Opera Daily 🎶 — An Interview with Heather Johnson, Mezzo-Soprano

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If you missed the first post in this series where we covered German tenor Jonas Kaufmann and many others singing “Pourquoi me réveiller” from Werther, you could find it here.

We have a surprise for today!

We are continuing the Werther theme, but we have a surprise twist for today. In anticipation of the launch of Listening Club on January 15th and to give you a taste of some of what’s to come (stay tuned for an email on Monday, January 4th with early supporter pricing and an opportunity to join), we are sharing an interview we did with a very special mezzo-soprano, Heather Johnson. Hailed by Opera News as “a dramatic singer in the truest sense”, Heather has received critical acclaim for her work on both the opera and concert stage. She is an accomplished performer (you can learn more about her background and her performing career online) but our goal for today is to go deeper with Heather, the person and the professional, and for us to see the opera world through her eyes. We believe the key to listening well is to experience the world through the eyes of someone else. See what they see. Feel what they feel. That doesn’t mean you have to agree but we believe this is when our minds open up. Everyone has a story, and we can all learn a lesson or two from the world’s most successful. Today is just the beginning as we introduce you to established artists of the present and past.

Let’s dive in!


Interview with Heather Johnson, mezzo-soprano

Which recording(s) of Werther would you recommend?

I have a couple for different reasons. First, Kraus/Troyanos with the London Philharmonic is overall just the best. It is heartbreaking and so beautiful. They capture the authentic French flavor of the piece. I also love the recording with (José) Carreras and (Frederica) von Stade, mostly for Flicka’s performance. It’s so innocent and yet passionate. She captures the essence of the 20-year-old Charlotte. But, my favorite live performance video is from Torino with Roberto Alagna and Kate Aldrich. Kate sings possibly the perfect Act 3 I have ever heard, and the passion between the two of them is intoxicating. Also, Alagna is just stunning in the role. His first language is French and the way he caresses the language is just delicious.  

🎧 Listen here to Heather’s Werther recommendations:

Tatiana Troyanos (Charlotte), Alfredo Kraus (Werther), Michel Plasson, conductor, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Excerpts from Act 1 and Act 3

Frederica von Stade (Charlotte), José Carreras (Werther), Sir Colin Davis, conductor, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Full Opera here

Kate Aldrich (Charlotte), Roberto Alagna (Werther), Alain Guingal, conductor, Teatro Regio Torino, ‘Va! laisse couler mes larmes!’, ‘Pourquoi me réveiller, ô souffle du printemps!’, and more here.

(Heather’s selections have been added to our playlist on YouTube).

What would you like people to know about Werther, specifically Charlotte? 

Werther is a tricky opera for companies to program. It never quite sells great, so it’s not programmed very often. It is an opera without a lot of action but a lot of emotion. So much of the storytelling happens through the internal emotions of the characters....lots of letters! Some people say it’s the greatest opera where little happens. Charlotte is such a beautifully complex young woman. Her internal struggle is heartbreaking, from her deep sense of duty to Albert to her passionate yearning for Werther. She has to grow up so quickly, and she wants to do the right thing, but Werther has stolen her heart, and the more she tries to resist, the more she gets pulled in. Playing Charlotte is an exercise in pacing and restraint so that the moments of her giving in, to her love for Werther are intense and free. We have all experienced moments in our lives when we have a choice to follow our head or our heart...it’s never an easy decision.

Describe yourself in a hashtag.

#mezzomom

What 3 people living or dead would you like to make dinner for? 

Roger Federer, Leonard Bernstein and Rossini.

Book that you would recommend you all to read? 

A Year Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs. You will laugh; you will cry on A.J.’s journey.

What’s one ingredient you put in everything? 

Garlic (and salt). I know that’s two!

The best piece of advice you’ve received? 

Go to bed angry if you have to; nothing gets solved late at night. And it’s true! 

Before you sing, do you eat or drink anything special? 

Everything needs to be bland, like plain pasta, etc., and I eat it about 3 hours before the performance. I also always have apple juice before and during a performance.

If your life were a song, what would the title be?

“Slow and Steady Wins the Race.”

What's your most controversial opinion about opera, and why do you hold it?

