Elaine Alvarez is one of the rising star of today’s opera world, acclaimed for her portraits of Puccini and Early Verdi heroines. In these past weeks she debuted the role of Aida at Royal Opera de Wallonie in Liège, where she will sing next month her first belcanto role, Anna Bolena. In occasion of these two important role debuts we had the great pleasure to interview Elaine about her career and her upcoming projects.
How did you fall in love with Opera?
My mother is a music teacher. When I was born, she was getting her Master’s Degree and had classical music playing constantly. She noticed early on that I seemed to love it, so she started teaching me music. When I was 6, she began taking me to the opera in Miami. Every opera, every season. I was 14 when I saw La Bohème for the first time and I cried. I was too young to really understand the profound emotions this show communicated, yet somehow I felt them, and after that, I knew I wanted to be an opera singer. I wanted that great honor of conveying those profound emotions to audiences for the rest of my life.
You studied with Marilyn Horne and Renata Scotto…Tell us about these experiences.
Marilyn came into my life when I was entering the final years of my conservatory training. For two summers, I attended the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, California, the summer program in which Marilyn was the head of the vocal program. Both summers I sang leading roles in the main stage opera (Elena in Nino Rota’s ‘Il cappello di paglia di Firenze’ and Fiordiligi in ‘Cosí fan tutte’); both summers I competed in the Marilyn Horne Foundation competition (winning an Encouragement Award the first year and the Grand Prize the second year); both summers I studied privately with Marilyn every week. Marilyn has turned this part of her career into helping to identify, train, and promote the next generation of opera stars. Those talents that are committed to excellence and have the kind of star-quality she believes is necessary to have a major international career. She was tough on me but she also always encouraged me and made clear that my excellence was my responsibility to both protect and cultivate. The second summer I attended Music Academy, I had finished my training and was now about to take my first steps as a professional. Marilyn sat down next to me in one of the halls at Music Academy when Matthew Epstein told me he was taking over the vocal division at Columbia Artists (CAMI) and would be signing me to CAMI immediately. My entire life changed in about 3 minutes and Marilyn just looked at me and said: ‘Breathe, kid.’ I am grateful that after so many years, I can still write to her and tell her whats going on and she always replies, always makes time to see me when I ask. I am part of her great legacy and I am deeply grateful for it. Signora Scotto and I met when I was hired to understudy Mimì at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2007. She was the stage director and the singer I was covering was arriving late to the production, and so for the first few days, I got to work with this living legend. Sometimes when you work with a singer who sang a role famously, they try to coach you to do it just like them, but Renata did not impose that on me. What she wants is for you to study the music with precision and respect, to understand the meaning the composer wished to communicate, and to serve the music with sincerity and humility. The acting comes from conveying the text truthfully, and so she constantly asked me to simply say the line and allow the interpretation and the color in the voice to come naturally. As it happened, I eventually stepped in to sing Mimì in large part because of the faith she had in me. She believed I was ready to make this important debut at 27 and from that point, we began a relationship that continues today.
You recently debuted the role of Aida: how do you study a new role?
My process for learning new roles in usually the same for every opera: you first mark up the score, meaning I put in all of the translations, word for word, add any phonetic information I might need, highlight my part and map out how many scenes I’m in so I can begin getting an outline of the role. I will listen to a number of recordings to get a sense of tempi, any traditional cuts or variations, in the case of bel canto, traditional ornaments or interpolations, and generally get a sense of how it sounds, and then I will start working on it scene by scene. At this point I will begin working with my coach, 2 – 3 times a week, usually working through 2 scenes per session, until the entire opera has been musically worked through. Then you start focusing more on how you’re singing it, technically, and lastly, digging in to the interpretation. I will sometimes work with more than one coach and I will sometimes try and coach it with someone who is a specialist in the role, such as with Aida, when I went to coach it with Martina Arroyo, one of the most famous Aida’s of all time. The last step before heading to a theater, is to work on pacing. Because of the repertoire I sing, it’s important to take special care to pace myself, — to plan out how to make it through the performance without running out of energy or voice. So usually I will sing through the opera from beginning to end, every other day for the 2 weeks before I leave to begin rehearsals. Sometimes however, because of scheduling, this process must be condensed, as was the case with Aida. I was not originally scheduled to appear in this production but due to a singer withdrawing, I was asked to step in with rehearsals beginning Feb 4, and with my debut as Anna Bolena immediately following. This meant that I had a short window of time to finish my work on Bolena and then learn Aida completely at the same time. It has been a very intense period but I am happy to have taken this chance and to be able to debut this formidable role.
Aida is divided between love for Radames and love for her homeland. You live in the USA, but your mother is from Cuba (a state in controversial relationship with the USA, as Egypt with Ethiopia). How can Aida’s theme of nostalgia (O patria mia) tell us something about the present?
