Monday, September 18, 2017

Artist Profile: Judith Skinner, contralto

When I reported on Porgy and Bess and Oklahoma! at The Glimmerglass Fesival I was delighted to learn I have a friend in common with Judith Skinner, the powerhouse contralto who played both Maria in Porgy and Aunt Eller in Oklahoma! I was further delighted to learn that Judith and Talise Trevigne, who played Bess, have been friends for 18 years. My original plan was to write a joint profile on the two, or a profile with a sidebar article, but I wound up with too much material for either option, so I present this stand-alone profile of Judith. My profile of Talise will be published separately.

We met on a lovely July morning in Cooperstown, and soon were talking about the season at Glimmerglass.

Judith Skinner
Photo:  judithsskinner.com
About being cast in two roles:

Talise is the one who actually said, "Let's see if we can get one show together in our lifetime," so I sent my audition materials for Maria. Then they asked if I’d also consider being in Oklahoma! But I wanted to do it. It was crazy—a month of rehearsals going back and forth, back and forth. Crazy but fun. There are worse jobs. There are worse things you could be doing instead of doing something you love to do. I'm definitely happy about that. And happy that we did our first show together.

About the very different vocal demands for the two roles:

Kathryn LaBouff, who is our diction and dialogue coach, helped me a great deal with Aunt Eller by helping me find where in my register I needed to speak that so that it wouldn’t become very strenuous. She loved the way I was doing it, but she helped me fine tune things. I couldn’t tax myself so much that I couldn’t jump into an opera the next day and sing. I couldn’t mark (sing half voice) in rehearsal, because I had to train my body to be able to do this every single day and do it fully. I think that helped me a great deal. I felt like tech week lasted two weeks because we were teching both shows. It has become easier. And I don't feel it as much. There will be one day when I do both shows on the same day—that will be the test!

As Aunt Eller in Oklahoma!
(with Michael Roach as Will Parker)
Photo:  Karli Cadel for The Glimmerglass Festival
We have to train our bodies, because it's all muscle memory. We sacrifice a lot, but we do it because it's what we love. We're like athletes. To look at us you would not think that, but, we are. And we have to rest. We have listen to our bodies and rest when our bodies tell us to rest. I try to sleep a lot. I drink lots of water. I do a lot of cardio just to keep the body warm and you've gotta keep it moving.


About Porgy and Bess and discussions about race:

I don't have any racial issues with Porgy and Bess. I think the story is a beautiful story that is poignant today. There are people on drugs, there are people trying to get off of drugs, and there are drug dealers who try to keep people on drugs so they can keep in business. People can look at it today and see parallels to life today, and can understand everything that's going on there, and love is love.

When I was graduating from college, people warned me about doing Porgy and Bess early in my career and getting stuck with in that role. At that time nobody was producing Porgy and Bess, so I did lots of other roles before my first Porgy.

As Maria in Porgy and Bess
Photo:  Karli Cadel for The Glimmerglass Festival
About her character, Maria:

This production is a little different for me. I've done productions where she has her shop, but she was a little hustler herself and that's how she was making her money there. Sportin' Life was her competition. I've done a number of productions where she gets drunk at the picnic. This is the first time I've done a production where Maria was considered more of a pillar of the society, part of Catfish Row. She was the person that people came to for advice. She was very religious. I've never done a production where Maria was this religious before.

I could see the parallels between her and Aunt Eller from the beginning. Once I read these, I thought, "Oh, I get it. I’m in charge! I'm in charge this summer, no problem, I'm in charge."

Judith and Talise with some goofy guy
On the Glimmerglass production:

I love the dignity and the level of respect that this production has brought to the characters. Francesca (Zambello, director of the production at Glimmerglass) really kept dignity in the forefront. And it makes the music shine even more. John DeMain (conductor of the production) wouldn't allow anyone to make their roles into caricatures. He would explain why you shouldn't do that because he wanted to have a level of respect and dignity that these characters and the music deserve.

You could tell the relationships and how deep the relationships went. And Francesca brought that out of everyone, so even with the minor characters within the ensemble, it became like it was a family of people that lived in this community. We all knew each other, we knew each other's kids. When people live that close together, you know everything that's going on with them.

So when Bess leaves with Sportin' Life, and we discover this baby that's sitting in a basket on the other side of the stage. (Bess has been taking care of Clara’s baby after Jake and Clara are killed in the storm.) The entire community know they have to take this child in and we have to raise him. It was so poignant in that moment. I think that brought it all together and gave a totally different level of understanding of what "community" meant.

On her background:

I am actually a native New Yorker, which is rare to find in New York City. Most singers are transplants to New York. I went to the Fame School (New York’s School of Performing Arts, featured in the 1980 movie Fame). I went there for music, the clarinet and to work. I’ve definitely been doing music and theater since I was a kid!

I came to opera weird because I wasn't trying to be an opera singer. I went to college for theater, although I'd started studying voice in junior high school. I was helping another student with an aria, because I had learned it in high school. The head of the opera department heard us and opened the practice room door, and said, "That was not you, so it had to have been you." And she sat down at the piano and said, "Just sing it for me, just humor me." And I sang it. Two days later, they offered me a scholarship to study voice through opera department.

As a contralto, I think I've gotten a hell of a lot more than I ever would expect. What's next? There's a lot up in the air, so I couldn't really say.