Q & A: Jade Phoenix on her Experience with Wexford Festival Opera’s Factory & on her Debut as GiuliettaBy Alan Neilson
One of the successes of this year’s Wexford Festival Opera was undoubtedly the Wexford Factory, a program of masterclasses introduced by the festival’s artistic director Rosetta Cucchi aimed at developing young talent. The participants are also given the opportunity to sing in an opera on the main stage during the afternoon, replacing the 60 to 90 minute opera short productions, whose format had become a little jaded over recent years.
The choice for this year’s Factory opera was Bellini’s “I Capuleti e i Montecchi.” That it proved to be a hugely successful production, not only enhanced the festival-goers experience, but also validated Cucchi’s innovative approach and her faith in developing young talent.
OperaWire, therefore, took the opportunity to talk to one of the young soloists about their experiences with the Wexford Factory, and about performing a major role in front of a paying audience for the first time.
Soprano Jade Phoenix, who shone in the role of Giulietta, proved to be an ideal interviewee. Not only did she undertake one of the major roles, in which she impressed with her calm stage demeanor, well-crafted characterization and carefully molded and nuanced phrasing, but she was also fortunate enough to be selected from the Factory’s young singers to participate at this summer’s Rossini Festival in Pesaro, and is therefore in the perfect position to talk about what the Wexford Factory is able to offer to young singers. The interview also proved toi be an excellent opportunity to find out about Jade herself.
OperaWire: What made you want to become an opera singer, and what was your pathway into the profession?
Jade Phoenix: I don’t come a a musical family at all, but even as a very young child I loved singing. So my mother enrolled me for singing lessons with a local teacher called Fiona Hickey, and it was a bit of a shock. I wanted to sing Beyoncé or Britney Spears, all the usual Karaoke stuff, but this was classical singing, and I was completely hopeless, totally unmusical. I was about 10 at the time. I stayed with her for about two years, but she moved to England so I transferred to Mary Brennan and remained with her until I went to the Royal Irish College of Music, although I was still under her tutelage. She really set me up. I was basically with her for all my formative years, and it something for which I am very grateful; she is an amazing teacher. After graduating I went to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, where I studied with Yvonne Kenny, and have just recently completed my studies there.
Looking back, if it wasn’t for my parents organizing singing lessons for me, I would never have taken this career path, and I would probably be doing something completely different.
OW: What are your earliest memories and experiences of opera?
JP: I had just started singing lessons, and I remember one day being in the computer room at school and I googled “Opera” and the first thing that came up was Diana Damrau singing the Queen of the Night’s aria “Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen.” I just couldn’t believe anyone could sing like this. I was completely blown away by it. Even now, it is still my favorite recording of that aria.
I never actually saw an opera until I was 18, which was quite late really. I was learning how to sing for the stage, but I had never actually been to see an opera up to this point. It is quite strange I suppose. I had just finished secondary school and I was on holiday with a group of friends in Barcelona, and one day we were passing the opera house, the Liceu, and I popped in and asked if they had any tickets. We ended up with discounted tickets which, I think, cost €40. The seats were awful. You couldn’t see anything, but the singing was brilliant, and it was Mozart’s “Die Zauberflöte,” which was quite a coincidence.
OW: How would you describe your voice?
JP: I am a lyric soprano with a dark tone. When I was at college people told me I was a mezzo, but I was not having it. Part of this was me being in denial, as I always wanted to perform the great soprano roles like Mimi and Rusalka. Fortunately, however, my voice grew with age and changed, and now I am definitely a soprano.
OW: How do you approach a performance?
JP: In rehearsals I think about technique and how I will approach a specific passage or scene, but when I am on stage the last thing I think about is technique, I just try to communicate the words, and to connect with the audience. I try to prepare myself as fully as possible. I practice over and over again until I am at the point where everything feels comfortable, and I don’t have to think about what will come out of my mouth, muscle memory does it for me.
You cant go on stage worrying about the second aria, you can’t do that, otherwise you will be nervous and it will affect your singing and it won’t go well. You must walk on to the stage believing that you know the part inside-out, you must have that inner bravery. Although I have to be careful, I can’t afford to let my emotions run away, otherwise I can lose control of the voice, singing and crying do not go well together.
OW: What were your earliest experiences of singing in front of an audience?
JP: The first opera I ever sung in was during my first year at college. It was a production of Purcell’s “The Fairy Queen” and I was in the offstage chorus. The director was Conor Hanratty who, as it happens, is directing “I Capueti e i Montecchi” at this year’s Wexford festival, in which I am singing. My first actual role in an opera was Charlotte Badger in a contemporary work by Stephen McNeff when I was in my third year at college, which we performed it in Kilmainham gaol. It was a great experience playing it in such a location, as the opera was actually set in a gaol.
