A few days before her debut as Amelia Grimaldi in Verdi's Simon Boccanegra at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, soprano Adrianne Pieczonka agreed to interrupt her pre-performance rest period to talk with me about her background and career as one of the most successful sopranos on the international opera scene. She was generous with her time, energetic, and remarkably candid. The same magnetism that her voice exerts over audiences was evident in her unaffected, kind, and thoughtful personality. At the time of our conversation, Pieczonka was on the verge of a major role debut at one of the most important opera houses in the world, so I was curious about her past and how she came to this point in her career. The picture I gained through her engaging anecdotes and frank self-assessments is one of a hard-working, no-nonsense soprano who might have simply been the 'girl-next-door'. Lucky for us, she has a phenomenal talent, and shares her gifts with the public through exemplary musicianship and performances that resound with beauty and integrity.
I began by asking her to describe her childhood and how she got started as a singer. 'Well, I was born in Poughkeepsie, NY while my father worked there for IBM, and lived here for two years before we moved back to Canada. So, I was raised in Canada, but of course, on my CV it says that I was born in the US, and so it's very confusing to people. I think of myself as Canadian – 100% Canadian, however, I was born here in the States, and am proud of that, too. I grew up in a town that is located between Hamilton and Toronto, called Burlington, Ontario – just your average sleepy, suburban town. I was a tomboy, I played baseball, I was interested in sports, we took piano lessons as kids, I did dancing (ballet and jazz), loved camping, climbing trees, and so I had very mixed interests. I was also kind of a ham; I was always interested in being in the theater, in plays, and really anything I could get my hands on. And so, in grade school, I was involved in the 'skit-nights' and the musicals, and this continued right up through high school. My piano studies continued, and around the age of thirteen, I had an exam on which I did poorly. My mom asked me if I would like to drop piano and take some other kind of lessons, and so I said, 'Yes, I'd like to try voice lessons', so something obviously spoke to me even at that age. My idols then were more of the pop-culture people like Julie Andrews and Liza Minnelli. Carol Burnett was my absolute idol, and I loved her show. I even wrote to her, asking: 'How do I become you?' She (or her PR people) wrote me back with a photo, and said 'Keep up your studies, good luck.' She had such an amazing variety show, with guests like Beverly Sills – I just loved it. I listened to pop stars like Billy Joel and Supertramp in my basement, but of course I always had the parallel line of private voice studies, and by the time I was 17 or 18, I knew I wanted to study music. My teachers were encouraging, and thought I might have potential because I was winning prizes in small regional competitions.'
Since she was obviously receiving encouragement at home, I wondered if anyone in her family had a talent for music, or if her parents were generally interested in classical music or opera. 'Well, not particularly, no. My family didn't attend the opera very much; I think I saw my first opera at 14, in Hamilton, Ontario. It was Trovatore, there were no subtitles, I had no idea what was going on, and wasn't really too impressed! We did have a Philharmonic subscription, we were taken to occasional ballets, and my parents really did their best to expose us to things. But, you know, I don't think this story is that uncommon among opera singers.'
Before continuing the discussion of her beginnings as a singer, I was anxious ask her about the correct pronunciation of her name. 'Well, that's a really good question! Starting with my first name, it is pronounced 'AY-dree-in'. However, when I first left Canada, and moved to England, I found that Adrian is more of a man's name. Therefore, I quickly got used to hearing it pronounced all sorts of ways: Adrianna, Adrienne, and so forth, but I was indeed raised as 'AY-dree-in', pronounced like 'Adrian', and it's what I prefer. For my last name, I was raised to say 'puh-ZON-kuh'; my father was born in Poland and came over when he was eight years old, and he 'anglicized' (or 'Canadianized') the name. The correct pronunciation is 'pyeh-CHON-kuh', and it's how I say my name now. I asked my Dad, of course, and he approves, even though it's not in fact, the way his friends know him. Of course, I answer to anything! It was very interesting when I first moved to Vienna and started my career there, because Vienna has so many Poles and Czechs and Hungarians, and they all knew how to say my name: 'Pieczonka! Komm hier!' (Laughs) And so I thought, 'Oh, OK, that's how I say my name!''
