Thursday, February 6, 2014

ARTISTS CORNER: Soprano Dara Hobbs

Soprano Dara Hobbs
Dramatic soprano Dara Hobbs, who will be singing Senta in this season's production of Wagner's The Flying Dutchman, has already built an impressive career of leading roles as opera houses around the world.
Her operatic experience includes the title roles in Tosca, Aida, Ariadne auf Naxos, and Tristan und Isolde, and leading roles in Suor Angelica, Don Carlo, and Die Fledermaus.  In addition to five seasons as a a full time soloist at Theater Mönchengladbach in Krefeld, Germany, recent appearances include performing at Opera Frankfurt, Bayreuther Festspiele, Theater Bonn, Theater Minden, and the Tonhalle Düsseldorf.  In 2014 she looks forward to a return to the Bayreuther Festspiele as Ortlinde (Die Walküre) and singing Isolde at Theater Chemnitz and Theater Regensburg.

Q. Where are you originally from and where do you make your home now?
A. I grew up in southeastern Wisconsin, near Lake Geneva. I went to college and grad school at Northwestern University near Chicago and lived in Chicagoland for 15+ years before moving
to Germany in 2007. I now live outside Cologne, Germany.

Q. What drew you to become a singer?  Was there a specific “Aha!” moment of clarity?
A. I can't remember a time when I didn't sing, pretty much constantly throughout the day, either under my breath or aloud. My grandmother was a trained singer; my mother is a professional harpist and pianist, and my afternoon naps were often accompanied by my mother practicing. I would sing while on my backyard swing set, not realizing the whole neighborhood could hear me, and I had piano and flute lessons from an early age, was in church and school choirs and so on. I absolutely adored watching Oklahoma! and The Sound of Music, and as a teenager, my parents took me to hear Leontyne Price sing. I think I fell in love that night. For me, it was a pipe dream for many years – a dream, not something realistic, and my parents, being very practical people, emphasized the importance of a “realistic” professional life and earning a living. My father thought I'd make a fabulous computer programmer, but over the years he's become one of my biggest fans. I don't think I even really believed singing would work out for me, right up until I received my first full-time contract in Europe.

Q. Did you have other career aspirations in the works before you decided on singing?  
A. I wanted to be a singer for as long as I can remember, but I hedged my bets by doing a double degree program and I had professional experience in other fields up until I was in my early 30s – as a dramatic soprano, you aren't really suited for a lot of smaller roles, and your voice doesn't mature enough to be marketable for lead roles until that time. I worked as a bilingual insurance agent, I taught English as a Second Language, I worked full-time for a church for a while – all interesting jobs, but definitely not what I wanted to do long-term.
Ms. Hobbs as Isolde in Tristan und Isolde at Theater Bonn.  Photo by Thilo Beu
Q. You were a member of both the Sarasota Opera Apprentice and Studio Artist programs.  Do you feel that experience helped to prepare you for a professional singing career?
A. Absolutely. I like to say that Sarasota helped raise me. It's an invaluable experience, seeing the process in action, understanding how it all works, how things come together, honing one's craft, watching how the soloists do things, getting a sense of the workplace atmosphere. Maestro DeRenzi also gave me invaluable career advice when I was here previously, telling me that because of the “German sound” of my instrument, I would do best to focus on German repertoire (Wagner, Strauss, etc) and he was very specific: figure out what roles are going to be most likely for you to perform, and learn them – the complete roles, not just the arias. Learn German. Go to Germany. Because, as he pointed out, every small and medium-sized house in Germany does German repertoire, but in the U.S., it's mostly just the big houses, who only hire world-famous singers. In Germany, I'd have the opportunity to sing all sorts of the right repertoire for me, instead of trying to force my voice into the repertoire available here in the U.S.

