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Amelia Goes to the Ballo: An Interview with Soprano Tamara Wilson

Last Thursday, I attended the run-through of Florida Grand Opera’s production of Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera, opening at the Adrienne Arsht Center in Miami on April 29. Singing the role of Amelia was Tamara Wilson. I am not sure I have heard such an authoritatively sung Amelia since the heyday of Martina Arroyo. Wilson’s is a voice of gleaming beauty and astonishing power. When I sat down with her to talk about Ballo and other things, I discovered that she is also a gifted conversationalist.

BK: I heard you sing Amelia in Ballo during your very first time in the role, at Houston Grand Opera in the fall of 2007. What were the most daunting aspects of it vocally?

TW: I think the good thing about doing it was my naïvete. I didn’t know what parts were going to be hard. I honestly didn’t know the opera when they offered it to me. I had no preconceived notions of what would be difficult. When I actually started singing it, there were definitely some low moments that needed that Verdi mixed voice that I hadn’t really found yet. I was coming at it as a soprano who had done the Countess in Figaro! So in that way, it was vocally a little challenging.

As far as singing the role in general, I was just going out there and trying to sing healthfully with my voice. I didn’t really feel like that part was a challenge. Mostly it was a challenge for me to get over the fact that everybody was going to say this was a horrible idea. I originally thought of saying no. I called all of my current voice teachers, ex-voice teachers, coaches and asked, “Am I stupid even to entertain this idea?” They were like, “Well, you shouldn’t be singing this now, because you’re twenty-four. It’s not a matter of being able to sing it, but it is definitely going to change people’s view of you.” And I thought, well, I know.… but if I say no to the company that supported me in the first place, and they have that much faith in me, and/or they need to save money.… So I took the leap.

BK: With some of the Verdi heroines you have sung— Amelia, or the two Leonoras, or Elvira in Ernani—there isn’t much specific character detail in the text. How do you latch onto that yourself?

TW: Gotcha. If we are talking about true female drama, there really isn’t much. Especially with Ernani, the character goes nowhere. By the same token, Verdi had a lot of strong-willed women who risked a lot. Gilda takes risks. Violetta takes risks. They all have some life-changing moment. Elvira’s happens at the end. (Laughs) I just did an Ernani in France, and that was my twelfth Verdi role. Now that I know the ladies a bit, I definitely have to interject my own sense of what a character would do in order to make it somewhat valid for today’s audiences. The first time I did Amelia, I was doing character work—researching the time period when Gustavo actually lived, and how women were treated. I went into the historical background, which doesn’t translate on opera stages ever. It just doesn’t. An audience is never going to see that.

BK: Yes, you can’t always show your research onstage.

TW: I was doing Così, and a conductor friend of mine said, “Well, in this letter from Leopold Mozart, this was mentioned .…” and I was like, “Audience ain’t gonna care about that!” It’s about the emotions that you’re conveying at the time. Once I got past that, and it seemed like a barrier, because I thought, well, I have to pretend that I am an eighteenth-century woman with that sensibility, and walk around the stage and feel like a statue. But young singers forget that people in those days were humans. They weren’t classical paintings of humans. So once I got through all that mess, I just started moving like myself in a comfortable, loose fashion, as if I were the person doing that action. For me, that made the characters a little bit more human. Especially for Verdi heroines, there is this 1950s/1960s tradition of putting these women up on a pedestal, never showing them as angry or anything like that. So to make them a little more human is how I go about making it interesting for myself. I don’t know if it’s good for the audience!

BK: Well, that old audience has faded out, so you don’t have to deal with those expectations in the way that you once did.

TW: That’s true. But now you have an audience that expects more of opera as entertainment in general.

BK: But this received wisdom on how these characters are supposed to be played really is funny. Have you ever listened to much of Leyla Gencer’s Mozart?

TW: Oh, heck, yes!

