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Interview with American mezzo Dawn Pierce

March 03, 2012

  • date
    March 03, 2012
  • article type
    Press
  • category
    Opera Carolina News

Interview with American mezzo Dawn Pierce

Interview with American mezzo Dawn Pierce

Opera Lively has interviewed mezzo Dawn Pierce, in anticipation of her performance as Olga in our partners Opera Carolina's production of Eugene Onegin in Charlotte, NC, on March 17, 22, and 25.

Her voice quality has been described as “deep liquid velvet.” Dawn’s favorite performances are those in which she portrays strong and heroic women. Her present repertoire includes Carmen, Isabella (L’Italiana in Algeri), Suzuki (Madama Butterfly) and Charlotte (Werther). On the operatic stage she recently performed as Dorabella (Così fan tutte), The Contessa di Coigny and Madelon (Andrea Chenier), Tisbe (La Cenerentola), and Jo (Little Women). She is equally comfortable in musical theatre where she portrayed Franca (The Light in the Piazza), The Grand Duchess (The Student Prince), and Anita (West Side Story). Please visit her website at www.dawnpierce.com.

She is a graduate of the A. J. Fletcher Opera Institute of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in Winstom-Salem, NC, and an alumna of Dr. Marilyn Taylor, an institution and educator featured in other articles on Opera Lively. Pierce earned there a Summa Cum Laude Master’s Degree in Vocal Performance along with a Performing Artist Certificate in Opera.

Dawn Pierce is equally credentialed as a voice teacher. Presently, Dawn is an assistant professor of voice at Ithaca College in New York State. She juggles the two careers and continues to perform regularly for regional opera companies in the United States, going back to Ithaca periodically to teach her classes. Her students describe her teaching as “creative”, “energetic,” and “inspiring”. She has produced numerous original workshops and retreats examining a variety of issues related to artistry and technique including complete preparation, stage fright, health and wellness, characterization, and body awareness.

When Dawn is not busy with performance, vocal training, and teaching, she enjoys designing jewelry, reading, dancing, weight training and spending time with her family and friends.

The image above is © Dario Acosta

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OL - I see that your phone has a North Carolina area code; are you a native of our state?

DP - Not a native, I grew up in upstate New York, but I lived in North Carolina for several years when I went to the A. J. Fletcher Opera Institute.

OL - Yes, I saw that. Dr. Marilyn Taylor was one of your mentors, right?

DP - Yes, that's correct.

OL - Yes, I know her very well, she's been supporting our web site and is a member of it.

DP – That’s great!

OL - One of my questions is exactly about the Fletcher, you know, because we have an article on the Fletcher, and interviews with Dr. Taylor and maestro Allbritten. [Editor's Note: respectively Chairman of the Voice Department, and Artistic Director at the Fletcher] So, a nice follow-up for the readers of our previous articles would be to ask you about what the Fletcher did for you, and how your career has evolved after you left.

DP - Sure! The Fletcher program was an important part of my education. I hadn't had much performance experience before I went to the program. I had voice training, a music degree and some language training, but I hadn't performed much opera. The best way to learn the ropes of opera is by doing it. The Fletcher program provides exactly that. While there I performed many leading roles with the support of an excellent learning environment and encouraging faculty.

While I was in Fletcher I was also performing professionally; I sang a couple of times with Opera Carolina, and some other summer programs. Actually, I didn't even go to my graduation ceremony because I had a gig in Arkansas.

After leaving Fletcher I basically performed professionally full time for three years or so, all over the country in a variety of roles. Eventually, two and a half years ago, I took a job as an assistant voice professor at Ithaca College and now I'm balancing both. I'm teaching voice students and performing professionally, both full time, so I'm balancing two big hats. [laughs]

OL - This is probably difficult to coordinate! I know that the Fletcher stages one full opera every year, right?

DP – Actually, during the three years I spent at Fletcher, we did two fully staged operas per year. The first role I did was Lucretia in Britten's The Rape of Lucretia, then I did Irene in Donizetti's Belisario, and I was Elmire in Mechem’s Tartuffe. These were some of my major roles there. [Editor's note: she also did Idamante in Mozart's Idomeneo there].

