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By Joel Kasow

PARIS, 21 May 1998— After trying for almost a year, Jennifer Larmore and I finally succeeded in arranging - by email - a long-planned interview in the Paris apartment she rented for a long stay during the preparation for and performances of Italiana in Algeria. Since I first encountered the Atlanta-born mezzo in 1989 as Bellini's Romeo at Vaison-la-Romaine, rapidly followed by a Cenerentola, Ottavia and Mélisande, Larmore has become one of the leading Rossini mezzos of today, a fact documented by her continuing series of recordings for Teldec. I witnessed her capacity as a trooper a few years ago at a concert performance of Handel's Giulio Cesare when René Jacobs started a rather fast aria at what was evidently a faster tempo than usual, and a look of total terror almost imperceptibly crossed her face, but she went ahead and sang it as if it were the easiest thing in the world. Now at her artistic maturity at her readily admitted 39 years of age, Larmore is eager for all the challenges that may come her way.

Jennifer LarmoreJennifer Larmore

OperaNet: Where did you get your training?

Jennifer Larmore: I would say I've been training all my life: I started in church, where I had fantastic choir directors. Choir was a really important thing in my life. I had one of the best basic musical educations you could get, because they were trying out something new at the time in my junior high school, and that was a cooperative program in music with the high schools to see if it would work, which it did, and I think it's still in place today. I grew up in Atlanta, in the city, and when I was about 15 we moved out to Marietta where my father worked at the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation. I went to Westminster Choir College and studied with Robert MacIver, who was fantastic. He noticed that I had a natural voice and he didn't want to mess it up. So we studied a lot of repertoire and languages and pedagogy, and he fixed a few details here and there, but he mostly gave me an idea of where I needed to go and helped me figure out what I wanted to do. After I figured all that out and got out of college, I met John Bullock through my husband, Bill Powers (American bass-baritone), and I studied with him for three years, mostly musculature and technique, and I hardly even sang an aria during that time. It was mostly getting a solid basis to have a long career, to understand what's going on in my throat.

Operanet: Was he the one who helped you solidify the technique that enables you to sing Rossini today?

JL: To tell you the truth, I always had the coloratura. I think that Rossini is not only the virtuosity, but you've got to have a certain personality to sing it and have an understanding of what's inside the music, not just the notes on the page, and that's where I think some people make a mistake, by not taking it seriously, saying "It's fluff - it's not Verdi, it's not Wagner, it's Rossini so it's fluff. It's easy." Excu-u-u-use me, it's not easy, and it's not fluff. Working with John Bullock helped me to open up a high extension to my voice, learn how to use it and what's going on inside, which of course is going to help when you're doing something as hard as Rossini. Anybody who tells you it's easy is lying. I can say that the coloratura is easy, I've always had it, it's natural, I don't have to work too hard to achieve it. What's hard nowadays in Rossini is that we have lots of movement, lots of physical things to go along with it. It's not enough to just stand there and sing as in the days of Tebaldi - I think that would have been terrific [wistfully].

Operanet: But going back to singers of that generation, Callas, Licia Albanese, Birgit Nilsson, to name a few, there's a certain elemental presence that enabled them to act without all the running around that only makes it more difficult.

JL: And a lot of the power back then - which has since shifted - was in their own hands, whereas today the power all seems to be in the hands of the directors. And we do live in an incredibly visual society - videos, Hollywood, movies, we have to see it with our own eyes, everything is internet, which I love - so you can see why we are so physical on stage these days. And that, more than anything else, more than singing the music, makes it very difficult.

Operanet: Do you ever get involved in a production that you regret, or think that the director has lost his mind?

JL: No, because I've learned my lesson, and learned it the hard way. I don't let all of that get inside of me. If it works and works around me so that I can become an integral part of it, fine. If I can't and it's absolutely impossible for me to do it, then I'm going to stand there, first and foremost, and burn up the stage where I sing. I'm going to give the music everything I've got and let it all fall down around me. I don't care because I'm going to do what I need to do first for the music, because without that you haven't got your show.

Operanet: How about the Dario Fo Barbiere di Siviglia?

JL: I liked that one.

Operanet: I walked out of that at the intermission.

JL: His Italiana you would not have liked. As brilliant as he is, in many ways I think that his Barbiere really had nothing to do with the music or with the story, it was movement for movement's sake, more of a circus atmosphere. I admire him in a lot of ways for many different things he has done in the past. Seeing him onstage as an actor and mime, I knew I wanted to work with him because he had ideas; as I had been working with another director who had a lot of ideas, I wanted something new and different. When we did Italiana at Pesaro, it all went around us - there were contraptions and people moving around, almost like a Cecil B. de Mille or David Lean movie with a cast of thousands.

