Dana Beth Miller is one of the most versatile and exciting mezzo-sopranos on the current opera scene. She is about to sing the role of the clairvoyant Ulrica in Florida Grand Opera’s production of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera, opening April 29 at the Ziff Ballet Opera House of the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County. I spoke with Miller last week just after she had been sprung from a music rehearsal.
BK: So, you’re singing Ulrica—a great role that you can finish off in one scene. How much do the depths of the part challenge you?
DBM: I love the low. Early on, when I was a soprano, that was what people were drawn to in my voice. I would sing “Per pietà,” “Come scoglio,” all these things—I always felt like that was where I was different and where I had a chance to shine.
What’s so funny about Ulrica is that everyone waits for the last note—the low G—in the aria. People in rehearsal will look up and wait for the low G, and then go back to what they’re doing. It’s such an opposite experience to have the low that people are waiting for, instead of the top.
BK: How do you approach Ulrica dramatically? What are her key traits that give you a clue about how to play her?
DBM: She’s very straightforward. She sees the truth. She has the strength to say what she believes in. What’s interesting in this production is that Marco [Florida Grand Opera’s stage director Marco Pelle] wants to play up the fact that we have the King of his world and the Queen of her world. He’s fascinated by the equal powers of these two worlds. The King is brutal. He mocks her. Everything she says to him he thinks is ridiculous—except when she says, “All right, fine—you’re going to die at the hand of a friend.” It gets him a little bit. It’s really a battle between forces—the King and the Queen.
BK: People often describe Ulrica as a witch, but it’s a little more complicated than that, isn’t it?
DBM: She has psychic powers. She says that there is perhaps more than one traitor in the room. And she’s meaning Sam and Tom, of course. In this production, there is a little bit of magic, a little bit of the supernatural. But she can sense evil in the truth.
BK: A lot of mezzos don’t want to sing Ulrica.
DBM: I also sing Azucena and Dalila, and Ulrica sits about a third lower than any of those women. She only goes to an A-flat, while you have to have a solid B-flat or B-natural for all those other girls. What’s interesting is that when I made the switch from soprano to mezzo, the hardest part for me was understanding how composers orchestrate for dramatic mezzos versus a soprano voice. And I feel like with the sopranos, it’s a “Y” shape. As they bloom, the orchestra gets louder, but in the dramatic mezzo voice you are expected to have power and cut all the way; there’s no leeway in the orchestra for where you are in the registers. This is something about Ulrica. You’ve got to have as much power and cut on your low G as you have on your high A-flat. Because it climbs, which for a lot of contraltos is murderous. And even in the trio, she has big Gs. I love the role. I feel like it fits.
BK: One thing that is interesting about a lot of mezzos’s careers, and certainly about yours—you alternate a great deal between large roles and smaller ones. Amneris one month, Mrs. Sedley in Peter Grimes the next. Azucena, and then Margret in Wozzeck.
DBM: Right. It’s funny that you say that, because last year I had a season where I had eleven days off. I had a lot of big things in a row: Dalila, Azucena. I like to have a big role followed by a smaller role. It gives me a chance to breathe and relax. If I did fourteen Azucenas in a row .… I mean, I could do it, but to keep myself vocally balanced and healthy, I like the switch. I sing dramatic mezzo as well as more contralto roles. Next season I will do Amneris, followed by an Erda and a Quickly. A lot of mezzos don’t mix that. A lot of mezzos stay on the higher end, like Eboli, but for me it keeps everything in line. The lower stuff is easy for me—it’s kind of a reset. I’m lucky that I have a voice that allows me to do both. I think when I was a soprano, I built in all of that top. If I had sung dramatic mezzo my whole career, I’m not sure I would ever have built the strength to that top, which for all these Verdi girls, you have to have. You have to sail to that B-flat.
BK: I think in the old days, you generally found that ability less often. I remember Claramae Turner saying that she could get up there, but she couldn’t stay up there. A lot of those women a couple of generations ago just did stay in a more confined area.
DBM: Right. I worked in Germany for two years. I didn’t really understand the Fach system as it was until I worked there. I was a low mezzo—the Sedley, the Quickly, all these things. The way they have it set up over there is that you do a rehearsal at ten in the morning for one opera, a performance at night of another opera, and the next morning you have a Sitzprobe at 11 a.m. They keep it in a box to keep you vocally healthy. So if you’re in your box, you stay healthy. In the States, we do a gig for six weeks and then another gig for six weeks, so it’s much easier here to do one thing at a time. But in Germany, they do it to protect the singer. Those are the roles that fit, and you can do them day in and day out, and keep being viable for these Fest contracts.
BK: Tell me the story of how you made the transition from soprano to mezzo.
