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 mom took me to the Latvian National Opera when I was 11 years old for their production of Turandot. I was quite amazed with the music, but also I liked the fairytale story, whimsical sets with steep stairs and a ballet incorporated into the performance. At that time I was attending music school and singing in a choir, but I dreamed of being a ballerina or a figure skater. There were no figure skating or ballet classes in my town though, so I kept taking music classes.
My true calling to opera and to classical singing came much later. In high school, I was taking some voice lessons, but I only considered it a hobby. I chose to study Tourism Management in college instead of music. Only after finishing my tourism studies and working in a hotel for a couple of years did I realize that I wanted to do something more with my life. After going to church for Christmas and hearing some deeply spiritual music, I felt sure: I wanted to sing again. My voice teacher encouraged me to try to apply for a Voice degree in the Latvian Academy of Music. It wasn’t an easy decision, but I knew if I didn’t try I would never know. From there, step by step, all these wonderful opportunities opened up for me. I know now that it was the right decision.
(Zanda Švēde and Saimir Pirgu in La Traviata. Photo by Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera.)
Do you have any musical influences beyond classical music? Who inspires you artistically?
My greatest artistic inspiration was the great silence and exploration of my childhood: the forests, rivers, open fields, and time I spent in nature. Living in a very rural area provided me with years of exposure to natural beauty and life. All of my best memories as a child are of my time outdoors, and Latvian folk music captures our fundamental closeness to nature like nothing else. Summer mornings I would walk barefoot in the meadows and watch the most beautiful sunrises I can imagine. At night I could look at the sky and see more stars than I could ever count. Every season in Latvia is unique and beautiful. Living in such a place and having those memories has always motivated me to seek and create beauty myself.
What is your favorite memory from your first year as an Adler Fellow?
In my first year, every event was very special. I made my professional and SFO mainstage debut as Flora in La Traviata. I was performing for so many different audiences – from little kids in schools as a part of the SFO outreach program, to big gala events with three hundred or more people, smaller private events for our donors, or concerts around the Bay Area for opera lovers. Each of these events was very different and made me realize how important the work that we do is. I can’t choose a favorite memory. I would say there are two. I absolutely loved being a part of the production of Rossini’s Cinderella as the “ugly stepsister”. We had an amazing cast that was full of kind and creative people. Being ugly on stage gave me so much freedom! I could walk, stand, sit, and move any way I wanted—as unacceptably as I wanted! That was unique. The other highlight for me was our Adler Gala concert with the SFO orchestra and Maestro Stephen Lord. For Adlers it is a heartfelt moment and it gave me the opportunity to sing some of my very favorite music with orchestra.
(Maria Valdes, Carlos Chausson, and Zanda Švēde in La Cenerentola. Photo by Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera.)
You are originally from Latvia; After spending time in San Francisco, what are some of your favorite things about the city, and why?
I appreciate that a city as busy as San Francisco still offers easy access to nature. In the city limits, places like the Presidio make you feel like you’re spending time in a forest. Beyond the city limits, I’ve found refuges like Redwood Regional Park, which I visit as often as I can. I also enjoy the amazing cuisine San Francisco has to offer. There is a thriving food culture here that emphasizes farmers’ markets with fresh products. We have come to appreciate the quality food available at the marketplaces in the Ferry Building in particular.
We're looking forward to seeing more of you on the main stage this summer and fall! Which assignments are you most excited about?
All of them! This year I have five assignments and each is a different challenge. I believe it will be very rewarding to be a part of the world premiere of Two Women. I play a small role, but the storyline is so compelling that I’m excited to participate in any way. I’m covering the role of Anna in Les Troyens, and I especially love the music in that opera. It’s really beautiful. In the fall I’ll cover Federica in Luisa Miller. She stands between Luisa and Rodolfo and threatens to thwart their romance—she wants to coerce Rodolfo into marrying her even when she knows he loves somebody else. What kind of person would do that? It will be interesting to discover in the rehearsal process. I also look forward to singing Alisa in Lucia di Lammermoor and the Third Lady in The Magic Flute.
What do you think are some of the greatest challenges the opera world is currently facing? Do you see any solutions to these obstacles?
Our greatest challenge is captivating the interest of people who more and more are distracted by smartphones, touchscreens and soundbytes. I believe that SFO has been doing a wonderful job with outreach on every front. They have sent singers to Bay Area schools and businesses. In addition, SFO has developed the BRAVO! Club and the Overture Workshops to educate new audiences and provide an environment in which people with mutual interest in opera can meet. That type of marketing in this era of networking and social media is going to be of great benefit in the coming years.
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?
I think that it is difficult to start a career in opera in general. Seeing how many people study singing and how many actually get jobs after can be quite scary, especially if you have taken out student loans to cover your tuition. I was lucky enough to get my education in Latvia, where the most talented students have state funded stipends. When I was applying for my studies, I thought—if I get the stipend, it will be a sign that this was the right choice. Therefore for young singers I would say—you have to follow your heart. If it is meant to be, it will happen.
Who are your favorite opera composers? Do you have any dream roles you would like to perform?
I don’t think that I have a favorite opera composer. I grow to love the music that I am performing. When I am preparing a role, that composer becomes my favorite for the moment. My overall dream role is Dalila from Saint-Saëns’ Samson e Dalila. I look forward to the moment I’ll be able to perform it. Currently I am working on preparing the title role of Bizet’s Carmen, which I will perform next year with the Lyric Opera of Kansas City. Apart from learning the role, I have taken some flamenco and castanet classes to prepare for the movement.
What do you hope to do when your Adler Fellowship ends?
I hope to work! But seriously, the Adler Fellowship has provided me with such wonderful experiences, resume credits, and an environment in which I can grow as an artist. They also organize many auditions for opera houses, other young artist programs, and agents. I believe that my experience here could pave the way for more singing opportunities both in the USA and elsewhere.
When you're not singing what are some of the activities you can be found doing?
Whenever I can, I go outdoors to hike. My favorite places so far have been Yosemite National Park, the Grand Canyon and the California Redwood Forests. I also can be found knitting stuffed dinosaurs, teddy bears, dogs and monkeys. These are mostly meant for my nephews and children of friends. My biggest textile project so far has been a cross-stitch replica of “Christus Pantokrator,” an icon from 1393. I have worked on it during my free time for about two years and hope to finish it this year.
Stay updated on Zanda through Twitter and her website - and don't forget to come see her this summer and fall on the mainstage iN ouR productions of TWO WOMEN, Lucia di Lammermoor, and The Magic Flute!