Q&A: Soprano Jennifer Zetlan on Unearthing Secrets in John Musto’s ‘Rhoda and the Fossil Hunt’

By Logan Martell

On September 23, 2017, On Site Opera will present the World Premiere of John Musto’s “Rhoda and the Fossil Hunt” at the American Museum of Natural History. Known for staging performances in unusual venues that serve to bring out the best of both the opera and environment, On Site Opera hopes to bring life and sound to the Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs, and leave audiences as informed as they were entertained.

In the title role, Jennifer Zetlan will bring her clarion soprano to the production. Throughout her career, she has worked in traditional opera productions such as “Rigoletto”, “La Bohème”, and Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen,” as well as modern works such as Daron Hagen’s “Amelia,” and Louis Karchin’s “Jane Eyre.”

In anticipation for the premiere, OperaWire had the chance to speak with Zetlan and discuss what “Rhoda and the Fossil Hunt” hopes to bring to audiences this fall.

OperaWire: How did you come to be involved with the project?

Jenny Zetlan: I worked with Eric Einhorn many, many years ago when I was a young artist in Miami and we’ve just been in touch over the years, and I think we’ve been looking for a long time for a project together; this came up and he just guessed I’d be right for it and I hope he’s right. And that’s that. This is my first contract with On Site Opera, after doing some workshops with them last season, and I think it’s a good start with them.

OW:  What are some of your thoughts on how On Site Opera puts together these shows that are, in their own words, set in non-traditional venues like the Bronx Zoo or Madam Tussaud’s?

JZ: Yeah, I think it’s so cool. I think it’s so great to sort of subvert people’s expectations about what opera is. It’s a great way to earn new audiences and makes it more accessible to people who would not normally reach out and look for opera experiences. They have one positive experience, and maybe they’re more interested in the world of opera and see it more as a valued art form. I think the general public view of it as being sort of as an elitist art form.

OW: Given that opera is a genre that engages different senses and the imagination, do you feel this plays a role in helping children connect with the exhibit and the fossils?

JZ: Oh, absolutely. It’s the same kind of an idea as it is at the museum. I think you can’t help but see the dinosaur exhibits in a different way after experiencing this opera.

OW: It must be breathtaking seeing those fossils. We’re all children at some point and dinosaurs manage to capture our imagination so well.

JZ: Right, there’s something to be said about singing a high C under a T-Rex.

OW: That’s definitely something to look forward to.

JZ: It’s definitely a career highlight.

OW: In your career, since it spans so much of history in roles like Woglinde in “Das Rheingold,” to “Jane Eyre,” how do you feel about Rhoda being this modern-day lens into the prehistoric world?

JZ: I think it’s great. I love what I do, I think I have a pretty non-traditional resume.

OW: What are some of your thoughts on working with John Musto?

JZ: I’m totally excited to do it! I have never gotten to work on any of his music up until now and I’m glad I’ve been able to work with him. I’ve been a fan of his music for a really long time so I feel like this has “filled in” the other side of it.

OW: Were there any particular challenges in putting together the production?

JZ: I think one challenge will be the unpredictability of the audience, especially when we were doing the workshop in the museum, which was a little more like guerrilla opera in that the audience didn’t really know they were going to experience it. It’s interesting being in charge of leading them around the exhibit as an 8-year-old girl. So I can’t be too authoritative, I have to lead them with my energy, and that’s something that will be different each time. I think that’s really interesting, I haven’t quite done anything like that.

OW: Since new discoveries emerge all the time, was there anything about the dinosaurs that took you by surprise?

JZ: Well I actually had never heard about or noticed the Deinocheirus, which is the dinosaur we talk about during the opera, and they have these gigantic arms on display at the museum; I’ve been going to the museum for years and years, I have a 5-and-a-half-year-old daughter, who is a great inspiration for playing an 8-year old. I’ve taken her to the exhibit many times and I never actually really noticed these gigantic arms. So it was really eye-opening to learn about this dinosaur.

OW: What are some of the lessons that kids and parents will take home after seeing ‘Rhoda and the Fossil Hunt’?

JZ: Good question. I think there’s something to be said about, well there’s a whole waltz about, scientific inquiry. It’s this lovely waltz about how we have to use what we know, we have to use our imagination to interpolate possibilities. I think for a kid, that’s great because it can open up their mind about science, what a scientist does, and what a paleontologist does. They’re taking these bones and they’re making assumptions about them, and it’s really relevant right now because we’re constantly finding new things. There’s this whole thing about how the brontosaurus is now called the apatosaurus and they found that people had the wrong skull on it, and they had to change it… at some point we’re like “oh wait, we found this skull next to these other fossils but it’s the wrong skull.” And I have no idea how they figured that out… even though the dinosaurs’ bones are millions of years old we’re constantly learning about them. That’s what kids do for a living, right? Their job is to just study so this opera feeds into that feeling of people always learning and looking for new answers. To look at it from the point of view of Charles Knight, who was this painter of dinosaurs who really had to use his imagination, and I think it teaches kids that there are many angles into seeing the truth or origin of something.



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