OL - So, you have performed with Opera Carolina already. I seem to believe that I've seen you on stage. In what productions were you featured with Opera Carolina?

DP - I was the Third Spirit in The Magic Flute. During that production, Jim Meena called me The Amazon because I was much taller than the other two girls [laughs]. And I was Tisbe in La Cenerentola. Recently in North Carolina you may have seen me as Suzuki in Madama Butterfly with Asheville Lyric Opera or as Franca with The Light in the Piazza with Piedmont Opera.

OL - Oh, the musical. I actually didn't see those. Have you ever performed for NC Opera in Raleigh?

DP - Not since they have become North Carolina Opera, I performed with Capitol Opera Raleigh when they did Madama Butterfly. I did Suzuki but the company has changed since I performed there.

OL - Yes, because of the merger between Capital Opera Raleigh and The Opera Company of North Carolina. So, that's where I saw you, because I did attend that Madama Butterfly in Raleigh.

DP – Ah, OK.

OL - Yes, your name was familiar, when I received the cast list for the interviews from Opera Carolina. I knew I had seen you before. Just to finish with the Fletcher part, do you stay in touch with the faculty there?

DP - Definitely, I actually spoke with them recently to encourage them to come and see Onegin. I'm also hoping to go to Winston-Salem to visit and see their production of The Crucible while I'm in town. I'm still very good friends with some of the students I went to school with. Many of them have been performing as well. One of my best friends from the Fletcher program is covering at the Met right now in their Russian opera (Emily Newton). This is her first Russian role too, so we are enjoying a similar journey.

OL - We did publish an article on The Crucible that is upcoming at the Fletcher and Piedmont Opera, I can send you the link. And we actually published a long interview with Mr. Ward, the composer.

DP - Oh wow, that's great! I actually love The Crucible, and Janine Hawley, who is going to perform in it [Editor's note: she'll play Elizabeth Proctor]. I saw her do the role brilliantly in Chautauqua. Ironically, I was actually a nanny for her children while she was performing it. [laughs]

OL - Nice! So, let's talk about the Olga that you are doing for Opera Carolina. It's a contralto role. Many mezzos have sung it, though. Any difficulty there for you, as a mezzo?

DP - We are not transposing anything for this production. There are very few true contraltos these days. I do have a solid low extension to my voice and have always been comfortable singing in the lower register. I am enjoying the opportunity to sing in the slightly lower tessitura.

OL - What can you tell me about Olga's psychology, and how do you plan to perform the role?

DP - I love Olga. She gets a bad rep sometimes, but I find her to be a really wonderful person. I think she is dutiful, optimistic, and naive. My grandmother would call her a social butterfly [laughs]. By nature she is a person who is open and enjoys people. I don't think that she considers her interaction with Onegin anything but fun and innocent. She likes to be entertained, and he is interesting, attentive...

As far as Lensky is concerned, she enjoys teasing him. She loves him in an innocent way, it's a superficial love, a youthful love, and it is all she knows. She doesn’t know that is superficial because she hasn't experienced anything else at this point in her life. She feels lucky because she is betrothed to someone that she actually likes and actually wants to be with. It may not be the passionate love that Tatyana feels on her end for Onegin, or like the love that Lensky feels for her, but it's very sincere. Yeah, [laughs] I think she is a truly good person.

OL - What about Olga's relationship with Tatyana, is there sibling rivalry?

DP - I don't think there is sibling rivalry. She really genuinely loves her sister, and wants her sister to be with Onegin. Olga has lines where she expresses excitement and predicts that Onegin and Tatyana will likely be together. Olga wants her sister to be happy. I think that when she entertains Onegin socially, in a way, she thinks that she is helping Tatyana. Tatyana is very shy, so she feels like "As long I entertain him and keep him happy, then, it will make things more comfortable for my sister." I think she tries to help her sister in that situation.

OL - What do you think about her reaction to the duel?

DP - I don't think that she understands what is happening until it is too late. In the novel she doesn't even know about the duel. In the opera of course she does. When Olga thinks of Lensky and his extensive poetry and his professions of love being over-the-top, she imagines his threats of a duel with Onegin to fit in that category. She is used to him being dramatic. So, she doesn't find out that he was being sincere until it is too late.

Olga is very level-headed and practical. Some people say she is shallow. I don't think she is shallow, I think she finds joy in little things and she is a practical person. She doesn’t realize what is happening until it gets out of hand. If the opera had continued in a happy way, I believe she would have married Lensky and would have happily made a very good wife. She would have been loyal and faithful. Even though in the novel she goes off with another man, she is being practical. What else is a woman going to do in that time and age? She wouldn't have a lot of choices, so...

OL - Yes, in the novel Lensky only challenges Eugene the next day, there isn't that scene of scandal during the ball, so she doesn't get to know what is going on.

DP - Exactly. The way the opera is performed I think Olga doesn't understand until the very last moment. She just thinks he's being dramatic, that he's over-the-top, as she always reacts to him. In one of their first scenes together, he comes in and says [speaks in a dramatic tone] "Oh! It is so good to see you. I’ve missed you so much!" and she teases him saying, "didn't I just see you yesterday?" and later when he is saying "How do I deserve such cruelty from you?" she says "I don’t understand what you are talking about." [laughs]

OL - Right, interesting take, yes. I spoke with Dina, and she is so enthusiastic about the novel itself, because it is in their blood, right? The status that this novel has for the Russian people seems to be extraordinary. She said that since she was a little kid she knew the novel by heart, and the words of it.
[Editor's note: Dina Kuznetsova, singing Tatyana, interviewed by OL here.]

DP - Wow, that's amazing!

OL - Yes, so it's gotta be pretty impressive to perform opposite her, huh?

DP - It is, it is amazing. She is amazing! And not only her, but the Lensky also speaks Russian fluently, and has done the role before. The two characters I am on stage with the most are not only seasoned opera singers but speak Russian beautifully, so I'm very blessed to have this as my first production. I'm really hoping and praying that this role is something I get to do again since we're only a few days into rehearsal and I am loving it.

OL - So this is your first Russian role.

DP - Yes, it is... it is... [with a fearful tone].

OL - How hard was it to learn the role?

DP - It was very challenging. I think this is the hardest I've worked on a role in a very long time. I spent about ten months preparing the role.

OL - Wow!

DP - I felt like a fish out of water when I started on it. I didn't really have a frame of reference to begin my preparation; I had to step out of my comfort zone. So I began as I would with anything else, I read the novel and worked with some study guides for a comprehensive understanding of the literature. Then, I worked really hard to find a transliteration that was reputable. I don't read Cyrillic, so I had to find something that was transcribed in a way that I could understand and pronounce it.

I listened to a lot of recordings, paying special attention to the Russian Olgas. Then I was very blessed to have found at Ithaca College a graduate piano student (Elena Nezhdanova) who is from Russia. She spent a lot of time speaking the text with me and eventually listening to me sing it. She actually ended up learning to play the accompaniment and was an amazing asset to my preparation.

Eventually I did Skype coaching with people in Israel and New York City on the Russian. Then I went to Philadelphia and had some in-person coaching. So I worked with several different people to prepare before I got here. [laughs] That was all before I arrived! [all said in a laughing tone].

Now, you know, the real work begins with the cast. I'm so lucky to be working with native Russians, who have done the opera before and know it intimately. I'm really lucky and honored to be a part of this production.

OL - So, Opera Carolina plans for this with this much advance; they've contacted you ten months ago, huh?

DP - With this role, yes, which was probably a very good idea. [laughs]

OL - What do you think of this production itself? I know it's been just a few days, but how is it going, how do you fell about the company?

DP - Well, I love Opera Carolina. I've been here before and it feels like coming home, everyone is very kind and I love the city. The cast is... [emphatically] unbelievable! Honestly, I'm probably almost intimidated by the cast, it's incredible, I hear them say, "oh, when I did this at the Met, oh, the last time I did this role..." Their voices are just... gorgeous, it's amazing, it blows me away, hearing them in rehearsals, and they are also just lovely people, it's a rare thing when we find both qualities at the same time, it's pretty special.

OL - Spectacular!

DP - I love working with Jim Meena. I worked with him before. He is very supportive and energetic. He has studied this piece for a long time and knows it almost by memory. The director is very energetic and excitable, and he is giving me a lot to work with, as Olga. It's very rare as a mezzo that you get to be a perky [laughs] happy character, and Olga is that. Personally I'm really enjoying it, as I'm running around and dancing most of the time. It's really fun. [laughs].

OL - Great! Would you want to do more Russian opera, after this one?

DP - Absolutely, absolutely, I love it! I think it feels good in my voice, the repertoire, and I'm learning to really love the language. As I am getting one show under my belt, I feel less intimidated by the language and I know better how to approach it next time. I am getting some of the sounds in my ear and in my mouth, and I know for sure by the end of this production my Russian will be better than when I came in. I am surrounded by native speakers and I can listen to them daily. Singing with Dina in rehearsals is awesome; we sing a duet together with many of the same words, I stand as close to her as I can and try to absorb the subtleties of her language.

OL - And have you seen her resume? It's amazing, all the roles she's done opposite singers like Rollando Villazón, Bryn Terfel, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, under conductors like Pappano, and Barenboim...

DP - Absolutely!

OL - It's incredible! And I was reading her critic reviews for Rusalka at Covent Garden; people went crazy about her.

DP - I can understand why, she's amazing, her voice is absolutely beautiful and gorgeous. Honestly, this role seems to be very close to her person. I don't know her very well but the way she moves, the way she talks, she seems very comfortable in the role.

OL - Yes, she said it is one of two favorite roles for her, the other one being Rusalka. She said that people in Russia tease each other by saying, "are you Tatyana or are you Anna Karenina?"

DP - [laughs]

OL - And I bet she always said, "I'm Tatyana." She said part of her gets into the role and she feels like Tatyana, so I think it will be interesting.

DP - It's interesting to me. We were talking about that, because I feel similarly about Olga in a lot of ways. I know her energy, her silliness, and teasing. I have a brother [laughs] and I have that sort of teasing and playful nature. It's fun to see how the cast is coming together, it's been just a few days that I've known him, but even the Lensky [Editor's note: Yeghishe Manucharyan, also interviewed by OL here], seems to embrace his character. I believe it's going to be a really good production and I'm excited to be a part of it.

There are some other great performers in this production. Victoria Livengood doing Filippyevna, she is fantastic! She sings and the walls shake; huge voice and beautiful, so, it's exciting. I saw her sing Carmen over ten years ago; it is crazy to be sharing the stage with her. And she's done this opera before at the Met, she performed Larina at the Met and now she is doing Filippyevna here, she's amazing.

OL - How many rehearsals are needed to get such a complex opera down pat?

DP - We have a three-week rehearsal period, so it's really not much longer than any other production. From my experience they are running rehearsals a little bit differently, because instead of working on the full score before we do the staging, we're working on the music for one hour and then we work on the staging for the next couple of hours. For me it's good to break it down that way and to have a reminder of some of the nuances of the language.

OL - After this, what are your next projects and engagements?

DP – I am singing Dame Marthe in Faust at Opera Baltimore. It's been a busy time for me because I'm doing three roles for the first time this winter and spring, one in Italian [Editor's note: Ms. Pierce has just done Lola in Cavalleria Rusticana for Opera Tampa], one in French, and one in Russian; new companies, new people, new roles, it's really exciting. And then I have to get myself back to Ithaca for the rest of the semester to work with my talented young singers.

OL - What would be the roles that you haven't done yet and would die for?

DP - Probably the thing I'm itching to do the most, that I haven't done in a full production, is Charlotte in Werther, I love, love, love the music, I love her character. I've worked on the role on my own and I hope I have a chance to do it. Probably my favorite role is Carmen, and I only got to sing the full role in one production. We did many, many performances but I'd really love to do Carmen again, she is very fun! [giggles]

OL - Any closing statements you'd like to say?

DP - I just appreciate you taking the time to speak with me, and I'm happy to be back in North Carolina, it's a really wonderful place, and it's an important place for me, because of where I really started singing opera, it's very special to be back.

OL - Thank you so much for your time and your thoughtful answers, I think our readers will love them.

By Opera Lively To read the original article, click here.