In addition to having an enviable lineup of singers in leading roles, Florida Grand Opera’s production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin (opening January 28 at the Adrienne Arsht Auditorium in Miami) offers a healthy dose of gravitas in its supporting cast: Denyce Graves as Tatyana’s devoted nurse, Filippyevna, and, as Tatyana’s mother, Larina, Robynne Redmon. The mezzo has sung an impressive range of roles throughout her career. In the 1990s, she was a staple at New York City Opera, where she was a much-admired Carmen. Miami is home base these days: she is an assistant professor of vocal performance at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music, and program director for the Frost School in Salzburg. With an observant eye and a wry wit, she discussed her three-decades-long career with me, just after winding up the sitzprobe for Onegin.
RR: Here I am: a former Olga, passing through Larina, on her way to Filippyevna!
BK: I’ve always loved the very beginning of Eugene Onegin, in which Larina talks about adjusting to her marriage and learning to become content—a comfortable routine vs. the passion she felt for her young suitor. It’s a very moving moment, and it sets up what comes later in the opera with Tatyana and Onegin and Gremin.
RR: It’s hard to embrace that concept as an artist, I think. We’re always about passion. So the idea of duty being routine and getting you to give up your passion.
BK: That’s what so many artists fear—the old argument that if you have a fallback position, you may just fall back. Did you ever have that dilemma in your life?
RR: No. I started out as a biology major. Pre-med. So when I said I’m going to become a singer, my parents said, “Can you sing?” They were supportive, but they weren’t that happy about it. You know how it is. But once you discover that passion or talent, you have no options. I’ve been doing this for over thirty years, and it could have been so much easier, and I could have done so much more. But my self-doubt and fear kept me from pursuing the career as much as I could have, even though I was actively pursuing music. I’m a real voice nerd. I’m all about, “How do you sing better?” Now I always tell my students, “Don’t run away from the people who can help you.” When I was working with Richard Bonynge and covering, I never even walked up to him. I sat in the back of the room and hid. Because I was afraid.
BK: And so many great artists love to impart advice and information.
RR: They do! People really want to help you. Even working here at Florida Grand Opera with the young artists—because I’m the dinosaur in the room— I’m knocked out by the young people now, because their skills are so much better than ours were when I was coming along.
RR: And musically. They can learn it so fast. I was in school in the late 1970s and in Chicago, at the Lyric Opera Center for American Artists, in the early 1980s. But I wasn’t doing all these new pieces like these kids are now. Their skills are impressive. And they have fewer opportunities!
BK: I think there’s something else. I think a lot of people in this generation have been raised to believe in themselves so much. Unconditional support from the parents, in many cases.
RR: Everybody gets a trophy. It’s true. I was teaching an opera workshop at the University of Miami, and one of the kids said to me, “Don’t forget—we’re the kids who grew up with everyone getting a trophy.” So when you tell them that something needs to be improved, they don’t have very thick skin about it. When I was starting out, you would have probably three or four coaches, an assistant conductor and a prompter: “That E wasn’t closed enough. That should have been an eighth note; you sang it more like a sixteenth.” Now that doesn’t exist. So people have more confidence, and they’re less under the microscope.
BK: When you were a biology major, did you have a “moment” that made you switch to singing?
RR: I had an emergency appendectomy. I was recovering, and my mother said, “You know, Robynne, sometimes God puts you on your back so you can look up. I would suggest you figure out what you want to do and then go for it.”
It was bashert. I love that word.
BK: Meant to be.
RR: Yes. I was adopted. My dad directed shows for the local social clubs and sang, and I learned French when I was ten, because we were living overseas. I did two years at a college in Virginia, and the choir director there told me about his teacher, Elena Nikolaidi. It was the first year of the Houston Grand Opera Studio. I went down and auditioned for her and I was really terrible. She took me as a student anyway. When she took me, that was my sign: this famous teacher/artist says she’s going to work with me, and I have to do it.