Returning to the topic of her studies, I asked about her years at university. 'Well, I applied to study voice at the University of Toronto – the school I really thought was the best, the 'Mecca' of voice programs - and I didn't get in. And I was crushed! So, I re-applied to study English, and got into that program, but my mother could tell how disappointed I was, and told me there were other schools I could attend for music. So finally, at the very last minute, I went down to the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, auditioned for the voice program, and was accepted! So now, when I go back and do Master Classes at the University of Toronto, I tell the students: 'You know what? A lot of people were given rejections and turned down. Keep going!' And when I think of my own history, you know, I was never the overnight star. When I was in the programs, I was never picked out and selected to be the next 'big thing'. I was always there, doing good work, but I needed time to mature, perhaps like a fine wine. (Laughs) And I think that's a good thing. I look at the young people who have quick success, and can be really tough on them.
'I then went on to do a graduate program back at the University of Toronto, in what's called the 'opera division', which gives a specialized operatic diploma. We mounted scenes and actually did full operas, and I sang in the Canadian Opera Chorus. The current conductor of the MET chorus – Donald Palumbo – was our chorus master back then in Toronto, and he was brilliant. He really raised the bar there, and I often remind him of those days when he really came in and got us up to speed. There was no stigma attached to being in the chorus, and in fact it was 'cool' and I really loved it. We also got to watch some great singers come through the productions there: I can remember an Aida with Leona Mitchell, I remember Lofti Mansouri directing, and there were productions of Boris Godunov and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. It was really great exposure.
'Then I made an important step and applied to the Canadian Opera Company 'Ensemble' and got in, and soon after applied for a grant that would allow me to actually leave Canada to pursue further studies abroad. It was 1988, and I got the grant - $14,000 – which was plenty for me to live on for a year. So I went first to London and then quickly to the continent and basically started my career in Europe in 1989, leaving Canada behind for nearly twenty years. I think I'm known in Canada – having been raised there, but my presence in the US is much less obvious than I would like. People don't really know who I am. I've spent some time here, but I haven't participated in any high-profile new productions. Even this Simon Boccanegra is a revival at the MET, but I'm very happy to be here, and I'd love to raise my professional profile here in the States. Now that I've moved back to Toronto from Europe, it would be very nice to balance out my schedule of engagements and sing more on this side of the Atlantic.'
Realizing that most successful people have role models, I wondered if there was anyone specific who had a big impact on Pieczonka's development as a singer or helped her along professionally. 'Well, of course there is my first teacher – she's still my teacher – Mary Morrison. She's based in Toronto - she's 83 now - and she's coming down for opening night. She's a wonderful soprano and pedagogue, and has basically accompanied me throughout my whole career. When I was just starting, I followed in the tracks of my friend Nancy Argenta, who also got a grant and left Canada for London to study with Vera Rozsa. I took her example, and did the same thing, and ended up studying with Vera for about two years. She was quite a character, took me to master classes, and really introduced me to many people, including Georg Solti, who happened to be looking for a First Lady for a Decca recording of Magic Flute and I got it! Then there was also my teacher in Vienna, Hilde Zadek. She and Vera really set great examples of strength, and the importance of teaching and sharing the knowledge once they stopped singing.'
So having thoroughly discussed the beginnings of her career, I wanted to know – some twenty years later – how Pieczonka feels about her career now. Specifically, I asked her what she loves about singing and whether she holds the same feelings for it now as she did all those years ago. 'Well, you know, it's sort of funny, and I'm going to bring up something that might sound kind of terrible. I'm reading the book called Open by Andre Agassi. I don't know if you've read it, but I'm a big tennis fan. Agassi talks about simultaneously hating tennis and loving tennis. He hates doing it, but he has to do it. And I don't want to say that I hate singing, but there's a part of me that's very torn. It's a very high-pressure, scary profession. The older I get, one might be tempted to think, 'oh, it gets easier', but I do find that to maintain the level of 'perfection', it takes that much more focus and energy and rest and all these things. It's very taxing. You know, I have a life and a family outside of singing, but I also want to do my very best work. So, I'm driven by a kind of… well, by my destiny. And I think Andre would agree – he was driven to play tennis. I think I'm living out my destiny – not necessarily what I was put on earth to do, but I have been given a gift. I am trying to use it for the greater good, to make and share beautiful music, to sing the best I can, and to be the best artist I can be. There are dark times when I'm torn, and I think it would be easier to retire and go teach, but those are the 'scared times' when the pressure becomes very large. Those feelings of doubt never last long before I find my equilibrium again and continue moving forward. I know some people might think this sounds like I'm ungrateful, but I do pinch myself, and I do realize how lucky I am. I'm pinching myself now – here in NY – working with Jimmy Levine and this extraordinary cast. I am so very grateful and privileged to be here! But again, with that privilege comes a huge pressure. So, I think we all, as artists, and as people, experience that ebb-and-flow where sometimes things are going super and you're on top of the world, but then there are the pressures and doubts. It's important to just keep trying to find a balance.'
