Q & A: Soprano Arianna Zukerman on Singing ‘Annelies,’ Teaching, and Overcoming Cancer

By Chris Ruel

Editorial note & Update: The March 21st performance of “Annelies” referenced within this article has been postponed.

On Saturday, March 21st, Soprano Arianna Zukerman is set to sing “Annelies,” Anne Frank’s Diary in song. She will bring the work to Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, under the baton of church conductor Michael Diorio. As a granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, the work carries significant personal meaning.

Zukerman, in addition to being an acclaimed performer, is a voice teacher, a mother of two, and a cancer survivor. She comes from a family of internationally recognized artists. Her father is violin/viola virtuoso Pinchas Zukerman, and her mother is flutist Eugenia Zukerman. Pedigree, without the desire and drive to carve one’s own path to success in the music industry, can get a person only so far, and Zukerman has worked her way to stellar success in the vocal world. She was a soloist on a Grammy-nominated CD, has sung leading roles with James Levine, as well as the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and now teaches as the Senior Director at Potomac Vocal Institute (PVI).

Breast cancer struck six years ago, but at the time of her interview with OperaWire, Zukerman celebrated her five-year anniversary of the end of chemotherapy. As she related to OperaWire, after her cancer diagnosis, her primary focus was on beating the disease, knowing that the most important thing in life wasn’t her career but her health and her young family. Though needing to adjust and relearn aspects of her technique in the wake of reconstructive surgery, she’s stronger than ever, performing and teaching with a positive and well-grounded outlook on life—an outlook that is demonstrated by the care and support she provides to her students.

In this interview with OperaWire, Zukerman discusses the importance of “Annalies,” her teaching responsibilities and programs at PVI, and her successful fight with cancer that makes her treasure every moment in her various roles, professional and personal.

OperaWire: How did you become involved with “Annelies.”

Arianna Zukerman: My very dear friend Daniel Hope, who’s a violinist and conductor, called and asked if I wanted to sing it in what would be the premiere of the chamber version of “Annelies” in The Hague. The premiere coincided with the anniversary of Anne Frank’s 80th birthday, which shockingly was in 2009. Singing the work put things into perspective for me. My grandmother was still living at the time. She was 15 years Anne Frank’s senior. When we think about history, we think it’s all so long ago, something we see in those dusty black and white photographs, but really, it’s within our lifetime.

After the concert in The Hague, I was approached by James Jordan and the Westminster Choir College to record the work with the Lincoln Trio. James Whitbourn, the composer of “Annelies,” who I met in The Hague, had recommended me. Once the recording was finished, we felt like we worked so hard on the project that we really wanted to see if we could get “Annelies” out there and do it more. So, we started presenting it places we thought would be interested, some of which were really cool, such as Ravinia during the wintertime and Alice Tully Hall.

I’m happy to perform “Annelies” anywhere; I find that people are really moved by it. Anne Frank speaks through the genius of her writing. When I started performing the work in 2009, I came to it from the perspective of a young girl. Then, a couple of years later, I had a daughter and I began to relate more to the parents, to what they must’ve witnessed. There’s a line in the diary that talks about the family departing the house and going to the annex. One thing she writes about is leaving the breakfast things on the table. The thought of the finality of walking out, closing the door, and not knowing the future spoke to me in a very new way. Pieces of the diary have connected with me differently as I journey through my life. As a Jewish woman in an unfriendly political environment, it becomes more and more important to me. In 2009, I thought that that kind of virulent anti-Semitism belonged in the trash bin of history. But it has reared its ugly head again. We now have the lessons of Hitler’s Europe to draw from, and hopefully speaking up and speaking out will help all of us because the suffering of one group of people is not unique to suffering in general.

And, to be clear, I’m not calling anybody a Nazi except for the actual people who stand up and stand under the Nazi flag, calling themselves neo-Nazis. There’s nothing new about it.

OW: You mentioned being a Jewish woman and mother, and how that brings deep meaning when performing “Annelies.” Can you talk more about that?

AZ: I can’t look at a piece like “Annelies” without that lens. I’m the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors. And so, it is very personal; it could well be my family now—we’re integrated into society, we have good jobs and a nice home. But you watch and you see how quickly things can deteriorate. I’m not saying it will or it could or that it’s even on the horizon, but it does make you think for a second. Not 10 years before the rise of the Nazis to power, Jewish people were functioning members of society and then became ostracized and no longer allowed to be a part of the community.

OW: How did your upcoming performance at the Church of the Redeemer come about and what is it that you want to impart to the audience?

AZ: I did a performance last spring at the National Cathedral in DC with James Whitbourn conducting. Afterward, the Church of the Redeemer conductor, Michael Diorio, approached me because he felt that it’s an important piece and he wanted to have it heard in Bryn Mawr. I think, in large part, he wanted to be very respectful to the Jewish community there and to let them know that there’s advocacy in different places.

