Interview: Soprano Meghan Picerno’s Balancing Act
‘Candide’ & ‘Love Never Dies’ Star On Embracing Opera & Musical TheaterBy David Salazar
Throughout history, many opera stars have managed to make the crossover to Broadway and musical theatre, enjoying successful careers in both. Most recently, Renée Fleming earned raves for her work in “Carousel” on Broadway. Paolo Szot is another in recent years who has also managed a successful development in both arenas as well.
Coloratura soprano Meghan Picerno is another taking on this “double” journey, enjoying some pretty unprecedented success.
The Chicago native, who has performed such roles as The Queen of the Night, Lucia di Lammermoor, and Violetta in “La Traviata,” and Olympia in “Les Contes d’Hoffmann,” among others, is currently engaged in a year-long tour of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s “Love Never Dies” as Christine Daaé.
It’s actually been a unique journey for Picerno, who a year-and-a-half ago was making headlines for her interpretation of Cunegonde in “Candide” at the New York City Opera, which is quickly becoming her signature role on stages throughout the world. This is what I wrote of her work in my review:” The coloratura soprano is going to be a star, if she isn’t already and was undeniably the most electric performer on the stage with no moment wasted and an ever-fascinating insight into the character of Cunegonde.”
To that point, Picerno had not immersed herself in the world of musical theater, Broadway was not really on her radar. But after working with the legendary Hal Prince on “Candide” at the New York City Opera, the famed directer asked her about her interest in crossing over.
“I never had seen Phantom of the Opera,” she told OperaWire. “So after ‘Candide,’ Hal told me to watch Phantom.”
Her first experience with the iconic work moved her deeply. “I thought to myself, I really understand why it touches so many people and why it is the longest running musical on Broadway in history.”
Weeks later, she was cast in “Love Never Dies,” the sequel to the work.
A New World With A Classical Lens
Picerno’s musical training is from a heavily classical perspective. She not only trained to focus on opera in her undergraduate and graduate studies, but she also immersed herself in the world of classical music during a stint in Vienna, which she credits with becoming a transformative experience.
“Vienna was so wonderful, because you are so immersed in art and music in everyday life,” she enthused. “It is everywhere. Beethoven, Mozart. I remember we would go to the Wiener Staatsoper and I would also take classes at the Konservatorium.”
But what was most fascinating for the burgeoning artist was how the arts were not seen as individual forms, but as parts of a collective.
“I would take Mahler and then take a Klimt class and then they would put them together,” she noted. “I was also a member of a salon, where chefs would cook a meal that went with the art on the wall, and the music to be performed that evening. A total Gesamtkunstwerk. I had never experienced this in the U.S. It was so incredible to be immersed in art on that level.”
It’s this mindset that has shaped Picerno’s vision for her own artistry. She might be doing musical theatre, but she credits her operatic training with helping her in all aspects.
First off is her approach to singing.
“One of the greatest challenges is singing the show every single night : you’re running a marathon, a marathon that currently has being going on for a year. It’s truly Olympian singing. The houses that we’re in, they’re large theaters- much larger than your average opera house,” she noted before explaining that being able to accomplish this nightly feat comes down to one– support.
“Some people think that because we have mics, that we have it easy. However you won’t make it through a show without support for your voice,” she explained. “Of course, one privilege of having a mic is that I can color my voice in ways I can’t when I have to fill a theater without one. But even then, you must be wise when choosing to color your voice. Everything must be supported and appropriate for your vocal health for that day.
She related how this past February she was sick “for the first time ever in my life.” But she still managed to find a way to get up on stage and put out her best, even when she was at 30 percent.
“You have to find a way to give your audience your best and that comes down to vocal technique. How do you sing through recovery? When the technique is solid, hopefully no one will know that you are negotiating and navigating through difficult times.”
Picerno notes that keeping her vocal technique on point has come down to retaining a solid team around her. She currently has two teams – a “Broadway team” and an “Opera team.”
“It really takes a village to make an artist,” she stated. “I couldn’t do what I do without both incredible teams.”
Her classical training has also given her a different way of approaching interpretation. Picerno credited famed music coach Joan Dornemann with helping shape the way she thinks about every piece of music in front of her. And it was this kind of perspective that allowed her to have meaningful conversations with Andrew Lloyd Webber.
“Andrew Lloyd Webber is one of the musical geniuses of our time,” she remarked. “It was amazing to talk to a living composer about a character as iconic as Christine Daaé. She is as iconic as Violetta in “La Traviata.” People worldwide know who she is. To be cast in such an iconic role: I had so many questions to ask. He is so specific on his dynamic and tempi markings. Like other great composers throughout history, everyday you can study his the music and find something new.”
