Friday, February 28, 2014

Singer Profile: Jennifer Rowley, Metropolitan Opera Debutante

Photo credit: Arielle Doneson
Astute readers of my blog will recall my fascination with Jennifer Rowley, from her triumphant debut at Caramoor in Maria di Rohan to her glorious Spoleto Festival debut last summer. Jennifer is making her Metropolitan Opera debut on March 19 as Musetta in the beloved Zefirelli production of La Boheme. (She covered Desdemona at the Met last season, but was not required to go on.)

Musetta is a signature role. Her Musetta in Stefan Herheim’s inventive 2012 production at the Norwegian National Opera was called “infernal” by NRK, the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation, and Opernwelt called her a “ravishing Musetta." The Toledo Blade wrote of her Musetta at the Toledo Opera, "Musetta [was] played to the hilt by Jennifer Rowley, a young and robust soprano who shamelessly stole every scene she appeared in—just as it should be."

In service of her upcoming debut I felt it my duty to help spread the word about the wonder that is Jen. We exchanged a few emails with questions and answers, and I am happy to present a profile, Taminophile-style.

Q: So much has happened in just a few years, since your debut at Caramoor! Your career has grown so fast! Can you tell a little bit of the story behind the surprise debut itself, and any growing pains for your career, any particular challenges in rising so far so fast?

A: The story behind the Caramoor debut is such a fun one for me to tell! I was a young artist at Caramoor in 2010, and was covering the title role in Maria di Rohan. I had auditioned for the sole purpose of getting to work with Will Crutchfield on bel canto style and technique. Maria di Rohan was instrumental for me in finding my real voice. I had been singing coloratura repertoire before that, but the voice was growing and changing quickly! Will heard this and thought that the role would be a good fit.

Fast forward to the morning of the dress rehearsal. The stage manager pulled me aside and said that my colleague was ill, and that the maestro wanted me to sing the dress rehearsal. I thought to myself, when am I EVER going to get to sing this amazing music again, with orchestra? OF COURSE I will sing! I had never sung the whole thing through before, let alone with orchestra. It was amazing. ALL of my colleagues were immensely supportive, and when it was over, I felt like I had left my heart on the stage.

Then I found out I was to sing the performance! I had more support than I ever could have asked for. When I finished the first cavatina, and the audience roared with applause and I knew this was going to be an amazing evening. When the performance was over and I walked out for my curtain call, the ovation that hit me when I stepped on stage took my breath away. There is a picture of me that was in one of the papers, where I am holding my chest and have my head down. My very first New York Times review was a rave. I have that page framed and hanging in my hallway, a constant reminder of where it all started, and how grateful I am for it.

Q: And challenges? Any?

A: As far as growing pains, I was ready, but I had some work to do. My growing pains had really happened when I was struggling to find the repertoire that was right for me, and I had finally cleared that hurdle. The experience garnered me auditions with some of the most prestigious companies in the world. I did a TON of auditions the following fall. I did some amazing competitions as well. I really felt like I had finally FOUND my voice. The auditions I did that season turned into some incredible gigs, and off I went. I had a year in between the Caramoor debut and my next major international debut to really get my technique solid, and get myself ready to GO! I built an incredible team in that year to prepare me, and now, that team is my foundation. I needed that year though—I needed that time. I am incredibly grateful to all of the people who helped me prepare for where my life is going now!

Q: It must be a thrill to be singing with people at the career level of your colleagues at the Met. Are you sometimes still the star-struck girl from Ohio?

Photo credit: Arielle Doneson
A: I am ALWAYS the star struck girl from Ohio! I still can't believe that I stand on stage every day with international superstars! I am the baby in a cast of stars.

As Desdemona, for instance, I was covering Karisimira Stoyanova. She was unavailable for the first music rehearsal, and I was asked to sing it—on my first day EVER at the Met! With Alan Altingolu conducting, Jose Cura as the Otello, and Thomas Hampson as Iago! (I had worked with Cura before; he conducted my Italian debut as Magda in La Rondine in Bologna. I had no idea whether he would remember me, but when I walked into the room I was greeted with a massive hug and his wonderful smile bursting with pride!) 

I feel like I still have SO much more to learn! My colleagues have stamina that comes from years and years of experience in the business, on stage with orchestras. I soak up everything that they do like a sponge! I feel like I learn something new every day from some one different.

Q: It is clear you have both a keen business sense and an unshakable confidence your brand, in the Jennifer Rowley that you're selling to the world. How much of that is nature, how much nurture, and how much school of hard knocks?

A: I really like that you call it a brand, because it really is. I always tell other singers who ask for my advice that you have to be the CEO of your own company. I have just found that you have to be the biggest believer in what you are selling, or there is no point in selling it because the consumer won't buy it. And you have to be consistent with every detail from how you present yourself, to what kind of a colleague you are, to how you network. It really is like branding a product.

School of hard knocks? Maybe, but think about my years of working in the corporate world before singing full time. I worked in a buying office for a VERY large New York-based retail store, and for their smaller stores nationwide. Every season, the pattern is the same. The designer has to believe in the line to sell it to a buyer, the buyer has to believe in it enough to sell it to the company, and then once placed on the floor, the sales people have to believe in it enough to sell it to the customer.

The same goes for a singer. You have to know that you have something to say, what you have to give, and that it is something special in order to get people to invest in it—a manager, or a casting director, or a conductor, or anyone. That takes confidence, not only in yourself, but in what you have to give, the product. You are the designer, your manager is the buyer, and the opera houses across the world are the retail stores that will sell your product. You create it. You have to believe it in.

Q: And you have to do the work!

A: Simple right?!

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