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An Interview With Vivica Genaux

By Joel Kasow

MONTPELLIER, FRANCE, 23 October 2002 - Vivica Genaux, a mezzo-soprano from Alaska, still maintains ties with her home state, giving concerts on a regular basis. At other times of the year, she can be heard throughout the United States and Europe in a variety of operatic roles ranging from works by Handel and his contemporaries up through Rossini and Donizetti, or she is at home in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where she maintains close contact with her vocal mentor, Claudia Pinza. She is an attractive woman, svelte, and has a keen sense of drama, though not especially exploited by the stage director in the production of Handel's Rinaldo in which she is now (July 2002) performing in Montpellier (see the review ) prior to performances in Innsbruck as well as a recording by Harmonia Mundi. She is quite relaxed as we converse, regretting only that she is unable to attend that evening's performance of Rossini's Donna del Lago with Daniela Barcellona.

Vivica Genaux in Rinaldo
Vivica Genaux in Rinaldo (Title Role)
Le Festival de Radio France et Montpellier
Photo: Marc Ginot

Operanet: One of the first things one notices in your biography is your exotic origin - Swiss father, Mexican mother, growing up in Alaska.

Vivica Genaux: In fact, one of the nicest compliments I received today was when one of the people in the orchestra (Freiburger Barockorchester) asked me today how come I spoke English so well. I said, "Actually, I'm American." He replied, "Then perhaps I should ask you how come your Italian is so good."

Operanet: When you first started studying voice, you were a soprano, and then Virginia Zeani, your teacher at the time, said one day as you were singing Fiordiligi's "Come scoglio", "You're singing like a mezzo." How did you do the conversion?

Vivica Genaux: Very quickly. It was a funny lesson. When I had been studying with her and Nicola Rossi-Lemeni (her husband), they always had their doubts as to whether I was a soprano or a mezzo. When I was nineteen and I first started studying with Zeani, she asked me, "My darling, what do you feel like? Do you feel like soprano, do you feel like mezzo?" And I didn't know what you felt like as either, so I said "I feel like a soprano, I guess." When I had that lesson with her, three and a half years later, and I was having a good time laying into those low notes, she said to me: "But my darling, you want for to sing like this, you must for to be mezzo-soprano." So I stayed up for three nights, I was so panicked as I had already graduated from the university. I was still there because I had to put five arias together for auditions. I had gone through every single anthology on the shelves and I couldn't find five arias that fit me, my voice and I guess my character. The only mezzo roles I knew of were Carmen and Rosina, which I knew could also be sung by a soprano. The only mezzo I knew of was Marilyn Horne. So I went to the library and researched all the scores, from Stravinsky back, and I came up with just scads of roles, and then I researched all the recordings and found out that there were more mezzos than just Marilyn Horne. Then everything became clear. When I used to play the violin, I always hated playing first violin and liked to play second violin. If I was singing in a chorus I always liked to sing the inner harmonies and never liked being on the top. In fact, when I was playing violin, I always wished I was playing viola. So something just clicked. In two weeks I prepared five arias, which went from Samson et Dalila to Carmen and Cherubino and even Charlotte. I had auditions for programs in Graz and another program in Italy. I was accepted at both and decided to go to Italy (which is where I met my teacher) as it seemed the place to learn the Italian repertoire and I had never been to Italy but had been to Austria. I just started singing for everyone as a mezzo. I remember Jonathan Friend came to do a master class at Indiana University at that time and I did the "Seguidilla" from Carmen. One of the criticisms I'd always had was that my hands were always at my side - I never did anything with my arms - so I sang the "Seguidilla" with my arms like this [gesticulating wildly]. I finished and he said "Well that's very nice, but do you know anything about where the character is during this aria?" I replied, "Well, no, I just learned it." He said, "Well, actually she has her hands tied behind her back." Anyway, things started happening as a mezzo, I started doing competitions, and everything just started rolling in the right direction.

Operanet: Was it a big technical change or were you singing as you had always done?

