BWW Interview: Marisol Montalvo and Jeff Roberson Open Up About the World of Opera and Their Show MAD SCENE Coming to Broadway at NOCCA
Opera isn't my go-to art form, I'll admit it. In fact, I don't know many people who truly appreciate opera music nor do they understand what it actually takes to become a successful opera singer. It's an art that often goes unnoticed because of the stereotypes that it is long, boring, difficult to understand, unrelatable, and only for old, rich people. But if music is a universal language, and I truly believe this to be true, then why do we insist that we cannot understand and then listen to all forms of music except for this one? I recently had the honor of speaking with two artists who are radically trying to change the scene, and make opera music accessible to everyone.
Marisol Montalvo is an American soprano who has worked her way into an incredible opera career, but things weren't always easy for her. Growing up in a Puerto Rican family in the Bronx, she didn't have the support or the training that she really needed to fine tune her voice and help her to learn what becoming a singer would take. Through much trial end much error, she learned by doing and has had quite an amazing career with a fascinating trajectory. Marisol is a prime example that good things come to those who work hard and never give up. This true talent teamed up with Jeff Roberson to create a show called MAD SCENE where she not only shares her incredible voice, but also shares her incredible story with her audience.
Jeff Roberson, sometimes seen on stage as Varla Jean Merman, is a New Orleans native who met Marisol through their mutual friend Mark Cortale - the producer of the Broadway at NOCCA series. Although Jeff usually performs in the shows that he writes, when he met Marisol and heard her story, he knew he had to take a step out of the spotlight and share her story with the world. He was inspired to help her put together her stories and was even able to help her find common threads that she didn't even notice running through her life. The show is a bit funny, a bit serious, a lot of singing, and even more inspiring.
Marisol will be performing MAD SCENE at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA) this coming Thursday, November 1, at 7:30 PM. I'm excited about this show, and I believe it to be something unique that the city of New Orleans has not experienced before. Even if you aren't sure if you like opera, take a chance on MAD SCENE. Marisol and Jeff are incredibly passionate about presenting opera in a way that absolutely everyone can enjoy, which is the way it should be!
If I haven't convinced you to buy your tickets and experience this sure to be beautiful evening, read my chats with Marisol and Jeff below about Marisol's journey and what MAD SCENE is really all about.
INTERVIEW WITH MARISOL MONTALVO:
You have made your career singing opera. Is this something you always knew you wanted to do, or is it something that kind of developed over time?
Actually, the last thing I wanted to be was an opera singer. I wanted to be a rock star or a Broadway star. I knew I wanted to be an entertainer. I knew I wanted to be a singer from a young age. It's just naturally my voice was operatic. When I was growing up I didn't have... my family was very working class, no music lessons, no influence from music, so they never understood my passion for music or performing. When it was time to go to college my mother was like you're gonna go get a real job, you're not gonna study this nonsense, you're gonna work in the post office. Of course, you know, I loved rock and roll and pop music at the time. I wanted to be Christina Aguilera! When it came time for college, that was the option to kind of get into college and learn how to sing and that was more operatic.
This is like any other trade. You have to study and really work at it. What kind of training is required to prepare your voice for this sort of career?
This is kind of all part of my show, so I don't want to give too much away! It's an autobiographical show about being a layperson in this crazy world of opera. Basically, I did not study as a child. I did not have any piano lessons or anything. There was no money for that, there was no understanding for that, so I had to basically learn everything in college. There's a story I tell in the show, but it was hard. It was not easy learning. I was basically learning by doing, so I talk about the challenges of being thrown into that world at eighteen, which was very hard.
So your voice, even though you were interested in other types of music, just kind of leant itself to opera. Is that how you chose to study that form of music?
Yeah, and of course I grew up with pop music and also singing Broadway tunes. I was belting in high school. When I was young, my voice would do anything and it was a lot of fun. Naturally I could hit really, really high notes. I could sing really high, and so of course my high school vocal teacher or the chorus teacher was like you're gonna sing opera, and I was like oh my God never! I was like oh how boring, and I've gotta be fat, and every other negative stereotype that goes with it.
Let's talk about those stereotypes, though, because I think opera is an art form that a lot of people really don't know a whole lot about. How do you work towards defeating those stereotypes?