BK: Well, it fries me that some people criticized her for giving such big, electrifying performances of those roles. So many people were whining about disrupting Mozartian style. How do we know that Mozart wouldn’t have loved such a big personality in these roles?

TW: Of course! And who was writing all these opinions down back then? Those were salt-of-the-earth, naughty people who were singing that stuff back then. They weren’t hifalutin’ people.

BK: Now, you did the five-act French Don Carlos at Houston Grand Opera. Have you done it elsewhere?

TW: That’s the only time I’ve done it in French. I did the five-act elsewhere, mostly recently in Munich.

BK: What is the most important quality that you think one gets out of the French version?

TW: Personally, just adding that extra Fontainebleau scene helped show what their love story is. Without it, you don’t know why he is in love with her. Musically, Verdi did set it insanely well for French, so the lines of the phrases make much more sense with the French language. The Italian was difficult for me to memorize, because it wasn’t how Verdi sets his Italian. It didn’t feel like the normal prose and poetry that he uses, so that became a little difficult. And high points of the phrases in French make a lot more sense than the high point where you’re on an article in Italian. That took a little getting used to.

BK: If there was one opera premiere for which I could have been present, it would be Don Carlos. I would love to have seen the response from the audience.

TW: Oh, yeah.

BK: And there are things in the productions I see, whether it’s in Italian or French, that I wish could be fixed—like the ending, and the unveiling of Eboli in the garden. That never makes sense if you don’t do the ballet, because you don’t know why she’s dressed as the queen. The audience almost always laughs at that moment.

TW: And there’s never anything onstage to suggest that they would be hiding in hedges or anything. Same thing with Susanna and the Countess. Nice try, guys! (Laughs)

BK: I read years ago Maureen Forrester’s memoir, Out of Character, and she said something that has always stayed with me. She had a chapter on conductors, and she said that in general, the less they told her, the better the conductor.

TW: All they have to do is move their hands. If you were trained as a musician and you know what your job is, and they know what their job is, and you have a mutual agreement that what you do is going to be musical, you don’t need to say anything. They can, with their bodies, communicate what they want with you. I had this happen recently. I stepped in to Don Carlo in Zurich, and Fabio Luisi was conducting. My very first rehearsal was the Sitzprobe. 10 a.m. or something. Ramon Vargas was my first tenor in Ballo, and he was the tenor this time. Literally, all Fabio Luisi had to do was listen and move his hand, and we did everything together. And when we got to the performance, it was the most secure I had ever felt. There is something about the way he worked that just made everything easy.

I also think that nowadays, conductors don’t trust singers enough to know how their voices work, and how they sound best. There seems to be this trend nowadays, especially with younger conductors coming up, of My Way or the Highway. “I know everything, I did all my research, so you have to do what I do.”

BK: Instead of discovering it together.

TW: Exactly. And then your performance is stale, and everyone puts the blame on the singer. Nobody is coming back to that whole teaching and collaboration moment, like how Bernstein and Karajan did. They taught. If you think about those who are great conductors are nowadays, there aren’t that many.

BK: No. You think about how many people would flock to the box office because of a certain conductor. Not many now. Of course, it’s not a big time for star singers either. What do you think happened? Do people still crave stars in opera?

TW: I think they do. Anna Netrebko and Joyce DiDonato and Stephanie Blythe are stars. But I think the opera business may value the bottom line and staying in the black more than it values the artistic side of things. That’s just a direct correlation from the crash, because you had a huge shift in business.

BK: But it was coming before that, I think.

TW: Well, what happened in the 1980s? We had a huge shift from all of the big works to new works, and finding the old Baroque style. There was a lot of experimentation in opera that hadn’t happened in the 1950s and ’60s. And we had already lost general public availability—Bell Telephone Hour and all of that. Plus in the ’70s and’80s, there was a shift in all the arts. Things like Apocalypse Now, where everything was super-real, and the fantasy of opera seemed kind of superfluous or …

BK: Trivial.