Vivica Genaux: It was a big technical change, also because at that time I changed teachers, to Claudia Pinza, who has a very different way. Everyone has his or her own way. I think everyone is after the same thing, but they all have a different language they use to get you there, because there's no hands on approach with the instrument. I did start singing differently, but with the years the voice has developed; and using the chest voice it developed in a different way. I've been really happy with it and it's still changing.

Vivica Genaux
Vivica Genaux in Rinaldo

Operanet: How about coloratura technique - did you always have that?

Vivica Genaux: I always had that. When I learned "Una voce poco fa" I was still studying with Maestro Rossi-Lemeni. He said, "You should look at this, because you have agility", so I did and I sang it that evening at the master class. I worked on it in the afternoon with a pianist friend. The easiest thing for me to put in the voice always was the coloratura.

Operanet: A few weeks ago on television I was watching a master class given by Renata Scotto, in which she said that if you have natural coloratura ability you can only do it at one speed, while if you had to acquire the facility you are more conscious of the technical aspect and you can sing it at any speed.

Vivica Genaux: For me it's changing. When I was doing only Rossini it was much more that you could feel a certain tempo at which it clicked. Handel has a much different style of coloratura - it's much more scaler and more in progression whereas Rossini covers the whole gamut and comes back down again. In the Rinaldo we're doing now, I had a lot of trouble adjusting to the tempo and I was worried about a couple of the arias, especially the one with the trumpets, "Or la tromba", as there's only so much you can do because of the instrument. Our trumpettist is amazing. I was consciously trying to keep the tempo more stable and lower than I usually would, also because of René Jacobs [the conductor]. It's Formula One Baroque. The first time we worked together was the Hasse Solimano at the Berlin Staatsoper. Somewhere about the third performance he came in one night and said, "I've been thinking. You know the last aria in Act One [the real bravura aria] - I think we should take it a bit slower. It has more strength that way." I agreed, so when we got to the aria in performance, he took off and it had never been so fast. I don't think it lasted two minutes. He came backstage and said to me, "It was fast, wasn't it?" But sometimes you just get so psyched by the music. There's one piece in the Farinelli disc that can also just pick up and take off, "Qual guerriero". The concertmaster had to remind us from time to time to hold back, because even though the orchestra could do it at that speed it would lose some of its integrity. I think it's true, to return to the question, that there is a tempo. Warren Jones said there is a tempo for each performer, based on the vibrato. If it's fast, that's the tempo of the coloratura. People with large vibratos don't have much of a choice but to go slower. If you do enough of it, and it does take some brain-breaking, you can control it. There are two different kinds of coloratura: a kind of ha-ha-ha-ha-ha, and a seamless on the breath kind, which is what I try to do. It's nice to be able to do the ha-ha as it adds another color.

Operanet: How often do you work with Claudia Pinza today?

Vivica Genaux: As much as possible. Every time I do a new role I work with her as long as possible, whether it's two weeks or a month. For Rinaldo I was with her for almost all of May, three weeks in any event, and we worked every day for two and a half or three hours.

Operanet: This is unusual as she herself never sang this type of music.

Vivica Genaux: She has a simple concept, which is difficult because it's so simple. It comes back always to that same mantra of speaking. You always speak, and that's what her father always said, whether he was singing South Pacific or French opera or Don Giovanni: you always speak the text and the voice then comes from that, which for me is really nice because I had a hard time at first grasping the concept of opera. Growing up in Alaska we didn't really have any opera. We had a lot of musical opportunities, mostly in the form of concerts, choruses, piano recitals or orchestral concerts. My access to the opera was musical theater, so that I can identify with speaking the text. One of the things that impressed me about Claudia was that she loves recitatives. She gets so excited about them because they're spoken and expressive and moving the drama. When you get to the aria, yes, it's beautiful music, but the text is less important even though you have to use it even more in the aria because it is repetitive, especially in the baroque era. We work a lot on keeping things spoken, even though you're singing, keeping things intelligible and keeping everything on the breath. It's mostly technical and some interpretative aspects, but when I'm working on a role I've never done before, the interpretation usually comes later when we're staging the work. I wait for that. I read as much of the source material as I can digest. Ultimately, when you get into the theater you find out that the source, Gerusalemme Liberata in this case, doesn't have that much to do with what's happening other than in a general way. All of that combined with the stage director's ideas and concept, often vastly different from any of the original material, means you have to be generally prepared for the interpretative part.

