This week Opera Carolina performs its production of Verdi’s La Traviata, one of the most popular operas ever produced. Based on the true love story between Alexander Dumas and Marie Duplessis, the opera is itself the basis for the story in Moulin Rouge. I recently had the opportunity to sit down with soprano Jennifer Black, who plays the lead role of Violeta Valery, Paris’ most famous courtesan.
Jennifer made her New York City Opera as Musetta in La Boeheme in 2006, and has had a string of impressive debuts in her career. From playing Lisa in the Metropolitan Opera’s 2009 production of La Sonnambula and again with the Met in 2010 as Micaela in their production of Carmen. Her complete bio can be found here.
I caught up with her after rehearsal and asked her to share her thoughts on starting out in her career, how to approach opera with newbies, and even on women’s body images. It was a delight. Her voice is as gorgeous as she is, but what really shone was the ease she made me feel, as well as her enthusiasm for sitting down to talk, even after a long rehearsal.
What type of training did you go through in college?
I didn’t start singing really until my senior year of high school. I sort of locked myself in my bedroom and sung to myself, but I didn’t want to do it front of anyone else. But vocal training with me and my undergrad teacher focused a lot on technique and developing a healthy technique. She wouldn’t let me sing above a high ‘G’ and I remember thinking “I can, I can. I want to show you.” But she wanted to make sure so we built up the middle voice and all of this stuff before going up high. And I really didn’t have any bad habits because I really hadn’t learned how to sing quite yet. So I really lucked out with the teacher I had in undergrad. We got along really well, I understood her vocabulary because sometimes that can be a real barrier between teacher and student if they learned different vocabulary and a set of terms you’re not familiar with. But I did undergrad for 5 years and a lot focused on technique and languages and stuff like that.
If I wanted to bring an adult and “break the ice” of the opera to them, which one would you suggest?
La Traviata or La Boheme, I would say either.
What has been your favorite role to date?
Actually I’d have to say Violetta. Mimi and I get along really well (I talk about my characters like they’re actual people.) Even though this is a musical rehearsal you still have to “get into it” at a certain level. But Violetta has been through so much. She’s extremely well-educated, knowledgeable, emotional, self-sacrificing, selfless in fact. But she also realizes “Alright, I’ve had my happiness and it was great while it lasted, but it’s over.”
La Traviata’s first performance in 1873 was a failure, but now it’s listed as the #3 opera in America. Why do you think La Traviata endures?
It’s got to be the music and the story line. If you want to generalize opera as far as the story, I don’t know what sets it apart from other operas. But the music is irreplaceable. It’s Verdi.
I want to ask about Moulin Rouge. Do you think more people would attend if they knew La Traviata was the basis for the musical?
Baz Luhrmann did the Broadway version of La Bohemme. Basically it was the opera, with an up-to-date cast and an up-to-date production. So Baz Luhrmann had an interest in opera, and I’m sure he saw La Traviata and thought “This is a good story. I can use this, I can sell this.” He put it in a time that was extremely popular and very colorful. He used that as an effect to reach audiences with this fantastic story. And of course the cast was amazing…
That was my next question. Would you like to have seen a trained vocalist?
I have great respect for who do straight theater and then like in the movie “Chicago,” I have great respect for any actor/actress that decides they want to use their own voice in these things. However, speaking strictly from a career point of view, that takes away opportunities from singers. But still they’re well-known actors/actresses that sell tickets.
Also, do you feel more pressure to be a size 0?
Oh yes, you get more everyday.
Deborah Voigt didn’t get cast for a role because she couldn’t get fitted for the dress. How do you feel about that? Do you think it takes away from the performance?
I think it does. Not a lot of opera singers are built like actresses. A lot of singers have had gastric bypass, plastic surgery, etc. because they may have to wear a bikini or even be naked on stage. It’s becoming like Hollywood. You have to support your voice and there’s a delicate balance. And every body is different. Everyone has their optimum body weight, but unfortunately that optimum may not be what’s popular at a given moment.