Interview: Soprano Erin Wall Prepares for COC's ARABELLA
Currently performing in the Toronto Symphony's BRAHMS GERMAN REQUIEM, and about to open the Canadian Opera Company's 2017-18 season with Strauss' ARABELLA - Soprano Erin Wall is one busy woman.
Luckily, the talented (and funny!) singer had some time to sit down with BroadwayWorld's Taylor Long to talk about singing, joke about her composer boyfriends, and share some of the preparation involved in mounting a large-scale opera like ARABELLA.
PROFILE: Erin Wall
Zodiac Sign? Scorpio
What are you listening to? Work music (Brahms German Requiem, Arabella & repertoire for A Song for All Seasons) / Running music (the Weeknd, Coldplay, etc)
What are you reading? Canada by Richard Ford
Latest Netflix binge? Homeland
Why do you sing?
It's such a terrible answer. *sings* Because I love to sing! I grew up in a musical family and I never imagined that I would pursue a musical career, when I was a kid. I did a lot of theatre and musical theatre in high school. (There's not a lot of opera happening in high school!) I sort of always liked to perform, but I didn't ever really think I would be good enough to be a professional musician. I got to college and I started studying voice, and out came an operatic voice. I fell in love with the art form - really late. I never had that lovely moment that people have - "I will be an opera singer!" That never happened for me.
I really enjoy the concert repertoire as well. At least 50% of my career is concerts and I love doing them. I really love Mahler and Strauss. I joke that they're my other husbands. Or sometimes I say, they're my boyfriends, because I'm already married. My dead boyfriends.
What is your daily routine like, vocally and physically?
Right now - ideally get up at 5:30am and go for a run before my family wakes up. We sort of do a morning scramble where the parents are trying to shower and look presentable for work. I pack the school lunches, feed the children, do my daughter's hair and walk them to the school bus. We come here (the Canadian Opera Company) - my husband works here as well.
If I get here early enough, I warm up. If we're rehearsing every day, I don't usually have to. My voice tends to sort of stay warm, because I'm singing all the time. Rehearse for as little as, three - it's usually about three to six hours. It tapers off as we get into the theatre and start running the show. At the end of the day I head home, eat dinner, drink a glass of wine and go to sleep. Maybe I'll try to read a book before bed.
It's hard to describe a singer's routine, because it varies so much depending on what you're doing.
You have two kids - How has parenthood affected your craft?
It's interesting. It's provided a balance to life. My whole identity is not wrapped up in one thing - it expands your identity. It gives you a new, much needed perspective. I'll sometimes go home after having a bad day, or thinking I didn't sing well, or not gotten along with someone - and when you get home, you look at your kids and you know everything is going to be fine. It also makes the time that you spend at work more enjoyable - because it's adult time.
You have to sort of compartmentalize a little bit. I identify with characters differently than I did before having children. But, I don't feel like it's changed who I am as an artist, that much. They've made my life more rich and definitely more busy. They love me and they don't give a crap how I sing. They don't love me based on how well I did at work. It's unconditional. Well, it's based more on how much iPad I let them have. *laughs*
Tell me about your creative process. Investing in a role, creating a character, putting your stamp on the music.
The beginning of the process for me, is mostly research. I need a mental image of what the role is, who this person is, how they fit into the opera, how much of the opera they're in, how it paces - everything I can find out about them.
During that research, do you listen to other singers?
Absolutely. Before I sit down and start to pound out notes at the piano, I want to hear it. With some of the roles you do, you will have seen the opera in the theatre. You always want to try to go see it - to have that live experience. It depends.
The next step is translating the whole thing. Trying to understand what the words are. Learning the notes and then hitting the coaching rooms. Once I have the basic notes learned - coaching it, getting it into my body and then getting it into my voice. I'm not any good at memorizing until I've actually just sung it a lot. If I just sing through it, the memorization comes naturally. It's rare that I sit down and "memorize".
Even now, with Arabella, this is my third time singing the role, but I had to sit down and write out all of my words. The act of writing it out helps me remember it better.
