Earlier this year, mezzo-soprano Wallis Giunta took home the award for Young Singer of the Year at the International Opera Awards.
Giunta spoke to OperaWire about her upcoming debut as “Carmen” and the challenges of performing one of the most iconic characters in opera.
OperaWire: Carmen is such an iconic role and one that has been performed by every great mezzo. Why do you think it is the right time to take on this role and how does it fit within the more lyric works you are currently performing?
Wallis Giunta: I think we’re due for an update on the mentality that Carmen is heavy/mature repertoire for a mezzo. Obviously, you don’t want it to be the first role you sing – it requires a certain gravitas – but from what I’ve experienced so far, Carmen is by no means a big step up for me in terms of vocal weight.
Her character and the “Opéra Comique” style of the score suggest to me that she’s crying out for a lighter touch than she has normally been given in recent decades. She’s a young woman, and most of her music is quite playful. I find myself singing this role the same way, technically, that I would approach any of my other rep, and I’m having an amazing time. It fits within the other lyric repertoire I sing because the way I sing Carmen IS lyric. My Carmen is young and free-spirited, and I’m letting my own voice serve the story.
OW: How do you view her as a character especially as she is one of the most complex characters in the repertoire?
WG: I think her character is very relevant today, as an example of a woman who understood, before her time, that women deserve to live as freely and independently as men, with the same rights and privileges. She longed for this, and fought for it, and ultimately needed that freedom so badly that she chose death over a life of oppression.
OW: How do you view the relationship with Don José and how does it compare to that with Escamillo?
WG: I see José as a typical example of a perpetrator of domestic violence. He lashes out at Carmen; he needs to control and dominate her, and this drives her away from him about as quickly as it begins. They are, however, stuck together out of their unfortunate circumstances, and they have a completely toxic relationship which Carmen loathes. All she wants after the end of Act two is for him to simply get on with his life and leave her in peace. But no, he can’t!
Escamillo, on the other hand, is a really good match for Carmen – he is her equal in vitality, bravery, and recklessness. Carmen’s relationship with José is very much like a Toreador and her bull, the way she provokes and draws his rage. So it would make sense that a better match for her would be someone who can understand her temperament and meet her on her level. Escamillo and Carmen share the same fatalistic drive.
OW: What are your favorite moments in the opera or any musical section that you love to perform the most?
WG: My favorite musical moment is my aria at the beginning of Act two, “Les tringles des sistres tintaient.” I love the way the music boils, and how it gets faster and faster as the three verses progress. It’s totally exhilarating! I also love the big choral numbers. It’s the best choral writing overall in any opera, in my humble opinion.
OW: What are some of the vocal challenges of the role and how does Bizet’s music compare to the other repertoire you do?
WG: I don’t actually find it challenging, vocally. It’s so well paced, it’s mostly in the middle voice (which is very comfy for me) and the high notes are just how I like them – forte.
I honestly find the biggest challenge is pacing the character and giving her the right dramatic arc. But the music is so well-written for the voice that I rarely have to think about it technically. And compared to most of my other rep, I would say again that this role is vocally quite an easy sing. I honestly find something like Cherubino much more of a technical challenge, strange as that may seem.
OW: Tell me about the production you’ll be doing at Oper Leipzig and what insights it gives to you as a performer?
WG: We’re focusing on the darkness of this story, the violence and the brutality of what happens to Carmen, but also how she can find her moments of joy and inner strength within that. Carmen’s journey is not unlike so many women, past and present, who were/are the victims of violence from a man whom they cannot escape. We address, head-on, the theme of being trapped in an abusive relationship, and using your determination and bravado to find a way out.
OW: You’re part of the Oper Leipzig ensemble, so what is it like to make such a major role debut with the company?
WG: It’s a bit different than working at a non-ensemble house, in that I am singing performances of “Elektra” and “Il Barbiere di Siviglia” while rehearsing “Carmen” every day, and squeezing in time to rehearse for my next debut, as Strauss’s Octavian in “Der Rosenkavalier,” as well. So my plate is quite full! But I love my opera family here, and I have wonderful support.
OW: You are doing Mozart later this season at the Opera Atelier. Tell me about switching from something like Bizet and Strauss to Mozart and do you have to adjust your technique?
WG: Before I get to the Mozart, I will be jumping right into my first Octavian, as I mentioned. We begin the Strauss three days after the Carmen premiere, so that will be the bigger challenge for me. After that, I think “Idomeneo” will be a piece of cake, to be honest. I don’t really adjust my technique and I try to sing everything with my authentic voice, and just do some little tweaks here and there when needed for color.
OW: What makes Mozart’s music so enjoyable to sing and what are you looking forward to in “Idomeneo?”
WG: Mozart is the ultimate challenge and reward for me vocally. It’s such perfection, and it forces me to be totally on top of my technical game. I’m really looking forward to singing the ensembles in Idomeneo! The duet, trio, and quartet are sublime!
OW: There are a lot of recitatives in Mozart’s music. How do you contrast the recitative singing with the arias and duets?
WG: I think of recit like speaking on pitch. It’s still supported, like stage dialogue, but not sung with a full voice like the musical numbers.
OW: What are some of the roles that you would like to sing in the future?
WG: I am most excited to sing more of the works of Kurt Weill! His music fits me like a glove, and it really fulfills me as an artist. I would also love to take on Massenet’s Charlotte [in "Werther”], and Rossini’s “L’Italiana in Algeri.” And any more Bernstein, Britten and John Adams that people would like to throw my way would be most enjoyable!