Q. You worked as a full time soloist at Theater Krefeld-Mönchengladbach in Germany from 2007 to 2012. That is different from American opera companies where you are hired for only one show at a time.  How did you enjoy singing primarily at one opera house for five years?
A. It was wonderful. I had the best of both worlds – a full-time position at two houses but enough free time to fit in work at other opera companies once a season. I am a person who really likes to have a home. I don't enjoy living out of a suitcase. So being full-time in one place for five years was wonderful: I had terrific repertoire to sing, an opportunity to really build repertoire and gain experience, great colleagues, interesting work, and could develop a sense of “a home away from home.” Even now that I am freelance, my husband and I still live in the area, so I've been able to keep in touch with the friends and colleagues who've become such a big part of my life. And I had the chance to sing one lead role after another, and a wide variety of repertoire, from Don Carlo, Aida, and Tosca to Die Fledermaus, Ariadne auf Naxos, Tristan and Isolde, and Brünnhilde (The Ring Cycle) - even Pique Dame in Russian. That is the advantage – and sometimes the disadvantage – to being full-time at a medium-sized house: you GET to sing everything, but you also HAVE TO sing everything. I sang Ann Trulove (The Rake's Progress), Countess Almaviva (The Marriage of Figaro) and Brünnhilde all at the same time – pretty extreme ends of my repertoire spectrum. My last season I seemed to sing every direction at once: Countess, Brünnhilde, Elisabeth in Don Carlo, Rosalinde in Die Fledermaus, a modern work, and they wanted me to do Norma as well, which I declined. My brain and voice were going in enough different directions, especially when Countess and Brünnhilde were two days apart. But it was wonderful, and I was sorry to leave – I only did so because my agent really felt it was time to move on. I miss my colleagues and I'm not thrilled to be freelancing, but it's also been a great experience, freeing me up to really focus on the German repertoire, freeing me up to come here to Sarasota again, to sing Sieglinde (Die Walküre) in Frankfurt, to sing in Bayreuth, and to sing Isolde (Tristan und Isolde) pretty much non-stop. So it's all been good!
Ms. Hobbs (center) as Sieglinde in Die Walkure at Oper Frankfurt.  Photo by Wolfgang Runkel 
Q. What can you tell us about the character of Senta?  What do you want the audience to know about her?
A. I think Senta has been living her life on two levels for a long time – the dream level and the reality one. I can identify with this, having dreamed of being a singer for so many years while I went about the business of earning a living in other fields. I think she has long had an intense, deep longing for an extraordinary life, a longing to be “the one” who saves the Dutchman – she believes in this story, is fascinated by it, almost obsessed. But she goes about her life in the meantime, at least on the surface, telling herself it will probably never happen, accepting that she should probably be realistic, be with Erik, lead a “normal” life, trying to ignore that something is missing in her feelings for him, because at some level, she doesn't believe she'll ever meet this phantasm. But from the first minute she does, there is an almost audible click – everything else falls away and he has her complete and total attention, devotion, passion. Clearly, she would rather have a short but intensely meaningful life than a long but mundane one. She is a woman of intense passion, deep feelings, and secrets.

Ms. Hobbs in the title role of Tosca 
at Theater Krefeld.
Photo by Mattias Stutte
Q. How do you prepare a role for performance?  Beyond the music, what other type of preparation work do you do?
A. Of course one does background study, learning about the piece, the history behind it, the circumstances in which it was written, the meaning of it in the composer's life, where it falls in his oeuvre and so on. It's also so helpful to speak the language well, because it's so important to try to understand the nuances of the text, which may be saying much more than it seems on the surface. Tristan und Isolde, for example, spend much of the second act philosophizing, speaking in very poetic ways, almost psychoanalyzing things, and the text is incredibly complicated and difficult to understand, even for native speakers. In addition, Wagner uses outdated expressions that aren't used any more, and it's important to understand where that is coming from – was it a usual expression in his time? Was is out of date even then? Does it stem from the time at which the piece is set, rather than from when it was written? What is the significance of that, if any? In addition to work with the text, there is a need for an emotional preparation, trying to understand the motivations of the character, her emotional world, where she's coming from – what are her passions, what is driving her, what is her life like? Mostly we see only a small fragment of that life – what is the rest of it like? How does she spend her time? Is she rich, with servants; is she poor, and scrubbing and cleaning much of the day? How is she dressed? What is her home like, both physically and emotionally? Does she live with parents or with someone else? Is she loved at home? Are her parents (or whomever) kind? What is her outlook on the world – is she an optimist or not? Is she hopeful that her life will be happy, or pretty certain it won't be? Does she have a plan for her life? What is she looking forward to, hoping for, dreading?

