It was March 31, 2017, one day before the infamous day where people play tricks on one another.
Soprano Jennifer Rowley was getting some shuteye, her days consumed by the task of taking on Samuel Barber’s “Vanessa” at the Toledo opera. On that very night, she would be singing the first of two performances for the demanding work.
The phone rang, awakening her from her reverie. The person on the line? Her manager Bernard Uzan.
“Are you still sleeping,” he told her after she initiated her conversation in a very “groggy voice.”
“Of course I’m sleeping, we’re opening tonight,” Rowley responded before hearing something she wasn’t quite expecting.
“You need to get up, I have news,” Uzan replied. “You are not covering Roxanne anymore,” he explained in reference to the role that the young soprano was to have worked on at the Metropolitan Opera as back-up to veteran soprano Patricia Racette.
Rowley was stunned for a moment, confused at what could have happened. After all, to that point, she had been preparing the difficult role carefully.
Suddenly Uzan came back, she could hear the smile on his face across the phone, “You’re not covering it because you’re performing it.”
“He’s a trickster,” Rowley told OperaWire after narrating the scene above about how she wound up becoming the female lead in the upcoming production of “Cyrano de Bergerac” at the Metropolitan Opera.
The young soprano from Cleveland, Ohio, of course, excited by the news, started to shout and yell with excitement, which got her manager to quickly remind her of her imminent task that night.
“It was a very fun day.”
A Quick Turnaround
Racette was in fact indisposed with an abdominal hernia and would be unable to take on the role. Rowley, who last sang at the Met in 2014 for her debut in “La Bohème,” would now be asked to carry the torch for her.
For Indiana University Graduate, despite having sung internationally, it was easily one of the biggest challenges in her career.
“We had to start rehearsal on Thursday so I had to get it together in about a week. I really wanted to like make sure everything was memorized and learned really well before I got here,” she added.
And so off to work she went. First came lessons with her teacher and a series of coachings with her French instructor. On her days between “Vanessa” rehearsal, she dedicated all of her time to learning the new role. Among the many tools and tricks, she employs in the process of learning a new role is writing out the text in red pen because “it sort of writes onto the subconscious, and so after two-ish times of writing it, it’s kind of in there for me, which is great.”
She also had a friend make practice tapes.
“I sent him the score and he recorded all of the piano accompaniment for me so that when I was in my car going back and forth between Vanessa, I could be listening and memorizing Cyrano,” she revealed.
Part of her crash course included listening to recordings, a habit Rowley employs for all of her learning.
“When I find out that I’m going to do something, I always listen to as many possible recording as I can,” she noted. “I want to know what the people before me have done. I want to know what the traditions are, the voice type.
The first place she turned to was a recording featuring Plácido Domingo and Sondra Radvanovsky.
“It was the very first one I went to because she is just the queen of everything. She is just phenomenal,” Rowley enthused. “So I went there first because I knew that would be a really solid reference. She’s always so musically accurate and amazing.”
But her most important source was the “Alagna” version of the score, the full four-act version of the opera. Considering the fact that she would be performing with tenor Roberto Alagna in this run of the show, she knew she needed to be on point with his dramatic preferences. She found a video performance online that simply riveted her.
“It was so amazing to kind of watch the person you’re going to share the stage with on YouTube,” she exclaimed. “He’s so incredible and he and Domingo portray very different characters, which is amazing to watch.”
She also made sure to read the original play and watch the famous film adaptation, which stars Gerard Depardieu.
“I really wanted to kind of immerse myself in the role, because it’s an iconic piece of literature and it’s really important that you get these characters right. Everyone reads ‘Cyrano’ when they’re in High School,” she added. “It’s a story that’s beloved by so many people so you really want to make sure that you can make it special.”
Facing Alfano’s Intricate Score
Taking Alfano’s opera was a fascinating process for Rowley as she was rather unfamiliar with the composer’s music.
“Well the opera, musically, I think is incredibly special. There’s a lot of Puccini influence obviously, but I really think that he tried to emulate some of the French school as well, and so you can hear some Debussy as well as the very big romantic writing as well,” she noted.
The music was by no means easy to learn either, Rowley noting that “you really have to count.”
