In conversation with Vivica Genaux

'I love just about everything about where I am today as an artist. '

22 February 2012


Mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux maintains a schedule of performances that reflects a great deal of intellectual curiosity. Given her status as one of the most sought-after Baroque specialists, she has not chosen to remain content with a handful of roles, like many other singers tend to do once they achieve a certain level of international success. Rather, she continues to debut new roles in rare operas, make world-premiere recordings, and travel extensively in order to share her passion with audiences across the United States, Europe, and beyond.

Recently, Genaux made a stop at Zankel Hall in New York City as part of a grueling, six cities in ten days tour (Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Tucson, Denver, New York, and Kansas City) with her frequent collaborators Fabio Biondi and the period instrument ensemble Europa Galante. I was fortunate to be able to ask for her thoughts on a few questions regarding her recital program, the current state of period performance practice, and her approach to presenting such challenging repertoire in a live setting.

From a purely logistical perspective, I pointed out the obvious – that the layout of her current tour crunches extensive travel and a tremendous amount of virtuoso singing into an extremely short period of time. Since audiences are rarely privy to the 'behind-the-scenes' work singers put in to make these concerts happen, I wondered how Genaux feels about this kind of artistic challenge. "This kind of schedule is one I generally try to avoid, as it's quite unkind to both body and soul. On this tour, I'm singing several back-to-back concerts in different cities. The toughest will be the juxtaposition of concerts in Tucson on Saturday evening at 8 pm and then Denver the following day at 4 pm! In January and February, weather can be very unpredictable, so I really have to hope and pray that flights will be on time, suitcases won't go missing, and that I'm able to rest enough while traveling to bring the energy level back up for the next performance. This is generally also a big cold and flu season; with the travel and concerts, I'll be in close contact with many people, and the biggest challenge of all can be just not getting sick! As it is, I count myself lucky, because while I do have a few free days at certain points, the orchestra has ten concerts in eleven days, each in a different city. I think we all wanted to do the tour notwithstanding the less than ideal conditions because we love this music, and don't have many opportunities to share it live with the American public. We're all very excited to be here, and the energy from that, combined with the intensity of the music, keeps us all going strong."

Noting the different projects on which Genaux has worked along with Biondi and Europa Galante, I asked her to discuss how her artistic relationship with these musicians got started and what it's like for her to work in such close partnership with them. "My first opportunity to work with Fabio [Biondi] and Europa Galante came several years ago when they invited me to record Scarlatti's La Santissima Trinità. Since then, I've been thrilled to become a part of their 'family', and any time there is the chance to schedule another project together, I'm there! Fabio is an exceptional artist and human being, and this is reflected in Europa Galante as well. Every time I look around in the middle of an aria, there's eye contact, a smile, a complicity that I don't find in any other group. It's a very special feeling to be up on stage together with people like that, and it really makes me feel like part of a team rather than a lonely soloist."

Such a fruitful symbiosis also helped to catapult Genaux to world-renowned status as one of the finest singers of music from the 17th and 18th centuries. To a degree, this repertoire requires a specialist; not only are the technical challenges daunting, but knowledge of appropriate period performance practices has become increasingly important in recent decades. I wondered how Genaux developed such a strong identification with music of this era. "I think if you're lucky, you find your niche; for me, it became quite evident that my voice was appropriate for this music, because of the flexibility as well as the color, size, and range. The repertoire from Baroque to bel canto includes so much music where I really feel I can express myself. I never tire of discovering composers new to me, and learning about singers of the era; it's a very dynamic period in which to work. I also love the color of the early music instruments. I find the strings to be much warmer in timbre, with a much greater variety in the expressivity of the sound, ranging from earthy and raw when emphasizing moments of distress, heartbreak or rage, to unbelievably celestial and caressing to evoke compassion, love, and tranquility. As a singer, it's somewhat analogous to standing in a deep pool of water, where the water surface can be mirror-like and calm or choppy and wavy, or with swells and undertows beneath the surface that push and tug at your body. The music really has that physical effect on one's muscles and emotions, and it's a thrill to be able to feel yourself as a participant in that environment."

