Jackson. The concert on which the Requiem will be performed-part of the Reno Phil's 50th Anniversary Celebration-will be the culmination of this season's festivities.
The program also includes the world premiere of Transcend by Zhou Tian, which commemorates the completion of the Trans-Continental Railroad, an event which transformed the American West. After this concert, the work will be performed by thirteen other orchestras in the United States. It will also be spotlighted in an NPR story and a public television documentary. Maestro Jackson programmed the REQUIEM on this concert because it's about transcendence and transformation and will usher the Reno Phil into a beautiful new era. After Reno, I'll be returning to Cincinnati Opera to sing Najade in ARIADNE AUF NAXOS.
How do you feel about the emergence of the stage director as a major force in opera?
I've been lucky to have relationships with some outstanding stage directors, including Floris Visser, Kevin Newbury, and Susan V. Booth. The best directors communicate something essential about the story and music with their visual choices. It's a distillation process. An innovative and thoughtful stage director can unlock a piece for the audience in a way that is almost alchemical.
What recordings do you have out?
I appear as Miss Lightfoot on the original cast recording of Gregory Spears' Fellow Travelers.
What do you see yourself doing five years from now?
I expect to have a life in music-singing, directing, educating, and communicating about music.
How much modern technology do you use in your work?
I use an iPad for teaching and keeping my scores organized, particularly when I'm on the road. Sibelius music-notation software is also helpful to me. Spotify is an essential. it's a music library accessible on my iPhone. I can find a great variety of recordings of pieces I'm working on and that allows me to explore different performances and interpretations.
How do you feel about downloads replacing compact discs?
Digital access to music has made me a more informed listener-I have millions of performances available to me through streaming services wherever I am in the world. To me, this is priceless, also it's less wasteful.
Do you ever have time for a private life?
I have a lovely boyfriend who is not a musician, but who is incredibly supportive of my work. It has always been important to me to have a balance between work and my private life. I live in Cincinnati again, where I grew up, and I have a big family here in town. They keep me grounded.
I love to cook, and it is my relaxation activity. I also love to knit for my friends and their babies. Both activities come with the gratification of a finished product at the end-a nice contrast to the constant flow of life as a musician.