Lauded for her “nuanced dramatic impulses” and “voice that is liquid, lambent, and lit from within”, American singer Jennifer Holloway gives new life to the characters she plays and the music she sings at leading opera houses and concert halls at home and abroad. This season brings exciting role debuts, including Rosina, Musetta, and Adalgisa, and her first appearances with the Canadian Opera Company as Elvira in Dmitri Tcherniakov’s production of Don Giovanni.
Recent performances have met critical acclaim, including in her English National Opera debut as Orlofsky in Christopher Alden’s striking production of Die Fledermaus, as well as a breakthrough performance in her South American debut at Argentina’s Teatro Colón as Temple Drake in the World Premiere of Oscar Strasnoy’s new opera, Requiem, and her return to the Metropolitan Opera for Tebaldo in Don Carlo, conducted by the late Lorin Maazel. Among the highlights of her concert work were her first appearances with the Marseille Philharmonic and Maestro Lawrence Foster in a concert tour around China, and with the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra in a program including the world premiere of Frédéric Chaslin’s Love and a Question, which he composed for her.
She has concentrated her repertory in major roles by Mozart and Handel, performing the roles of Dorabella in Cosí fan tutte (Dallas, Atlanta, Minneapolis, New York City Opera, Tokyo), Cherubino in Le nozze di Figaro (Dallas, Portland, Bordeaux), Idamante in Idomeneo (Opéra National de Bordeaux), Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni (Pittsburgh, Tulsa), Irene in Tamerlano (Teatro Real Madrid, Los Angeles Opera) and the title role in Serse (Pittsburgh). She made her debut with the Metropolitan Opera in New York in December 2010 as Flora in Willy Decker’s new production of La Traviata, and has also appeared at the Glyndebourne Festival in new productions of Hänsel und Gretel (Hänsel) and Falstaff (Meg Page), at the Santa Fe Opera in new productions of Cendrillon (Prince Charmant) and Faust (Siebel), the Maggio Musicale in Florence, the Théâtre du Capitole Toulouse (Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie with Emmanuel Haïm), the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris and the Opera Theater of St. Louis. Concert and festival appearances include the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles (Mercedes in Carmen with Gustavo Dudamel and Zweite Dame in Die Zauberflöte with Leonard Slatkin), Anne de Boleyn in Saint-Saëns rarely-performed Henry VIII at the Bard Music Festival with the American Symphony Orchestra (now available on itunes), as both Octavian and as Der Komponist in Chautauqua, NY, and at Chicago’s Grant Park Music Festival in Rossini’s Stabat Mater. She has also formed a strong partnership with Jean-Christophe Spinosi and his Ensemble Matheus in works by Rossini and Vivaldi.
I had to ask Jennifer Holloway ten questions: five about herself and five about her portrayal of Elvira in Tcherniakov’s production of Don Giovanni, that opens this weekend at the Four Seasons Centre.
1. Are you more like you father or your mother?
There are so many elements of both of them inside of me. Although I have taken on PLENTY of their bad traits, I prefer to focus on the good things I got from them! Both of my parents are very loving, caring, and selfless people. My parents will go out of their way to help anyone in need, even complete strangers. They love big and care big, and want to show that to both family and community. I love that they have instilled in me a feeling that we can all create a better society if we help each other out. I am not as good as they are, but I like to think I try to consider other people, and to make them happy. I try to realize that I am a part of a community, no matter what I am doing… whether I am driving on the road or on stage with my cast. We all work together and help each other out to make something wonderful happen.
One thing that I think is very much like my dad is his learning style. He is a very hands-on person. He can fix anything because he wants to know HOW things function. It kills him to call a repair person because he is pretty sure he can fix anything if he just knows how it is put together…. where the connections are, what comes first, where one part is in relation to another. There were so many stories of him ruining his brothers’ and cousin’s toys when he was little because he would dissect them to find out how they worked. Back then, he couldn’t always put them back together again, so after a while, everyone hid their toys from him! Toys turned into cars and houses his own kids’ toys… and my dad is still that way. Once he has really experienced and touched and felt how something works, and he has asked a lot of questions, he uses crazy powers of deduction and ingenuity to find a solution and fix it. I love that he’s always taught my sisters and me by letting us try. He does the same with my kiddo. It is beautiful to watch. I have found more and more that I learn best that way. I have found that in my career, when I am learning music or when I am learning staging, I have to DO it and EXPLORE it and find out how every part of how it works before I can BE it and PERFORM it!
