Tuesday, February 12, 2013

ARTISTS CORNER: Soprano Brenda Harris

ARTISTS CORNER:  Soprano Brenda Harris, who has sung leading roles on major stages around the world, will make her Sarasota Opera debut as Turandot in this season's opening production of Puccini's Turandot which opened February 9th and runs through March 23.  We asked Ms. Harris to answer a few questions about her life as a singer and why she chose Sarasota Opera as the opera company to debut this iconic role.

Brenda Harris, soprano.  Photo by Lisa Kohler
 Q.  What drew you to become a singer?  Was there a specific “Aha!” moment of clarity?

A.  I sang as soon as I could talk and gave “recitals” for my family starting at the age of 3.  That said, I really thought I would be an educator (high school music teacher) and probably had my "aha" moment when, during college, I got into the chorus at Opera Theatre of St. Louis.  I grew up on a pig farm in a town of 400 in Illinois (my parents still live and farm there) which is only an hour away from St. Louis so it seemed like an interesting summer job.  Little did I know I would meet my husband that first weekend of rehearsals AND that he would also be my one and only voice teacher!  From that first rehearsal, I knew I wanted to do this opera thing forever!

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

A.  This is my first time with Turandot so that’s a hard question.  I adore the music and I feel sure it will be fun to sing.  I have to admit I also think it’ll be cool to be decked out in her costume and make-up!

Q.  What made you choose Sarasota Opera as the first place to present the role of Turandot?

A.  I’ve heard a lot about the company over the years and so I know that things there are done with care.  My husband and I knew Stephanie and Victor many years ago when we first started singing and I reconnected with Stephanie a few years ago when she directed me in a production of ‘Macbeth’.  I look forward to spending time professionally and personally with both of them.  Also, Sarasota Opera does  many performances.  That’s a big draw to me.  One never really knows if a role is a match without getting to try it out a number of times.  I figured this job with this many performances would really let me know if I liked it and it liked me!
Ms. Harris as Turandot in Sarasota Opera's 2013 production.  Photo by Rod Millington

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

A.  I think all artists probably have a unique process with regard to preparation.  I’ve talked to many of my fellow artists about it and we all seem to have different paths.  I’m a very visual person so I’ve learned over the years to put absolutely EVERYTHING in my score.  One of my greatest fears is losing my scores.  I have markings upon markings that have been painstakingly gathered through research, lessons and coachings and my score becomes almost an appendage when I’m learning.  The other thing I know about myself is that memory and staging are inextricably linked.  I loathe memorizing without staging and yet, of course, it has to be done.  But, once I have something on its feet, it’s pretty much in my head, too.

Q.  Beyond the musical work, what other kind of preparation/research work do you incorporate in the learning process?  Historical?  Character study? 

A.  I listen to lots of recordings.  I know many singers who don’t but I feel knowing the history and tradition of other singers is absolutely essential.  I have a friend who is a great collector and he provides me with wonderful things that aren’t commercially available so I do a lot of listening to live and/or historical recordings.  I read source material if I can find it, and also read about the composer’s life/mindset at the time of the opera’s composition.  Again, I prepare in advance as best I can but I find there’s nothing like staging.  Once I’m in a room with my colleagues and start to respond to them, the production and the act of singing the role, things move quickly forward!

As Vitellia in La clemenza di Tito at the Metropolitan Opera
Q.  How does your preparation process differ between a role you have performed before and a role you are doing for the first time? 

A.  Greatly!  All the time consuming first work is done and in my very marked up score.  A lot of pressure in the process is removed and I try to apply whatever vocal changes/improvements I’ve made in the ensuing time to that next set of performances.  It’s faster and a lot more fun!

Q.  What knowledge about the character of Turandot do you want the audience to leave with after the performance? 

A.  That she’s a woman.  Just a woman.  She’s a woman who has allowed her fear to drive her to desperate acts and once her heart is opened, we see her and her humanity.

Q.  Thus far, what is the most bizarre experience you have had during a rehearsal?  During a performance?
A.  Oh my gosh, I could write a book!  The first that comes to mind was a tenor’s pants falling DOWN to his ankles in the curtain call of a performance!  Yes, true!  Very recently, I was singing Leonore in ‘Fidelio’ and in the final prison scene the gun barrel snapped off during a performance in the final Quartet.  I’ve nearly lost wigs, I’ve slipped and fallen on a raked stage covered in sand, I had the organ fail in the church scene in ‘Faust’ and those are just a few!  And during rehearsals?  Don’t even get me started.  I ADORE what I do for many reasons; the pure joy of singing, the thought that maybe what I’m doing touches people in the audience the way singers touched me when I first started studying opera, but one of the other great things is the fun we have in rehearsals.  I have so many friends and colleagues with whom I enjoy working and most of the time, it’s because we can make each other laugh.  I truly believe great art happens in that atmosphere.

Ms. Harris in the title role of Samuel Barber's Vanessa in Palermo
 Q.  Do you have any pre-performance rituals?  Performance superstitions?  Good luck charms?  If yes, why?

A.  I don’t consider myself to be a superstitious person but somehow, a few years ago, I got into the habit of playing games of Freecell on my computer on performance days and that evolved into a little ritual.  I must win the majority of games before I go to the theater!  My husband and I laugh about it but still, I play until I win!

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

A.  I absolutely love being home!   I love to putter at home improvement projects (I’m a big DIY gal!) and I adore cooking and baking.  I can spend hours in our kitchen and be happy as a clam.  We live near the ocean so beach walks are a big part of our lives, too.  And I’m a crossword and suduko nut!

Ms. Harris as Lady Macbeth in
Edmonton Opera's Macbeth
Q.  How do you stay connected to family and friends when you are “on the road”?  Do you keep a blog?  Website? Facebook?  Twitter?

A.  I am on Facebook but I was dragged into it kicking and screaming by some colleagues at a job a few years ago.  I admit to enjoying it now.  I do have a website (BrendaHarrisSoprano.com if you want to visit!) as well.  But, I’m a big one for e-mail.  I’d say that’s the main way I stay in touch with my friends and family.

Q.  As we have people that travel from around the United States to attend performances at Sarasota Opera, are there any towns or cities that you have a strong connection with whether from growing up or attending school?

A.  I absolutely adore the Twin Cities.  I’ve done a dozen productions or more at the Minnesota Opera and I have many, many friends there.  It’s almost like a second home.  And call me crazy, but I adore winter and all that goes with it.  Most of the shows I’ve done in Minnesota have been in January and I love it!  Also, as I mentioned, I love St. Louis and have fond feelings for my time there.  And I’ve spend the last 4 summers at Des Moines Metro Opera and I go back there this coming summer.  I love being there and getting to work with the young artists as well as perform.
Don't miss Brenda Harris' tour-de-force performance as the ice princess Turandot now open through March 23rd.  Tickets are available at www.sarasotaopera.org or by calling (941) 328-1300. 

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