Backstage at San Francisco Opera > February 2014 > Adler Profile: Zanda Švēde
Adler Profile: Zanda Švēde
Latvian mezzo-soprano and new Adler Fellow Zanda Švēde has had a fascinating journey from hotelier to aspiring opera singer. Zanda studied at the Latvian Academy of Music in Riga, the Manhattan Summer Voice Festival, Scuola Italia in Italy, and the Tyrulean Opera Program in Austria, and has performed such roles as Endimione in Cavalli's La Calisto, María in Piazzolla's María de Buenos Aires, and the title role in Massenet's Cléopâtre. She will make her San Francisco Opera debut as Flora in La Traviata this summer. You can also see Zanda in the first Schwabacher Debut Recital of 2014 at Temple Emanu-El's Martin Meyer Sanctuary on Sunday, February 23 at 5:30 p.m. In this profile, Zanda discusses her process of preparing a role, her decision to pursue opera, and reflects upon differences of culture, both musical and otherwise, between Latvia and the United States.

What was your reaction when you learned you had been selected as an Adler Fellow?  What are you most looking forward to in the first year of your Adler Fellowship?
When I learned that I had been selected as an Adler Fellow, I was happy to have an opportunity to continue growing as an artist in a very professional and supportive environment. For me it is very important to keep studying, developing and never stop improving.  In my first year here I mostly look forward my debut on SFO stage as Flora in La traviata.

You are singing in the first Schwabacher Debut Recital on February 23. How have you been getting ready? How did you select the repertoire you will be performing? Do any of the pieces have a particularly personal meaning for you?
The concert on February 23rd features songs all about love. Mark Morash [Director of Musical Studies at San Francisco Opera Center] selected the repertoire, and I will be singing Fauré’s small song cycle Cinq mélodies “de Venice”, composed to poems by Paul Verlaine. The text is extremely sensual, and our Adler coach Noah Lindquist describes it wryly as poetry “meant to be read horizontally”.  The second part of the concert features Brahms’ Liebeslieder quartets, solos, and duets. They come from a cycle of eighteen pieces about different stages and types of love. It will be an interesting experience to sing about love in an ensemble form rather than a solo or duo, and with four hands’ piano: to put this piece together we will need to incorporate six unique romantic perspectives.

(Above: Zanda Švēde as Isabella in L'italiana in Algeri at the Schwabacher Summer Concert 2013. Photo by Kristen Loken.)

You were born and educated in Latvia. What are some of the biggest differences you’ve noticed between American and Latvian culture?  How does the classical music scene differ between Latvia and the United States? Have you noticed any particularly different approaches to performance or musical studies between the two countries?
Latvia is a country that has experienced many historical occupations by foreign armies. Latvian language and culture was always suppressed or marginalized during these periods. As a reaction to this and as part of our recent independence, Latvians feel a very powerful national pride and identity. We put great value in the preservation of our language, culture, and folk traditions. We want very much to live in a place that is essentially Latvian and that won’t change character. Latvia is famous for its choral music tradition, best represented in the Singing Revolution from 1987-1991. This Revolution preceded Latvian, Lithuanian, and Estonian independence from the Soviet Union. Moreover, every five years Latvia celebrates its music, heritage, and national costumes with the Latvian Song Festival, which has faithfully taken place since 1873.

In contrast, the United States are made up of people from many different cultures and traditions, so the atmosphere is quite different. There are great differences in culture even between neighboring regions of the USA. It seems like society here is more about compromise and tolerance and the blending of the best parts of cultures.
The classical music scene in Latvia is different too. It has state funded concerts, opera, and musical education. In Latvia people are quite receptive to modern and experimental music despite our passion for classical music. In the USA the classical music scene is largely supported by private donors, which results in a very personal relationship between the donors and the opera companies. They really care about what is happening in their local opera house and they know that the livelihood of the opera is dependent on their involvement.
I feel that there are many differences between musical education in Latvia and the USA. Musical education in Latvia still shares many features with the music schools of the Soviet Union, including public children’s programs that aim to develop musical skills as early as age six. At the collegiate level, education is set up as an intensive process with three shorter lessons per week rather than one long lesson. Music education in the USA covers more detail and technical components of singing including instruction in phonetics and the International Phonetic Alphabet. American music schools also tend to put up more musical productions per year.

(Above: Zanda Švēde in the Merola Grand Finale 2013. Photo by Kristen Loken.)

This summer, you will sing Flora in La Traviata. How are you preparing for the role? How do you go about learning new music? Do you have a routine when you begin to prepare a new role?
This will be my first experience singing a complete role on the War Memorial Opera House stage. I always begin a role study by translating the text and studying the libretto to get acquainted with the story. My family has been very supportive as I prepare this role. It’s always best to approach the story in your native language, and my Mom sent me the book La dame aux Camélias in Latvian, along with some chocolates. I find that the opera’s inspiration and chocolate go together quite well. I also have started to coach the role with John Churchwell, the Head of Music Staff at SF Opera. I look forward to starting our rehearsals in May!

Do you have any pre-performance superstitions or rituals?
I usually don’t eat before performances, but otherwise I don’t have many rituals. I strive to stay healthy and rested so I’ll have the energy I need in performance, but staying still all day isn’t so helpful either.

Who or what first inspired you to pursue a career in opera? Did you come from a musical family?
The first person who inspired me was the voice teacher I took lessons with in high school, Gaida Ungure. She encouraged me to study singing professionally, but at that time it didn’t feel right for me. I went to study tourism management instead. After finishing my studies and working in a hotel for five years I started to feel a calling for music. Gaida persuaded me to apply to the Music Academy, and I was accepted. That’s how my intensive and exciting way towards the opera stage started.

Is there a composer whose work you particularly admire and would like to perform? What are your dream roles?
I love Baroque music, especially Handel, and French Romantic music. I think my real dream role is Dalila from Samson et Dalila. I hope to perform other powerful roles like Carmen, Cléopâtre, and Amneris.

What are some of your favorite places in San Francisco thus far?
I appreciate that there are so many parks in San Francisco - I grew up in the countryside so I’m happy to spend time in any place that’s green. I especially enjoy Golden Gate Park, Presidio, and the SF Zoo. They’re great places to walk and talk with my husband and our dog.

(Above: Zanda Švēde as Isabella in L'italiana in Algeri at the Schwabacher Summer Concert 2013. Photo by Kristen Loken.)

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time? Do you have any hobbies?
I like to knit, cross-stitch and crochet. In autumn my husband bought me a pass to a knitting class on stuffed animals, and since then I have been crazy about knitting bears, dinosaurs, and other toys. For Christmas I knit socks for all of my Latvian family members. My biggest project at the moment is a cross-stitch Orthodox icon of Jesus. Progress is slow, and it probably won’t be finished for another year. I should mention my biggest shared hobby: my husband and I love to hike and camp, and we spend our free days hiking the beautiful nature trails in California.

What is your favorite…

Book?  Winnie the Pooh
Movie? Some great movies from a decade ago – my absolute No.1 Christmas movie - Love Actually and the funny Miss Congeniality. Lately I’ve been enjoying lots of French comedies
Food? Pasta with marinara or meat sauce, but I can’t imagine my day without a toast with a slice of cheese.


Posted: 2/14/2014 11:49:21 AM by Sean Waugh
Filed under: 2013-14Season, Adler, SchwabacherDebutRecitals2014


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