Operanet: You have a good-sized repertoire, but most of the performances seem to be either Barbiere or Cenerentola. How do you react to all the different stagings, or what do you do in a repertory theater like Berlin or Vienna where you get thrown on to the stage with almost no rehearsals…

Vivica Genaux: or the Met…

Operanet: How do you cope with that?

Vivica Genaux: It's hard if they really have a "concept" staging. One of the most difficult was at the Staatsoper in Berlin, the Ruth Berghaus production. I know it was originally done in German, so I thought that most of the staging must have made sense with the German translation as there were times when I wondered what I was doing, why do I have my hands out in front of me, which had nothing to do with what you're singing in Italian but might have had some relation to the German? When I talked to Julien Robbins in San Diego who had been in the last performance in German at the Staatsoper, I asked him if it made sense in German and he said, "No." I then had an interview with someone who had seen the first performance of that production who complimented me, saying that I was very like the first Rosina in that production. When we finished, I asked him, "Since you know a lot about Berghaus and this production, tell me something about it as it's been very difficult for me to enter into as it's very strict and there isn't always a reason." He told me all about her, the connection with Brecht, and that made it make sense for me. If you understand the concept, you feel more valid. You're creating bubbles of emotion. You're living in that emotion, and the text and action are going on while the characters are kind of lost in that moment. As long as I can make it make sense to me….You can interpret things in hundreds of different ways, and it's interesting to see what you can do. When things don't make sense to me, I can't remember what I'm supposed to do, and, second, I feel I have no business being there. It is difficult when you're doing these productions that are older than you are and have been done hundreds of times. If there's no one there to give you a reason - I mean there has to have been a reason it was done that way. At the Met you have a different situation: it's a classic production and you have very little time to learn the staging, particularly with the turntable. Every house has something different they're looking for.

Operanet: How about dealing with all the different musical approaches?

Vivica Genaux: It's especially difficult in the repertoire I do, baroque and bel canto. You work with conductors who have diametrically opposed views as to how the music should be interpreted. If you've never worked with someone previously, you go into the rehearsal dreading the first appoggiatura because you don't know what they're going to say. Some people want you to do them all, some want you to do them only from above and not from below, some want you to select the appoggiaturas depending on the words you're singing. That's difficult because you're changing your musical language, which is difficult for me as my baroque musical language is basically René Jacobs because I've worked with him a lot and I respect what he does. He's the one who has had the most concise language for me and the best musicologically supported language. He can go and say this is what X did, and these are the ornaments used by the first performer. You can hear the language when you look at the music. For Rossini, I did a lot of work with Will Crutchfield who was a music critic but is also an amazing musicologist who has done a lot of research. I like the work he's done linking Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti with Chopin, with Viardot, making it a world instead of just three composers, looking at the musical language of the time and not just the work of one composer.

Operanet: You said in an interview that when you sang the Bellini Romeo you felt it was almost beyond your limits. Do you find Donizetti more comfortable?

Vivica Genaux: Orsini in Lucrezia Borgia is more comfortable, but basically I've stayed away not only from Mozart but also Bellini and Donizetti because the tessitura of what are considered mezzo roles seem more to be a second soprano.

Operanet: What did you just say about Mozart?

Vivica Genaux: Mozart is also more like a second soprano role. Dorabella has very high tessitura, Cherubino also stays quite high most of the time. There are also some versions of the Bellini operas that were written for Malibran, Puritani and Sonnambula. I would love to look at some Gluck, Offenbach, and that goes back to a musical theater approach which would be fun.

Operanet: What about Charlotte?

Vivica Genaux: I'd like to put that on the shelf for a little bit. It's a little bit stronger than I think I'm ready for right now. It's more intense, which is another reason why Carmen is definitely on the shelf for at least ten years or so. The voice is still changing and we have to see where it goes.

Operanet: Or the Prince in Cendrillon.

