Joan of Arc is an iconic figure and one that has been showcased in a lot of different art forms, including opera. In recent years, some operas telling the famed heroine’s story have been given revivals, most notably Verdi’s “Giovanna d’Arco.”
Of a different ilk, but no less compelling is Tchaikovsky’s “The Maid of Orleans,” which will open Odyssey Opera’s season, which is dedicated to the historical figure. On that opening night, Sept. 16, 2017, the lead role and with the challenging task of interpreting Joan of Arc will fall to mezzo-soprano Kate Aldrich, who will be making her debut with Odyssey Opera.
Aldrich has had a solid international career, appearing at such companies as Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera, Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, the Hamburg State Opera, Teatro Regio Torino, Rossini Opera Festival, Los Angeles Opera, L’Opéra de Montréal, the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Düsseldorf, National Theatre in Prague, and the New York City Opera, among many others.
Since 2012, she has become one of the leading “Carmen” interpreters around, taking on the famed gypsy in 10 different productions around the world.
This will be her first time taking on this role in the Tchaikovsky opera and she spoke to OperaWire about the challenge.
OperaWire: What are the particular challenges of the score of “The Maid of Orleans” and what is your favorite section?
Kate Aldrich: I love the prophecy scene in Act 1. It is so beautifully written, and almost over the top with musical expression. I know when I hear it with orchestra for the first time it will be thrilling. Of course, the aria right after that which is probably the most famous number in the opera is magnificent. The role is very well written for a dramatic high mezzo voice but it is true that one must commit to everything about the singing phrasing and character one hundred percent. There is really no “saving” in this role, so it is more about being clever of how you give what and where, and playing with colors.
OW: What is your process for preparing a role?
KA: Normally when I am singing in French or Italian, which is the bulk of my repertoire I begin with learning the story, getting to understand the character. Then I get familiar with the work as a whole, listen for themes, get to know the musical language of the piece. Then it is the technical work of making sure I understand all of the text, making the diction as clear as possible, and the actual learning of the notes, followed by actually putting it into the voice. I never try to memorize a piece as it seems to go in more superficially when it is forced in. Usually, after all of the preparation, the role naturally becomes memorized in a way that is also integral to the character.
Working on “Maid of Orleans” has been very different. I speak French and Italian, but I do not speak Russian, and my eye doesn’t immediately assimilate a sound for each letter of the Cyrillic alphabet. This means that for this opera there was a lot more basic technical work to even get to a place where I could begin my usual process. Some operas have resources of the phonetic IPA of each role in the opera with a full literal and poetic translation. This opera does not, so I’ve had to do it the way we used to do it before the internet- word by word, sound by sound, with a lot of help from a Russian friend!
OW: What have you found most interesting about this role?
KA: Somewhat strange to me about this opera is the decision to make the love interest Lionel and their connection be almost the essential factor in the opera. I have been thinking a lot about this, and how to make it work for me. I find it boring the same old idea that they fell in love at first sight and that his death is a tragedy for the love that they can never have, which was part of the prophecy. I think it is more interesting to look at the fact that she is a girl who was propped up by the mob at first almost by accident and empowered by a people who needed her to be a symbol for them, so she herself began to believe it. Lionel was a crack in her mask of omnipotence as he unwittingly reminds her that she is still a girl at a very intense age. She perhaps discovers for the first time feminine strength and fallibility. This role at first view seems a bit superficial and somewhat of a caricature, at least to me, but I think there are lots of themes and aspects to discover over the course of the rehearsals once all of the singers can work together to discover our roles and relationships.
OW: Besides learning Russian, what else has been particularly challenging about this role, or do you anticipate will be challenging in performance?
KA: One needs to be smart about the pacing of the opera, which is really true about any piece. You cannot protect or save with this piece, so it is a matter of finding the places to shade and color, and when one can open up the flood gates. The bigger challenge I think lies with the orchestra – the music is so gorgeous and visceral that I imagine it would be hard not just to play full out the whole time!
OW: Speaking of pacing, you recently performed the role of Fidès in “Le Prophète” by Meyerbeer. How did you pace yourself for something so long?
KA: With this role, it was a matter of finding where the tiring zones are, especially in Act 4 and 5. In any role, you have to look at the score in advance to anticipate what might be tough or tiring. So then you have an idea of how to approach your technique in that section. And then it’s just repetition. With a new role, I will generally sing out on the first week or so of rehearsal if it is staged. And then I tread back during the first week of rehearsals so that I am in shape and I am trained for this specific needs of the role. But then I start with fresh vocal chords for the orchestra rehearsals. Sometimes you do end up getting out of your comfort zone and you have to be aware of how you are going to handle that situation. Fortunately, that’s happened to me one time years ago.
OW: Overall, what was the experience of singing your first Meyerbeer and how did it compare to other French repertoire?
KA: It was interesting because I thought it would be like Massenet or other French repertoire. But it was so different. It was all over the place. There are moments that are hardcore bel canto in the French language. There are others that are almost Wagnerian. There are others where it is dramatic verismo in French. It was a combination of things. It was also very tricky technically. There were tricky moments with the orchestra as well. This opera is one you always have to be attentive to and make sure you are looking at the score before every act. As a result, I would love to do more Meyerbeer. I would love to do this opera again. It was one of my favorite experiences in opera.
OW: Looking ahead, what are some roles you are dying to sing?
KA: I am starting to look at more dramatic roles. Definitely sticking to the French stuff, for example. I would love to do more Berlioz because it is a perfect fit for me. Something like Didon in “Les Troyens.” I would consider looking at Dalila [in "Samson et Dalila”]. I always said it was too low for me and I wouldn’t do it, but having sung “Le Prophète,” I have a different appreciation for the lower parts of my voice and that repertoire. Eboli is on the radar as well. I would like to do some roles that I haven’t done in a while, like “Rosenkavalier” and “Damnation de Faust,” which I will do in a few years. “La Favorite” is another one.