I expressed my personal opinion that Genaux's voice is beautifully suited to the music of Händel, Vivaldi, and their contemporaries, and asked her if she could pinpoint why that might be the case. "I feel very lucky to have been guided into this repertoire; the right people were always there for me at the right time, and through them, I found my niche. I began my vocal studies as a soprano, focusing on the bel canto repertoire but also some Mozart, Verdi, and Puccini, and I have to say I was really quite miserable. Vocally, the music wasn't at all comfortable for me, and psychologically I just couldn't stomach [the personalities of] the heroines I was trying to personify. Most of the characters were 'wilting violet' types, wasting away, bemoaning their unrequited or forbidden love, and doing absolutely nothing to change their circumstances. My first big revelation came when my teacher at the time, Virginia Zeani, suggested that I look at mezzo-soprano repertoire. Right away, I discovered women who were empowered, choosing to react and defend themselves rather than collapse and fold like a house of cards. These were roles I felt I could really embody and explore with gusto. A few years later when the Baroque world was introduced to me, I found that this type of character was even more appropriate; the castrato roles I sing are most often young heroes facing their first challenges, experiencing passion, love, weakness, and anger - all the emotions that force us to make choices in how to react. I found that in the Baroque repertoire, even the female roles are usually cognizant of having choices, rather than behaving as if they had no other options. To me, this makes the character much more interesting, and makes the story feel more like a 'choose-your-adventure' type of game rather than just a water-slide of events."

GenauxSo, continuing the focus on this particular repertoire, I mentioned that period performance practice has come a very long way from its humble beginnings in the 60's and 70's. I asked Genaux how much she actively thinks about keeping her own vocal style historically 'appropriate'. I also asked for her thoughts on the rigorousness with which contemporary musicians should seek out the composers' original intentions as regards performing style. "Well, I agree that we've come a long way in the sixty years or so since Baroque music began being reintroduced into the modern repertoire. There are many different schools of thought as to what 'authentic' performance practice is, and as a singer, one has to remain very flexible in order to respect the views of whichever conductor/musicologist/colleague is guiding the project. I think audiences are more open to variations in performance style with Baroque music than with other genres. When I sing Rossini for example, I generally try to use or adapt cadenzas/ornaments that are attributed to singers who worked with Rossini himself; many times these truly authentic ornaments employ modulations or chromatics that to our modern ears are heard as very unconventional, and I'm asked to modify them in order to bring them more in line with today's traditions. At the bottom line, I think everyone has a slightly different job. The conductor should know as much as possible about the composers' original intentions, performance conventions appropriate to where the piece was written and performed, etc., and should be competent in communicating this vision to the musicians engaged for the project. The musicians should be conversant with as many performance styles as possible, and be able to interpret the conductor's wishes without losing their own personal flair."

Speaking of flair, when you listen to any of Genaux's virtuosic recordings, it becomes immediately clear that she has an almost superhuman ability to sing florid music with accuracy and élan. Even though she makes it all sound easy, I asked her if there are specific vocal hurdles that she enjoys the most, or on the contrary, if there are any that she particularly dislikes. "How fun to think of that as a superhuman ability! What kind of super-hero costume would go with that, I wonder? I had to learn how to do trills for the Arias for Farinelli recording with René Jacobs and really worked hard every day with my teacher for about a month, doing exercises that a soprano friend of mine, Brenda Harris, had given me. Brenda always had a fabulous trill, and at the time, I had no idea what singing a trill was even supposed to feel like! The exercises she gave me opened up that sensation, and now that I have it in my toolbox, it's one of my favorite ways of filling out a da capo. I also particularly love syncopations, two octave jumps, fast scales, and just about anything you can throw into the mix. After you've learned the 'language', the formulas in Baroque coloratura become pretty standard, and when you see a passage, your intuition immediately feels where it's going and how to phrase it.