2. What is the best thing or worst thing about being a singer?
Well, there are a million best things. Ultimately though, opera is so cool because it takes so many art forms… sets and costumes (visual art), movement (dance), acting, words (literary), and music and combines them all to heighten each one. I love being a part of an art form that has the possibility of combining all of those things to make people feel more deeply than they would while experiencing just one art form at a time. I also love that the combination of all of these art forms causes ME to feel and understand so many human emotions and situations more deeply. When it all comes together in just the right way, we can change lives and that makes any crummy things worthwhile!
There are not very many bad things about being an opera singer, but it is definitely difficult to be in a profession that is so unusual to the normal population. Let’s be honest, the fact that time is a practice room or for warm up is actually work time, or that I can’t commit to anything ahead of time because my schedule doesn’t come out until 5pm the night before is just weird! I think the most difficult thing for normal people to understand is in the way our family functions… especially in relation to my little girl. People tend to look at our family as eccentric and odd. Lots of folks have what seems like great advice, and it comes from a good place, but it can be a little ill-informed. Sometimes, knowing that people are a bit judgmental about the time I spend away from home is pretty difficult to handle. My heart breaks when I am away from my child and my husband. When I am not home, she is surrounded by family who loves her, and we make sure to keep things as “normal” as possible. We make a point of traveling to be together as much as my job and her school allows. We keep her as busy as possible in after school activities and friends, and I try to keep as busy as I can doing the “best parts” of my job and throwing myself into them because when I am not doing them, I have time to think about the parts of her life that I am missing and will continue to miss. We make so much use of Skype. We have breakfast together every morning before school and we play and do homework together and read each other to sleep almost every night. It is unorthodox to say the least, and I know we all wish we could just reach through the computer screen and hold each other. It is difficult, but so are many parts of other peoples’ “normal” family lives!! This is our normal.
BTW, when is that teleporter gonna be ready?
3. Who do you like to listen to or watch?
My colleagues. I learn more from the people who I work with than from any recording ever. There are one million right ways to do something, to sing something, to be something. I don’t believe in this “definitive recording” garbage. What we do is so changeable and moveable! I love to see someone taking chances, I love to see someone figuring something out, and I love to see my colleagues taking what they have and don’t have and making something special out of it. I learn so much from it. There are so many things that make a great performer or performance, and it is through watching the people close to me that I can observe and understand what those things are and maybe try to work some of them into what I do!!!
4 What is the ability or skill you wish you had that you don’t have?
I would LOVE the ability to be in two places at once! Not least of all because I would love to sit in the auditorium and watch and listen to myself so I could know what I needed to do to communicate all the way to the lady in the back of the 2nd tier. I depend on other people to give me feedback. What I hear in my head is COMPLETELY different from what you all hear in the audience, so I depend on others’ ears. It is also always shocking to watch myself on a video. There always things I thought I was doing that nobody could ever see, and there are always things I had NO idea I was doing! “oh my! I had no idea I was rocking back and forth like that!!!” We are inhabiting characters and resonating in weird ways, and we have NO idea!!! It’s a weird world we live in hahahaha
5. When you are just relaxing and not working, what is your favorite thing to do?
Well that’s easy. If I am home, I wanna spend every moment with my daughter. I completely lose myself when I am with her. We just do normal everyday things, and they become fun. Things sometimes take more time… grocery shopping, for example. I am the terrible mother who lets her kid drive her around on the cart, or we play games to find the things on our list, or silly things like that. My husband always tells us to behave! The three of us love to be together. We don’t have to go anywhere special, we just like being together.
