One of the current standouts in Florida Grand Opera’s Young Artist Program is Elena Galván, whose bright, supple light soprano and natural stage instincts would seem to be pointing her toward a major career. In fact, Galvan so impressed FGO’s artistic administration last season that she was entrusted with the starring role of Norina in Don Pasquale—a rarity for a singer in any Young Artist program, even in these cost-conscious times.
On April 29, Galván opens in FGO’s production of Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera, playing Oscar, the flippant page to King Gustavo. The cast is headed by Tamara Wilson (alternating with Alexandra LoBianco), Rafael Davila (alternating with Jonathan Burton), Todd Thomas and Dana Beth Miller. Ballo plays at Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center April 29, 30, May 2, 5, and 5, and at Fort Lauderdale’s Broward Center for the Performing Arts on May 11 and 13.
BK: I know that your parents were both music professors at Ithaca College. Your growing-up years must have been fertile ones for an aspiring singer. I don’t know you very well, but you strike me as having been the sort of child who was very much encouraged to speak up at the dinner table and discuss things.
EG: Yes, I was—but it’s funny, because I was really shy as a kid. I mean, really shy. Apparently I started out sort of like, “I’m talking—look at me,” and then I hit a point in elementary school where I didn’t talk. I’m an only child. I was super-shy for a long, long time. I remember when I started doing shows, wanting to be only a backstage person. And then in middle school and high school I started doing musicals and broke out of it. But my parents encouraged me to talk, and they talked back and forth a lot about their work.
BK: Your mother is a choral director.
EG: Yes. She’s now head of Chorale Activities at Ithaca College, and my dad is the clarinet professor there.
BK: What was your first show in school?
EG: We did Titanic.
EG: I know. In middle school, I did Annie. The Sound of Music. I was the bratty Louisa Von Trapp. My freshman year we did ‘Lil Abner, which I hated. We did Secret Garden my sophomore year. I got to do Mary, which was fun.
The first opera role I did was Le Feu in L’enfant et les sortilèges. I did chorus before that. And I did four summers in Italy—all different programs. I did Il mondo della luna by Haydn—bizarre little piece. We did a collegiate premiere during my senior year of The Little Prince by Rachel Portman. I was the Fox.
BK: Did you know right away what your Fach was going to be?
EG: Yes and no. My voice always sat high. But it’s just been in the past couple of years that things have started to warm up a little bit and more is opening up to me. Coloratura is definitely my world, but I’m probably going to move more into bel-canto stuff as I move forward. Right now I’m living in all those nice soubrette roles.
I was really lucky as an undergraduate, because I had a very technically-based teacher. I’ve always had teachers who are about teaching you what is actually happening, and what’s moving, and what you’re manipulating as you go along. Luckily, I got a really good base. I always had ping. I just have a bright voice. So warmth is now the thing that I’m still working toward. I remember my passaggio was just … in early undergrad, we worked on getting it narrow and focused and to make it all sound even. In grad school, it was getting that extension and making it solid, as well as working on the middle voice. Lower middle voice used to be very weak for me, but now it’s one of my stronger areas.
BK: Last summer, you were at Des Moines Metro Opera.
EG: I loved it.
BK: It’s a wonderful company. I have been so impressed with the productions I’ve seen there. Michael Egel is general and artistic director now, but Dr. Robert Larsen was running things when I was there.
EG: He’s still there. There was a party at his house.
BK: Did you see the Bohème set in his basement? I never saw it, but I heard about it.
EG: His house is beautiful, with art everywhere. It’s set up like a museum. He said, “Go look around.” You walk downstairs and you literally walk into the Bohème cafe, with all the tables, and candles, and French art on the walls. It’s really something.
BK: And the company has such a beautifully small theater.
EG: Yes, and it’s great what they can do with the space. They designed wonderful sets. It makes the audience feel like they’re in it. I covered Amor in Orfeo ed Euridice and did chorus in Manon, and then a bunch of scenes.
BK: And this is your second year in the Florida Grand Opera Young Artist program. You’re about to sing Oscar in Ballo in Maschera. Are there any recordings or DVDs that have been influential as you’ve been preparing the role?
EG: It’s funny, because I lean toward any recording of Pav, and I love that recording with him and Abbado. And some of the Oscars are hit-or-miss, but the recording that I listen to most is the one with Kathy Battle. And I feel like she sang with her voice the way it is: bright and light and focused. A lot of other people can get woofy.