There is no doubt that being up on the stage as a singer makes for a demanding career. So, I asked Pieczonka about her own musical tastes and whether she enjoys attending the opera and listening to other singers as a member of the audience rather than as a performer. 'You know, I do enjoy attending the opera, and often will go when I have time, depending on where I'm singing. But I have to say, if I have the choice, I will always choose to attend something on Broadway. Music Theater was always, and remains, a real passion of mine. In fact, tonight I'm going to see FELA! and I'm really excited. These days, with Internet access to resources like YouTube and so forth, I don't spend nearly as much on CDs and recordings of opera as I used to. For example, I'm studying and learning Die Frau ohne Schatten right now, and YouTube is fantastic because you can both hear and see the singer. While I don't necessarily seek out opportunities for listening to opera on the radio, I do enjoy it when I'm in the car or at home. I certainly don't enjoy listening to myself, but I think that's pretty common among singers. It's very difficult for me to listen to my own recordings without being hypercritical of every little thing. I also love Jazz and other kinds of music as well.'
Bringing the discussion around to the present and her debut as Amelia Grimaldi in Simon Boccanegra, I inquired about Pieczonka's feelings concerning the important step of making a role debut at the MET, and how it has turned out. 'Well, it's so exciting, and it's a really big deal for me! All of the other cast members have sung in this opera before, and for me, it's my debut in the role, so I do think that adds an extra layer of anticipation. Then also, there is the fact that it's a role-debut at the MET, and so that's risky as well. When they offered it to me, and it was with James Levine, I just died, because I've only worked with him once before, and that was for Die Walküre last year. It was an extraordinary experience. I've always wanted to work with him. So many people have told me: 'He's a singer's conductor. He loves singers.' And it's true, he does! I admire him so greatly. So for me, that has been the highlight: working with Levine, watching him not only working with the singers, but with the orchestra. The way he, with kindness and generosity and grace, gets the musical performance he wants and coaxes them to do what he wants to do. I've known Placido for many years, and have sung many of my MET performances with him, both in Pique Dame and Walküre. And not only do I know him as a singer, but he's the Director at Los Angeles Opera, and I've sung there many times as well. He has also conducted me a few times in Vienna, much earlier in my career. I think he conducted me in Carmen when I sang Micaela and also in Tales of Hoffman when I sang Antonia. So that's a long history, and he's wonderful! The final dress rehearsal of Boccanegra was so moving. I think he has exceeded everyone's expectations in the role. It's an incredibly taxing role, with a lot of big, engaged singing, and Placido has truly risen to the challenge. This is my first time working with Marcello Giordani. He is the nicest man – a passionate singer, and a wonderful colleague. Jim Morris, again, I sang with him the first time way back in 1992 in Vienna when I was singing Freia in Rheingold. So he's another one with whom I have a long history. It's a very special event, and so I am kind of a bundle of nerves, but I had a long, lovely walk in Central Park to clear my head and aside from this one interview, I'm resting my voice completely. I'm hugely excited, and the entire project is just an honor and privilege in every way.'