"However, I do still encounter a new 'lick' now and then. In 'Come in vano il mare irato' [from Catone in Utica] on the 'Pyrotechnics' CD, there was one sequence Vivaldi used that I'd never sung before, and I really had to work on it for several days before it became automatic. With coloratura, you have to be able to think the phrase before you can sing it. It sounds banal to say it like that, but when I'm teaching, I'm always surprised by how many people try to sing coloratura without knowing the notes! If you can't already hear the sequence of notes accurately in your head, there is just no way you're going to be able to sing them at any velocity, much less at breakneck speed. Whenever I encounter a particularly difficult passage, I try to live with it for a few days before I really make an effort to get it into the voice. I think through the passage slowly at first, then a little bit faster, and then I slow down again if there are glitches in the thought process, and then speed up again, and so forth. After a few days of that, I repeat the exact same process using the voice: sing the passage slowly to feel each note, then speed up, slow down again if something gets lost, find it again and speed up. That's pretty much the process I think one should use whether dealing with scales, arpeggios, large intervals, and even just general phrasing. One of my teachers, Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, was also a painter and he said he had to 'see' the image before he painted it; it's the same with the voice, you have to have a clear image of where you're going and what you want to accomplish before you engage the voice."

So if singing Baroque music is largely about a vocal 'language' that encompasses stock technical gestures, is it possible for the formulas to become repetitive and monotonous for singers? I asked Genaux how she keeps the process fresh and in particular, what unique vocal challenges she has faced in Vivaldi's music that have helped her to grow as an artist. "I think more than challenges, I have found many opportunities in Vivaldi's music. I studied the violin for several years when I was growing up, and I remember watching an interview with Isaac Stern on PBS [American publicly funded television]. Stern said that his violin teacher always told him he needed to 'sing' with the violin. That idea really stayed with me, and though I myself never got to the level where I felt I could sing with my violin, it gave me the image of phrasing with the breath as a violinist would use the bow, finding the different tones in the voice using more or less breath, analogous to the violinist using more or less bow to produce different colors. For me, it was very helpful to have these metaphors. As Vivaldi was a violinist himself, I feel like the vocal line is similar to something one would find in a Vivaldi violin composition, and it's really exciting to build on with the images I already had in mind. Add to that the collaboration with the virtuoso Fabio Biondi, and it's really a magnificent learning and performing experience."

Changing the topic a bit from singing to recordings, I noted that Händel's music has enjoyed a major resurgence in popularity over the last quarter-century, to the point where complete recordings of almost all of his operas and oratorios are currently available. In addition, conductors and singers have turned their attention now to Vivaldi as well, with several major recording projects of the latter's works in progress. I wondered if there are other composers that Genaux feels passionately about bringing to the public's attention. "I'm a huge fan of Johann Adolph Hasse's music. Hasse was one of the most important international composers of the 1700's along with Händel and Haydn, but for various reasons has had to wait a bit longer for a real revival. I'm doing my best to be a strong proponent of his music because while his music may not be as harmonically complex as Händel's, he had a very special way of composing for the voice. Hasse's music has a more open framework around the vocal line, meaning the voice has much more freedom with rubato than one generally finds in either Händel or Haydn, where I often feel the voice is treated more like an instrument. With Hasse, I really feel like I'm breathing with the music, and the vocal line is free to undulate, stretch, punctuate, or stab according to what the text and emotion require."

Returning to my initial observations that Genaux possesses remarkable versatility, I brought up perhaps the most iconic role for mezzo-soprano, Bizet's Carmen. It wasn't an altogether random topic shift, since I had noted in Genaux's promotional materials, that she would be making her role debut in Bizet's opera later this year. I asked if she might also elaborate on other exciting future plans both on stage and on recordings. "Carmen should be exciting enough in itself for me right now! I'm thrilled to be taking on this new role, as I've been waiting for what I felt was the right time in my life and vocal development to approach it. Psychologically, Carmen is very rich and complex, and I wanted to be sure I was technically adept enough to have the vocal freedom and security I will need to explore the twists and turns in her character. I'm really looking forward to finding my Carmen.

