Q & A: Soprano Jeanine De Bique on Her Mostly Mozart Debut, Her Journey as a Singer, and the Importance of Serving Others

By Chris Ruel
(credit: Marco Borggreve)

Trinidadian soprano Jeanine De Bique hadn’t seen a fully staged opera until the age of 21, but had been raised to appreciate the classical arts by her mother. Now, the award-winning singer is highly sought after for concert and staged works, with The “Washington Post” noting her “dramatic presence and versatility.”

And as such, she will make her Mostly Mozart Festival debut on August 4, 2019 singing an all-Handel program bookended by Haydn’s “Symphony No. 88 in G major,” and Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony. De Bique will be backed by the Budapest Festival Orchestra under the baton of Iván Fischer.

De Bique’s heart is not only filled with a love for music, but also with a passion for justice and inclusion. Her charity work is as much a part of who she is as her singing. OperaWire recently connected with the soprano to get her thoughts on her Mostly Mozart debut, learn about her path from Trinidad to the great opera houses of the world, and learn more about her charity work.

OperaWire: How special is this Mostly Mozart debut for you?

Jeanine De Bique: Sharing the stage with a world-renowned conductor and equally famous orchestra in this Mostly Mozart debut is such an extraordinary opportunity. Further I am honored to be invited to perform on one of the most important stages in the world and to stand in the same spot where my idols and great performers have stood and will stand after me. This is incredible.

This is the city where I began my professional training in this craft and I am truly excited that universe has aligned itself to allow me to be here. I hope to make all the persons, both at home, Europe and in the United States, duly proud.

OW: Tell me about the repertoire you selected. You seem to be a Handel fan. What draws you to his music?

JDB: These three Handel arias each show brilliantly a different side of Handel’s creative and expressive writing and I chose these arias specifically because each portrays different aspects of my personality. I thought, this is a really nice and short personal insight for the audience to have some idea who Jeanine De Bique is. Not easy by any means, but I love the challenge that the arias bring.

Actually, working with them has taught me more about my instrument and of the technical skill needed to perform them, not only in the Baroque style but in other periods of classical music as well. Handel’s music allows me the freedom to create. I see a white canvas on which I am able to paint with many different colors of my voice. As I get a stronger connection to, and understanding of my instrument I gain more colors and I can make different brush strokes from my palate. My attraction to his music also comes from my study of the historical and cultural contexts in which the music developed.

At school, I studied European history. I dreamt of visiting old abbeys, ruins and churches in England where early music began, and read of the countries of the Ottoman Empire, and of great palaces of Kings, Queens and Tsars that commissioned musical works of composers for example in France and Austria. This connection to European history and my knowledge and interest in it is one of the many reasons my desire and taste for the music of the period expanded.

The first time I sung with a Basso Continuo in rehearsal, I was completely mesmerized by the experience. There is in inescapable bond that is formed between the way the instruments sing, feel and express with you in their playfulness and great conversation between voice and orchestra.

I’ve sung Monteverdi, Purcell and Jommelli operas but it was in my work on Handel that I was introduced to this unique and thrilling relationship of voice and orchestra. I am relatively new to Baroque music and grateful for the opportunities I have had, to learn from the masters. I am eager to learn more about the style and to portray it with my voice, as I am eager to continue learning about all styles in opera.

OW: For the Mostly Mozart concert, you’re teaming up with the Budapest Festival Orchestra. Have you worked with the orchestra and Maestro Iván Fischer before? How did the collaboration come about, and how would you describe your working relationship with the conductor and his orchestra?

JDB: What a remarkable opportunity this is to work, for the first time, with the Budapest Festival Orchestra and the second wonderful time working with Maestro Fischer. Maestro Fischer and I met on his invitation to me to audition for him in Berlin. It was among the best auditions I’ve had. I was auditioning for something specific but he also wanted to hear everything else in my repertoire that I was prepared to offer. That ranged from opera arias to concert works. The audition turned out to be a wonderful mentoring and musical working session.

He took a keen interest in my voice and wanted to help showcase and develop it and some months later he invited me to perform with him with the Konzerthaus Berlin Orchestra making my debut in Berlin. In performing with him, I always feel connected with him and the orchestra. There is never a moment of abandonment.

Behind the scenes he is ever encouraging and you want to create great music with him and bring your best self. I feel extraordinarily fortunate to be making music with him and the Budapest Festival Orchestra this summer.