Operanet: How do you feel when you're trying to sing with all this going on around you?

JL: You don't feel real good. You would hope that the music could stand on its own. A lot of directors, since they come from a theatrical background, don't trust the music and don't trust the singers to do their job, which is to bring the music alive. And the music can stand on its own in so many instances but is not allowed to. And every once in a while, you make a decision: I know who the director is and I know what he's about, but I want to work with him anyway. You take it all in stride, you learn your lessons and you do the best you can.

Operanet: Would you work with Peter Sellars or Robert Wilson, for example.

JL: Why not? I'm never going to say no, unless I have seen what they have done and absolutely knew that I would be totally frustrated or that the music would be subjugated or that I would not be able to handle it. I'm never one to shy away from a challenge.

Operanet: If we look back at the early years of your career, I remember the Mélisande you sang in Marseilles...

JL: I really love that role and I loved that production because it was flesh and blood, and I'm a flesh and blood girl.

Operanet: How about escaping from the Rossini "straitjacket", because many people want to pigeonhole you there.

JL: That's okay. People need to do certain things to make themselves feel comfortable, and if it makes them feel comfortable, that's fine with me. And I love Rossini and will do it as long as people want me to do it. If they want me as a 45-year-old broad singing Rossini, I'll do it.

Operanet: What other Rossini roles are you considering?

JL: Well, I've done Arsace on disc, and if anyone offers it to me, I'll take it. Malcolm in Donna del Lago, all the nice low ones.

Operanet: What roles are you considering outside Rossini?

JL: Since there has been, normally and naturally, an evolution in my voice - it hasn't stayed the same since the beginning, nor could it have considering how I've grown as a person, physically, psychologically, and the voice should go along with all these changes - Carmen is coming. I'm doing it for the first time onstage (I've done some concert performances) in Los Angeles to open the season in Fall 1998 with Domingo and then Jacques Trussel, a dear friend of mine, and Bertrand de Billy is conducting. And I'd love to do Oktavian and some of the other Strauss roles because my top is fine, like the Composer, but there again people tend to think of me as more of a Mediterranean singer, more the bel canto type, like Romeo (Bellini), and eventually Favorita - when people offer it - and Adalgisa...

Jennifer Larmore

Operanet: And Charlotte that you were supposed to sing in concert in Brussels this season...

JL: You know, nothing short of surgery - which is what happened - could have made me cancel that. In my career of 11 years, I think I've cancelled only three times, all for very good reasons, and this was dental surgery, so that I was like a chipmunk for months. But I've already had some offers for Charlotte. There's a future for me. But what I want people who know me and like me to understand is that I'm not going to push my voice. Whatever I sing, it's going to be with my voice and I'm not going to try and be anything I'm not. My voice has grown a lot, as has my back - my mother, who used to make all my clothes, even noticed. That's lung power.

Operanet: To go back to productions, last year you sang in the Pizzi production of Handel's Rinaldo in Geneva, where you were all being pushed around on carts.

JL: That was one of the hardest things I've ever done. I thought that visually it was quite beautiful, but it's very hard for the singers because we were constantly having to balance ourselves and do all of the baroque gestures, which - I must say - to do once in your career is not bad, to learn what certain gestures mean, how to use your body in different ways. It's not bad. I think the lighting was quite pretty.

Operanet: I think one of the problems was all the posing, but the effect may have been different ten years earlier when the production was new.

JL: It's like a recording. Just a moment in time, like a snapshot. Not necessarily how I'm going to sound tomorrow or the next day, but only that moment. That's what's great about live theater too. When you're rehearsing with people, you've got a certain dramatic rhythm, and there have been times, like the Barbiere at the Unter den Linden (Berlin Staatsoper) where we all looked at each other with the same thought that one of us voiced: "Do you realize that this rapport will never happen again." And people are still talking about that performance. It was the Ruth Berghaus production which has been around for 50 years, but it was Dmitri Hvorostovsky, William Matteuzzi, who was hilarious, and me looking like the Marschallin in a white wig, Carlos Chausson - it was just a melding of great personalities at that moment. People said that they had been seeing that production in the repertoire for 50 years, and finally they were belly laughing. Everything went wrong, of course, the sets fell down on me - they were only sheets - and for the first time in my career I totally lost it, with the audience laughing because of the way it happened. I leaned out of a little window just a bit too far and all the sheets came down. So Carlos Chausson who was singing Bartolo came out and said, "Ach, du lieber, mein Haus is kaput", so the audience went crazy again, and when he tells Rosina to get back in the house I said, "I'm already in the house." From then on it was constant laughter.