Hopefully, next, I'll show up to rehearsals memorized. That's where you find that either your ideas are going to be a part of the next step or maybe you need to re-think a lot of those ideas, based on what the conductor and the director want. It depends. You can be hopping into a production that already exists, where they just want you to fit yourself in, or, with a lot of new productions, you get to create it a little bit more. Some processes are really collaborative and sometimes you're just a little cog in the machine. It's never boring!
What is your favourite part about singing Strauss?
It has so much line. The phrasing is really fun. The nice thing about Arabella is that she's a calm and certain person - very unlike me - I'm kind of frantic and stressed out all the time. Jane (Archibald) and I were talking about this yesterday - I'm much more like her character in real life. But Arabella gets a lot of fun, chatty, flirty moments. With the right space, you get to be playful with the lines.
In terms of tessitura, Strauss rarely forces you to hang out in uncomfortable places for too long. He really knew what he was doing. You get beautiful lines that soar up to a high note - I mean, maybe not in the case of a role like Zerbinetta - but Strauss is delicious to sing. And you almost always get a gorgeous, final scene.
In all of the operas that I do, you get these great final scenes that he gives to the soprano heroines. He was super mean to the tenors though. He's nice to the sopranos. Some tenor must have pissed him off one time and he was like... that's it. Maybe a tenor hit on his wife - I don't know.
Tell me about Arabella - what is so appealing about this role?
It has a happy ending. There are no casualties. It's fun to get to be the pretty girl with the nice dresses. I was not that person in high school. It's kind of fun to think, what would it be like to be this confident person? Like, "yeah, I'm beautiful, what of it?".
She knows she has to do right by her family. There are many layers to her. Underneath it all, there is a deeper level to her. But she does like to have fun. It's fun to get to fall in love on stage.
The production looks beautiful -
It's very clean. Pretty, nice lines.
Is this your first time working with Maestro Patrick Lange?
How does a conductor inform your performance?
In this case, Patrick is the first German conductor I've worked with on this piece. I've worked with a British conductor and a French conductor in previous Arabella productions. It's great! It's really difficult because I am needing to take my German to a whole other level. There are a couple of native German speakers in the cast as well.
Patrick is really encouraging me to bring my "A-game" with the German. It's extra work, but you can't just say, "I've sung this twice and now I know everything about it."
Some people find opera either intimidating or inaccessible. What do you think is the biggest obstacle? What is the best way to introduce opera to a wider audience?
I think the biggest obstacle for a lot people is the preconceived idea of what it already is - "It's just going to be a bunch of fat, sweaty people, screaming". And they're worried that they're going to have no idea what they're saying. I think expense can be an obstacle for a lot of people. It can be expensive and a lot of people just think - that's not for me.
We had a new house cleaner come to our house one time. and we have a lot of opera things up on the walls, and she asked, "Are you an opera singer?" And I said, "Yeah". She was from Vernon, BC and she started telling me that she's not really an opera person, but she went to see an opera in a movie theatre once. She said, "I went to see Anna Bolena, because I'm a huge history buff and the story fascinates me." It was Anna Netrebko and she was like, "The lady was so beautiful... it was not what I thought it was going to be. I loved it." She had never heard an opera before in her life and she didn't think she would necessarily enjoy it.
There's a lot of argument in our field right now - are these HD broadcasts good things? A lot of people are saying, "Well, they're not bringing in any new people. Just people who would already go to an opera, that want to see what the MET is doing."
But when I was talking to our cleaner, I asked, "After seeing that, would you ever want to go see one live? What if an opera singer got you tickets?" And she said, "I would absolutely go!" So, I think it is working.
Erin Wall will be performing the title role in Strauss' ARABELLA from October 5th to 28th, 2017 in the Canadian Opera Company's co-production with Santa Fe Opera and Minnesota Opera.
For more information and to purchase tickets, visit http://www.coc.ca/PerformancesAndTickets/1718Season/Arabella.aspx
(profile photo credit: Kristin Hoebermann)
**This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity**