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The Exclusive Opera Lively Interview with Janinah Burnett

March 31, 2013

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    March 31, 2013
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    Opera Carolina News

The Exclusive Opera Lively Interview with Janinah Burnett

The excellent Opera Carolina will be presenting Bizet's beautiful opera Les Pecheurs de Perles (The Pearl Fishers.)... The show is performed in French, with English titles.

This interesting traditional production with modern visual effects (projections) is directed for the stage by a French director (Bernard Uzan), and conducted by a French conductor (Emmanuel Joel-Hornak), making for stylistic accuracy.

Opera Lively has provided in-depth analysis of the opera (circumstances of composition, musical structure, synopsis, famous singers with video clips, etc.) [here].

We will also participate in the pre-opera events, with a table set-up (on opening night only), to sell and sign our book "Opera Lively - The Interviews" which features not only international opera luminaries such as Anna Netrebko and Joyce Didonato, but also Opera Carolina artists such as Maestro James Meena, and singers who participated in the company's productions of last season. The book author, Luiz Gazzola, will also deliver a pre-opera mini-lecture on what to listen for in The Pearl Fishers, at 7:30 PM before the opening night show.

Now, the present article contains interviews with... soprano Janinah Burnett in the role of Leila.... Questions by Luiz Gazzola.

...We tried to keep about the same style for all three interviews - some common questions about the production and the roles to start with (it will be interesting to contrast how the three artists replied to these similar questions), then some more singer-specific questions.


Opera Lively - What are your expectations for this production of The Pearl Fishers by Opera Carolina?

Janinah Burnett - I expect it to be a wonderful production, entertaining, with great music, and fun! We've been in rehearsal every day since I got here. It's coming along well. What is really cool is that the staging has some video projections as part of the visual effects of the opera, and that is going to be nice!

OL - Let's talk about the role of Leila. It's a role for a lyric soprano, with pure and limpid vocality. Does it sit well for you? Your main cavatina ends in a rather high zone. Do you see special challenges in singing this role?

JB - Yes, it does sit well for my voice, I love it. The special challenge is actually to keep the voice high and florid, especially in the first aria which is nothing like the rest of the role [laughs]! It is as if the role goes from lighter coloratura to lyric, and then to full lyric. It is almost as if there are three voices in one, the latter being what is most closely related to a full lyric soprano role.

OL - Famous singers sometimes have avoided this role, afraid that it took second place to the male roles in this opera. Still, there were compelling versions by, among others, Pierrette Alarie, Liliane Berton, Annick Massis, and Mirella Freni. Have any of these, or someone else, functioned as inspiration for you? Do you typically listen to others when you prepare for a role?

JB - The recording that I have is with Ileana Cotrubas, however that was only to just hear the instrumentation and what not. Once I began to sing it with my voice, it was my voice that informed me of how I would sing it, if that makes sense. I didn't really listen to Mirella Freni or any of the other singers that you mentioned. I prefer to have my own take.

OL - The boys get the two big musical moments with the "Au fond du temple saint" duet, and "Je crois entendre encore." The public however sometimes forgets that Leila also has a great musical moment, the cavatina "Comme autrefois, dans la nuit sombre."

JB - Yes, it is very beautiful.

OL - What plans do you have to make of this show and your interpretation of Leila, a compelling one?

JB - Just to sing it as beautifully as I can, to be as committed to allow my voice to be an extension of the emotion of the character as possible. I feel that that is what is going to inform what comes out of my mouth: the commitment to the emotion.

OL - How do you describe the psychology of your character, torn between this impossible choice between love and religious duty? How relevant it is for a contemporary woman? What emotional impact does he have on you, as an artist and as a person?

JB - Yes, we are working with some new concepts that I hadn't even thought about when I did the role before. We had dialogues about the character and about this aspect of the religious duty with regard to Leila. I feel like her commitment to love supersedes everything in this situation. This is connected to me because I feel the same way. Love is so important; love is an amazing, beautiful gift. I definitely relate to my character and with her choices. Things that happened to her in her life before the opera have informed the decisions that she's made. It is not like she is just thinking "oh, duty, this is my calling, I'm a priestess." No, she made her decisions because of love. We discovered that Zurga said to her, "if you feel that you cannot fulfill this assignment that you are taking on, you can walk away and not do it." So, it's not like she has to do it. She chooses to do it because Nadir is there and she chooses to be close to him. This is familiar to me and I definitely identify with her choice.

OL - Now let's talk about your career. You have just recently been a part of a celebrated new production of Parsifal at the Met, with maestro Gatti. This production had excellent reviews. Can you tell us a bit about it, and how was your experience in singing Wagner?

JB - Yes! Oh, I enjoyed it so much, I had a great time! It was a great challenge, it was the first time I sung Wagner. The music was quite challenging. But it was so wonderful to see how my colleagues who have done Wagner, how they approach it and how they sing such difficult music, how they commit themselves to the text! It was wonderful to do something that was so stylized as well! It was a great challenge to be in a production that had physicality and movement with the music. It was a great, great experience. Because the vocal part was so difficult, the conductor advised us to do our best to stay with him; that was a big part of it, [laughs] to just stay connected with him, and to be quick. As far as the language went, we needed to stay true to the vowels as well, that was a big thing.