Operanet: The other day I was listening to some reissues on Mondo Musica of the archives from La Fenice, and you could constantly hear the prompter. Most theaters today don't even use prompters, outside the Met, Italy and perhaps a few other houses. How do you feel about that?

JL: I can't have a prompter. If he throws a word at me, I go "What?" I remember working with Marilyn Horne, and I told her that I could not use a prompter because it was too distracting, to which she responded, "Boy, do we come from different generations."

Operanet: Would you say this is true for most of the singers of your generation?

JL: I think so. We go from job to job in this jet set age, and we have to be totally prepared on the first day of rehearsal - which is not to say that the older generation was not prepared - but as prompters are not so readily available these days we learn not to rely on them. Sometimes, however, it's very comforting to see that head down there, smiling up at you, if it's Joan Dorneman (at the Met) or somebody like that.

Operanet: And you could lose your place...

JL: I'm pretty good about making up things if I do lose my place.

Operanet: Do you then tell the prompter ahead of time not to bother with you at all?

JL: I have on occasion been known to tell the prompter to keep his eye on me at a particular place, because I have a block, and to throw me the words should I freeze during a performance. The singer has to be smart enough to know where he needs help and tell the prompter. Otherwise they leave me alone.

Operanet: Let's talk about the Carmen recording. Do you think you may have recorded it too early?

JL: You can't look back on it and feel regret. It's there. And I think I will record it again. It was a real study for me. I had already sung some concert performances, and I felt that I knew her as well as I possibly could at that point. I told my husband, "People are either going to hate this or love it, nothing in between." I sing it like it's French art song, because that's what I believe. It's first and foremost French music, but you've also got that dichotomy of the Spanish woman in the French music, and there is really nothing Spanish about it, not the language either. I really think it's chanson, and that's the way I sang it. Maybe I'll sing it differently later. We'll see. I'm looking forward to the performances in Los Angeles.

Operanet: Do your interpretations change as you go from one production to another?

JL: Definitely, because I'm a reactor. That's the kind of actress I am; I like the challenge of having different people around me and having to react differently, so it's going to be different every single time. When I do the Carmen with Placido, it's going to be totally different than when I do it with Jacques Trussel. They're completely different voices, different personalities, I know them differently. I've known Jacques since I was 18, he's like my big brother. We were talking about it and he said, "Ugh, am I going to have to kiss you?"

Operanet: Recitals are also an important part of your career.

JL: About a third of my appearances, but more and more these days. When I started my career I thought, "I'm going to work really hard, because I want to, and if I don't make it by the time I'm 35, where I'm making money and am able to pick and choose what I want, then I'm going to quit." Really naïve. And then 35 rolled around and things were going nicely and I decided I'd like to work six months and take six months off. Of course it's never six months at a stretch, but two weeks here and a month there, but it makes a big difference because now I really have time to prepare recitals. Having a good career makes it easier to do the things you've always wanted but never had the time. A fairly silent participant in this conversation, pianist Antoine Palloc who appears often in recital with Jennifer Larmore, now enters the conversation. They have known each other for 11 years, but have only recently started working together.

JL: When I needed a pianist for a recital at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin because the people I usually worked with were not free, I thought, "Why not Antoine?" I just heard him play for Norah Amsellem and it was fantastic. I knew he was a fantastic pianist and so he came and played for me. He got a standing ovation, and we then went on to do two recital tours together, other recitals, and we've got a new disc, My Native Land, which is all American songs. For Antoine and me, putting together the recital programs, doing the research, is a big, fun part of it all. We really enjoyed our last recital tour. The thing that really makes me mad is that they never think that the accompanist is important, and that is a pet peeve of mine. In all my recital contracts, it is stated that the accompanist must be mentioned in all the publicity. We're a team, and I don't think it can work if you're not. We've done two big recital tours across the United States, plus some concerts in Europe, but in America I was upset not to see young people. In Europe, you do see young people at recitals.

Operanet: Perhaps because the visual aspect that you were talking about is lacking.

Operanet: Tell me about the new production of Italiana that you're doing now at the Paris Opera.

