A highlight of this season for soprano Lisette Oropesa was her Royal Opera debut as Lucia (Lucia di Lammermoor) at Covent Garden. She will soon be making a role debut as Euridice in the French version of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice with Los Angeles Opera, in a new production opening on the 10 March, directed and choreographed by John Neumeier, and conducted by James Conlon. In advance of these performances in Los Angeles, Lisette Oropesa answers Seen and Heard International’s questions about this current role, as well as, looking back on her life and her career.
Where were you born?
New Orleans, Louisiana.
What music did you listen to at home as a child?
Lots of Cuban dance music! The old stuff, the sones and danzones, music from the Golden Era of Cuba. Also, I listened to the radio like a typical kid and enjoyed pop and rock, my parents also liked the music from the 60s and 70s, so we had a lot of that at our house. Beatles, John Denver, The Carpenters, that sort of thing.
Then of course there was opera, my mom was a singer after all!
What was the first opera you saw? Have you always liked opera?
La traviata. My mom was the star. She was wonderful and I have always enjoyed opera, but it always had an association with her since it was her dream. So, for a while I wanted to find a different dream that was all my own. That’s why I started to play the flute.
Do you play any other musical instruments?
I took Flute lessons for many years to learn how to play it, but yes, some piano – which I taught myself by ear – and a little guitar, also self-taught.
When did you first start singing and how did it progress from there?
I started singing at church. Solos from the time I was 3! It really helped me develop my head voice as a young girl and I had a solid repertoire of classical music solos that I got to learn every week! My mom and I also sang duets, so I learned to blend and harmonize.
I suspect with your mother being a singer herself and a music teacher there was every chance you would end up having a career as a singer yourself?
Well in part, yes. I knew I loved music and had a gift for it. Did I necessarily want to sing opera? No, that didn’t really cross my mind at first. I thought for a while I could compose my own songs and become a pop singer, and I did write lots of songs, played the piano, and accompanied myself. Then I started getting more serious about the flute in high school and thought maybe I’d become a flautist. Meanwhile I was still singing, and I did participate in choirs a few times, but not as much as in band and orchestra, which I preferred. In the end, I had to decide in college what I would do, and my singing gifts far outweighed my flute gifts. So, I made the transition and now I’m as happy as I can possibly be. I love the art form and am so grateful for the path that led me to it.
Apart from your mother perhaps, who do you credit for telling you that you had a voice and encouraging you as a singer?
Definitely my first voice teacher, Robert Grayson. He also taught my mom when she was getting her master’s degree at Louisiana State University. He really believed in me and gave me so much to learn and grow from. I’ll never forget him!
How good was winning the Met’s National Council Grand Finals Competition and winning prizes in Operalia 2007 in helping your career?
Winning the Met got me a chance to audition for the Lindemann program, so that was huge for me. Operalia gave me the chance to sing for Plácido Domingo and get to meet his amazing family, and both of those competitions awarded me very much needed cash prizes, which always contribute to a singer’s young career.
I suspect you would consider competitions like this in general are a good thing for a young singer?
Yes, I encourage singers to do as many as they can when they are starting out. It gets your name around, and you also get a chance to have some feedback and encouragement. Sometimes you end up changing your direction because of the advice you get from the pros, so it’s really important to remain open.
You joined the Lindemann Young Artists Development Program, tell me more how this helps a young singer?
It is brilliant training. 3 years, 6 days a week at the Metropolitan Opera, all day long! You get to see how a major world house functions, you see how operas are put on and developed, you see how much work gets put into it from all sides, not just the singers. I had coaching almost every day and studied roles yes, but also intense language study, movement, acting work, as well as a stipend to visit Europe each summer for additional language study. You perform recitals, scenes programs, you get masterclasses in public with the Met orchestra and you get to audition for agents. You get all the exposure you’ll ever need in a very intense environment for a good period of your development. It is the most incredible program and I learned so much.
What was the first opera role you sang on stage?