BK: What did she do specifically that brought out your voice?
RR: She worked on getting a good resonating space. Lifting the palate, opening up the nose holes. She would say, “No hooty mezzo.” She hated that sound. But her big thing was artistry. Here I am, nineteen, learning Songs of the Wayfarer, and she would say, “That has to be pianissimo. Just do it.” And it was more why are you doing it? What’s the reason for it?
BK: What did the landscape for mezzos look like to you as a young, emerging artist? What kind of mezzo was in abundance, and what was in short supply?
RR: The first singer I ever heard on a record was Marilyn Horne. That Bach and Handel album. She was a huge role model for me. When I was in college, it was Horne, Tatiana Troyanos and Flicka Von Stade. At the time, I would have been more of a Troyanos than a Frederica von Stade. But I didn’t know where I would fit in. My teacher thought I might be a dramatic soprano. I loved Régine Crespin. I loved Shirley Verrett. For me, Verrett’s voice had a soft-grained sound to it like mine does, and it breaks similarly. Where the low break—that’s the bugaboo for me. Now that I’m older, people say, “You’re going to be a contralto,” but I don’t really like being down there. Probably the most for me—Rita Gorr. Fiorenza Cossotto. Her early recordings. I wanted to sing like they did. I had no idea of career, but just wanted to make those kinds of elegant sounds. I think refinement is one of the hallmarks of classical singing. So I really studied the bel-canto style. I have students now, and I listen to them, and everything’s working, but they don’t have the style.
BK: What do you think eludes most of them about the bel-canto style?
RR: Releasing the breath. They’re very preoccupied with making every perfect tone. But they’re not individual perfect tones—they’re perfect tones like on a string of pearls. So they have to be connected to one another. And you have to use the breath to emphasize the syllables and the words you want to emphasize. The flexibility. I always say you have to take that breath and put it out there and trust that it’s going to get you there.
BK: Lyric mezzos are everywhere now. But when you were starting out, the lyric mezzo territory was quite limited, correct? An old-time person like Mildred Miller—there was a really big limit to what she could do. Dorabella, Siebel—
RR: Right, and then they all became Rossini mezzos.
BK: I notice in competitions in New York now, there are so few dramatic mezzos. Tons of lyric mezzos, lyric sopranos. Lyric baritones dropping out of the trees.
RR: Well, those more dramatic voices take seasoning. I think the business is shooting itself in the foot in a way. All the young artist programs that need singers that they can plug into various roles—those aren’t going to be those big voices. And maybe they’re going to be in a package that isn’t dramatically what the companies want. The Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia seems to be one place where they build those great voices—not these little petite flowers.
BK: I think they’re turning out remarkable voices at AVA. So often, I think those big voices take too long to cook, and a lot of teachers don’t have the patience. They want to turn out a finished product as soon as possible.
RR: And they’re unwieldy. You can’t worry about their languages and all of these academic things so much—you have to nurture them and they take longer. And then they have to earn a paycheck! I think Dolora Zajick’s Institute for Young Dramatic Voices is doing great work. But there aren’t too many. What happens is they get sent to universities where they say, “You have to sing Mozart.” Mozart is very challenging. Mozart, Handel, Bach—these are not for young singers. These are for mature techniques.
When I auditioned for Lyric Opera of Chicago, I sang big stuff: the Letter Scene from Werther, “O don fatale.” When I got there I sang Rosina, Dorabella. They said, “You have to do Rossini and Mozart.” Not only vocally does it kind of shut you down, but psychologically you start to think, “Oh, I shouldn’t be singing so big.” And then, when you get ready to do it, it’s a psychological barrier. So that’s one of the things I’m enjoying about teaching right now. You get to put forth your philosophies and your experiences. I mean, the old school people didn’t sing the light, light repertoire all the time. You sing what you sing all your life, and it gets better and your voice grows to fill it in. I told you I was a voice nerd! (Laughs)
BK: How did you happen to begin teaching here at the University of Miami?
