Wednesday, October 24, 2012

ARTISTS CORNER: Mezzo Soprano Heather Johnson

ARTISTS CORNER:  This season, mezzo soprano Heather Johnson, last seen as Elizabeth Proctor in the 2011 production of The Crucible, returns to make her role debut as the sultry Maddalena in this seasons production of Rigoletto opening Friday, October 26th. 

We asked Ms. Johnson to answer a few questions about life as a singer, what she enjoys about singing in Sarasota and her thoughts on portraying a new type of character Sarasota audiences have never seen her as before.    

Mezzo soprano Heather Johnson
What drew you to become a singer?  Was there a specific “Aha!” moment of clarity?

Well, I guess you could say I came to it naturally.  My parents are both professional musicians so I’ve been surrounded by music my entire life.  My father is a choral conductor and my mother is pianist/organist (also, my grandfather was an accomplished tenor). They devoted their lives to educating young people in music, including myself. I was drenched with classical music whether it be orchestral, chamber music, oratorio or opera from the time I came out of the womb.  I was that kid on the block that could tell the difference between Pavoratti and Domingo or Mozart and Haydn.  I starting playing the violin at age 4, then added piano to my studies at age 7 which I continued to study though my college years.  I even played the oboe (horribly, I might add) for two years in middle school.  Although I loved playing these instruments I REALLY loved singing.  I always sang in choirs and did kiddie musicals.  I loved the drama of being on stage.  When I was 15 I started taking voice lessons and knew that singing, above all, was what I wanted to focus on.

But, it wasn’t until I got to college at St. Olaf and had several of my “aha” moments that I knew I wanted to spend my life as a singer.  One of these moments was while I was taking a advance opera history class where we focused on four different operas one of which was Aida.  I will never forget sitting at the listening station in the music library at St. Olaf having listened to the entire opera and sobbing when I reached the final scene.  I was so incredibly moved.  I turned to the person next to me with tears running down my face and said “this is the greatest thing I’ve even heard”.  They just looked at me like I was crazy and went back to their work.  I knew that I was officially addicted to opera.

Ms. Johnson in the title role of Rossini's La Cenerentola

What are you looking forward to most about performing this particular role?

Maddalena is a new role for me and I always get excited to perform new roles.  I’m especially looking forward to sharing the stage with my incredible colleagues and friends.   And, I’m not going to lie to you, I like being the “bad girl”!   So far here in Sarasota I have played two boys (Beppe in L’amico Fritz and Hansel in Hansel and Gretel), Cinderella (La Cenerentola) and a puritan (Elizabeth Proctor in The Crucible).  It’s fun to let loose and be the sexy vixen.  Having played opposite Hak Soo Kim many times in different Rossini operas where we’re quite proper and innocent, it’s a whole new experience for us to get a little down and dirty in this opera.

Is there something unique about your process for preparing for a role for performance?

Every artist prepares roles in different ways so I guess the answer is yes.  I always start by reading the libretto.   It’s imperative to understand the story, your character and how your character relates to others when you start working on a role. I then dive into the music.   I always work with my teacher and coach when preparing for a job, even if I’ve done the role many times.  It’s always good to refresh it.

What do you want the audience to know about your character?  What do you find most challenging about this role?

Maddalena is a woman who does what she needs in order to survivel; she’s not all bad (wink wink).  I would say the most challenging aspect of the role is it’s brevity.   I have to pack a lot into a short amount of stage time!

Ms. Johnson as Elizabeth Proctor in
The Crucible
Do you have any pre-performance rituals?  Performance superstitions?  Good luck charms?  If yes, why?

Nothing really too special.  I try to rest the day of a performance both physically and emotionally.  I will usually go for a walk to get the blood flowing early in the day then rest and sometimes take a little snooze.  It really varies on the role. But when it gets closer to show time I always do the same routine.  I eat my meal 2 hours before I have to sing, organize my things I’m bring to the theater then take a long hot shower to really get a ton of steam on my vocal cords.  I use that time in the shower to warm up my voice.  After that I head to the theater to start getting in make-up.  While I’m in my dressing room waiting to start I always look over my score and any notes I need to incorporate into the performance.   The last thing I do is put my costume on.  For some reason, I like to get “suited up” later than most people would be comfortable about 15-20 minutes before the curtain.  The only superstition I have, which isn’t really a superstition, is that I have to have my score with me at every performance.  I need to be able to look through the role, especially if it’s an opera with a lot of recitative, during my time in my dressing room.  I guess it’s more habit and less superstition.

How do you relax in between performances?  What hobbies do you enjoy at home and “on the road”?

It really depends where I am on the gig.   Here in Sarasota it’s like paradise so I love to go to the beach and relax by the water or go for a ride on my bike.  But, I usually have to spend a lot of my down time between shows studying for my upcoming engagements and taking care of general life business.   I also really love spending time with my colleagues.  If you know me you know I’m a very social person and I love to socialize with my colleagues.  One of my favorite things to do is have everyone over and cook for them.

How do you stay connected to family and friends when you are “on the road”?  Do you keep a blog?  Website? Facebook?  Twitter?

I do a lot of talking on the phone, texting and emailing.  I’m on Facebook as well.  I am way too boring and lazy to have a blog.  Plus, I don’t really get blogs.

Are there towns or cities that you have a strong connection with whether from growing up or attending school?

Although I have become a New Yorker having lived there for 14 years I will always be a true Minnesota girl at heart.  I was born and raised in St. Paul, Minnesota, well, right outside of St. Paul in White Bear Lake (GO BEARS!) so Minnesota is in my blood.   Also, central New Hampshire is a very special place for me and my family.  We spent every summer of my life growing up there at the New Hampshire Music Festival where my father is the choral conductor.  Some of my fondest memories are from my time there.

Are there any charities you are passionate about or donate your time?

I am very passionate about arts education.  Although not a charity, I have been involved with the Education Department at New York City Opera since 2000 as a teaching artist and curriculum advisor.  Even though my performing schedule has become quite full, I always find time to teach my 7th grade opera class at West Side Collaborative Middle School, a public middle school in New York.  I see the difference music and more specifically opera makes in these young people’s lives and I believe by getting them hooked at a young age we will build future audiences and enrich their lives.

A charity that I believe in strongly and have participated with is Sing for Hope.  It was founded by two dear friends and fellow singers Camille Zamora and Monica Yunus.  Sing for Hope mobilizes thousands of professional artists from singers to painters to dancers in volunteer service programs that bring the power of the arts to those who need it most.

Don't miss you chance to see Ms. Johnson in this season's fall production of Rigoletto opening this Friday, October 26th and running through November 12th.  Tickets are available online at or by calling the Sarasota Opera Box Office at (941) 328-1300.

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