Since I'm a layperson, I understand the layperson's mind and what is going to be attractive to a regular audience because music is an international language. Everyone understands emotion. Everyone understands this language. Good music is just good no matter what language it's sung in. I think people respond to your heart, and a good performance, and a pretty dress! It's just a matter of setting up atmosphere and performance and number one, your heart... committing to what you're doing and just giving yourself over to the audience, which is a tremendous amount of fun for me, personally. People come to the theatre to escape their lives, to go to another place, to find inspiration. In a small way I hope I contribute to that.
What's some of the music that is inspirational to you?
Oh God, where do I begin? I mean... I like Bonnie Raitt, I like country music, I like U2, I like Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Barbra Streisand... I could go on and on and on. Stevie Wonder. Prince. Prince was a genius. How we miss him, huh?! I miss Michael Jackson and his genius. I love cabaret... Christine Ebersole, she's a big movie star and Broadway star, but I love watching her do cabaret, too. I love cabaret artists and I think the thread through all of these artists is how they go about... their authenticity and how they open themselves up to an audience, how intimate they are with their feelings, with their hearts, with their personal experiences. I think that's the true nature of an artist, to open yourself up and be vulnerable for the public so that other people know it's ok. All of these artists, no matter if it's rock, country, pop, funk, jazz... it's just an authenticity and a heart in their music. I love good music. I was just at a Garth Brooks concert. Good God, he's so good! He just gives of himself like for two hours and then takes a two or three hour break and then does it another show! He's just doing it for his fans. He loves them, and they love him back, and it's so beautiful to see that relationship. When you think 20,000 people in the room you think you can't have that kind of intimate relationship, but I actually saw it with my own eyes. You can. I've seen it with Prince, and with a lot of artists. It's a beautiful thing.
Do you think it's important for people who are in opera or who are in musical theatre to get out of that bubble a little bit and experience other types of music?
Oh God, yes. I'm always in awe watching Broadway actors and other cabaret artists connecting with a more intimate audience, and I wish more opera singers would get out of their bubble and go watch other types of music and kind of bring opera to this level, which is a great level. It just makes the art form that much more accessible. The running problem with our art form is that I don't understand the language, it's so elitist, I don't know what the heck's going on, it's so long. They give every excuse why they can't understand it and really it's just another form of music, another form of expression. My goal has always been to make it accessible for normal people. Don't sing at them. Sing with them, to them. That's more important because then you... you need a broader audience. Music is for everybody, not just for the elite.
What sort of challenges do you face with your career that other types of performers may not?
I don't know about other artists, but I know that as far as my personal life it's very difficult. I travel a lot. And, being that opera singers have to be incredibly careful... we don't have microphones usually... we have to be very protective of the voice because it's so much about detail and the sound of your voice and there's a lot of pressure and they're stuck on perfection. Of course that's unattainable, but that's what they want, so you really have very Little Room for error. I would say it's the immense pressure put on by the art form to be "perfect." It's a very, very unforgiving art form. I've learned to deal with it, but that's just the reality. It's such a high level; it's almost unattainable. I'm pretty hard on myself; I have high expectations of myself, but, usually, these kinds of expectations are put on by critics or directors or the conductors. It's almost sadistic in a way.
So how do you keep your voice in shape to do this?
I don't speak a lot. I talk. I love talking. But, when I have work coming... when I do my show in New Orleans, I think a day and a half before I won't be speaking. I will not be speaking because the talking is very hard on my voice, and then I'm doing some Broadway songs and opera songs and I want it to be good. It's very tough to do a cabaret hour. I always want people to do it but then when you realize between the dialogue and the singing it's not easy. It's not something I'm used to doing, but I find it incredibly rewarding. I just have to spend a lot of time by myself, isolated and quiet.
Tell me about MAD SCENE, the show that you're doing in New Orleans at NOCCA (New Orleans Center for Creative Arts). I know you said it's autobiographical. Is there a storyline to it? Is it more cabaret style?
MAD SCENE is about the craziness of an opera career basically. All of the ladies I sing pretty much are kind of trapped or frustrated or cheated or absolutely crazy. The music has a line through it of them all being crazy women on one level or another, or trapped. The story is basically my journey of going from a Puerto Rican family all the way to Miss America to going to Europe and trying to pursue a career and then the challenges I faced trying to build a career.
I think this is going to be inspirational for people to see because it's a type of performance that we don't have in New Orleans a whole lot. We have musical theatre, we have jazz, we have rock, we have country, and we do have an opera association. But, it's just not something that people are exposed to as much. So I think this is going to be really, really great.
I'm really looking forward to it! I'm so excited to come to New Orleans; I love it! I would live there if I could.