RR: Bashert. My husband and I had opened a small business in Virginia. My agent, Eric Mitchko, would always find work for me. Then he left, and nobody really cared about me and promoted me anymore. I was living in Virginia with my husband, and I thought, “I just can’t pursue singing with that passion anymore.” We started this business, a medical transportation/senior services company, and my husband developed cancer. I was still singing. I was in Fort Worth singing Sister Helen [in Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally’s Dead Man Walking] and I would come home and do the schedules for the business! We did that for seven years. So on New Year’s Eve of 2012, I said, “You’re well, and I’m not doing this anymore. I’m going back to music.” Within months, I was singing Trovatore, doing Mahler Third with the Buffalo Philharmonic, a recording of the Mahler Eighth. All just poof! And the University of Miami out of the blue called me and said, “We just lost a teacher—would you be interested in coming down for a year and teaching?” So I came down, and then I applied for the job, and here I am. And at my age, it’s great to have health insurance, a retirement plan. Nobody sings forever. I’m still doing a lot. And I’m running the Salzburg program for the University of Miami, so I get to go to Salzburg every summer. So my life is really good. I do tell my friends who are running opera companies, “If you have any old lady parts .…”
BK: Have you sung Dialogues of the Carmelites?
RR: I’ve done Mère Marie. I’ve never done Madame de Croissy. I’ve never done Marcellina in Figaro. Doing Larina here at Florida Grand is fun. It’s short, and the pressure’s off. You’re not singing Adalgisa. It’s funny. I show up to jobs. There are so many younger people. I find that at first, they’re kind of stand-offish. It’s like going to a disco and seeing older people dance, I guess. But as we were work together, they realize we’re all together.
BK: Ageism has become a huge issue in the business. Huge.
RR: It’s true. I had a review about how my voice sounded good, which was so surprising for my age. I thought, no—it’s not supposed to be like that. When I started out at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, they would tell us that we shouldn’t even consider singing certain parts until we were forty-five or fifty. My chest voice didn’t even really begin to fill out until I was forty-five. And I had an agent tell me [around that time], “ Well, you’re too old now. You have to compete with all these twenty-year-olds.” I thought, Really? Are these twenty-year-olds singing this repertoire that I am finally mature enough vocally to sing? I’m not late. I’m right on time for the career I planned. I’m right on track! But you can’t have sour grapes, or you’ll just be an old bitter bitch. (Laughs)
BK: I loved what you said about making your Met debut, as Maddalena in Rigoletto, in the 1990s. That no matter what happened, you could always say you were a Metropolitan Opera singer. I think a lot of people feel that way.
RR: If they don’t, they’re lying. I sang at New York City Opera a long time—Carmen all the time, Harvey Milk, Mathis der Maler. Of course, when you’re at City Opera, you always want to be invited across the plaza to the Met. So when you finally get that moment to sing across the plaza, for an American—what else did you get into it for? There are tons of great singers who never sang at the Met, but for me it was the thrill of my life.
BK: Could you ever have envisioned the day that City Opera would close its doors?
RR: No. I don’t know how anyone could have let that happen. It was the greatest training ground for up-and-coming singers. The things you had to learn to do. You did not get stage rehearsals. When I went on as Carmen, I never had a stage rehearsal. Never had an orchestra rehearsal. They let me put the costumes on, and it’s—you’re on! The New York Times is reviewing you. Even though I never technically had an apartment in New York of my own, I was in New York half the year. It was awesome. I feel so sorry for these singers now, because there’s nothing like that.
BK: The breadth of what you’ve sung is amazing, Robynne. It’s more like the approach of the generation before you.
RR: Well, that’s the generation that taught me. I went to do a master class and he introduced me with what I now put in my bio: “Successful in French grand opera, Italian grand opera, and bel canto.” I thought—wow? I am? That’s true—I did do all those things. And I’m so grateful for it. That’s the great juice of a career.