Q & A: Latonia Moore on ‘Dead Man Walking, ‘Fire Shut Up in My Bones’ & Taking Her Career into Her Own HandsBy Francisco Salazar
This past week Latonia Moore opened the Metropolitan Opera season for the third time in her career, singing the role of Sister Rose in “Dead Man Walking.”
Moore has become one of the most acclaimed Met stars in the past years following powerful turns in “Porgy and Bess,” “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” and “Aida.” She has been praised for her stage presence and her intensity in each role she performs. That has led her to become a frequent operatic figure around the world in a diverse repertoire that includes Verismo, Verdi, and American opera.
OperaWire spoke to the soprano about “Dead Man Walking,” opening the Met, and finding her own voice in the operatic world.
OperaWire: What does it feel like to open the Metropolitan Opera for the third time?
Latonia Moore: It’s surreal. I hate to say I am getting used to it but it’s fantastic and it’s amazing. I never imagined that something like this would happen and I feel like I have been at the right place at the right time. With “Porgy and Bess,” we were always intended to open with that. With “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” and “Dead Man Walking” it was never intended to open with it.
The first one, I felt I was very lucky and I feel like the other two have been flukes. And it just feels so great. I have been at the Met on and off for about 12 seasons and for me to open the season feels really good because I consider myself part of the Met family even if I am not singing there. I am always working with young artists and I am always around so the company has become very important to me. I have so much invested interest in it and I want to keep the company thriving.
OW: The first two times you opened the season, you were one of the scene stealers. What is the Latoinia Moore method when opening a season? What is the feeling?
LM: It is a funny thing because right now working with the director of “Dead Man Walking,” Ivo Van Hove, he is not the type of director we are used to. I remember the first rehearsal doing what I do very naturally. The reason why I am the Met so much is because of what I do on stage. I am able to make a role seem like it was meant for me. So when we go to rehearsals he wanted me to do something very different. He wanted me a bit more stoic and a little flat emotionally so the audience could decide what they wanted to feel. I told him that I wanted some compromise because I am known for bringing a role to life in my own personal way and I don’t want to take that away from the audience. But now we are able to find a happy medium which is being nun-like but also incorporating enough of myself. I think I have been able to marry that and find the right fit for Sister Rose.
It was similar to Billie in “Fire Shut Up in My Bones.” The role of Billie was created by Karen Slack and a lot of the way I learned it and started to come up with my own character of it was based on a lot of what she did. But what I have to do is put myself in that person’s shoes. When I start learning the role, I try to put myself in their shoes, especially the major impact roles. When I want to put my own stamp on the role, I sing all the text as Latonia. Not as a nun or without an accent. I speak it all as me. The more I am able to do that, the easier it is when I go into the singing and I am able to paint a color and give the audience what they want to hear. And for them, it’s like I am not acting. It’s what I think sets me apart from others who do the given role.
OW: You are working with Joyce DiDonato and Susan Graham, two veterans of this opera. What have you learned from them sitting in the rehearsal room?
LM: They have shared a lot. A lot of this coming together came from Joyce and Susan who have shared so much emotion. They also have a close relationship with Helen Prejean. For Susan, I have noticed an absolute purity in the way she sings everything. Nothing is affected and it does not have anything extra.
In watching Joyce, I get the same feeling. Her voice sounds like it came from 1689. Her voice is pure. Her quick vibrato is reminiscent of a choir of angels. It is one of the purest sounds I have ever had the privilege of standing next to. The other thing about Joyce is that everything is so sincere and colored out. And this goes from Aggrippina to Adalgisa to Sister Helen. For Joyce everything that comes out of her mouth is so heartfelt and that is what I am very attracted to as an artist.
When I have a scene with her, which is all of them, I feel like we click and that everything fits like a glove because she sings like I do. She tells you a story at all times no matter what. Same with Susan. So listening to these women and seeing how clean and pure they sing, goes back to a very youthful way of singing.
OW: Tell me about Jake Heggie’s vocal writing.
LM: The writing of Jake Heggie has also helped me. My first introduction to Jake Heggie was the opera “Great Scott.”I was surprised at how funny it was and I loved the vocal lines. I thought the composer was amazing.
I was supposed to perform a couple of his songs for a concert but that didn’t happen and then we were going to do “Dead Man Walking.” I started working on the music and then it was gone due to the pandemic. So now we are here at this point. This is happening years after the originally scheduled performances. I feel like for me specifically it was supposed to happen right now. Going back and forth between Terence Blanchard and “Aida” and “Madama Butterfly,” was very difficult. Vocally this is like butter and it’s been like rehab for my voice.
Jake Heggie’s music is composed in a Bel Canto way and composed with the singer first. It sounds like he composed the vocal lines before the orchestral accompaniment. You are never doubled in the orchestra and everything is the feel of Bel Canto. I never feel the need to scream or compete with the orchestra balance. This season there is no Bel Canto at the Met and I think this is the Bel Canto opera.