Amelia Grimaldi is a surprisingly demanding role, and requires both the delicacy of a light lyric soprano and the thrust of a spinto. I asked Pieczonka to discuss the role, how it's working out for her, and whether she finds it a good vocal fit. 'Yes I am! Ideally, I would have had about a year to prepare the role and get into it, but given my schedule and commitments, I actually only had a few months. I started to really crack it at the end of last summer, and had to fit it in between Tosca in Europe, Lohengrin in Houston, and I just did Ariadne in Vienna. So I've been juggling a lot of disparate things, vocally. The coach Carol Isaac – here at the MET – has really helped me a lot. I love singing Verdi, I love singing in Italian, and I don't get to do it all that much. I've done lots of Alice Fords, several Elisabettas (Don Carlo), some Desdemonas and that's about it for Verdi. Tosca is also new for me, and I sang some Bohemes quite a while back, but that's it for Italian repertoire. So I think my confidence isn't naturally as high as if this were a Rosenkavalier or an Ariadne where I really feel comfortable with everything – the language, the idiom – since I speak German fluently. So for the Verdi, maybe I feel just slightly less confident, and again - speaking very frankly - that's something I just need to come to grips with! I have to remind myself to claim my right to be here and go out with confidence. So that's my little personal battle. And it's very interesting, because what Jimmy Levine is telling me, and what other people have also said is that I sounded great as Sieglinde, but Amelia truly fits my voice wonderfully! And I really love that, that people are saying to me: 'Keep singing this Verdi, it's great for you.' Jimmy talked to me about how Birgit Nilsson sang lots of Isoldes, but would mix it up with a few Aidas or Donna Annas in order to keep a balance. You know, she didn't just go exclusively into the Wagner repertoire. And I have some colleagues that also find this balance wonderfully. For my part, I do a lot of Wagner and Strauss as well, and I love it, but I want the balance that lighter, lyric roles – more 'bel canto-ish' roles - can bring to my voice. So, I'm finding the role very satisfying. In fact, to me, Amelia is almost more satisfying than Desdemona and Elisabetta. She's strong, and featured a lot throughout the opera. Unlike Desdemona, who is only featured in isolated scenes, Amelia has a much bigger presence: she's a strong character in a politically charged story, she stands up for her man, and she risks compromising her relationship with her newly-found father. It's a tragic story since her father dies at the end, so she gains a husband, but loses her father, and I really get quite caught up in all the emotion of the opera. The gorgeous costumes are rich and opulent and I feel beautiful wearing them. The sets are lovely. In fact the entire production is beautiful, and everyone loves it. I'm very excited to be a part of it.'
One of the wonderful developments in the world of opera over the last several years has been the development of technology for broadcasting live events directly into movie theaters. Many thousands of people can now choose to attend 'live opera' as transmitted in High Definition to their local cinemas. Fortunately, the final performance in this series of Simon Boccanegras will be included in the HD series and broadcast around the world on Saturday, February 6. I asked Pieczonka if she had given much thought to the exposure she'll receive during that performance and whether she looks forward to that opportunity. 'I have to admit, I'm feeling pretty stressed about it. I have tried hard to stay fit and in good condition, knowing how close those cameras get! I just did Tosca in San Francisco in June, and they did a 'simulcast' and showed the performance in a huge baseball stadium. And they did some scratch tapes, and we got to go in and see them, and it was very difficult for me. I don't really like to hear myself, and I certainly don't like to look at myself on the stage, but I forced myself to pay attention and see what I could learn about the process. One thing I noticed, for example, is that I have deep-set eyes, and I realized it's quite important that I try not to squint, but to keep my eyes open and responsive. I think the HD brings different challenges, in that the acting needs to be a bit more 'calm', you know, not quite so big and 'operatic'. So, I'm happy that it's the last show, and we all have ample time to settle into the production, and hopefully, just move from strength-to-strength by the time we get to the last performance. There have been some cameras at rehearsals – particularly at the final dress – and well, I'll just do my best to cope with it. For me, it's another exciting opportunity, another 'first' in my career. So many people will be seeing me in Canada and in Europe, so it really is a wonderful thing.'
I mentioned that she must certainly have family and friends who might not be able to come to New York, but who will be able to see her in the cinema. 'Oh, it's so cute. My parents and my sister and her family are coming in for the second performance, but of course my father has purchased tickets to go to the movie theater too! In fact, they go to all of the broadcasts – they're very faithful. They see them in a theater in Burlington, Ontario, and it's just really a thrill for me that I will be part of that.'