“He’s written it in such a way that the orchestra is telling the story, you are telling the story and you kind of have to pace out who has the important story at the time. You really have to be aware of who is speaking, what they’re saying, what the orchestra is actually saying,” she explained. “The other challenge is to take the moment of real lush passion and make them romantic verismo moments.
She also noted wonderment for the libretto’s ability to meld the actual play’s text with the music.
“If you go to the play, you see kind of the rhyme scheme that’s in that. If you look in the music you can find all of that there as well and it’s really, it’s incredible. Because again he managed to make this huge intricate piece of art from really the actual play.”
The Challenge of the 17th Century
The character of Roxanne is central to the drama, being the women coveted by all the men around her. In learning the role, Rowley found herself attracted to numerous aspects, including her manipulative and comic touch, but was also a bit taken aback by one aspect of the role.
“In this particular production, Francesca Zambello really wants her to be a period 17th century woman and that’s very hard for me, because I am used to the modern version of the really special operas that I’ve done,” she noted before listing all of the operas, such as “Il Trovatore” and “Tosca,” that she has interpreted in a modern setting. “I haven’t actually had the chance to do a period opera, in my career, which is kind of amazing. It’s been challenging because obviously there is a way that a 17th-century woman moves, there is a way that she looks, there is a way that she acts in public versus the way that she acts, you know in her own home.
“Thankfully we have an amazing period choreographer in the show, and he’s spectacular, so we’re finding some great moments to use different things.”
The Ultimate Cheerleader
The final piece in the “Cyrano” puzzle for Rowley is her colleagues.
Alagna, the foremost interpreter of the role, has been a huge “cheerleader” for the soprano.
“I was so nervous one day. I was singing with [Atalla] Ayan and he grabbed my arm at one point and he said ‘Brava Brava,’” she narrated. “He really is so caring about letting me kind of learn what to do and then he kind of guides me and he definitely had some advice on the French for me. For example, on the first day, he gave me this great advice to look at the commas because in French you can really breathe where ever you want when there’s a coma. So if you only say a couple of words, and there’s a comma, it’s there for a reason and he told me to use those. They’re really, you know there’s a dramatic reason.
“He’s a complete pro,” she continued. “His aria in act one is phenomenal, he’s, he’s sword fighting and singing this crazy aria and he’s acting like it doesn’t even matter. It’s quite impressive.”
After the big sing at the Met, Rowley has a busy summer during which she will get married, give lectures, a recital and a masterclass at the Baldwin Wallace Summer Opera Intensive and take on “Tosca” in upstate New York.
The soprano has sung the role of the iconic diva numerous times and has connected with her in a number of unique ways.
“Tosca is an amazing woman because, if you go to the source material and you read Sardou’s play, you find out that she’s actually really young. She basically became the star at La Scala when she was 16,” Rowley noted. “So we have to imagine, probably she’s 18 or 20 by the time the opera starts. And probably Mario is her first boyfriend. And if you can imagine being in high school with your first boyfriend, how jealous and crazy you were, that’s who she is.
“And I love to keep her very young and funny because it is funny. And I think it was Shakespeare that says that great tragedy comes out of comedy, and I think to keep her young and light and fresh at the beginning of the opera, makes it even more tragic when all of these horrible things happen to her.”
She does note that this approach has allowed her to feel new things when inhabiting the heroine. In New Orleans, she performed along tenor Noah Stewart in the role.
“We had a wonderful rapport with each other that brought out, even more, passion,” she explained. “So that in Act Three, somehow I came up with this feeling of fear, this feeling of being afraid to tell Mario that I killed Scarpia because I didn’t want him to not love me anymore. Every time I do it there’s just something new to add. So I’m really excited to see what comes next.”
In terms of what comes next on her repertory additions, the soprano is interested in taking on such roles as Amelia in “Un Ballo in Maschera” and “Norma,” which is “very high up on the list.” She also expressed interest in the Marschallin from “Der Rosenkavalier”
But the big dream? “Norma.”
“She’s a woman with so many layers. I mean each of those women have so much tragedy and so many obstacles to overcome.”
Rowley is set to overcome a number of obstacles when she makes her role debut as Roxanne on May 2 in “Cyrano de Bergerac.”