OW: Tell me about the music of Sister Rose.
LM: Sister Rose doesn’t actually have a fach. I thought the role was sung by a lyric or a lighter lyric. But as it turns out, it has had all types of sopranos fach-wise. I heard Jeanine de Bique, who is a coloratura, and I heard Measha Brueggergosman, who is a dramatic soprano, and a young Hungarian soprano, who also has a different voice type. When I saw this, I thought, “Who is supposed to sing this role?” And the answer is everybody. Any soprano can come and sing this role and they will find vocal therapy out of it. The lines are so beautiful.
The other thing about Sister Rose is that I am from Texas and I grew up knowing about the Death Penalty and I have always been against it. But as I am doing this opera and I am watching what is happening with the roles of the parents and the victims, it has thrown me into a moral tailspin. As much as I thought the death penalty was wrong and should not happen and it is not up to us to judge who dies or lives, I don’t know if I believe that anymore. I am doing an opera that questions all of that. I also have children and if my children were raped and murdered, I would want that person dead. This has raised a lot of questions for me.
In my role, Sister Rose believes he is a convicted murderer and does not deserve forgiveness. But then when she is with Helen the whole time, step by step, in the end Sister Rose says, that forgiveness is in the small things. Sister Helen eventually forgives but I don’t think Sister Rose really accepts it. It doesn’t say.
And for me Latonia, I don’t know if I could and it raised a lot of questions. As confused as I feel, I like that I am forced to question things. To be honest I am still on the fence and I am thrilled to meet someone like Sister Helen. I want to talk to her and ask her how she came to believe what she believes. I feel like the only other opera that has made me question like this is “Fire Shut Up in My Bones.”
OW: Over the past seasons, you have gotten to work with living composers. What is the experience like to work with them?
LM: I have collaborated with Terence a couple of times. The difference between Terence and Jake is that Jake’s opera has been around for much longer. Since it has been around for 23 years, the opera is set in stone. I didn’t ask him to change anything. But Ryan McKinny, changed a couple of things to make it more him, and Jake was okay with it. But I think the score was brilliantly written and we didn’t need any alterations.
With Terence, it is different because he is a jazz composer and he comes from composing for the instrument first. So there were things that had to be tweaked. The beauty in it was that he was willing to do anything to make the vocalism work. So it was beautiful and he changed it. And that is what happened in “Champion.” And times it was difficult because I had to learn a lot of music close to opening but at the same time it was beautiful to see someone change it for you.
The beauty of having Jake Heggie is that there may be things in the score that I didn’t know or don’t understand and he answered all of them. You can’t do that with Puccini because I wish I could ask him about “Butterfly.”
OW: What kind of responsibility do you feel with this opera?
LM: This one comes with a bit more pressure than “Fire” because even though “Fire” had been done before, it had not been done more than once or twice. For “Dead Man Walking,” it’s the most-performed American opera of the millennium, and there have been at least 30 Sister Roses before me. I say the same with someone like Serena in “Porgy and Bess” because everyone has an idea about how that character has to go so I had to find a happy marriage between what they wanted and the way I wanted to do it. In the end, I delivered the most sincere way and the way I knew how to do it. It was me and not a copy of someone else’s.
It is the same way with “Dead Man Walking.” My effort was not to please everyone and the way they would like it but to do it where I was able to put my own stamp on it and I think I have accomplished it. It is also a role debut. If I had done this role a bunch of times and it was a debut at the Met, it would have been a different story. This is a very fresh role so my effort went toward being unique.
In my first scene, he wrote an ad lib and I told him, “You wrote it so be ready.” And I gave it to them. No one was prepared for what I was going to do because it was not on the page. During the stizeprobe, Yannick stopped the orchestra and clapped because he was not ready for what I gave. So moments like that I love and I know it’s a moment that no one else has done it like that. I want to surprise people and entertain them. As it turns out I am the comic relief of the opera because there is no comedy in this work. I am doing all I can to leave my mark and leave an impression on a woman who is in four scenes.
In a way, Joyce’s character is like “Butterfly” and I am like Suzuki. Joyce never leaves the stage and my character needs me to be like a support even when I am not singing. I’m her confidante, her support, and the one she can lean on and cry.
OW: This season you will be returning to “Fire Shut Up in My Bones.” What does it feel like to reprise this opera after such a huge success?
LM: To be honest I was shocked to see it coming back so soon. I felt like it was a bit too soon but at the same time, I understand that Peter Gelb wants to bring these new operas to show that it’s a living genre. I have had more young people come up to me after doing “Fire” than I did after “Porgy and Bess.” “Porgy” did not bring in a bunch of new interest. I think people were excited and it sold more than anything in Met history but it did not pull in a new listener. “Fire” however did that. “The Hours,” “Champion,” and “Dead Man Walking” do that. These operas gain interest and that is what we so desperately need. We need a shot of adrenaline. This is definitely the right direction.