The Metropolitan Opera house is well known for being a challenging venue for singers, in part due to its size, but also because of its reputation and hectic schedule. It is the most exalted among American opera houses, and certainly ranks among the most important houses worldwide. So, I asked Pieczonka whether she finds the MET to be a comfortable theater. 'Well, I'll be very honest, and admit that I don't feel like I've really 'cracked' the MET. I've sung here four times now (this is the fifth), and have had excellent critical success here, especially with Sieglinde. But I don't think I can really call it 'home' here, just yet. I have other houses, such as Los Angeles and San Francisco, where I am instantly re-engaged for more roles and performances, and so I feel more an integral part of their recurring roster of singers. To date, I don't have anything further scheduled for the MET, for example. Nothing. I think, to be honest, that a lot is riding on these Amelias, and how I do during this run of performances. And I'm hoping and believing that it will work out favorably for me, but if not, I do live one day at a time, and I will continue to sing my guts out each night. The MET is a 'factory', and I don't mean that to sound negative at all, it's just the truth. It's a huge machine that is turning out opera at an extremely high level. I feel more nervous singing here than at any other house in the world, from Covent Garden, to La Scala, to Vienna. It is daunting, and I admit that I do have slightly less confidence here – again, I'm being very frank – but those are my own demons, and I'm working on them. I think to myself: 'My God, I've sung in Bayreuth! I've sung with the greatest conductors!' But it just somehow freaks me out. I need to claim my space here in New York and take up my position alongside the many beloved singers who perform here all the time. I certainly believe that I belong here, and I'd like to look forward to singing here for many years to come.'
Having discussed her repertoire in the context of Verdian roles, I wanted to broaden the view and talk a little bit about other roles and composers. Going back to her comment about singing Strauss' Ariadne in Vienna, I noted that she must have sung with Edita Gruberova who was also in Vienna to give her final performances of the role of Zerbinetta (at nearly 63 years old). Early in her career, Pieczonka made a couple of recordings with Gruberova, and I wondered if they were friends and what it was like to share the stage for such an occasion. Furthermore, I was curious to know what a younger singer like Pieczonka could learn from someone from the older generation like Gruberova. 'Oh my God, you know, really, it was history in the making. Edita is an extremely humble woman, who has absolutely no pretense and an incredible work ethic. She was telling a lot of stories, such as how it had been nearly 35 years since her first Zerbinettas. At that time, our conductor in Vienna – Ulf Schirmer, who conducted my Wagner and Strauss CD – was actually a young assistant to Horst Stein. And so he was absolutely thrilled to be working with Edita. I think she herself felt it had become very difficult to continue with the role, and so it seemed overall like a good time for her to bow out. The cheering went on and on – she had something like 25 curtain calls – and she just humbly carried on with a shrug of her shoulders. Aside from her professionalism, I think she has set a tremendous example of how to maintain good vocal health. It has been a real privilege knowing and working with her.'
The role of Ariadne seems tailor-made for Pieczonka's vocal range and colors, and I wondered if she enjoys singing it. 'Yes, it's a perfect fit for me, and I love it a lot. In fact, I'm kind of envious of Nina [Stemme] doing it here at the MET soon. I'd like to be doing both! It's one of my signature roles, and I've sung it many times. I'll be singing it in Toronto next season as well, and I'm very excited about that opportunity. Strauss is really a personal favorite: I'm also very fond of the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier and of course, Arabella. And as I mentioned earlier, I'll be making my debut as the Empress in Die Frau ohne Schatten in Florence this summer with Zubin Mehta, so that adds another Strauss role to my resume. I was supposed to sing Chrysothemis [in Elektra] a few years ago, but I didn't – I had to withdraw because of a back problem. But that's certainly a role I should sing. I should also maybe look at Salome. I know people really love the 'blood and guts' Strauss roles, but I tend to love the gentler ones, and I have a really soft spot for Arabella and its wonderful Viennese story. It may not be everyone's favorite Strauss, but it really melts my heart. I also adore Rosenkavalier – I watched the HD broadcast from the MET last week, and just had so much admiration for Renee [Fleming] and Susan [Graham]. They're both in their prime years and just singing so well. I really thought that Susan looked like a young Christa Ludwig. It was wonderful, and I really love the opera so much. I would definitely consider singing Daphne, and then of course, there are the lieder. I will continue singing the Vier Letzte Lieder for the rest of my life certainly, and I love so many of his other songs as well. So yes, having been based in Vienna, Strauss is very central to my repertoire and probably the composer that's closest to my heart.'