Q. Wagner roles seem particularly demanding.  Are there additional challenges in singing a Wagner role compared to other types of roles you have performed?
A. The main things needed in a Wagner role are strength, flexibility and especially endurance. The sheer amount of voice needed is always a challenge.  The orchestra is usually huge, and the operas are frequently very long, so getting the role into your voice takes on new dimensions – sometimes it takes a few productions before you really feel comfortable with a role.

My first Wagner role was Isolde – I also did some excerpts from the Brünnhildes -  and both “sit” really well for my voice, but Isolde  (and the “complete” Brünnhilde) are two of the longest roles there are, so I was surprised to start with them, and thrilled when I finally got a chance to sing some of the shorter roles: Sieglinde last year, Ortlinde (one of the Walküres) in Bayreuth, and now Senta – I thought, “Oh, after Isolde, they'll be a walk in the park.” Not so. Senta is probably only a third as long as Isolde but it sits differently and I am every bit as vocally tired at the end as I am after singing Isolde. I can sing Senta through once in a day, but I simply cannot rehearse it for hours on end, certainly not full voice – it is too tiring.

Dutchman is one of Wagner's earliest operas that is still performed today, and it's been said that Wagner got better as he went along, that he learned to write better and better for singers, and I have to say I tend to agree. Senta is unusually tiring for the length of the piece. I'm still figuring out how much voice to give, whether to pull back a bit so as to have some reserves, or whether to really sing it full out, in order to produce the kind of sound – and the amount of sound - one expects. As with many roles, it's a case of finding the line between enough and too much voice, but that line feels more elusive than with most roles. It's been very interesting.

Ms. Hobbs as Isolde in Wagner's Tristan und Isolde at Theater Bonn.  Photo by Matthis Stutte
Q. What advice would you give someone who might be intimidated to see their first Wagner opera?
A. Oh, don't be! It's such an amazing thing – think of it as a movie but even more intense, and try to keep an open mind.  Of course some of it may seem over the top – but focus on the music and the emotions, not the details.  It can be hard to handle the intensity of the music – it can be wrenching. But let it flow over you, let yourself simply experience it. And the emotions: most of us have at least a few times in our lives in which we have very intense experiences and emotions: death of a deeply beloved friend or family member, divorce, betrayal, heartbreak, falling in love, the end of a cherished dream, etc. Opera puts the most intense experiences of our lives on the stage – no one buys a ticket to watch someone wash their laundry, pay their bills, or go through other humdrum everyday experiences. We go to experience that intensity - usually there is something that we can identify with, something that strikes a chord of recognition or memory from a time when we, too, felt like that. Alternatively, it can be an opportunity to experience these things vicariously, because let's admit it, it can be too much to experience them in our own lives.

Q. Thus far, what is the most bizarre experience you have had during a rehearsal?  During a performance?
A. Well, after a rehearsal last summer I had a lot of my hair cut off by accident by the hair and makeup department. They had french-braided my hair and sewn magnets into it, so as to attach an additional hairpiece on top with magnets, and upon cutting the magnets out of the French braid, they accidentally cut off several big chunks of my hair – the whole length of it, leaving me with only an inch along the scalp up front in a few places, as well as shortening the whole underside row of the back of my hair by about 6-8 inches.  I had to have the rest cut much shorter and I'm still feeling a bit short and thin in places. Needless to say, they then built me a wig with built-in magnets for the rest of the run.

