Interview with Jeanine De Bique

FIVE QUESTIONS WITH ‘FIGARO’S’ JEANINE DE BIQUE

She is a former UNESCO youth ambassador. A headliner at the BBC Proms concerts. An internationally acclaimed opera singer with a cameo on the high-concept Netflix series The OA to her name.

And now soprano Jeanine De Bique has arrived in San Francisco to take on her latest challenge: headlining the start of San Francisco Opera’s Mozart-Da Ponte trilogy.

The trilogy — which begins with The Marriage of Figaro and ends with Così fan tutte and Don Giovanni — weaves together three operas by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte. Together, the stories will trace the rise and fall of an imaginary American manor house, set against key moments in U.S. history.

In The Marriage of Figaro, De Bique stars as the feisty maid Susanna, fiancée to the valet Figaro and target for the unwanted attentions of her employer, Count Almaviva. The Trinidadian soprano recently gave an interview to San Francisco Opera where she discussed issues of representation in opera — and the impact this art form has had on her life.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: What have been the artistic inspirations that have guided your career?

JEANINE DE BIQUE: A few come to mind. Coming from a diverse and multi-cultural country, Trinidad and Tobago, I learned the art of the West Indian folk song both at school and at home. This music expresses the beauty, the color, the joy, and the sadness of the lived reality of women and men in our island's communities years ago, which lives on through the generations.

It is in this music that our culture comes alive. Issues in the community were discussed, weddings took place, and we discovered diverse food, our language, and our heritage. The melodies were never written down and were almost always improvised upon.

Trinidad and Tobago's Carnival is an exuberant celebration that takes place each year, and the popular music played is calypso. Whilst at primary school, I took part in my school’s competition which I won in a particular year, with a calypso composed by my mother, and I was named Calypso Queen of the year.

Recently I was afforded the opportunity to work with and witness director Peter Sellars' incredible use of opera to reflect modern global issues with courage and commitment. The late composer André Previn also shared his insight with me when I was coached with him for his composition "Honey and Rue" — with words by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison that speak about slaves shipped across the Middle Passage to the new land of the Americas.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: What has been the most profound experience you’ve had on stage?

DE BIQUE: I would have to say my performance of Annio in the Peter Sellars and Teodor Currentzis’ production of Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito. It was the first time that I had the permission to put my full experience of being a minority in the music and share it on the stage, especially in a society that still has many strides to take concerning the issue in immigration.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: You’ve spoken in a recent Instagram video about “representing a face of opera that doesn’t get represented often.” Are there any pressures associated with representing black artistry on stage?

DE BIQUE: My innate desire is that the versatility of the gifts and presence of the black voice can be honored and heard. It is about inclusion, and it is particularly poignant at this time.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: How do you hope that representation affects your audience and the opera world at large?

DE BIQUE: Representation affirms contribution. It informs and celebrates what has been achieved. It serves not only to acknowledge those voices that have gone before but to highlight and preserve their contribution with a sense of pride. In terms of the audience, representation broadens their imagination to different and diverse possibilities which are more reflective of the human experience.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: At the time of this interview, you’re wrapping up your first weeks of rehearsals for The Marriage of Figaro. What’s it like to work on a production that’s set at the dawning of the United States? What have you learned so far?

DE BIQUE: On the one hand, there is a certain resident familiarity with the history of my own West Indian region — islands with a history of plantocracies — with their planter and servant classes where the privileged lived on sugar and cocoa plantations more than a century ago.

The call for social equity is still very present in my region. I am a proud product of great grandparents and grandparents who themselves were products of eras that spanned struggles for social and political equity, as our island state of Trinidad and Tobago moved from colonialism to independence.

I have learned the dismantling of class privilege is an ongoing social project. I am fully dedicated to the work this production requires because, as during my experience in Salzburg [playing Annio in La Clemenza di Tito], this has unearthed for me that I have the ease and ability to reflect in my craft the social and moral climate we currently live in. Perhaps my call is to assist others in finding more adequate solutions to the indignity and injustice that prevail… and with some humor as well!

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