Staying with Strauss then, I wanted to talk about her very first Kaiserin in Strauss' monumental Die Frau ohne Schatten. Specifically, I asked her to describe the process she goes through in order to prepare a new role. Every singer seems to have their own unique game-plan for learning new roles, and I wondered about her strategy for moving from the first moment when she commits to learning a new role all the way through to being completely prepared to walk out on stage for opening night. 'Well, when considering a role, I listen to my agent, and I ask singers and trusted coaches for their input. So, there's a pool of people. This also includes my voice teachers – I have a few, and that goes for the coaches as well – I've got a few here and a few in Vienna. They know me, and they know the singers that have done the role in the past. Sometimes they react uniformly enthusiastically, and other times it's very mixed. My agent [Dr. Germinal Hilbert] is a very important resource for me. He has worked with Rysanek, Nilsson, Karl Böhm – he's had these great artists who've sung this repertoire. In fact, Germinal is the one who told me I could sing the Kaiserin. And I thought, wow, I don't know. It's so bloody high, it's dramatic, etc, but he feels I can do it well. We'll see how it goes – the jury is still out. I'm glad I'm having the opportunity to try it out in Florence, with a conductor I love and trust - Zubin [Mehta] – who is very laidback and easy to work with. It's a beautiful house, in a beautiful city, and should be a very comfortable environment for me to tackle the role. As far as preparation goes, again, there is the time problem. When you are working steadily as a singer, you don't get many long stretches of downtime for study, so I have to squeeze it in here and there. As I mentioned, YouTube is definitely a very important tool for me. I try to find a singer with a voice similar to mine, so for example, there are clips of Cheryl Studer that I've been watching. She has a more lyric approach to the role that I think reflects my own voice better than some of the more dramatic singers. Julia Varady is another good role model for me. So, you know, I will study and attempt it and we'll see how it goes! Another new role for me will be Senta, which I'm doing in the fall, in Paris, and then again later in Bayreuth. These roles both take me into more dramatic territory, and part of me is torn between the more lyric roles like Amelia and venturing out into the more dramatic roles.'
No matter the voice type, it seems like it often happens that singers are asked for roles that take them into heavier and more dramatic territory. I wondered if Pieczonka had this experience. 'Well, there is always the question looming about the really dramatic roles such as Isolde. People are constantly asking me: 'Are you going to sing Isolde?' And I always say 'No. At this point, no.' Do I want to? Am I interested? Yes, of course, but not yet! I look at Nina Stemme, and I am amazed, and I think about how she sings [Isolde] for five bloody hours, she has the constitution of an ox – in the best way – I mean it's a marathon, a vocal and physical marathon! I'm not there yet. I was asked to do it way back in 2003 at Glyndebourne, and I think it was actually Nina who ended up doing it then. I think the management was unhappy with my refusal of the offer, but I love Glyndebourne and would love to have done it, but turned it down, and thank God! Back then, it would have been crazy for me to try it. And I do think, once you take on some of these very difficult German roles, people start asking you for them all of the time. It's my feeling with Brünnhilde, too. I was just asked recently, if I would consider the Siegfried Brünnhilde, which is the one I could realistically think about doing, but I don't want to go there yet. I'm happy to sing Sieglinde, it's a great role, she kind of steals the show, and I just find her very satisfying. I'm happy to stay there, for now.'
This seems like a very sensible attitude, and I pointed out that Pieczonka still has plenty of time to tackle some of these heavier roles later on. 'Well, I guess so, yes. But on the other hand, you know, I am heading into my late forties, and I sometimes ask myself what I'm holding back and waiting for. Maybe I should just go for it! I am a person who, in life in general, does tend to err on the side of caution. I'm a fairly cautious person, and I'm careful with my voice. And I do worry, that the fear of overextending can hold me back, that it can be a hindrance. You know, there is a great phrase in German: 'Wenn schon, denn schon!' If you're going to go for it, GO FOR IT! And I think I need to incorporate that more into my attitude and singing. Even with this Boccanegra for example, people are telling me how great I sound and that I should just really dig in and go for it! So I really do need to keep that as my mantra.'