But I was still on the fence because I didn’t want to be stuck doing a lot of American opera. And I wasn’t sure that it was what I needed to be doing for my voice. But when Ryan Speedo Green said he was doing it, I couldn’t let him down. We are such a good team. We have collaborated a lot and I want to be there for him. He is a great support system for me.
Doing it again will be interesting because I am the only one in the old cast and I am the crucial one in my opinion. It is very hard to get someone for this role and I think a lot of the success of this work revolves around the role of Billie. You have to have a certain force. Ryan Speedo Green is doing Charles and Britney Renee is doing Destiny/Loneliness/Greta. Kevin Short is also in the cast. It is a great cast but I am the glue that will bring it together.
I am also excited to learn from my colleagues and it’s exciting to have a new cast with new energy. I think it’s gonna make another major impact.
OW: You are an artist who has figured out how to choose your repertoire correctly and has also made tough decisions in order to maintain a healthy career. Tell me about how you learned to make the best decisions for your career.
LM: Last season I went for 16 months without a break so I knew I would have to stop. I did “Aida” at the Arena di Verona and it went well. And then I kept going and went into “Il Trovatore” in Washington and that is when I knew I was burning out. I also knew that there was no break in sight because during Christmas I was only going to have five days during that run of “Aida” at the Met. When I got to the rehearsals of “Aida” I wanted to withdraw because I didn’t know if I would make it past the first one. I did the first performance and I immediately asked to pull out. And they let me.
And for most young artists it is difficult because of the economics. This has happened to many singers who get pushed against their instincts. And we burn out. When I had to make this statement that I was pulling out, it felt bad to do but the response from young singers was great. They asked me how to say no and how to back out. And I said that you need to remind yourself why you started doing this career in the first place. This career has to do with longevity. If I burn out and see how other singers burn out, people are going to be less interested in this art form simply because of that. If you do something for economic reasons, your career will be much shorter than you ever expected it to be because you make the wrong decisions. So as hard as it was, I am glad I did what I did because it has allowed other singers to speak out.
In the end that helped me because when I got to Berlin for “Madama Butterfly,” my voice was more settled. Those three weeks were important. I realized I needed more time. It also helped me realize that I needed to stop doing things I didn’t want to do.
OW: I can imagine that helps your repertoire choices.
LM: Yes. Last season I sang Musetta at the Met and as hilarious as it was, it is not for me and I will not do it again. The reason I did it at the Met was because Jonathan Friend thought it would be hilarious to have Musetta and Mimì switch places. So that is why Susanna Phillips did Mimì and I did Musetta. I know it is not a good fit for me so I won’t do it.
With “Champion,” I did it and wanted to do it. But vocally I won’t do it again because it was too tough on me. The costumes and the show were amazing but it was too tough on my throat. I am happy I did it and I will pass on the torch to whoever is doing it next.
That is the way I want to work in the future. I am really excited about this Anthony Davis Piece “Broken and Pieces,” but if it doesn’t fit vocally, I won’t do it because I want to make sure my voice is always intact. I don’t want it to feel like I am overusing it.
The one thing you have to remember is that before the pandemic I was not a constant singer. I was someone who appeared sporadically in American houses and lots of concerts in Europe. It was during the pandemic that I was thrust to the top. I was not used to it because I never sang full seasons. It was a lot of pressure being on top. But what relieves the pressure is doing things I want to do.
OW: Where do you see the future of your career?
LM: I am very excited to do “Mefistofele” and more light verismo. I am also excited to do more Czech and Russian operas. I have never gotten to do either and since I did the Letter scene for the Met finals back in the spring, it was exciting for the Met to hear me do Russian repertoire. So there is interest now in “Pique Dame” and I have a “Jenufa” coming up. I am also working on “Vanessa” and other things.
I am not sure about more “Aidas” because I have done almost 200 of them and I think I have met the quota. I also feel like it has an emotional trauma for me and I would like to put it down for now.
I am still excited about “Madama Butterfly” and I have more coming up. I also want to do French opera and I have “Bluebeard’s Castle” coming up. I am very excited about it. I am also looking at Broadway and Jazz. I am definitely doing some crossover and after doing “Porgy,” “Fire,” and “Champion,” the jazz fire has rekindled which is where I started off originally.
I am also on the board of the Academy of Vocal Arts and on the board of Artsmart. I also want to get into the administration and I am doing everything I can to train and learn because I think it is important. I think it is important that in opera houses, singers be on the administration and the artistic staff. I think active singers need to be in these positions because if we have more of a voice at the table, the repertoire choices will be more adequate. And we can plan the seasons better for vocal longevity and preservation.