My entire family is actually from Cuba, I was the first person born in America, shortly after they arrived, and so I did think quite a bit about what it must feel like to leave your homeland and realize you will never see it again. For so many, immigration is not something they would wish for if there was another alternative. My family certainly would have preferred to stay in their home, with their history and traditions and culture, had they also been free. But that has not been the case for Cuba. Aida is not an immigrant, she is a slave. She did not willingly leave her home and so the circumstances are different but certainly the issues the opera deals with are ones we still grapple with today. Human beings in all civilizations will always have to move from one place to another by some force or another. And so the suffering Aida experiences is one all people can relate to, no matter the age or the setting of this piece. It is truly timeless.
You sang other Verdi roles like Violetta, Ernani’s Elvira, and Hélène in Jérusalem: what are the differences and the similarities with Aida?
All of Verdi’s operas are virtuosic. They require the singer to bring forth their highest degree of excellence in technique, musicianship and interpretation. They are also long nights, for which a great deal of stamina is required. Vocally, the ranges are expansive, with considerable use of chest voice and agility in the top of the voice. Of these 4 operas, Aida is the most lyric. There are no coloratura passages. This role is about being expansive with the range, and for most of the evening, sitting up high and floating. As in all of the Verdi operas, there are large concertato’s where you sing above a massive amount of people on stage and under, but what I find the most difficult about Aida is that the further into the opera it goes, the lighter and higher it is. For a large voice, singing piano will always be harder than singing forte and so this has been the big challenge of Aida. In a way, I had to work backwards from the Tomb Scene to figure out how to sing this role.
Are you thinking of adding some other Verdi roles to your repertoire?
I love Verdi and I find that my voice is very suited to this music so I suspect I will definitely be adding more Verdi roles to my repertoire in the coming years. Highest on my wish list would be Elisabetta of Don Carlo, Leonora in Il Trovatore and Amelia of Un Ballo in Maschera. Eventually I would LOVE to sing Lady Macbeth but that is still a few years away, I think.
Anna Bolena will mark your first Belcanto role: what are the difficulties of this character, vocally and theatrically?
I have been in love with this opera since I was in my student days and was assigned the duet with Jane Seymour for a scenes program. Bolena is an absolute dream coming true for me. I think the most interesting aspect of my singing is the agility in comparison to the size. Normally voices that are very agile tend to be lighter. My voice is large, yet coloratura has always come very natural to me so Bolena is really a kind of showcase for that. From her entrance aria all the way to ‘Coppia iniqua’ in the finale, it never stops. The fury and the longing and the sense of losing control is completely captured by this kind of writing and Anna’s aggressivity is also there. This isn’t an ingenue, like Lucia or Elvira, this is a woman who changed the world because she wanted to be queen and that whirlwind she seems to be perpetually caught in is beautifully rendered in this music. The speed of the writing and how long the role is are of course the biggest challenges. I began working on it this summer in large part because I knew it would take time to get it into my body. You don’t want to scream this music, even though it is very dramatic. She needs to be a real person, with softness as well as hard. I don’t think I’ve ever been so excited to sing something as I am this opera.
Bolena is the first Opera of Donizetti’s Tudor trilogy. Are you thinking of debuting in Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux in the future?
I very much hope to sing the entire Trilogy and it seems companies are starting to take a greater interest in presenting this repertoire so I do hope there are opportunities ahead of me. In addition I would also very much love to debut Norma. I have been studying this role for quite some time and in many ways, she is not so different from Bolena. Both fierce women who are both raised up and brought down by the power they had.
Anna Bolena will mark also your fourth appearance at Opéra Royal de Wallonie…Do you like the atmosphere of this theatre? How important is it for a singer to create a special connection with the audience?
Bolena will be my fourth appearance with ORW after Aida. It is a wonderful thing to have a company believe in you and allow you a place to grow. All of my first steps into the spinto repertoire took place here and I am very grateful to Stefano Mazzonis for his faith in me. Singers spend so much time on the road alone. When you build a relationship with a company, you are also building relationship with the staff, the chorus, the orchestra, and of course the audience. It is a wonderful feeling to return to a place and see so many faces you know and who are happy to welcome you back. And to have an audience that is always so supportive. Our performances are always full and that tells me that this is a city that values its artistic culture and wants it to thrive.
On March 9th Aida was broadcasted by Culturebox…what were your emotions for this special performance?
I was incredibly excited! My family come to hear me sing around the world when they can, but they can’t come to every show in every country. So this broadcast allowed me to have a performance where all my family and my close friends could tune in and watch from their homes and be with me as though they were in the theater. Usually in the breaks betweens acts I check my phone and it will be filled with messages. It’s a very wonderful feeling to have that kind of support when you are so far away from home.
What are your dream roles?
I have been very lucky to already sing my dream roles of Mimì, Violetta, Tosca, and now Bolena. The only two that are left are Butterfly and Norma. After that, I will have sung the roles I most wanted to sing and everything else is just a wonderful bonus!
After Bolena I will sing Mimì at the Finger Lakes Opera in upstate New York; next season I will have a few company debuts I cannot reveal yet, a return to Bolena, Tosca, and Donna Anna for my debut at Minnesota Opera, and I will also be debuting in Madrid a role that has a very personal significance to my family. So stay tuned for those announcements soon!
Thank you Elaine and Toi Toi Toi!