TW: Yeah. I think it will shift back, though. These pieces are not going to go away.

BK: I think there’s something else. Attention span. You can’t underestimate it. Yesterday, I was watching a rehearsal here at Florida Grand Opera. Dana Beth Miller was singing “Re dell’ abisso, affrettati.”

TW: And everyone was on the phone?

BK: No. Only one. Most of the FGO Young Artists were watching her with rapt attention, but one of them didn’t stop texting the entire time. He could have been learning by watching Dana Miller—but no. And I thought, that’s a big part of the problem. I see people in the theater. I remember Tracy Letts a few years ago in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, for God’s sake, how could your attention be anywhere but on him? But people are texting. Gotta check on the baby-sitter.

TW: If I’m going to go all “psych” about it, I think we have gone so far into that American work ethic, in order to get to the level that you need to get to, that people forgot how to just sit and listen and enjoy the universe.

I think everybody has this anxiety level that they’ve been working on that we haven’t had in society for a while. Like you said, the baby-sitter thing. Two hours away from your kids is not going to kill them. But we all have this sense of, “Something’s going to happen!” I went on an Internet fast last summer, because I had a lot of time off, and I was so happy. It was so wonderful. And the problem is we need it in order to survive now. But there is so much about it that is addictive and it ruins other parts of your lives. Every time I’m in a hotel room, because I’m always on the road, I think, “What could I be getting done right now if I weren’t spending three hours a day—trust me, it’s more!—on Facebook or on youtube.

BK: And if you’re promoting something on Facebook or Twitter, it takes time to do it right.

TW: Plus nowadays, singers have to be their own PR company and do all this other stuff. There’s not enough time to sit with a score and just take it in. You have to be working to pay your bills, so you don’t have this luxury time with all your coaches, like you did in the past.

BK: I love your vlogs with Jamie Barton. They’re fantastic. And the subject of many of them is authenticity. It’s something so many opera lovers crave. Why is vocal authenticity, the real deal, in such short supply?

TW: I think singers buy into the idea of “The audience wants a diva, so I’m going to give them their character.” You know what I mean? Maybe it’s just because my family is all from Kansas, and they’re farmers and construction workers and contractors that I know that what we do is special. But it’s not going to keep the world moving. It will keep people’s souls moving—I definitely believe that. But we’re in TrumpLand now, and there are a lot bigger fish to fry than opera singers. So you have to put everything in perspective.

BK: There’s an advantage, don’t you think, to coming from a non-artistic background? You can be capable of seeing things in a fresh way sometimes, maybe more than if you were put on the career track from childhood.

TW: Most definitely. I always loved performing when I was little. Our parents wouldn’t really let us watch TV when we were little, but we had the VHS tapes of every Hollywood musical known to man. I loved all that. I loved the show behind the show, which is probably why I love rehearsals so much. Performing is fun and that’s your adrenaline rush, but day-to-day rehearsals—I love doing that.

When it came time to go to college and choose a career, I wanted to go into biochemistry. I loved science. In looking for scholarships, there weren’t many for biochemists. And Cincinnati Conservatory of Music offered, I think, an 85 percent scholarship for my undergrad. So my Dad said, “You’re going there.” I always knew that fate, to use a cliché, was what put me on this track in the first place. But it was never clear. I never thought I would do this. I was a masters student who was a DMA candidate and was going to go on and get a degree in vocal pedagogy. I was going to teach. I didn’t have the opera education that most conservatory students have. I did the one opera in a rehearsal space, and I helped hang the set! (Laughs) Miss Jessel in Turn of the Screw. Dana Beth Miller was a masters student when I was a freshman. She did Viaggio a Reims our freshman year. I was in the chorus. Anna Christy was there when I was a freshman. I had all these people to look up to, but I thought, if I’m not good enough to do this, even at school, I can’t do the opera track like my friends are doing. I auditioned for Cincinnati Opera chorus twice and got rejected twice, and I thought, well, obviously, I’m really bad at this! But I lived in the practice room and practiced piano and practiced my technique and took all the language classes and did three choirs. Cincinnati Baroque, Vocal Arts Ensemble, and my school conductor’s church choir. So I thought, okay, I’m going to be a choral singer. This is awesome. And I love choral music. And then things just happened—and I couldn’t stop it! (Laughs)

BK: How do you feel about hardcore opera fans’s obsession with the past?