Vivica Genaux: That would also be good, but the problem is finding houses that are doing these pieces. That's why I end up doing Barbiere all the time, because that's what they do. Right now I have a fairly large repertoire, but it's pieces that they don't do

Operanet: And your baroque is mostly with René Jacobs in Berlin, I think.

Vivica Genaux: Not really. There's Handel in the United States, but they don't move much beyond that. I have a couple of projects coming up with others, but it's more a question of me going out of my way to be available when René asks me. He's incredible - the insight he has into this music and the base of knowledge he has. He can look at a full score in manuscript, the tenth photocopy so you can barely discern anything, and play the whole thing, different clefs and all, and he just reads it off like that. The music is inaccessible to most people, even if you have a legible copy. You need someone to feed it into a computer to have it come out in modern print so you can decipher it. He just goes right through it.

Operanet:What about Vivaldi?

Vivica Genaux: I'd like to look at more Vivaldi. I've also been asked to sing Nerone in Monteverdi's Incoronazione di Poppea but it's a question of finding the time.

Operanet: You have a busy schedule, which is a good thing.

Vivica Genaux: I'm more careful now than I was at the beginning. It kind of took me by surprise as everything happened so fast. I had three seasons in a row where I sang four new roles each season. That was a lot of work, so I look at my schedule a lot more closely now before I accept things, see where they are and that I have enough time to work between engagements. It's now one or two new roles a year, and a new recital program, and a new recording this fall and possibly two more for the spring: a lot of new experiences. I'll be spending a lot of time in Paris next spring, with Barbiere at the Bastille, Cenerentola at the Champs-Elysées and also Marseilles.

Operanet: Watch out for the one in Marseilles, because that's the production from the Opéra de Paris and it's very easy to be upstaged by Jeannette Fischer and Anna Steiger who sing the two sisters.

Vivica Genaux: I have fun with that because otherwise Cenerentola gets too placid for me. If the two sisters are really hateful, it gives you something to bounce off of. Christopher Alden staged the old Ponnelle production (he used to be an assistant to Ponnelle), and it was really wonderful, one of the best I've done because of the energy that was generated by the two sisters. I think it needs that. Sometimes you get lost in the hecticness of the staging - a lot of people think you have to keep something in motion at all times or else the audience won't be with you. That gets really tiring physically.

Operanet: How do you feel about recording vs. live performances?

Vivica Genaux: I like the idea of recording after doing live performances. The one thing that was difficult for me with the Farinelli CD was that all of the music was extracts. Although you can do some research on what the plot was, you don't have the personal experience with the piece that you have when you've done the whole opera. When you're singing "Quell'usignolo", it's a beautiful aria and you have the inspiration of working with the flautist, but it's very different from having been on a set at the end of the second act in the woods waiting for the lover. The context is missing. Looking at "Cara sposa" from Rinaldo, when you're studying it with your teacher or when you are singing a run-through in Freiburg with the Freiburg Orchester, and then being on the stage in costume, with the sets and lights, with an audience, is a whole different thing from doing the aria in isolation, so it brings a lot more color to your mind and a more three-dimensional picture.

Operanet: I saw the other day that Universal Music announced that it would not be recording any more complete operas, only recital discs and DVDs of live opera performances.

Vivica Genaux: I'm not surprised. It's a big financial undertaking, and when you already have 14 recordings of Barbiere on the shelf, how many more do you need? The interesting thing might be to do the Rossini pieces, and possibly Bellini and Donizetti, with an original instrument group at the pitch of the time, 430 instead of 440, which changes the timbre of the piece quite a bit. It's a lot of fun and it's a challenge to the singer, both in preparation and performance, because you have to have a synthesizer that can actually recreate pitch at 430 instead of 440, because most will only transpose down by half-steps, but not quarter steps. I did Barbiere in Dresden that way with Das Neues Orchester under Christoph Spering. It was really interesting for the sound you can get from those instruments in that repertoire, which you're not used to hearing. It's rounder and not as bright.

Operanet: But some of the baroque music was written for 415.