A New World With a New Lens
Of course, it is impossible to move from the world of opera and into that of musical theatre and not realize some of the major differences. Picerno has now performed the role of Christine Daaé hundreds of times in one year. Most opera singers never sing a role more than a dozen times in their entire career.
Of course, that also means that she isn’t performing many other roles during the time she is interpreting Christine, but Picerno was adamant that this kind of immersion in a work also allows her to delve deeper and deeper into the character she is interpreting.
“The Christine I was back in September during the first preview is not the same one I one year later,” she noted. “I love opera, but when you only do four to 10 performances in an opera season, then you have to wait again to rediscover her again. Here, I rediscover her every night. I make discoveries about her everyday, and learn new things about her just as I would about myself in real life.”
Picerno noted that just a few months back, the choreographer, for the show, Simone Sault, worked with the cast anew to refresh the old ideas and present some new ones. During that “tuneup,” Picerno experienced an “epiphany.” Something as simplistic as carrying your body in a new way adds so much to a character.
“It was around show 120,” she revealed. “It was a new way of approaching a specific moment in the show. I had never thought of it that way. And that’s why it is so incredible. You’re never the same as you were a week ago. And neither is she.”
Christine is undeniably an iconic character in the musical theatre landscape, though she is markedly different in “Love Never Dies” from the ingénue she is in “Phantom of the Opera.” She’s more mature, she’s married, she has a family, and she’s also a famous opera diva.
“I find it to be marvelous that she is an opera diva, given that I live in the opera world. That’s where I’m from and I love that world,” she noted before explaining that the story of “Love Never Dies” excites her every day. “Every day I am truly touched by the story and the music. And her. I love her. I love being her. I understand her. I might not have a child, but I know what it feels to know love and abandonment.” “It is also my hope as an opera singer that the thousands of audiences members I perform for may be inspired to see an opera after seeing an opera singer actually perform, though it be in the realm of music theater. I think there is a grave misconception in the United States about what Opera is, and I hope I can open eyes that otherwise would be closed to our beautiful world.”
On the Road
Picerno’s experience has been unique, even for that of many musical theatre artists. Most singers in the Broadway world get to stay in the same place for as long as the run demands. But Picerno and company have been on the road all year long traveling across the country to such cities as Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Atlanta, Seattle, Houston, Philadelphia and many others. They keep a Broadway schedule of 8 shows a week during six performance days with one day of rest on Monday. During one week stays, that day of rest is a travel day for the entire company, which makes it difficult to really settle into any particular place.
But Picerno does her utmost to ensure that she always feels at home. During a visit to her performances in Hartford, Connecticut, it was immediately apparent that her dressing room is one of her most important places on tour. It is filled with pictures and other gifts from fans she has encountered on tour, among other personal items. “It’s like entering Alice in Wonderland,” she laughed.
She noted that she does the same for her hotel room, making sure she adds as much of her personality into it so that it feels like her own room at home.
Fortunately, the tour is made easier by having a solid “family” of cast and crew around her. Picerno noted that in January she was set to take a few days away from “Love Never Dies” to make her San Francisco Symphony debut in “Candide.”
Both Cunegonde and Christine live in different vocal tessitura, which obviously presented a major challenge for Picerno to prepare for one role and sing the other. But the team made it work so that she could rehearse the higher-lying Cunegonde in the mornings and have time to reassemble her voice for Christine in the evening.
And when it came time to leave for San Francisco, her cast mates took time out of their own vocal recovery to sing through the Bernstein work with her.
“They took the time out of their day to make sure that their lead soprano was all set and sparkly to rock in San Francisco,” she enthused. “And I did, but I wouldn’t have been able to without my cast’s help.
“We really are a family. We take care of each other because we love to: we work together to accomplish super human achievements. I love my people.”
An Operatic Future
While “Love Never Dies” has a few months remaining, Picerno is already set for a few major performances in coming months. Not only is she set to make her Teatro Municipal debut in Sao Paolo, Brazil, but she is also set to star at the Grand Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona in “Candide” this coming season.
“I am so very excited to glitter my way across the world as Cunegonde. She continues to open countless doors to the best of all possible worlds! I cannot wait to make my debut in these extraordinary theaters performing one of my most beloved characters.”
Picerno is clear that she wants to remain in both worlds. In fact, she feels it is a duty of sorts, particularly as a young American performer currently based in America- the birthplace of Broadway. She feels that both worlds not only help her as an artist, but could help inform one another for audiences.
“My vocal training is not what you often hear in the Broadway world, and when it comes to acting and being in the moment, I am learning so much from the Broadway world that I can bring to Opera. It’s a magical cross-pollination.
“I am so very lucky to be able to live in both worlds. I may be living more often in the Broadway world at the moment, but I have no intention of leaving either. If you can do both, you should because each world so wonderfully enriches the other.”