TW: I’m glad opera fans are passionate. But sometimes … I think it was the Ballo I was doing in Washington. And they had a dinner after the show, and this woman comes up to me and says, “You know, I saw this opera with such-and-such.” And I wanted to say, “Congrats. I wasn’t alive then. Sorry.”

BK: When I worked at the Ninety-second Street Y in New York in the 1980s, we had a woman on staff, and I used to call her “I Saw the Original.” I would come in and say that the night before I saw a revival of Night of the Iguana on Broadway, and she would say, “I saw the original with Margaret Leighton and Bette Davis!” She would do it every time. It always made me laugh.

TW (Laughs) And she probably had the program right there with her. I think the only thing I can compare that to is baseball fans who say, “We won the game yesterday.”

Did you? Because I think you were at a bar. And other people were winning.

BK: What’s a role that you were offered and wouldn’t go near?

TW: Oh, my God. That’s a hilarious story. So out of that third year at Houston Grand Opera, I did the Ballo and Konstanze back-to-back. So my audition rep for the next year was Ballo and Konstanze. And everybody thought, “Who is this crazy woman, and what is she doing?”

BK: “And then I’d like to offer ‘Rose’s Turn’ as my third selection.’”

TW (Laughs): Oh, my God. I love that piece. Yes. I saw Imelda Staunton do it in London. It was fantastic. But I digress, because I love that show. So one of my first auditions out of the gate, once I got management, was … the Rossini Festival and La Scala were doing joint auditions. I started with Ballo. And then I threw “Martern allen artern” out there. And they said, “Go ahead and try it.” So the feedback my manager got after that was that I was too young to be singing Ballo. “She shouldn’t be singing Ballo.” The offer they gave me was Abigaille in Nabucco. So. Ballo: too hard. Abigaille: fine. I said no to that one five times, I think. I’d like to keep singing as long as possible. Lots of people didn’t think I should sing Forza. It was the most comfortable role I’ve sung, ever.

BK: Where does that fear come from? Because a few generations back, there isn’t this terror of doing these things.

TW: It was the Fach system. It ruined people’s minds. If everyone learned a bel-canto technique and sang every style, but sang it with a bel-canto technique, you could do most anything. Granted, some roles don’t fit you personally, but that’s just the physiology of your cords. Nothing you can do about that. But I do Britten. I do Mahler. I do Strauss. I do Verdi. I do Mozart. I do Handel. And I love that. I like keep fresh in different things. If I just sang Trovatores all the time, my voice wouldn’t go anywhere, and I’d be boring as hell.

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1 Comment

  1. Gregory Mowery

    April 26, 2017 at 4:38 pm

    Tamara Wilson is a fantastic singer. I have the French DON CARLO from Houston and I’m amazed that such a young singer has as superb a grasp on this difficult role. Lyrics have taken it over, but the only lyric I’ve ever enjoyed in the role is Freni. It’s just not for this type of voice. Wilson’s big, gleaming sound and long, elastic vocal line is perfect and she brought out all the facets of this stunning character. Her AIDA is good enough to set aside with the greats–Price, Milanov, etc. She’s also a lot of fun as you can see in her YouTube videos. This was a fun interview with a practical, warm, and smart lady who is in demand everywhere, and gets my nod as one of today’s very great sopranos. Would love to hear her as Elsa with Christine Goerke in the role of Ortud. Houston has a fine production and both of them enjoy a fine association with that company. Well done, Mr. Kellog!

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