After going into detail concerning Pieczonka's stage repertoire, I was curious about the future of her career as a recording artist. Both of her recordings for the Orfeo label [Wagner/Strauss and Puccini] have garnered much critical success, so I wondered if she has plans to continue recording with that label and if there are more recordings in the pipeline. 'Well, yes. We're talking about a Verdi CD, and in fact, originally, the Verdi recording was to have pre-dated the recently released Puccini disc. But, I'm pleased with the timing, actually and think I would now love to put together a Verdi CD. I now have enough repertoire that I can go for it and add some things like Ernani and Luisa Miller and probably Trovatore. I'd like to mix it up a bit and include arias from roles that are not necessarily in my active repertoire yet. For example, I will be performing Amelia in Un ballo en maschera on stage within the next few years. Then there are the roles that I know I will not sing like Aida, Nabucco, and Macbeth.'
I suggested that the slightly more florid roles like Amalia in I masnadieri and Elena in I vespri siciliani might work well for her, and also mentioned the less florid, slightly heavier Lina in Stiffelio, which they are performing at the MET currently. 'Well, you know, I'm such a big fan of Sondra [Radvanovsky], and I haven't had the time to go see her. I really feel that the one voice-type or 'fach' that is the least represented these days is the 'Verdi soprano'. Where have they gone? Twenty and thirty years ago, there were plenty, but now they are quite rare! We have plenty of Strauss singers, Puccini singers, and so forth, but the Verdian, bel canto-style soprano seems to have really died out. And it's a repertoire I really love to sing, so I hope to continue. The current director of the MET Boccanegra – Peter McClintock – gave me a live recording of Renata Tebaldi, at the MET, singing Amelia. She does it very well, and you can hear that she had a sizeable voice – not unlike mine – and it's wonderful to hear how she negotiates it. [James] Levine talked about how this role is sometimes done by the bigger voices and sometimes by the lighter voices: Te Kanawa and Gheorghiu for example. This role allows for that spectrum of vocal sizes. Some of the Verdi roles are less forgiving: for Aida you really must have a big Aida voice! So, as long as I continue to be asked for Desdemona and these other Verdi heroines, I'd love to! They really bring a wonderful balance to my repertoire.'
Since the opera-going public is always anxious to know about future plans, I wondered if there was anything else in Pieczonka's upcoming schedule that we hadn't yet discussed. I also implied that perhaps, being in the middle of a very ambitious season at the moment, she might prefer to set aside the process of learning new roles for awhile. 'Well, as I mentioned earlier, after the Frau ohne Schatten, I'll be very much looking forward to the Sentas first in Paris, and then with Thielemann at Bayreuth. Bayreuth is a very special place, and I adore Thielemann, much like I adore Jimmy. They are very different, but both are geniuses, and it's a real honor for me to be able to work with them. So, yes, Senta is my third role debut within a twelve-month period, and that's a lot. So I will be happy to successfully add these roles to my repertoire, and then, in coming years, hopefully I will continue to revisit many of these roles I love to sing: Tosca, Arabella, Elisabetta, Amelia. I really have a large repertoire – from English to Czech to Puccini, Wagner, Strauss, and Verdi – that I'd like to continue refining and revisiting in coming years. I was asked for Cassandre in Les Troyens, and I turned it down. Again, it's a lower role, and I really want to keep the voice high as long as possible. So I won't be exploring the 'zwischenfach' roles for a while yet. I do have some recitals coming up, including one in Toronto at the beautiful brand new Koerner Hall in 2011.'
Recognizing that giving recitals is a very different experience from participating in a staged production of opera, I asked if Pieczonka enjoys the recital experience. 'I do! They are a bit scary – being out there without the support of an orchestra, but I love it. I would love to give one here in New York, and have worked some with Brian Zeger as well as various other pianists. I really don't sing them often enough, in fact. Unlike some singers like Kirchschlager, for example, who has a huge schedule of recitals, I don't. I sing a lot of opera and only have intermittent recital dates, and so it's a lot of work to prepare for them. Ideally, it would be great to have a recital tour planned from time to time, but realistically, I can't do everything. For now, my focus is on opera.'
