What was your earliest exposure to classical music? When did you begin performing and at what point did you decide to pursue it as a career?
My earliest exposure to classical music came courtesy of my uncle, who is a concert pianist, organist and teacher in Zürich, Switzerland. Every summer of my childhood, he would come home to Los Angeles and take my family to concerts of the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl. At a young age, I asked my mom to put me in singing lessons so I could learn how to sing the songs on the radio that I loved... particularly anything by Mariah Carey or Whitney Houston, despite the discrepancies in vocal range. When my voice began to change and lower, I took a break from singing lessons and began learning to play piano with my uncle's former teacher in Los Angeles. This re-routed my musical inclinations in a more classical direction and when I returned to singing lessons in 8th grade, my teacher got me started on the infamous "24 Italian Art Songs and Arias." It wasn't until two years into my college career that I decided that singing opera was something at which I might be able to succeed. So, after two years at a state school in California, I transferred to the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM).
How do you feel your background in piano has helped you as a singer?
Without a doubt, the one piece of training that has aided me most as a performer is my ability to play piano. It not only helps me learn music very quickly and accurately, but helps me understand the music in a very deep way. It also allows me to approach very difficult pieces of music with confidence.
Do you have any musical influences beyond classical music? Who inspires you artistically?
I, like a lot of young singers who end up in opera, began singing onstage in musical theater productions. I love musicals and I have learned so much of what I know about being a performer from watching recorded performances of the Broadway greats; Judy Garland, Patti Lupone, Elaine Stritch and Barbra Streisand.
I also have a tremendous affinity for singer-songwriters who are particularly nuanced lyricists. I always admire great vocalism, but for me the quality of the music is directly equal to the potency of the text being put forth. Some artists/bands that I am listening to a lot right now are Hozier, The Lone Bellow, Fiona Apple and Jónsi.
What was your reaction when you learned you had been selected as an Adler Fellow?
My whole life changed... I was just about to start the final year of my post-graduate degree at CCM, thinking that I was about to embark on the dreaded audition circuit yet again. Before I knew it, I was handed a golden ticket to spend the first two years of my professional career at one of the most important opera houses in the world.
We're looking forward to seeing more of you on the main stage this summer and fall! Which assignments are you most excited about, and why?
I am lucky enough to get to sing on the main stage in FOUR roles this year! Right now, I am working hard on debuting the role of Lieutenant John Buckley in the world premiere of Marco Tutino's Two Women. This is a total dream come true for me. I get to make my professional debut at THE San Francisco Opera in a production that brings together some of the most important people in our industry... and getting to share the stage with Anna Caterina Antonacci in my two big scenes is a special treat.
In the fall, I will get to sing my first Wagnerian role as Meister Ortel in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Fiorello in Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia and L'ami de Roderick in Debussy's La chûte de la maison d'Usher. I am elated about all three roles, but if I had to choose, I would say that the Debussy excites me most. Debussy is one of my favorite composers and I love singing in French.
(Anna Caterina Antonacci, Edward Nelson, and Sarah Shafer in Two Women. Photo by Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera.)
What do you think are some of the greatest challenges the opera world is currently facing? Do you see any solutions to these obstacles?
I think one of the biggest challenges facing the opera world is progressive programming. Conveniently, I think San Francisco Opera does as great a job as any of throwing in pieces that will challenge its audience, along with fantastically executed classics. The classics are the reason we are all here still doing opera today, but there must be more modernity to our art form than simply updating (often, badly...) the classics we have come to know and love.
That is why commissions like Two Women and performances of the Debussy/Gordon Getty double bill in December are important. One of my favorite quotes about presenting modern music comes from Ned Rorem. He writes, "Familiarity does not breed contempt, it only breeds more familiarity." We need to cultivate opera audiences that are okay with (and perhaps excited about?) new work being put in front of them.
What do you think is the most difficult part of beginning a career in opera? What advice can you offer to other young singers studying to pursue a career in classical music?
A career as an opera singer means a lot of sacrifice, but if you love what you do on stage, all the sacrifice is worth it. For instance, during this mainstage season, I have had to become somewhat of a hermit in order to make sure that I can show up every day, be consistent and "play with the big boys." It requires tremendous focus and dedication, good health (both physically and mentally) and the knowledge of a deeper purpose. We are not here just to "hit the high note"... we are here to make people feel things.
Is there any particular struggle you have encountered in your singing career so far? What has allowed you to overcome and be successful thus far?
The only real struggle I have had in my singing career is getting out of my own way. It is so easy to judge yourself and worry about all the different possible opinions in the room while you are in rehearsal or in performance. When that happens, the art suffers. During my summer in the Merola Opera Program last year, we staged a rather abstract Don Giovanni, in which I sang the title role. As if singing my first Don Giovanni wasn't pressure enough, there were murmurs about people possibly being unhappy with the production, the bad reviews we might get because of it, etc, etc, etc.... And then I received one of the best pieces of advice from the director of the production, James Darrah. He said to me, "Never forget your work is for the infinite others who understand it. Who crave it. Who are pulled into the art form by it. No one else." I will never forget this.
Who are your favorite opera composers? Do you have any dream roles you would like to perform?
I have three dream roles and they are all very different. The two roles I hope to sing in the relatively near future are the title roles in Benjamin Britten's Billy Budd and Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande. These roles are for a very specific kind of high baritone voice and right now (knock on wood), the high notes are easy enough that I feel like I could really bring something special, dramatically, to those two characters. Call me crazy, but my ultimate dream role is the title character in Alban Berg's Wozzeck. That character is so full of nuance and sweetness and heartache and tragedy and insanity. I would die for the chance to play him just once!
You’re from Southern California. How does San Francisco compare to it? What are some of your favorite things about the city, and why?
San Francisco could stand to be about 10 degrees warmer on any given day... but I can't say I mind the opportunity to accessorize with a light jacket and scarf. The thing I love about it is that is filled with that same live-and-let-live California spirit I know so well. Coming back to the West coast (read: best coast!) after 6 years of school in the Midwest is the best thing that could have happened to me.
When you're not singing what are some of the activities you can be found doing?
I am a yoga freak!! I try to go at least 4 to 5 times a week, if not every day. After a long day of rehearsals, there is nothing better than quieting my mind and distilling my thoughts with a long yoga session. It is what keeps me going!