BK: The best Oscar I ever heard in the theater is Harolyn Blackwell. She sang it at the Met with Pavarotti, and she still owns the role, as far as I’m concerned.
EG: Oh, yes! I just found it on youtube the other day. And she was really jumping around that stage. I loved her performance. The only time I’ve seen it live was at San Francisco Opera. Heidi Stober was doing it and she was wonderful. Now that I think of it, she was similar to Blackwell in performance—in style and spunk.
BK: It’s one of my favorite Verdi works, partly because it has elements of lightness and humor in it, much of it courtesy of Oscar. Do you have any thoughts about how much Oscar knows about what’s going on behind the scenes, regarding both the love triangle and the assassination plot?
EG: It’s an interesting thought. I’ve gone back and forth. There are some productions where they make Oscar the King’s lover. There are some when he’s really young, and some where he’s little older but in on it. I don’t think he’s dumb at all. But he has looked up to Gustavo probably his entire life, and probably does love him, maybe not as a father, but more as an uncle. I think he’s naive and gullible. In the third act, especially, he comes in with this letter that says they’re going to kill the King. He’s not as naive at that point as the King is.
BK: In Ballo, Gustavo almost runs to his fate.
EG: Absolutely. And the opera has a nice balance of the big ball, which is so grand, and the intense love story that’s not really a love story. And it’s my first pants role. I’ve done a lot of watching men walk around. The “singing high” part doesn’t throw me, just because it’s my voice regardless, so I don’t really think about it. It’s the physicality I want to make sure I get down. It’s going to depend on how the others move; I will work off of that and see what they do. Diana Soviero [co-artistic director of Florida Grand Opera’s Young Artist Program] is here, and she said that the trick to walking like a boy is to stuff your pants with a sock. She said she and all the greats did it. You walk with wider-set hips.
BK: I heard you recently at The Light Box, in NuDeco Ensemble’s Global CubaFest, singing Jorge Martín’s Cuban in Vermont. The Light Box is a terrific venue in Miami where classical and contemporary music lines get blurred in a wonderful way. As bigger music institutions struggle to survive, do you think we’ll see more venues like The Light Box popping up?
EV: Totally. Especially as I think we are trying to get more people my generation and younger into opera and classical music. For people who have not ever been exposed to opera, to hear it in any big hall can leave them with the feeling that they don’t quite know what to do with it. But in a place like The Light Box, being up close is so cool for them. Even some of my friends who have never been to an opera hear me do it in a small room, and they think, “Wow!” It’s a different experience from hearing it on a big stage. I think we will be seeing a lot more of that. To have seen so many people at The Light Box was fantastic. It was sold out every night.
BK: What about dream roles?
EG: If I ever get to sing Traviata, that will be a good day. And Lucia. I can’t wait to be a crazy person onstage.
BK: Around what age do you think most women make the transition from being a Zerbinetta to a more lyric role?
EG: I think it depends on where you’er coming from. I model a lot of what I do after Heidi Stober and Lisette Oropesa. Sort of the generation above. I think they have both been really smart with the roles they have taken and stayed true to the light soubrettes, but then taking a Pamina. Lisette has done Lucias for a while. I think in the early-to-mid-thirties you start working on it. It depends on the house you do them in, too. I think it’s more stamina than tessitura or anything like that. It’s being smart and learning how to hunker down and sing through the whole thing.
BK: Do you spend a lot of time thinking about the extramusical demands on a young singer today?
EG: Yes. The hardest thing now for most people my age is money—being able to afford the time that we want to spend on the things we want to do. I look back now and think, “Why wasn’t I taking three language classes every semester?” I try to do my little Duolingo and Rosetta Stone. Everyone needs to be more fluent in other languages, but as singers, we have to be so much more proficient so we can communicate right off the bat. That’s one of my goals: to have German and Italian under my belt. There’s so much to know. There is always something to learn. You’re learning about different time periods and people.
It’s nice to see, just since I’ve gotten into opera in college, that the emphasis on being a full character and a full performer is greater than it used to be. I love it. I think it brings so many more people in. At FGO’s Eugene Onegin in January, I looked around and saw these people in the audience weeping. Because these women were giving these incredible, full-out, vulnerable performances. I don’t think all people expect that. Maybe they expect typical park-and-bark. I think as far as the physicality goes, I think we try to give the most all-out performances we can. But at the end of the day, it’s still about the singing.