OW: You do a fair amount of concert work. Is there something about the experience of being in front of an orchestra that pulls you in that direction?

JDB: I really enjoy the direct connection I have with audience when performing in concert. The gap between their seats and the stage and the gap of the pit where the orchestra sits is closed and there is now a direct magnetic link between us. It feels almost like their acceptance of my invitation to engage with me and be a part of my personal story.

OW: What was your first exposure to opera, and when and how did you decide to pursue singing as a career?

JDB: I saw my first fully staged opera at the Metropolitan Opera at age 21 in my first year of undergraduate studies at the Manhattan School of Music. But my first exposure to opera began when my mother placed my sisters and myself in classes for the classical arts available in Trinidad such as ballet, classical piano and gymnastics.

While I thrived in all, piano was my favorite. At first this was an extra curricular activity. Whilst at secondary school, I continued my piano studies and was involved in my school’s choir. My choir mistress, who studied Opera Performance at the Royal College of Music London, and had returned to Trinidad, encouraged me to begin private voice lessons with her to enter the Trinidad and Tobago Music Festival to represent my school in the solo and duet categories. My piano teacher who studied in Germany also encouraged me for the same competition.

I was successful in both areas and when I graduated they encouraged me to pursue classical music in piano and voice as a career. I researched a lot, because at this point I had never seen an opera live nor had I seen a solo piano concert before. I decided to trust my gut and pursued a degree in classical music performance with voice as my instrument of choice at the Manhattan School of Music, achieving the bachelor and master’s degrees in Voice Performance and a Certificate in Professional Studies.

OW: Is there a singer who has served as a role model for you?

JDB: There are two: Renée Fleming and Cecilia Bartoli. They are not only magnificent singers and actresses and complete performers, each are tremendous business women and ambassadors in our field–all qualities and more that I strive to achieve.

OW: As you have progressed in your career, what is the biggest challenge you have faced?

JDB: Progress with my career has involved significant and frequent global travel. Traveling can be fun (and I have been fortunate to work in some of the most beautiful places in the world and learned different languages, eaten different kinds of food, climbed mountains and swam in glacier lakes).

However, the combination of being female, black and a frequent traveler has presented hazards and challenges. For instance, at border controls I have overheard many comments that indicated doubts on who I could possible be–definitely not an opera singer, and not an opera singer from Trinidad and Tobago.

Furthermore, is that a real country and is my passport fake? I’ve been detained. I’ve been triple searched without the possibility to call anyone. I’ve had my picture taken without being told why, screamed at and then allowed to go continue my journey without even an apology.

OW: What so far has been a high point? What concert, production, or award had you walking on air with happiness?

JDB: My BBC proms debut! It was a spectacular experience! The event itself was touted with high expectations. From the moment I stepped out onto the stage, the energy from the audience engulfed me. They were completely engaged. Some were standing in front of the stage, others were sitting on the floor or riveted in their seats! I smiled as the opening phrases of the two pieces from Handel’s “Messiah” began. They smiled back and they cheered. I felt for those moments like a British rock star. [It was] an incredible warm feeling, which filled me with joy and enthusiasm for the rest of the season.

OW: Charity work involving music is a big part of who you are. Can you tell me about that?

JDB: I received the UNESCO Trinidad and Tobago Commission Youth Ambassador for Peace Award at the age of 20. It was my duty, and continues to be so, to promote peace through music and to raise awareness of the value of classical music in transforming lives of young people. Introducing classical music to new audiences is important especially to children of all backgrounds to engage their minds for better learning and infuse them with hope. My efforts also have included doing performances that raised money for children with disabilities and the Children’s Ward at the General Hospital in Barbados.

OW: Do you have advice or encouragement for up-and-coming singers?

JDB: A wonderful quote from Maya Angelou has stuck with me and I feel can be useful to all young singers in our very competitive environment.

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” I would add that singing is only a small part of what makes you successful or memorable. We must be true ambassadors of the craft by always being humble, honest and mindful of the way we treat others.

OW: What’s your favorite thing you do for yourself?

JDB: I am my best self when I am in the mountains hiking in nature. This is a prayerful act that really helps me to rest and recharge. Talking with my mom at least every week and staying close to home grounds me in a value-led life. Thank goodness for the internet.

I adore dancing. I dance Argentinian Tango and I try to get to a Milonga in my travels. It is a great way to meet new people and be a part of community, but nothing beats dancing to the sweet sounds of Trinidad and Tobago calypso music.


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