In college it was Rosina in The Barber of Seville. My professional Met debut was a Cretan woman in Idomeneo.
What have been the best moments for you at the Met since your debut there?
I was really happy to be able to step in as a cover to sing Susanna at the Met, and then go on to repeat the role many more times. I also was really honoured to sing Gilda in Rigoletto, which has become one of my most performed roles, and to be in new productions and HD transmissions of Falstaff, Werther, and La rondine, amongst others!
Do you have a teacher now and how do they help you?
Yes, I have a few mentors whom I consider my teachers. My main voice teacher in New York is – and has been for many years – Bill Schumann. He has been such a supportive and consistent part of my life and I owe a lot to him. And of course, Robert Grayson and I still work together when I’m in Louisiana. My main coach at the Met is Ken Noda. They all help me in different ways, mostly giving me support and advice if something is giving me a hard time, they help me make decisions, and of course, my voice lessons are always nice to have as a check in!
You first sang two of your signature roles Gilda and Lucia early in your career, where did you sing them first?
I was lucky enough to sing my first Gilda in 2008, 10 years ago! It was in my hometown of New Orleans. My first Lucia was in 2009, with Opera New Jersey.
What are the particular demands of these roles?
Both of them are beautiful characters that tend to be depicted as victims; women who are manipulated by strong men who are family members of theirs. It’s incredible to play with the relationships as I continue to sing these roles with different casts and productions. Sometimes the girls are strong and they fight, other times they are delicate and vulnerable. It is nice to play both sides. Then there’s the music, which is beautiful; each opera is a masterpiece!
What other roles do you particularly remember from your early years?
I only have sung Pamina once but it’s one of the first roles I ever studied in the Lindemann program. I love Mozart’s Zauberflöte and for being such a popular opera, I’d like to sing it more! I also really enjoyed studying Bellini’s Sonnambula and hope to someday have the chance to perform it.
You first sang outside America very early in your career, if you can say what have been your favourite opera house(s) to perform in and the roles you have most enjoyed.
I have been very fortunate to sing in Europe several times and each place has its own magic. I loved of course singing in Paris, London, Munich, and Madrid, but also it is amazing to enjoy cities like Amsterdam (my favorite!) and Lausanne. Each city is a jewel to me. The roles I loved best have been Gilda and Lucia.
Where do you call home?
On paper, I always say, I live in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. My mom lives there and most of my family lives nearby, so it’s a nice place to come and visit with everyone in between engagements.
Do you enjoy all the travelling a singer’s life entails?
Yes. I am made for it, and I’m lucky to have a wonderful husband who goes with me everywhere and loves it too.
You made your debut of course this season at Covent Garden as Lucia did you enjoy that production?
It was a very intense experience from which I learned so much. I have rarely been surrounded by such a high level of expertise at every corner! It was amazing, I will never forget it. The production demanded a lot of me but it also brought out more from me as an artist, and at the end of each night, I felt that I had given my absolute all to a performance.
I suspect much has changed in the way you approach the role since you first sang it?
Yes of course, many things. I feel like each time I do it, it gets deeper and more complete. Musically it has actually become a bit easier, as I’ve grown, and the voice has rounded out naturally. For me the earlier scenes are the most demanding. Doing it at Covent Garden gave me a chance to solidify this need for stamina, because I was onstage the entire time, from the first note of the overture to the last note of the opera.
You first sang for LA opera in Daniel Catán’s 1996 Florencia en el Amazonas what can you tell us about that opera and your first time working for the company?
I love Los Angeles Opera! That is a company that stays with the times and does incredible promotion for their work online, and they have wonderful company morale. Everyone who’s there loves the work and they are so enthusiastic. I’m lucky to get to sing there a lot this season. Florencia was a special treat, as it’s the only opera I’ve ever done in Spanish, with an almost 100% Hispanic cast. As a Cuban American woman, I was so proud to be a part of this.
You are back there to sing Euridice in the French version of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice what are you able to tell us about this?