JL: It's an interesting production. The audience last night enjoyed it. There's a lot of movement, but it works, with the costumes that can be kind of tacky, with the sets that can also be kind of tacky, with the movement that's a little tacky - it all fits together and somehow works in the end. Even though we felt that some of the movement got a little tiring, it works and people are laughing their heads off. I guess that's the main thing. I felt I had to be an integral part of this to make it work, so I'm tacky too.

Operanet: How do you feel about surtitles?

JL: I love them, I'm not a snob about them at all.

Operanet: But don't you find that people are laughing in the wrong place because they are reacting to the surtitles and not what's happening onstage?

JL: Yes. I say I love them when it's a comedy because I like people to understand what's going on, especially in New York where there aren't that many people who speak a foreign language. Last night, however, they flushed up the lights a bit in "Oh, che muso" which took me by surprise as nobody had told me they were going to do that, and all of a sudden I saw everyone's face in the audience looking up, so I thought "Hello, I'm down here". That's a little disconcerting, as it is when all the opera glasses come up and start peering at you. But there again, I'm not a snob about it; if they feel they need it, fine. The set-up at the Met is fantastic, that's the way to do it, instead of craning your head and looking up and down all the time.

Operanet: You clearly feel that one of the most important things is communicating with your audience.

JL: That's everything. I love actually to see an audience, to bring them in, to get them right there in the palm of my hand. That's half the fun of it. We've gotten into the habit, wherever we perform, of asking for a lighting rehearsal beforehand, so that there will be enough light for people to read their programs and at the same time see my face really well and also Antoine. When we do a recital, we are such a team and feel like a team. It's not just me. I just read a wonderful review of "Native Land" but it said nothing about Antoine. Imagine how it must make him feel, and this is his first recording. We're thinking about doing some French and Spanish songs. When we put together the American songs, which I just loved doing, because I'm American, almost three quarters of the repertoire came from Antoine (who studied in America for four years at the Westminster Choir College and the University of Michigan) who seems more American than I sometimes. He and Bill and myself put this together, even too many to start with, so that there is now enough for a second volume.

Operanet: And the future?

JL: I am in the process, and don't think me presumptious, of writing a book for young singers. It's the kind of book that I wish I had when I was starting out. I'm interviewing people like Marilyn Horne, Placido Domingo, Thomas Hampson, Renée Fleming, Matthew Epstein, lots of different people from different areas of our business, conductors, pr agents. When I look at young people trying to make a career today, I wonder how in the world they are doing it. When I did it, certain doors opened, but I also had a real clear idea of what I wanted to do, when I wanted to do it and how I wanted to do it. But the young people I talk to today, they haven't any idea, they don't even know what their repertoire is. They don't know what they are, which path to take. It's like teaching. At Westminster, you started student teaching in your first year, so that by the time they had gotten to their last year they knew whether or not they wanted to teach. I really look forward to the day when I can teach. I may be the only singer who feels that way in the whole world, because most of the people I know don't want to teach. I'm always talking to the younger singers, they're always picking my brain. I'm not that old, but they know I'm out there doing it. I'm trying to compile from people in the know, people out there doing it, it could be a manual, it could be a lot of anecdotes, it could be checklists. I wish I'd had something like that.

A select discography of Jennifer Larmore:

Monteverdi: L'incoronazione di Poppea (Ottavia), Concerto Vocale, conducted by René Jacobs. Harmonia Mundi. Orfeo (Messaggiera), Concerto Vocale, conducted by René Jacobs. Harmonia Mundi.

Handel: Giulio Cesare (title role), Concerto Vocale, conducted by René Jacobs. Harmonia Mundi.

Gluck: Orfeo ed Euridice (Orfeo), San Francisco Opera Orchestra, conducted by Donald Runnicles.

Rossini: Teldec.Barbiere di Siviglia (Rosina), Chamber Orchestra of Lausanne, conducted by Jesus Lopez Cobos.

Rossini: Cenerentola (title role). Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, conducted by Carlo Rizzi. Teldec

Rossini: Italiana in Algeria (title role). Chamber Orchestra of Lausanne, conducted by Jesus Lopez Cobos. Teldec

"Whither shall I fly?": arias by Handel and Mozart, with Chamber Orchestra of Lausanne, conducted by Jesus Lopez Cobos. Teldec

"Call Me Mister": arias by Mozart, Meyerbeer, Tchaikovsky, Rossini, Bellini, etc., with the Welsh National Orchestra, conducted by Carlo Rizzi. Teldec

"My Native Land": . American songs by Ives, Heggie, Copland, Barber, Hoiby, etc., with Antoine Palloc, piano. Teldec.

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