Genaux"Before that, however, I continue with Vivaldi, performing my first Juditha Triumphans with Ottavio Dantone in Krakow, and following that with a fully-staged Farnace in Strasbourg. I am also starting my own ensemble, Project V/Vox, with whom I am developing a variety of programs ranging from Baroque to contemporary repertoire, using period instruments. I'm really excited about all the possibilities that are coming together with this new group."

In winding up our conversation, I wanted to politely inquire about Genaux's personal life and how she balances the rigors of her career. Certainly, being an opera singer is a very 'public' endeavor, and keeping a measure of privacy is a challenge, as it is for all 'famous' people, no matter their field of expertise. I asked Genaux to talk about the trajectory of her career and which aspects she finds most and least personally satisfying. "Well, I love just about everything about where I am today as an artist. I feel like my technique is at a point where it supports anything I want to express vocally, and psychologically, I feel comfortable with myself - able to delve into characters and lose myself in the interpretation. The first six or seven years of my career were really different. I didn't have much stage experience, and I felt completely out of my league. Fortunately, my colleagues were very kind and gave me the support and instruction I needed to keep my head above water! I worked very hard in those years, and for every six hours of rehearsal, I put in another four to six hours at home practicing by myself, memorizing the staging, the ornaments, and the musical adjustments I'd been given that day. I'm so happy I did work that hard, though, because it all feels like second nature now; incorporating movement with the music, adapting the musical language to whomever you're working with at the moment - it's all very comfortable now, and I can adapt and improvise as I go.

"As far as the public vs. private aspect of the career, I guess the thing that most perplexes me is what the audience expects from me when I'm offstage, and what I as a performer can do to fulfill those expectations without feeling like I'm role-playing in my private life. It used to be that divas were expected to be perfectly coiffed, impeccably made-up, elegantly dressed even in their personal life, but this has changed a lot in modern society. Even Hollywood starlets are no longer gussied up as they once were in the golden days. For opera singers today, modern staging so often involves sprawling on the floor or crawling under the furniture, and you don't always want to bring your best Armani jeans into that situation! I do think that a 'star' is still expected to be someone we look up to as a role-model - someone who is 'on', and as an opera singer, even though this is at a much less intense level than what a movie actor or pop singer faces, there is still that suspension of belief that you can give to an audience from the stage that potentially could be maintained in one's offstage persona. When I meet people after a concert, I'm generally dressed up and still in the 'role' of opera-singer. Sometimes I have the opportunity of getting to know audience members better, whether at a dinner or being recognized on the street, but I'm never very good at figuring out what my role is during these encounters. Obviously if I'm at a company dinner with sponsors, opera-guild members, etc., I'm very comfortable in opera-singer mode. But if I'm at a private dinner at a friend's house and there happens to be someone else there who has seen me on stage? Am I free to be just ordinary Vivica? Or do I need to put on a bit of the opera-singer energy in order to retain that 'wow' factor that the stage can give a performer? I guess the real Vivica is a combination of both introvert and extrovert. I enjoy both facets of myself, and according to what I feel like in a given moment, I allow myself to fluctuate between the two in my personal life."

By the time this interview is published, Genaux's American tour will have been completed, and she will be busy preparing for her next engagements singing Vivaldi's Juditha Triumphans in Krakow and the same composer's Il Farnace in Strasbourg. Look also for additional engagements this season in Amsterdam, Dortmund, Nuremberg, and with her new group 'V/Vox' at the Hindsgavl Festival in Denmark. And by all means, if she appears at a venue near you, take the opportunity to enjoy her charismatic artistry while supporting her efforts to revive Baroque music with integrity and excitement.

By David Laviska

Photo Credits: Christian Steiner


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