Throughout the lengthy discussion about her career, I could sense that Pieczonka is not a one-dimensional woman with all of her focus on opera. So I inquired about how she balances her life with off-stage interests. 'Well, I'm a Mom. We have a four year-old daughter named Grace. I'm married to a woman – hurray, Canada – and I'm really proud of that fact. They're not here with me in New York right now, though they were here for the first eight days, and they will be coming back. Grace is in junior Kindergarten, and a real driving force in our lives. Being a Mom has really grounded me and helped me put down roots. I still need to travel a lot, obviously, and so I have to deal with those issues – the guilt and the pain of being separated. We use Skype a lot, and I do try to be as present as I can. My partner Laura [Tucker] picks up that slack. She's the more 'hands-on' Mom back in Toronto. However, they do come to be with me as often as is practical: they'll come to Vienna in March, then they'll come to Florence. They'll come to Paris in the fall. We have to pick and choose, but there are some places and cities where we just know it's a wonderful education for Grace to be there. When she's older, this will change. Because she's an only child – I don't think we'll have another – we are conscious of her needs and want to be certain she has the opportunity to develop and maintain her 'kid-friendships'. We don't think she should be home-schooled or isolated in that way.'
Having a family and being a Mom certainly brings challenges for anyone with a career that requires frequent traveling, and so, the drawbacks of an opera singer's lifestyle are obvious in this respect. But, given that the travel remains a necessity, I asked if Pieczonka finds enjoyment in the process – seeing new places and experiencing other cultures – or if it is more of a 'necessary evil'. 'Actually, I still do enjoy traveling. Again, taking a reference from Agassi's book, he talks about his hotel rooms – even the most luxurious ones – as his 'non-homes'. The apartments and hotel rooms I stay in are only a little bit my 'home', but I do enjoy most of the places I visit. I absolutely love New York: I'm going to see the show tonight, I love to window shop, I love downtown, I love going for very long walks in Central Park, so yes, I enjoy myself. I'm not really the type of person who spends a lot of time going to galleries and museums and doing all the things one 'should' do in any given city. I find those activities can be very tiring, and I much prefer just to absorb the city by walking around, looking at people and just soaking it all in. I really do need my rest, and so I always pick and choose my downtime activities very carefully.'
I asked Pieczonka is she is good at spending 'quiet' time. 'Yes, I'm very happy being quiet. In fact, I'm kind of a hermit. I do love my friends and spending time socially, but I am also very comfortable just being on my own and by myself. (Laughs) I watch a lot of bad television, including some of the reality shows and so forth, but it's an easy way to relax and be quiet. And I love to spend quiet time reading as well.'
Before wrapping up our conversation I wanted to be sure I had given Pieczonka ample opportunity to discuss all the topics she felt were important. I wondered if there was anything specific she would like to convey to the public that might not be immediately obvious in the context of a media interview. 'Well, I think I give the impression of being really 'down-to-earth' and un-diva-like, and that's the truth! Just the other day, one of the make-up ladies told me she thought I was so nice, and she appreciated that I say 'please' and 'thank you'. And then there was some problem with the wig and we kind of worked it out together. You know, I'm not a high-stress personality, and I don't throw fits or get upset easily. I'm not in any way trying to market myself as a 'nice person', but I just am like that. I just am kind of down-to-earth and like 'the girl next door.' Sometimes I almost think I should work on having a diva-like exterior. I do own a fur coat! (Laughs) But to put on that kind of image just wouldn't be me – I wouldn't be true to myself in playing that role. I really am a tomboy at heart, who rides a bike to rehearsal whenever I can. I just enjoy being with my kid and being a regular Mom, so I really want people to know that this is the real me. This image of a grounded, kind person is truly who I am deep down.'
For anyone who has listened to this gifted soprano either live or on disc, these personality traits will come as no surprise. In fact, one of Pieczonka's greatest assets is the three-dimensional humanity that informs her singing. Her voice reflects her personality with absolute accuracy: the gleaming top notes, the strength of her columnar sound and breadth of shades and colors in her tone all bespeak the integrity and balance of the person behind the artist. In addition, the lack of artifice is remarkable, allowing her to reach out and touch the listener with earnestness and warmth. Pieczonka is a truly special and unique singer, and it is no wonder she is in such demand at every major opera house. Now at the absolute peak of her profession, we can only hope to see much more of her here in New York in the years to come. Fans of great singing all over the globe will have a chance to see her Amelia when the MET presents the HD Moviecast of the final performance of Simon Boccanegra on February 6. For those lucky enough to catch up with her in other venues, she will next return to Vienna for the title role in Arabella during March, followed by her much anticipated debut as Die Kaiserin in Die Frau ohne Schatten in Florence beginning on April 29. Then, she will head to Berlin first for Tosca in May and June and then for more dates as Arabella. For more information as well as continuing developments, consult her website: www.adriannepieczonka.com.
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