Interview with Amina Edris

JULIET VERSUS THE ARIA: SOPRANO AMINA EDRIS TACKLES THE INFAMOUS ‘POISON’ ARIA

Tuesday, October 1, marks not only the final performance of San Francisco Opera’s 2019 Romeo and Juliet but also an important role debut for a rising star: New Zealand soprano Amina Edris.

In assuming the role of Juliet, Edris must tackle one of the opera’s greatest challenges: Act IV’s notoriously tricky Poison Aria — also called the Potion Aria — where the teenage heroine prepares to drink the mysterious potion that will plunge her into a deep, death-like sleep.

Ahead of her performance, opposite real-life husband Pene Pati, Edris sat down with San Francisco Opera to dissect the Poison Aria and what it means for her character. This interview has been condensed for clarity and length.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: When did you first start looking at the role of Juliet?

AMINA EDRIS: I’ve done bits of the role. In [the Merola Opera Program], at the Merola Grand Finale, I was given one of the duet scenes between Juliet and Romeo. It’s the bedroom scene, where she’s found out he’s killed Tybalt and she’s telling him she’s forgiven him and he takes off again. So that whole scene.

I had sung “Je veux vivre” and the Poison Aria many times in concerts, but that was the first time I’d actually done a scene out of the opera. And then I started looking at this role when I found out I was doing it! [laughs]

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: The Poison Aria was written by composer Charles Gounod for the premiere, but the original Juliet, Marie Caroline Miolan-Carvalho, couldn’t do it, so it was cut. It was cut for a hundred years. In your opinion, as someone who is studying the role, why is this piece often omitted?

EDRIS: One element to remember is that when [Gounod] cut the Poison aria — because [Miolan-Carvalho] was incapable of executing it — he wrote “Je veux vivre” for her to give her an aria.

Otherwise, she would not have had an aria in the entire opera. “Je veux vivre” is able to be executed by an array of voice types, whether you lean more on the light lyric side or more on the lyric side.

The poison aria is just a different beast altogether. It’s much more lyrical in its composition and most sopranos find it to be a challenge – myself included! It’s not a walk in the park.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: What do you think the Poison Aria indicates for the character through the course of the show?

AMINA EDRIS: It’s really the first moment where you see her alone, where you can understand her thinking, her journey and her struggle: “Am I going to drink this poison? Am I going to play into this game that we’re playing in order to end up with the man that I love? Or am I not going to disobey my father and my family?”

That scene is not only a turning point for the character but also for the story as a whole. It’s a huge contrast from when we see her earlier in the opera for “Je veux vivre” and all her interactions with Romeo.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Juliet is such an idealized character too. The Juliet of Shakespeare can be all blossoming bosoms on the balcony. And here, in this aria, you have this really dark side to her, where she’s hallucinating about [her murdered cousin] Tybalt.

EDRIS: Removing the Poison Aria, you don’t get the full arc of the character. You don’t get to dig deeper into the character, and you don’t understand more about who she is. So this allows the audience to see that more. She doesn’t become this bubbly surface character.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Do you worry about going into the last duet and having enough gas to do it after the Poison Aria?

EDRIS: Not necessarily. Although the Poison Aria is very taxing, the last duet is probably more challenging for the tenor than it is for the soprano. I get a nice break while I’m lying on top of the tomb still in my slumber — although Romeo believes that I’m dead at this point. The tenor has a decent amount of singing to do before Juliet wakes up!

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: What specifically is so challenging about it?

EDRIS: It’s taxing vocally. The way [Gounod] writes the vocal line is challenging. The way he writes the music leading up to the climactic points within the aria is challenging. The composition of the orchestra is both incredible and dramatic.

Because of the dramatic nature of it all, one can fall into the trap of wanting to give more voice than one should. You think, “Oh I need to make a big sound here to serve the drama,” when in fact that is quite the opposite of what you should do. I’m certainly guilty of falling into that trap when I first started learning this aria.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Compared to an aria like “Je veux vivre,” how much time do you have to put into an aria as difficult as this one?

EDRIS: I would say twice as much. I don’t know if I’m able to give an exact number, because I learned that aria separately a while ago, so I don’t know for a fact. But easily twice as much time.

It’s like they’re written for two different voice types. “Je veux vivre” is written for a light lyric, and the Poison Aria is written for a lyric voice. Are you familiar with La Traviata, the opera? It’s like that.

There’s a joke that Verdi wrote La Traviata and the role of Violetta for three different voice types: The first act for a coloratura, the second act for a lyric, and the last is more for a dramatic voice. It’s kind of the same concept with this one.

For more information about the Poison Aria, read what San Francisco Opera dramaturg emeritus Kip Cranna wrote for our 2019 Romeo and Juliet program book.

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