I’m thrilled to be able to sing the French version of this opera, which has a bit more for Euridice to sing, and to be in a production that has a special concept about it. I think the Joffrey Ballet collaboration will be a stand-out for me, as I always am inspired by working with dancers. There is something about them in groups, they care for each other, have very close friendships, and are always so supportive of the singers! It’s incredible to watch them work. I wish I looked like one of them!
Is there anything you want to say about your colleagues in this production?
It will be my first time working with tenor Maxim Mironov, so I’m really looking forward to that. But also, I always enjoy collaborating with Maestro James Conlon, whom I regard as one of the world’s great conductors. He’s wonderful!
If you have to learn a new role like this how do you prepare for it?
Start with the text! I whip out my dictionary if necessary. I read through the music on my own and get a feel for the arc of the role. Then I start with the hardest parts and go from there. I drill the recit, write down the words, and record myself singing it to practice. Then I take it to a pianist if I have the time and the opportunity. I use a recording just to run it if I need to hear it once in a while but it’s not my go-to.
You sing a number of Mozart and Verdi roles, what is special about their music?
I absolutely love Mozart, he is my favorite composer and always has been. For me, it’s the most perfect melding of instrumental and vocal writing that exists in the repertoire. That said, Verdi is one of the composers whom I also love but in a different way; I have great respect for Verdi’s works, because he wrote with so much emotional scope. While Mozart’s music may feel more restrained emotionally, both of these composers present similar challenges when it comes to singing their music. They both require incredible stamina, long phrases, excellent breath control, precise coloratura, mastery of dynamics and trills. Musically they are both very fulfilling, once you get the hard parts down! Emotionally they wrote differently, but each one is balm for the soul, and that is why both composers were geniuses for the voice.
What other composers do you particularly admire?
I love recital repertoire and particularly love Schubert and Schumann, Poulenc and Fauré, but also Handel and Bach.
Do you intend to continue to mix recital and concert work with your opera performances?
Yes. I love singing and preparing for recitals. There is so much wonderful repertoire that is good for me and I’d love to have the chance to sing it all.
Do different composers make you need to use your voice in any different ways?
Sometimes, but more often the language is what changes things around vocally, along with tessitura. That said a high C can feel like a completely different beast in different contexts, dynamics, and keys. Is it at the end of the phrase? Is it the dominant or the tonic? Is it connected to any other notes? Should it be forte or piano? All these things contribute to how you must place and sing your high C for instance.
What actually is your favourite role and why?
I like Lucia. She gets to sing all the good stuff. But Traviata might be tied with her soon.
How do you expect you voice to change as years pass?
I hope that with careful planning and good technique and healthy habits, my voice can last many more years. But you never really know. Anything can have an effect on your voice and its colours. I hope to grow into my lyric sound but don’t think I’ll be singing Aida any time soon!
What roles are you hoping to be invited to sing in future that you do not sing now?
I do hope to stick to the lyric coloratura repertoire for as long as I’m able. I’d like to have the opportunity to sing Sonnambula and Puritani, as well as a few other Bellini roles before I can’t do them anymore! There are a few French roles as well, such as Juliette and Manon.
What are you most looking forward to singing in the near future?
La traviata in Venice! I’m really excited about that.
If you had to choose between singing and another passion of yours marathon running could you choose? Does one help the other?
Hahaha I’d definitely choose singing! I’m actually not that good a runner. I am just a stubborn one. Singing I have a gift for and it feels much easier. Running has helped my singing immensely, and singing has helped my running absolutely! They both are breath and body work, and they both require concentration and commitment.
Has anything funny happened to you on stage you can tell us about?
Once before ‘Caro nome’ in Rigoletto, my dress was accidentally ripped by the tenor, who was mortified!! And it would not close, and I had to sing the entire aria holding my dress together!
Finally, if there is anything in particular you want to tell us about that we have missed please do.
I think we covered it all! Thanks for all these wonderful questions. :)
Thank you for answering our questions and Toi, Toi, Toi for your performances in Los Angeles and in the future.
For more about Lisette Oropesa click here.