Last year, I sang the role of Alice in Verdi’s “Falstaff” here in Wexford, but because of the Covid situation it was not in front of a live audience, but it was recorded.
So, my first ever professional role in an opera in front of a live audience is my current role, here at the Wexford Festival ,Opera as Giulietta in Bellini’s “I Capueti e I Montecchi.”
OW: What challenges did you face in making your professional debut in such a demanding role?
JP: The hardest thing about Giulietta for me was the stamina required. It is such long piece. It opens with a huge aria, then it’s straight into a duet which lasts about 16 minutes and then finally into a quintet. And that is just Act one! I had to learn how to pace it. I remember in one of the rehearsals I gave it my all in the Act one duet, and I was exhausted when singing in the quintet. I had to learn when I could give my all, and when to hold back a little, and calm down a bit. I had to fight my instincts because the emotions are so dramatic, they pushed my voice, when it should be the other way around, my voice should be driving the emotions. I had to learn to plan things very carefully, and to remember that it isn’t a race to the finish.
Then there was the coloratura which I can find difficult, however because I had spent two months in Pesaro at the Rossini festival I had worked on this a lot, and so when I came to sing Giulietta I found it a lot easier compared to Rossini. It was like breathing fresh air because I had the time and space to sing, I could introduce more nuance into my singing, so along with the conductor I could decide how I was going to tackle this.
I must say I loved the experience, it really has been the best thing I have sung so far. And I love the character of Giulietta, especially what Conor has done with her. She isn’t just a damsel in distress, she has her own ideas, she is courageous, she isn’t looking for Romeo to save her, it was a case of I am coming too.
The help and support we received was superb. Giulio Zappa, who coached us in the roles, was brilliant and the conductor Giuseppe Montesano was there with us every step of the way. He was so kind and attentive, and eager to answer all our questions. He told us not to worry, and that if anything awkward happened on stage, he would be there to catch us. It makes so much difference when you have a conductor who supports you like this, it made us feel so much more confident.
OW: The relationship between Romeo and Giulietta is crucial to the whole performance. How did you think it went with your Romeo?
JP: I think it was really good, and it grew over the course of the performance. I was especially happy with the connection we made in the final duet. I could feel it, it was so emotional. There were some tears at the end backstage. Every time we perform it the emotional stakes get higher, and you become more confident with it.
Working with Anna Brady, who played Romeo, is amazing. She is a great person to act with, because she gives it her all every time and you feed off her emotions. If you are working within someone who is scared or unsure of themselves, it is very hard to bounce your ideas of them, and improvisation becomes very difficult. But yes, I thought we established a very successful relationship. I was very happy with it.
OW: You are a member of this year’s Wexford factory. Could you explain exactly what this is, and what you gained from it.
JP: It is a two week intensive course of master classes and coaching, and we sing everyday. There is a morning, afternoon and evening session. It starts two weeks before the festival starts, but you are not singing what you will perform in the festival. You bring five or six arias and a couple of duets with you, or whatever you want to work on, and they work with you on it.
I picked two Rossini arias and a Menotti aria “To this we’ve come” from the “The Consul.” It is a very long, dramatic aria, and I wanted to develop the acting side of it, because when you sing it in concert you are alone on the stage and it can be very tricky to present well. I sang it in the festival’s Gala Concert and I asked Rosetta Cucchi if I could throw some official looking papers across the stage. She said “Yes, yes, do it!”
So we attend all these workshops with people who are expert in the business, and know how to help you. Then at the end of it all, we perform a Gala Concert.
We also get to perform at pop-up events and to sing on the main stage in an opera, and I was selected to sing Giulietta. There are not many roles in “I Capuleti e i Montecchi” so some some of the singers at the factory got to sing in the main operas in small roles, for example Conor Prendiville sang in the chorus in the factory opera, but then sang the role of Fritz in “Edmea,” one of the main operas. Everyone gets an opportunity, and everyone gets something to put on their CV.
There are also opportunities for the lucky few to study abroad. We all do auditions and they select a couple of us. So, Ava Dodd has just been selected to study with the Bolshoi, and I had the opportunity to go to study with the Pesaro Rossini Opera Festival last summer. I got to sing the role of of Modestina in “Il Viaggio di Reims.”
OW: What else is happening with your career in the near future?
JP: I have a place on the young artist studio program with Northern Ireland Opera. I shall will be going up to Belfast for masterclasses and some gigs. So I have something to look forward to, although they have not released the full program yet, so I don’t know the full details of events. My plan is to stay with them for the year and in the meantime I will audition abroad for young artist programs.
OW: What roles would you most like to sing in the future?
JP: To be honest, I am living in the moment and thoroughly enjoying Giulietta right now. If pushed, I would say that I would love to sing Puccini, especially Mini and Butterfly.