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Met Opera interview: Soprano Jennifer Rowley debuts, no horsing around

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“I couldn’t have asked for a better debut.” So says soprano Jennifer Rowley about her highly anticipated first appearance with the Metropolitan Opera as Musetta in Giacomo Puccini’s “La Bohème.” “It was so much fun and it was … ah! It was just incredible.” Jennifer Rowley spoke with Examiner.com Monday, March 24, while preparing for her third performance, which will be tonight.

Though the soprano and cast rehearsed in studios, they had no onstage rehearsal, just an hour’s walk-through with the director. “The two guys who were going to lift me in ‘Quando me’n vo’ showed up early so I could meet them and I could practise singing while they lifted me. So the debut was a really big deal.”

Jennifer Rowley obtained her masters degree at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. The campus includes the nation’s largest opera company for nonprofessionals, Indiana University Opera and Ballet Theater, which this season presents 24 performances of six full-length operas. Ironically, she “didn’t have any roles at I.U. I found my own professional outlet to perform. My first professional job was as the First Lady in Mozart’s ‘Magic Flute’ with Cleveland Opera [now known as Opera Cleveland], and I performed in ‘Ariadne auf Naxos’ at the Brevard Music Center Festival” in western North Carolina.

Examiner.com: How did you fulfil requirements to obtain your masters degree?

Jennifer Rowley: By my senior year I hadn’t really performed with a live orchestra so I put together my own orchestra. I e-mailed friends, offering pizza and beer, and we prepared four works with orchestra for my final recital. I ended up with four big pieces that I could perform with any live orchestra at any time, anywhere I went. It was a good path for me, because it lit a fire for me, to do it myself. When someone says “No, you can’t go in that way,” you have to go find the side door, right? And they keep telling you no until you crawl through a window.

Ex: What was it like the first time you set foot on the Metropolitan Opera stage?

JR: My first time onstage at the Met was about a year ago. I sang “Quando me’n vo” auditioning for the role of Musetta. When I walked out onstage, the houselights were dimmed, but I could see everything. I saw the panel of judges at the back of the auditorium. I could see how vast the Family Circle is, and I started laughing, for the sheer joy of it. I just couldn’t help it. So I apologised profusely and explained that the experience was so surreal for me; they said it was all right, to simply take my time and start whenever I was ready. So I went over to the piano, and the accompanist told me, “It’s okay. Just calm down and enjoy it.”

Ex: Did you have any mishaps at your debut?

JR: No, everything went perfectly well that night, thank goodness. At the second performance, on Saturday [March 22], I kind of got thrown around by a horse. I make my big entrance in a horse-drawn carriage where I stand and wave to everyone. I think the poor horse got a little stage fright. He didn’t want to go onstage. So he just started going back and forth, jerking the carriage. I was standing in the carriage waving to everyone, and I was not prepared for the horse’s jerking back and forth. The thought flashed through my mind, “Oh no! If this carriage turns over, we’re going into the orchestra pit.” You never know what a very large animal like that can do, but thank goodness the trainer was there and he was great. I really hope the horse is okay; he seemed so freaked out.

Fortunately, the soprano only suffered a mild whiplash, which she is treating medically, with acupuncture, and with massage.

Ex: A word you often use in describing your work is “athletic.”

JR: Singers are very athletic and are often asked to do very difficult stunts while singing. These days, we have crazy stage directors who want us to sing standing on our heads. Mimì has to sing lying down, and I, as Musetta, sing while climbing up on tables and being lifted by boys. We do so many things that are athletic, and so the vocal technique has to be very instilled. It has to be second nature, so you can sing on autopilot and do whatever the director asks you to do.

Jennifer Rowley will perform Giuseppe Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” Leonora in a future season and will reprise the role of Musetta when she makes her debut next year at London’s Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Before all that, a dream comes true when she debuts with SemperOpera in Dresden, Germany, as Floria Tosca.

Tosca is really a dream role for me. When I first discovered what opera is, she was it. While listening to a recording of the work, I just sat there with an agitas in my heart and cried and cried. Coming out of school, I never thought I would actually get to sing that role; I never thought my voice would grow into it, and I am so glad it did.”

Ex: Is the role of Lucia a missed opportunity?

JR: I am afraid the time has passed. And it’s so incredible. The acting challenge that is the Mad Scene is just so … so juicy. I would love to have that challenge. I saw the Met’s current production by Mary Zimmerman, which is so dark and beautiful, and Diana Damrau was absolutely phenomenal. I was sitting on the edge of my seat practically drooling.

So Peter Gelb, is it really too late?

How does she feel about her career choice? “I am very fortunate to be in this business, to say I go to work and sing Puccini and sing Verdi—onstage—wearing these gorgeous costumes.”

Jennifer Rowley’s remaining performances in “La Bohème”: March 26 and 29; April 10, 14 and 18. Here’s hoping for a calm horse and continuing success.

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