How did you get involved in working with Mark Cortale and doing this type of show, because it is a departure from what you normally do?
It is. It is a departure. Mark and I went to college together, we are best friends! I approached him, and I said I would love to do a show about... because he knows me from college and singing, you know, "Don't Rain on My Parade" from FUNNY GIRL. I wanted to do be on Broadway, and he always remembered me belting. We clicked right away when we met in college over Broadway and over music in general, so it's been a long, wonderful friendship, and I adore him. He's my biggest fan. He believes in what I'm doing. I also wanted to, once again, present opera in a way that's not threatening and that's fun and that's hopefully inspirational. In life there's no shortcuts. That's the biggest message of my show. Sometimes the long way is the short way.
iNTERIEW WITH Jeff Roberson:
I'm so glad we're getting to chat about MAD SCENE!
Oh, I love it so much! I really do. Well, I sang opera for a while. I did a lot of stuff in my act when my voice was that high. My voice is no longer that high. I guess I went through puberty. Even when I was in the show CHICAGO, the Broadway show CHICAGO, there's a song in there that you sing, it's a male soprano role, Mary Sunshine, I don't know if you know the songs, but it is the highest thing I've ever sung in my life. I went on tour with that show, and I was so nervous every night about hitting that high note, and you have to walk up a flight of stairs. People don't see it, even. You have to walk up a flight of stairs and have to sing a high B-natural, and it is one of the hardest things ever. I remember my part in the scene before when Billy Flynn is talking to Roxie, my palms were sweating, heart racing... every night! I go to see the movie with Christina Baranski, when they start saying the lines before my entrance, which is her entrance, my hands started sweating, my heart was beating fast. I had to leave the theatre. It is that nervousness and that kind of fear that really is what Marisol's show is about being a classical singer. She sings modern music, but the reason why she started singing modern music is so interesting... not because she liked it any more than the sweeping melodies of Mozart, Verdi, and Puccini, but because she knew nobody really knew it. It took the pressure off her. Even people who know nothing about opera listen to commercials so they know how it's supposed to sound. They are familiar with the most beautiful voices in history singing those songs, so when someone has to live up to that... because most people, that's all they've heard, and they've heard it a million times. And then they go to a live performance and have to hear a performer and, you know, let's face it... most people aren't as good as those few people who made all those recordings that are famous. That's just how it is. That's what kind of put her into modern music. She gets nervous, and she wanted to Take That pressure off herself. That's a big thing about the show, it's called MAD SCENE because classical singing your body is your instrument and every single thing you do during the day affects your voice, affects your energy, what you drink... coffee, you can't have champagne. Anything affects it and it can really drive you mad over a long period of time because... we do a whole great thing, she does "Je Veux Vivre" from Romeo and Juliet and everybody knows the last note, but she stops right before she sings the high note and she goes "How are you guys doing?" And then does this whole monologue about how that last note is what matters. It doesn't matter how beautiful she sings the rest. If she doesn't hit that very last note dead on, it's a failure no matter what she did before. That's so much pressure on a singer. I sing comedy, if I get sick I can take it down an octave and no one knows. The only time I had to really do that was when... I've done some classical concerts and have been out of my mind nervous and so that's sort of what this show is about. She has such an interesting life. First of all, she's a Puerto Rican girl from the Bronx. That's not your usual opera singer, it's just not. To come from that culture and be very successful is a feat in itself, really, because classical music has really been dominated by white people. There's a lot about race in it, and just some really interesting stories, but the main thing that really happened was she went to music school and she had never sung an aria before. She got into music school because of the tone of her voice. Music theory, she hated, and she believes that music theory is there to weed people out. It did, it weeded her out. She failed out of music school, but she didn't give up. She didn't learn the technique and everything that you really need to know to be an opera singer, but she was getting roles like in LULU, which is really one of the hardest things ever to sing. Instead of having the technique to do it, she would take cortisone to make her voice not swell. Your voice swells because you're using it improperly. I don't know if you've ever had to take it. I've had shows where I had to take it because I was so sick, but you're not supposed to take it all the time. Your chords swell for a reason. They swell because they're hurt and they're protecting themselves. Well she was taking this after a while after every single show, and it destroyed her voice. She had to have vocal surgeries and all this. She's very lucky. She went to Adele's surgeon. It's a very interesting, fascinating story. You think "Why do people do drugs?" and it's for euphoria. Well, she felt euphoric when she wasn't worrying about her singing. That was where her high came from, she would totally lose herself in a role. But, opera singing is about strategy as much as it is about acting or singing. It's about knowing when to pull back and so she didn't learn all of that in college. It's a very interesting story about how she's had to learn. She was getting fired from jobs and stuff, it's been a road for her. But it's a really fascinating story.