Vivica Genaux: Baroque is at 415, which is pretty much a half-step below modern pitch. Again, it's kind of a preparation problem: 415 is much easier because you can have a synthesizer or the pianist can transpose down a half step; 430 is difficult to prepare. In performance you sometimes feel gear shifts where you don't normally have them at 440 or 415, but I like the colors that are present at 430. It's a big challenge when you're looking at prospective offers for something in Chicago or the Met or Dallas. It gets very complicated and it's a lot to keep in mind, also for your management, because they have to be able to explain to a house that, yes, she sings Rinaldo, but at 415. (Does that mean she only sings in the late afternoon?) Ariodante I've only ever sung in the United States, so I sing that at modern pitch, at 440. If I were asked to do it in Europe where they would do it at 415, it would sit differently, I'd have to go back to Ms. Pinza and rework it to put it in at 415. It's very complicated. And then, if you go to a house in Europe or the United States that does it at modern pitch and ask to have everything transposed down a half-tone…………I tried that in Dallas, and they agreed, but then the conductor arrived and we had huge, long discussions and I ended up doing it at modern pitch. It's never cut and dried. It would be so much easier if I sang the "top ten operas", but that's not what I do and so I have to learn to love this mud that I live in. It ends up being a lot of fun because the end product is much more personal than just doing La Bohème over and over. There are people who do Bohème over and over, as I do Barbiere, but I can change my cadenzas, and every time it's a little bit different, whereas Puccini or Verdi are much more explicit in their writing. The later the work, the more the composer says what he wants you to do.

Operanet: Do you accept your "lot", musically speaking?

Vivica Genaux: Yes. I had some fights at the beginning. I started off only singing Rossini, which was a conscious choice because he was a composer I felt really good with. And I started quite young and doing a lot of things quite quickly. I never did an apprenticeship, never chose to do so, because I chose to be treated as a young professional rather than an older or continuing student because it made me work harder and I was scareder, and I work best under fear. Then I started experimenting with different composers. I'm really happy with what I'm doing. I can look at my schedule and see that there's a lot of stuff, but I know why I'm doing all of it.

Operanet: And trouser roles?

Vivica Genaux: I'm getting much more comfortable with them. At the beginning I was really timid about it. I like the baroque trouser roles a lot because in the time period - the 1700s - there was a lot more of an androgynous sense between the masculine and the feminine. There was more acceptance of females having a masculine side (the female warrior), and the male having a more feminine side, which you find a lot more even today in Italy. Men are not so hemmed in as men in northern climates, and Americans certainly are hemmed in. The Latinos tend to be a little bit more open with the emotions they're expressing, even if it's man to man. That I found really helpful in the interpretation. Also, when I found out that in Hasse's Marc'Antonio e Cleopatra, which we did last year in Paris, that it was Farinelli who sang Cleopatra. I still think people would have a problem seeing a man in a woman's role, in a less than tongue-in-cheek manner. If it's something like Baba the Turk, which is a caricature as in the ballet of Cinderella where the step-sisters are danced by men, it's possible, but not if the part is to be taken seriously. In San Diego they performed Ariodante, the first baroque opera to be heard there. It was amazing that the audiences accepted me playing the guy, we had a countertenor, David Walker, playing Polinesso, probably the first to be heard in opera in southern California. John Copley was doing the staging and during the intermission on opening night he came backstage and said, "You'll never believe the conversation I just had." He was sitting next to a couple, and the man turned to his wife and said, "I just don't understand these male roles. Why can't they just have them sung by a man as they were originally intended." John offered to come into the conversation and said, "You know what they did to the men that were originally singing these parts." The man responded "No, what's the big deal?" "Well, they were castrated." The man replied, "What's that mean?" His wife looked at him and said, "Oh, you know." And John, of course, "It's when they cut off the ……" The man was horrified and said, "Oh my God, I hope they didn't do that to her."

Operanet: It's strange today when we have countertenors singing roles written for women, women singing roles written for castrati….

Vivica Genaux: I like the way René explains it in the notes written for the Farinelli album: sacred music was taken over by the countertenor whereas women participated in the theatrical productions. It makes a lot of sense to me, because it makes the progression from the baroque into Rossini where the roles that would have been sung earlier by castrati are sung by women. There's not a day that goes by that I don't learn something more about the historical progression.

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