Q & A: Soprano Joelle Harvey on Mozart, Motherhood, and ‘The Marriage of Figaro’

By Logan Martell

From November 4th – 12, Pittsburgh Opera will be performing Mozart’s comedic opera “The Marriage of Figaro.” This production will feature not only many of Pittsburgh Opera’s veteran performers, but a number of singers making their debuts with the company, such as bass-baritone Tyler Simpson in the role of Figaro, and soprano Joelle Harvey in the role of Susanna. OperaWire had the opportunity to speak with Joelle Harvey and gain some insight on her debut, the production, and her experience with the works of a composer as historic as Mozart.

A native of Bolivar, New York, Harvey has taken on a wide range of repertoire, her main output coming in the music of Handel, Mozart, and modern works. She has won the 2011 First Prize Award from the Gerda Lissner Foundation, a 2009 Sara Tucker Study Grant from the Richard Tucker Foundation, and a 2010 Encouragement Award (in honor of Norma Newton) from the George London Foundation.

She has performed with such companies as the Milwaukee Symphony, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Mostly Mozart Festival, the Kansas City Symphony, the Utah Symphony, the Handel & Haydn Society, the National Symphony, the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony Orchestra and Concertgebouw, the LA Chamber Orchestra, and the North Carolina Symphony. She also appeared at the Glyndebourne Festival Opera.

OperaWire: How do you feel about making your debut with Pittsburgh Opera?

Joelle Harvey: I’m really looking forward to it. I had seen “Otello” here a number of years ago and that was terrific; I’ve heard great thing about them, and I’ve known some people who have done the aria program here.

OW: How do you think this production compares to some of your past performances of “La Nozze di Figaro?”

JH: I’ve done some traditional productions, as well as some updated ones, and this one is definitely a traditional production. I think part of what makes the difference here is that the director really knows the piece incredibly well, and he knows the characters very well, which we don’t always get. I think that there are some things that – this is my fifth production of “Nozze” singing as Susanna – there are some things that either never clicked before or we’re trying in a different way. It’s really, really interesting to me, to do a piece so many times and still find a new way of doing things.

OW: As opposed to many operas whose stories unfold over the span of weeks, months, or even years, what are your thoughts on “La Nozze” taking place in one chaotic day?

JH: That’s it right there: it’s absolutely chaotic. I think it’s hard sometimes for the audience and the performers to remember that this is all one day, like that couldn’t possibly happen, but we’ve all had days like that where there’s just three or four days all rolled into one. I have a 20-month-old daughter and I can identify more with that now. I think that, as with any opera, there’s a suspension of disbelief, but I think the way this is done makes it believable and that it’s paced well.

OW: What are some of your favorite moments within the opera, comedic or otherwise?

JH: The moment when Cherubino is discovered hiding by The Count in Susanna’s new room; that’s always a hilarious moment. Musically, of course the Act II finale, when The Countess, Susanna, and Figaro are imploring The Count to let them get married. There’s that really low C pedal tone that goes through it, about halfway through the finale, and that’s really my favorite musical moment.

OW: How does the role of Susanna differ from that of Zerlina in “Don Giovanni?”

JH: Initially, it’s a much long role. Musically, the tessitura is similar; I’d say Susanna is a little bit higher. As far as their characters, I would say that Susanna is a little more worldly than Zerlina; she’s not as naïve as Zerlina is.

OW: Having worked rather extensively with the works of Mozart, do you still find new challenges and delights when you revisit pieces? If so, what are some of these challenges?

JH: Absolutely. Especially with Mozart, every time I do it, or even every time I hear it, there’s something new, or something you hear in a different way; even your own life experiences help you to see things differently. I was speaking with my colleague, Tyler [Simpson], who is singing Figaro, about how some of these things – and the way David is helping us discover these things – it’s like a real marriage or relationship. Life imitates art and vice-versa.

OW: How do the works of Mozart compare to Handel or the others composer in your repertoire?

JH: Oh gosh, I think Mozart is slightly more accessible than Handel. The style is a little more familiar to people whereas Baroque style is not necessarily what people are exposed to with “classical music” generally. For sopranos, we kind of get the best of both world with Mozart and Handel, and I think low voices could say the same largely. There aren’t many Handel librettos that can really compare to this one, but the naturalness with which the text, and therefore the story, flows, is what sets Mozart apart. It’s not just recite, aria, recite, aria, the way Handel can be at times; there’s more flow in the story as a whole.

OW: Having played Barbarina, and then Susanna, do you see yourself playing the Countess in the future?

JH: I was just thinking about that today. Maybe at some point; I think it would be fun but I don’t think I could ever sing the ensemble correctly. Every once in a while in the finale I end up trying to sing Barbarina’s lines instead of Susanna’s lines. I think I’d go crazy trying to remember which lines to sing.

OW: Being a new mother, do you find yourself bringing any new experiences to how you perform in different roles?

JH: Definitely. I think the element of patience comes into it. Also I think that I’m more comfortable in my body; I’m less critical of myself and my gestures because, as a mom, you just do what you need to do. I think that comes into the performance as well  so I don’t worry about things like “will this make me look silly?” or “do I look fat?” or whatever. There’s more freedom, I think.

OW: What are some of your upcoming roles that we can look forward to?

JH: I actually have a lot of concert work coming up. I think the only opera roles in the future is Cleopatra in Julius Cesare next summer, which is going to be insane; I had to do a dance audition, and it’s quasi-Bollywood where there’s just a tone of dancing. It’s definitely intimidating but I’m really excited; it’ll be my first Cleopatra and I don’t think there’s any better way to do your first Cleopatra than in this kind of a production.


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