Sounds like it! It was really neat talking to her about it and hearing her stories and everything, and about how she keeps her voice rested and all of that. How did you come up with the idea of writing this show for her? Is it something that you wrote specifically for her, or with her, or was it an idea that you had and she happened to fit into this?
Well, she loves live performing and she wanted to be a rock singer then a Broadway singer, but her voice is suited for opera. She would come to my cabaret shows and see other cabaret shows, and we have a mutual friend in common, Mark Cortale who is producing it. She would come and love them. She just liked... you know, she does opera. It is a role. It's not casual. It's theatre. It's acting as a character. She wanted to do a cabaret show, and so when I started talking to her about her stories they were so fascinating... the vocal surgery that she had to have and... there's an amazing story that's in the show about... I don't know if she told you this... but, she was doing LULU in Paris, and she was the cover, which is basically the understudy and you just sit around. Her mother was dying of cancer, and she goes home to see her mother and she just cried the entire time, which is very bad for your voice. So she comes back and the girl playing the part breaks her ankle the minute she gets back, so Marisol had to go on, but her mother just... she got to go see her mother, but she knew her mother was going to die when she was back in Paris. That's the thing, too, when you're in the arts you can't say "My mom's sick, I've got to take some time off." It just doesn't work that way. So she came back and had to go on, but because she had been crying so much and then she gave it all in rehearsal when she wasn't even warmed up because literally the girl broke her ankle and they put her on immediately... and so she lost her voice. Well listen to this... so then... I shouldn't give everything away, but what happened was, they had no one to go on because she was the cover. So the other girl got out of surgery and sang the part from the side in a wheelchair or standing up like on crutches while Marisol lip-synced it!
That is like straight out of SINGING IN THE RAIN! That's crazy!
Isn't that wild?! We joke about having to lip-sync for her life. And then she ended up doing the part, which was fine, but there's a lot of stories like that. There's a story about her doing Maria in WEST SIDE STORY, which she is a girl from the Bronx, she was made for that role. When she went to go do it, people thought that she was too dark. Now, this was a long time ago, but yes, they thought she looked more black than Puerto Rican. There was some controversy over that a long time ago kind of before color blind casting. This was also in Switzerland. I guess if you're not from Puerto Rico you could think that Puerto Rican people look like Natalie Wood, who was white. There's just so many interesting stories, and then the singing is just so beautiful. She was also a runner up to Miss America, and Kathleen Battle was a judge, and that really helped her career as well. The biggest part of it is that with opera singing people do know about practice and all of that, but it is a 24 hour thing you have to worry about. You're like an Olympic athlete and your career is much longer, and you have to protect it. If you don't, your career is short, so really it could drive you mad and that's what the show's all about. She sings some of the greatest mad scenes from LUCIA and then from OPHELIA and she's singing these back to back, which no one ever... you know when you go see an opera they have a big aria and then they go off for a while and come back. I mean, she is singing 11 o'clock number after 11 o'clock number, which is a cabaret term, you know one after the other. It's really great to hear a voice like that right In Your Face and not in a concert hall, but in an intimate cabaret theatre, which you rarely hear that kind of opera singing in a tiny room like that. I just love the show so much, I really do. And it was great to... it's her story, I just helped her organize them and put them together and found the ties in it that I don't even think she realized were there. That's the fun part is kind of being an analyst, you see the stories, but the credit all goes to her because she has this career and got it back.
It's definitely different because we have the opera association here in New Orleans so they do these big shows, but I think this is going to be really interesting for people to have more of a... you don't always have intimate experiences with opera.
No, you don't! And, she sings with no mic. I know you hear... I just saw TURANDOT in New Orleans, which was so amazing, and just to hear those voices... this is just with a piano in a tiny room scene after scene, and crazy high singing, which is just an oddity in itself. Even though she's most known for modern music, she does everything from Broadway to popular to some great Mozart arias, too... things that are very accessible as well. It's a very accessible show. You don't have to like opera to go. She sings some of the most beautiful melodies ever written, and just the sheer vocal acrobats and ability are just fascinating to hear.
I was talking to her about this the other day about how so many people are not exposed to opera as much as other types of music. I'm wondering from your perspective why do you think it's important for people to be exposed to opera even though a lot of people turn their noses up at it?