DBM: I was singing soprano, and having a nice career, singing in Seattle, covering at the Met. I started as an alto in high school, and auditioned for college as a mezzo-soprano. My first year there, teachers and coaches all thought that it was a young spinto or dramatic soprano. I sang soprano for nearly ten years, and I got to the point where I would go to auditions—I have intensity and a big voice, and a lot of color—and none of that was conducive to what I was auditioning for. I was auditioning for Mimìs and Fiordiligis. I kept getting over and over again, “You’re not vulnerable enough.” And the top was sort of separate from the rest of the voice, because I was having to narrow so much to keep it in line. I had always wanted to sing mezzo. The roles that were exciting to me were Amneris, Dalila. Not Turandot, Elektra—those things terrified me! I drew a line in the sand. I sang two Desdemonas in Otello back to back. I decided to take six months to re-tool. I was with Ken Benson at CAMI [Columbia Artists Management Inc.] at the time, and everyone there was fully behind my decision. They heard me do Eboli, Charlotte, and Dalila, and they said, “We agree 100 percent.” So I learned the repertoire and started auditioning. I was finally able to find a package of arias that worked for me. As a soprano, I couldn’t. I auditioned at Deutsche Oper Berlin for Fest, and I was there for two years, and I did, I think, twenty-six roles there. It was a big house, big orchestra—I wanted somewhere that was comparable to singing in the States. Now the biggest compliment I can receive is that people can’t believe I was ever a soprano.
BK: Why do you think it is that it is possible to sit through an entire week of singers in a competition and not hear one dramatic mezzo?
DBM: That’s a great question. The voice is rare, first of all. But what makes it so difficult, as I said, is that you have to have power from a low G to a high B-flat. And as a young singer, integrating those registers is difficult. Even the arias. Ulrica starts at a low C. I think teachers are afraid of this Fach. I mean, calling someone a dramatic mezzo at twenty-four or twenty-five is risky! Also, it takes so long to develop.
BK: I think that’s a lot of it. Teachers want to turn out finished products.
DBM: Absolutely. And you’re going to get criticized, if you have a twenty-four-year-old mezzo come in and sing “Condotta ell’era in ceppi.” It’s raw. There’s an intensity and drive it has to have behind it. And what’s difficult is keeping the balance in the middle of the voice. You can have the big chest and the big top, but keeping that middle in line and balanced is also tricky.
That’s why Dolora Zajick has this Institute for Young Dramatic Voices. I admire her so much, because of how long she sang that repertoire. So many people sing it for five years, and then they’re gone. To sing it at the level Dolora did is quite a testament. She has this trumpety way of singing, but then she has this extension that she can access that’s like nothing else—the D-flat in Lady Macbeth. Unbelievable.
BK: You recently sang Massenet’s Hérodiade at Washington Concert Opera. It may not have all the heaving decadence of Strauss’s Salome, but Massenet does get some pretty potent ideas across. The whole lead-in to “Vision fugitive” is pretty steamy.
DBM: Totally. The Strauss Herodias is more of a character-y part. In the Massenet, there’s a strength and wildness and fierceness that’s put into Hérodiade, as opposed to Salome. I feel like Salome is more of a victim in that one. She’s softer. It’s more in the Manon vein in terms of the femininity. All of the crazy, fiery energy is put into Hérodiade, which I love. She has that big meltdown at the end, with a gigantic B natural. It’s just wild. Antony Walker was fantastic. We were in front of the orchestra, and it was just like we were singing with him at the piano. He’s one of the best conductors I’ve ever sung with.
BK: You’ve also done Mère Marie in Dialogues des Carmélites.
DBM: That’s one of the first things I did as a mezzo. I loved it.
BK: Such an interesting character. She’s the catalyst of the nuns’ martyrdom, but she doesn’t die. How do you handle that as an actress?
DBM: There’s a stern intensity, a strict, almost bitchy quality to Mère Marie. It’s under the guise of serving the Lord. But I think it destroys her that she cannot be a martyr. I don’t think she’s a coward. I think she would have been the first one in line. It’s almost like, how does she go on serving the Lord, when this is the thing she was living for, really. It’s one of the saddest things in the opera.
BK: Your time in Berlin—2012 through 2014—you worked with Christoph Loy, perhaps most memorably in the new Falstaff there. What do you think his greatest strengths are?
DBM: In Falstaff, he had this incredible idea of playing with the ages. Because Verdi was an old man when he wrote it, but it was his most vivacious, youthful music. Christoph’s concept was to marry those two ideas of the young and the old, so pieces of our age would come off—costumes, wigs, you know? But he’s so incredible with singers. He’s so attentive. He understands the demands of what we have to do. It’s all very organic and musical. It’s like he was a singer, almost.
BK: When you have an un-musical director, what do you do to cope with the situation?
DBM: Usually, an un-musical director will have you do something that isn’t organic. If you have a big climax coming up, there’s something that wants to come forward—and at that point, you try to understand why they want that thing right there. I always try to make it work somehow for me with the music. In Germany you get that a lot. Usually, it’s not at all what you would think would be happening. But I always try to find some way that it’s musically motivated. When you do that, usually, they see a moment or something that works that is much more organic in the music, so it ends up morphing into more of a collaboration. I have rarely had a director who says, “Absolutely not.” If you are resistant to an idea thrown at you, that’s when the walls go up from everyone. There’s a defensive energy in the room, and then they impose it more, to make it on you. If you can make a collaboration in a room at any point, I think it’s a good idea.