The introduction of the Met HD in movie theaters has not been positive for the greater opera community. Don’t get me wrong, while I think it’s excellent for opera lovers, The Met and the singers in them (full disclosure: I have been in them), it has been hard on small companies. Smaller opera companies are the lifeblood of the art form throughout the country and the world. Unfortunately, the HD broadcasts have taken audience members from these smaller companies. People think, “Why would I spend $75 or more to see La Bohème with Opera Maine when I can go to the movie theater and see The Met for $25?” It has taken precious revenue and support away from these companies vital to keeping the art form alive. Also, I believe that opera was not meant to be seen up close. The actual act of singing opera isn’t always “pretty” up close when working hard through a challenging role. It’s such a physical act, like being an athlete, that having a camera up close isn’t always pleasant. I think it has upped singers’ game as far as acting is concerned on the flip side. It has created a culture of much more realistic acting, which I love as a method-like actor myself!

What was the last role you performed? 

Jan Arnold in Everest by Joby Talbott with Austin Opera right before the pandemic started.

What is your favorite role to sing? 

Gosh, I don't have just one. Top 3...Carmen, of course, it’s a dream to sing and act. Jessie from The Long Walk by Jeremy Howard Beck. I premiered this opera in 2015 and this role was created for me. It’s so magical to sing something tailor made to show off your voice. I sing a tremendous amount of new opera, and this one, by far, was the most incredible piece (and role) I have ever done. Finally, third is a tie between the title role in Tancredi, a perfectly structured Rossini role (I also sing a lot of bel canto), and believe it or not, Suzuki in Madama Butterfly. People might think this is a thankless role, but she has some of the most delicious music in the opera with the duet in Act 2 and the trio in Act 3. Also, she is such a rich character. She is the only one who never leaves Cio Cio San's side. She is entirely devoted, and because of that, her fate is directly tied to Cio Cio San's. 

Would you like to hear Heather sing an aria from The Long Walk ? Check out this workshop performance.

Have you always known you wanted to be a singer or did the passion develop over time? 

I knew since I was 15 that I wanted to be a singer. My parents’ are both musicians, so I have been surrounded by music and opera since I was a young child. I’ve played the violin and piano since I was four but I always loved singing. When I started taking voice lessons at age 15, I knew this was it for me. I was obsessed!

In one sentence, can you tell us what makes a great singer? 

A dramatic risk taker who is vocally very solid and consistent.

If you could sing any role, regardless of voice type, what would it be? 

Cio Cio San or Tosca...I love me some passionate Puccini heroines!   

The general feeling is that opera can be intimidating. Why do you think that is? And how do we make it more approachable? 

Oh boy, how long do we have? Opera has a reputation for being unapproachable for several reasons, in my opinion. First, it has become “elitist” as ticket prices have climbed. It’s been difficult for many to afford to attend. It was meant to be an art form for “the people”. Going to a new opera was like going to a new movie, but unfortunately, this has changed over the years. Second, the language barrier. Many people think they won't understand it because so many are in other languages than English. Third, there is a stereotype in popular culture of opera singers being fat wearing horns with stories that are boring. This couldn't be further than the truth—and fourth, in my opinion, most importantly, education. Music education for young people has significantly declined over the last few decades to the point where many schools do not even offer music classes. It is a sad commentary on what our society values. I am a strong advocate for music education, spending a large portion of my life working with young kids in the New York Public Schools, teaching them about opera along side my performing career. When you teach them at a young age to appreciate (they don't have to love it) classical music/opera, really educating them with all the wonders that lie within it, this demystifies and makes it accessible to anyone. I am a true believer in not dumbing down anything; there’s no need. You show them, passionately, the beauty, and the art itself does the rest. 

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How do you differentiate between a good operatic performance from a less good one? Do those two things even exist? 

Yes, I do believe they exist! But, because opera is an art, good and less good is subjective. One person might have loved a performance and the next might think…nahh. And that is ok! For me personally, a good performance is a combination of great singing and great acting. Although, sometimes, I am riveted by someone's dramatic performance so much that I will forgive some vocal flaws and vice versa. A great performance is one that moves me.

If you could play one aria for someone who has never listened to any opera, what would it be? 

I have been thinking about this repeatedly, and it's so hard to pick just one. Should you choose Mozart? Handel? Puccini? Rossini? Stravinsky? Russian? SO HARD!  First, I thought “O mio babbino caro” from Gianni Schicchi because it's just plain beautiful and is so classically Puccini but I think I have to say “Un bel dìvedremo” from Madame Butterfly as it is perfection in dramatic storytelling and make me cry every time.

Ask me about this, and I will tell you a good story.  

When I met Pavarotti in his dressing room at the Met......

🤔 Know someone who’d enjoy this interview? 

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Many thanks to Heather for sharing with all of us today. 🙏

🗣 Have a question for Heather? Leave it in the comments, and she will answer!

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Thank you again for reading and listening,

Michele

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