I think attention spans and all of that have changed over the years and so a lot of people think opera is long and boring. It's not, but to the layperson it can seem long and boring. This is really... you kind of get the cliff's notes of opera... you get some of the most beautiful singing together with... but, also she's very funny and very witty, and just has worked so hard and you see... we have a line in the show "Puerto Rican girls in the Bronx can be very persistent," and that's kind of what has happened. She's fought for this even when most people would have given up having been fired from some very high profile jobs, having totally lost her voice. Most people would've given up, and her love of performing and love for the arts and kind of she learned to respect her voice and her art form after losing... you know, you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone. I think it's really important to people, especially for young people to hear opera and to hear someone do it well. Because people aren't exposed to it there could be the greatest opera singers out there who don't even know they can sing. I often think about this that ballet has such a... you know, guys don't want to do ballet, but ballet is actually... not only is it just dance, it's very athletic. It is a sport in a way. It's a sport with artistic qualities. So you know I think a lot of really great ballet dancers have been chickened out of it because of society telling them it's girly or whatever, and the same goes for opera. If people aren't really exposed to it, they're not going to know that they even can have the talent or the possibility. That's a big thing, I think, about education in New Orleans or any place is that if you don't know something exists, how would you know if you want to do that? People need to be exposed to everything... all art forms to see if they might be interested, especially young people. For the older people, it's just a wonderful... she's just really funny. Funny, funny, funny, and it's a heavy show, but it's such a great message.
Being that New Orleans is such a musical city, what made you want to bring this show specifically here?
Mark and I both live here, and we are proud of it! This is a musical city. There are so many different musical genres here. I'm working on a show right now with Ricky Graham at Rivertown [Theaters for the Performing Arts] called GONE PECANS that actually opens the next night, and it's about the history of New Orleans, and last year when I was looking at this, the very first opera in the entire United States was produced in New Orleans at the New Orleans Opera House. The very first opera in the United States was in New Orleans. This is before anyone on the east coast. I thought well that's just so interesting because... so I thought well it'd be so cool to bring that here because I just thought it was interesting, and we mention that in the show. I just thought it would be great for people to hear this amazing singing in a very intimate venue because when we did it in Provincetown this summer people... she would sing these crazy high notes right in people's faces in the mad scenes. Usually you see it on stage and you're removed from it, but just hearing that voice with your own ear, no amplification, just right there, just her real voice, it's just an experience that I think everyone should have to hear what it takes. A lot of singing now is manipulated and auto-tuned, and this is just real, beautiful singing. She's so talented.
I'm also interested in your story with this because you do a lot of performing yourself, so what's it been like being on the opposite end of that as the writer?
Oh my God, I love it, I don't have to shave! And, I know how she feels. Listen, I sang... not only did I do the Broadway show CHICAGO with those high notes, but I did another show with Leslie Jordan where I hit a crazy high E. I did a number in my show that you can search on YouTube if you Google "Varla Telephone," I do the Queen of the Night aria with my phone, but then I hit a high F sharp, which is higher than in the Queen of the Night aria, higher than the opera singer. I took it up a half step because of the keys on the telephone. I know every night worrying about singing that note and just worrying about and then being like oh God no I can't have a drink the night before. Just the silly stuff. And what I'm doing is comedy. I just found all of that just fascinating, and I love not having the pressure on me. It's a lot of pressure on her because, like I'm saying, she's singing more than she would ever sing in an opera because it's an hour and a half whatever of just constant singing. Also what she found, too, is... and this is what I find, too... that talking takes a lot out of your voice. In opera, you never really talk, it's just the singing. But, your real voice kind of strains the voice. I love not having to perform! People laugh at the jokes that I write, and just to see her deliver them it's just... most things that I write I'm also in. This, I'm totally removed, and also to have someone who can sell a joke is great. She's a natural comedian as well.
I'm excited that this type of show... we've had the Broadway at NOCCA series here for several years now... but, I think this might be one of the first times we've had something of this nature, so I think it's going to be really cool.
I don't even think this kind of show really exists and so that's what's so fascinating. I did see Deborah Voigt's show, and it's similar. It's an opera singer telling her story, and that was written by Terrence McNally so I think I'm in good company! It's fascinating to see. Opera singers... it's just interesting to see what they go through and not everybody knows about it. But it's still... the music is accessible, and it's not like opera where people think they're going to be bored. It's so funny in between the singing, and the singing is just spectacular. I love it, I'm so glad I got to do this.