OL - Especially interesting was your participation in the La Bohème directed by Baz Luhrmann that had 82 consecutive sold-out performances in LA, and also in Broadway, and San Francisco. Would you please tell us about the challenges of singing in these theaters usually suited for musicals, as an opera singer?

JB - It was actually the opera, in spite of it being done in theaters that are usually used for musicals. We sang the opera La Bohème on Broadway. It was nothing different, the score was not changed, the only thing that was different was some of the instrumentation, to accommodate the smaller orchestra pit.

OL - Was it miked?

JB - It was miked, yes.

OL - Was it very different for you, to sing with a microphone?

JB - Not at all, I sang it exactly the same way that I would sing it elsewhere. We didn't even notice that the mikes were there. It wasn't much of an adjustment.

OL - But so many performances in a row were quite a tour-de-force; how did you manage to keep it fresh?

JB - Yes. But what we did was that we had rotating casts. We had three main casts and a cover. I wouldn't necessarily sing back to back all the time. It was fine. And it ended up being a very good way to learn how to sing, because it was really early in my career, it was my first job out of graduate school. So, it was cool, because it wasn't necessarily all the pressure of the opera world. It was a more relaxed setting, in that it was Broadway, they weren't as stringent on certain things, so, it was relaxed, although different for me considering my rigorous opera training. We knew the music, and we performed the music as it was written. It was a very good experience.

OL - You have performed with Ray Charles. How was that? Do you have an interest in crossover or in jazz?

JB - I do sing jazz music, it was the first thing that I sang and studied at school. I enjoy singing all sorts of music, but especially opera and jazz, those are the two that I really sing most frequently. My interaction with Ray Charles was great. He was very animated and serious about his music, and that it was correctly done. It was a good experience! I did it while I was in college, it was fun. It was a good thing to watch him interact with his band and his music directors.

OL - Please tell us about your experience with the group Three Mo' Divas.

JB - Yes! I say that it was a great challenge, because I had to sing in so many different styles! When I was growing up, I always thought that I wanted to be the kind of singer who could sing anything. I didn't want there to be any style that I wasn't able to be proficient in. Three Mo' Divas gave me the opportunity to do that, to practice that, and to fully put that into practice. I enjoyed working with my colleagues, who were all multi-talented as well. It was one of the greatest experiences in my career.

OL - You're taking the Porgy and Bess Suite to Lisbon, and you've done the opera itself several times in various European countries. How does the European public receive this quintessentially American piece?

JB - Oh, they love it. They love that more than anything I've done in Europe. They specifically love the music of the African-American community, the African Diaspora. They love it because there is nothing like it anywhere else. It's indigenous to America. We got standing ovations everywhere.

OL - What are your plans and goals for the future of your career?

JB - Oh my Goodness. Well, in addition to singing in all of the major opera houses around the world, I intend to have a presence in film and television, and I intend to do as much as I can to aid young people, knowing and understanding that they can do so much more than they can ever imagine, so much more than what is presented to them.

OL - Interesting. Do you already have some activity in this kind of outreach?

JB - At the moment, in New York, I am present in working with different community organizations. There are companies there like Opera Noire and Opera Ebony that have good outreach opportunities for me. I used to teach at the Harlem School of the Arts but my schedule got so hectic that I wasn't able to continue my teaching there, but any chance that I get to help the kids when I'm home, I do. In fact, last night I sang at the Delta Sigma Theta Cotillion for High School women in Charlotte, and I was so glad that the head of the Opera Board asked me to do so! It was a pleasure.

OL - I've interviewed a few weeks ago Lawrence Brownlee, and we were talking about the beautiful African-American classical music repertoire that is unfortunately poorly know. He has just released a CD with spirituals. Do you have any plans to diffuse this repertoire?

JB - Yes, In fact I perform spirituals regularly and do have plans to do some recordings, I do.

OL - How did you become an opera singer? How did classical music come into your life?

JB - I went to an HBCU [Editor's note: Historically Black Colleges and Universities] called Spelman College, and it was there that I got into classical music, because my colleagues sang it and I knew about it, but it just hadn't crossed my path in such a way that I was ready to study it. So, I got into it in my sophomore year, and I was full on into classical singing. By the time I graduated I knew that I wanted to continue with my study of the classical music idiom.

OL - How are you as a person? Would you describe a bit your personality, likes and dislikes, and interests outside of opera?

JB - I guess my interests outside of opera are pretty varied. I enjoy dancing, yoga, listening to different styles of music, going to hear different styles of music, I just enjoy many things that will expand my horizons all involved with the arts somehow, or yoga [laughs]. But I'm a pretty reserved person, not so outgoing all of the time.

OL - Thank you so much, I'll be there Saturday rooting for you and hoping that it will be a fabulous show; I'm sure it will.

JB - Yes, it will. It will be wonderful, thank you.

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