As for a performance, this is a long story on paper but goes fast in the verbal telling – but here goes: my worst moments onstage were a series of three problems during a performance of The Marriage of Figaro. First, the pieces are often performed in a slightly different order than they are printed in the score. One night I came out to sing “Dove sono,” in which the harpsichord gives me a C- Major chord and I begin, a cappella, but this night our usual harpsichord player and conductor were not scheduled and the young men who  replaced them had been there for many rehearsals but never a performance, and were getting their first chance to perform the piece. Unfortunately the harpsichord player hadn't marked the places in the score that were out of order. So I walked out onto the stage and he played a I-don't-know-what chord, but it sure wasn't C Major, and I had no earthly idea where my pitch was. I walked around a bit, trying to stay calm but feeling my breath starting to come too fast. I looked down into the pit to see him frantically paging through the score, not knowing where we were. I looked at the young conductor, who didn't seem to really know what was going on. I walked around a bit, trying to make the moment a dramatic pause, all the while thinking, “Should I wait and hope he finds the right place? Should I start on who-knows-what-pitch? This is going to be a very, very long and painful recitative.” I looked over again and he is still frantically paging through the score, and by this time the conductor is gesturing at me, getting a bit frantic himself, so I mentally shrugged and started the recitative in who-knows-what key. Fortunately the orchestra comes in after my first phrase, and I thought, “Thank heavens that's over.” Ha!

Ms. Hobbs as the Countess in
The Marriage of Figaro.
Photo by Matthias Stutte
During the aria I was to cross to a closet door, which was to be opened with the key sticking out of its lock - there was no handle. Opening the closet door was crucial to the director's dramatic idea, because Countess was cast as an alcoholic who now reaches a turning point and pours all her liquor down the drain, symbolizing her decision to stop drinking and take control of her life. When I turned the key that night, it snapped in half, falling to the ground. First I spent some time trying to open the door with the inch of key left in the lock, all the while singing away. Eventually I gave up on that but realized I had to get the other piece of key off the floor, because the whole piece of scenery has to be rolled into another position at the end of the scene, and the supernumeraries who move it had a hard time anyway, and it would likely not roll at all over the large piece of old-fashioned, clunky key. So I'm down on hands and knees in my gown, searching for the key, singing away, and the conductor is looking at me, completely puzzled as to what in the world I am doing, and I finally find it and I am making the aria all about the key, the key, the importance of the key!! and how meaningful that all is, and I stand up to leave, thinking “thank heavens that's over”. Ha again!

Finally, I am supposed to make a dramatic exit over the top of another rolling piece of scenery in the back, which is a platform and double doorway with a pair of curtains hanging down – I am to dramatically fling aside the curtains and storm out to reclaim my husband and my life. And I get back there and the technical folks have stapled them closed at the bottom and I'm able to open them about 4 inches.  So I try and try and adrenaline is pouring through me by this point and I finally just give it my all and rip them away from the staples and storm out, laughing from relief as soon as I was out of sight.

Q. Do you have any pre-performance rituals?  Performance superstitions?  Good luck charms?  If yes, why?
A. Not really. I generally don't do much or talk much the day of a performance, especially if it's a demanding role, but that's not really a ritual – just good sense. :)

Q. How do you relax in between performances?  What hobbies do you enjoy at home and “on the road”?
A. I spend as much time as I can with friends and family, I'm an avid reader, I try to do sports regularly and recently I've started experimenting with cooking, broadening my culinary horizons...

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. Email, phone, and sometimes Skype. I have a website, but I am not really a big social media person.  I have a Facebook page under a false name to keep in touch with a few close friends and family members, but I keep it very small – I think I have about 12 “Friends”.  It's important to me to keep professional and personal lives somewhat separate – I don't really want people to connect a post I just wrote to one of my nieces, in my private life, with Dara Hobbs the singer, so it just didn't work to have a FB page under my real name.  I could of course do both - I know a lot of people feel it's important to use Facebook and Twitter for professional purposes -  but I just don't have the desire to spend my time and energy on this, honestly. I'd rather practice than post regular updates about my career on Facebook or Twitter. But I think it's a personal thing – if you have the interest, why not? It might help you, who knows?

Don't miss your chance to be one of the first to see and hear Ms. Hobbs in what will be sure to become one of her signature roles.  There will be seven performances of Wagner's The Flying Dutchman between March 1st and March 23rd.  Tickets are on sale now at or by calling (941) 328-1300. 

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