I hope to impart what I always hope to impart, which is the honesty of this young woman’s recollections and thoughts and to give pause for just a minute to remember that we’re all human.

OW: You teach at Potomac Vocal Institute and at Wintergreen. Tell me about that aspect of your career.

AZ: I taught vocal performance and musical theater for nine years at the Catholic University of America. My friend and the founder of Potomac Vocal, Betsy Bishop, have known each other for a long time—since our days as students at Juilliard. Betsy asked if I wanted to be on the faculty. PVI has grown from à la carte instruction, where if you were interested, we would teach you—and we still have that element—but we’ve added a 30-week, tuition-based program called the Professional Development Program where we have two tracks. We have the gap-year track and the rep-year track.

The gap year is what it sounds like: if you graduated from college and you’re not sure what to do, we offer a place to continue training and help with the next steps, whatever they might be. For some people, we’re discovering it’s grad school, for other people, it’s another year at PVI, and for others, we help them figure out where they’re going next.

With the rep-year program, we are catering to a population of singers who are extraordinarily talented but maybe didn’t make it into the young artist program that they wanted—the ones who make it to the semi-finals and, for whatever reason, aren’t picked. We help them discover where they were vocally that might have affected the decision making and how to help them get into the business via a less traditional route.

We offer lessons and coaching obviously, but also seminars and instruction from everybody on the faculty. We bring in our friends who are working professionals. This year, so far, we’ve had Stuart Skelton, Christine Goerke, and Susanna Phillips. Lisette Oropesa is coming in a few weeks. We want to give our students the opportunity to talk with singers and ask how they did it, what they’re doing, how they made a go of it, and what are the things affecting them now in their careers. Doing so demystifies things because the artists talk about their own experiences. We have a series we call Divas and Donuts. It involves actual divas and actual donuts. We interview the “diva of the day”, asking them questions about who they are and what makes them tick. A lot of people have a very similar answer: they couldn’t possibly have done anything else. The thing I think we all have in common is an incredible love for the art form. Being able to share that with somebody sitting five feet away and who has admired you is extremely valuable.

OW: What’s your role at Wintergreen?

AZ: I’m the chair of the voice program at Wintergreen, which is a music festival in the Blue Ridge Mountains about three hours south of DC. It’s beautiful. I had the opportunity to build the program with the new artistic director, Erin Freeman, who’s the Chorus Master of the Richmond Symphony.

Every year we’ve done a different orchestral work and we get our singers singing the solos. We have a volunteer chorus which we combine with the Richmond Symphony Chorus.

When I think about singing my first “Messiah,” it was terrifying. If you’ve had the experience of standing on stage with an orchestra behind you, and a conductor to your left or right, then the first time you do it professionally it’s maybe a little less terrifying. That’s my hope anyway.

OW: What advice would you give young vocalists looking for a teacher or say they are having difficulty finding the right person.

AZ: I think it’s really important to go with the person who feels right to you and not the person who everybody else says is right. There are a lot of people who say: Don’t see that person, don’t go to that coach, or don’t go to that program; you should only do what I tell you to do. I think that’s really dangerous, especially for young people in their 20s and even in their 30s. Make your own choices. If it’s not working for you, it’s always possible to change direction.

If you’re a working singer, let’s say you get a gig that’s 7,000 miles away from your teacher, well, you better have the skills to get yourself through that gig. I don’t want my students to need me. There was a lot of that that went around when I was a young, teachers saying you need me. The truth is you have to get you to a point where you can do it yourself and then come check in every once in a while; we all need that.

OW: Six years ago, you had a battle with breast cancer. How did the diagnosis and treatment affect you personally and professionally?

AZ: It was kind of a perfect storm. I had my first daughter in 2011 and my second daughter in 2014 and when she was six months old, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was going to do everything the doctors told me to do and get rid of it, kick its butt. I was lucky; they found it after my very first mammogram. I will be an advocate for early detection for as long as I am allowed to live. There were two millimeters of invasive tumor. I needed chemotherapy because the tumor itself was very aggressive. This year is the five-year anniversary of my last round of chemo.

Cancer sucks; there’s no way around that. I take a drug that I hate, but it’s saving my life. I guess if there’s a parallel to singing, there are exercises you hate, but they’re the things that allow you to sing, so you do them, you get through it, and you become better.

I am at a place in my life where I have worked really hard to understand my body again. The cancer treatment really affected my physical self. I decided to have a double mastectomy and I had reconstructive surgery that used my own body fat. That affected my abdomen and made me focus on relearning to breathe. I have gotten back to singing and technique from a different perspective and a different place physically and I’m a better artist for it.

I am eternally grateful for every day. I want to watch my kids grow up and if I get to do that and sing, then I’m the luckiest person there ever was. If it means that I don’t get sing, then I don’t get to sing. Instead, I get to see my kids grow up knowing I had a good run.


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