Five more about preparing Donna Elvira for the upcoming Canadian Opera Production of Don Giovanni
1-Please talk for a moment about the rationale or subtext of Donna Elvira, in Dmitri Tcherniakov’s reading of Don Giovanni.
This Elvira is very different from the other ones I have met. This Elvira is very tragic. I want to take her and talk some sense into her. I want to be her friend to show her that she doesn’t have to try and please everyone else.
I have always thought of Elvira as a very strong woman who knows what she wants and who will do whatever she can to get it. In this reading, she is so different. She is many young girls that we know today, maybe a little awkward, and desperate to find somewhere to belong, so playing “the cool kid” as much as possible. She wants Giovanni back, and knows somewhere in her mind that she can’t have him, but maybe doesn’t want to admit that. It also kills her to see him with everyone else. Since she can’t get him back, she will try to expose his shortcomings and turn everyone else against him, and in turn be a part of a new group… the group who has Giovanni as a common enemy (Ottavio, Anna, Zerlina, Masetto). She is amazed but a little regretful at the beginning of act two having reached that goal in the end of the act 1, and we watch her struggle with her desire to belong with that group juxtaposed with her desire to do make amends with and to help repair this man (Giovanni) who she deeply loves and whom she feels she has helped to break. We see her struggle to try to keep up the right face for the right people at the right time. She is tired and confused and helpless. By trying to go along with something she doesn’t believe in, she ends up too late in helping the helpless Giovanni, and all is lost.
2- Talk about working with Tcherniakov
This man is amazing – his words, his understanding of human beings, of the millions of ways to react to a situation. His words are wonderful, but his actions are better. I HATE when directors show me what to do. I get frustrated and feel they have taken my power of creativity away. In this case though, when Dmitri gives an example of what he thinks a character will do, there are one million ideas and feelings of understanding that go through my body and brain. I don’t have to do it just as he did, I am not him. He understands the music and the relationships, he shows all of them in his body… and I can understand his vision and my character in a completely different way when he shows me something. It is rare to work with a director of this quality. I feel very fortunate.
He is controversial, some love him, some don’t. I love him without reservation. Watch this little clip for a glimpse of that intensity.
3. Favourite moment in Don Giovanni
There are so many wonderful moments. Truly. But my favorite moment in I think all of opera is in the act two finale when a desperate and scared and charged up Giovanni challenges the Commendatore and sings, “Parla, Parla, ascoltando ti sto.” It is the most heart breaking, earth shattering and at the same time, sexy music. I am so filled with emotion every time I hear this part of the opera. Mozart wrote some really good stuff! hahaha
4. The arts often feel very precarious in this country, spoken of as a luxury even as they starve alongside wealthy sports teams. Please comment on the business and how you observe it unfolding as an artist and as a citizen.
I am not Canadian, so I can speak only to what I know about the situation with the arts and opera in the United States. The arts in the US has a very big problem in that, in most places in the US, almost anything in the arts is viewed in much the same way people see homeless puppy on the street. “It’s so sad, something should be done about that”, or “Someone should take care of that dog, but not me. I don’t even like dogs… it’s not my responsibility” or even more likely, they just walk past it and ignore it. But for the people who take the time to feed, to take care of, and to get to know the puppy, the amount of joy they will receive back is unlike anything else. Here is one major problem… if you never grew up with animals or if you got bitten by a dog when you were young, you will be likely to walk right past the dog or worse, run away in fear upon seeing it.
We are fighting a difficult battle here as there are so many things stacked against us. People don’t see the arts as important because they haven’t been exposed, partially because the arts have been buried in a sea of easy media. People’s time is easily, conveniently, and cheaply filled. When choosing what to do on any given night, almost everyone has a television and the internet at his disposal. You have sports, drama, and comedy all at the literal click of a button. Cheap and super convenient. If you feel like leaving the house, you can go around the corner and see a movie. You will complain about ticket prices, but still go for less than $50, and be allowed to enjoy the flick while munching away on a snack. Relatively cheap and pretty easy. If planning ahead, maybe you will plan to go see a comedy show, or a basketball game, or a pop concert. Not so close, and requires some planning. Also not as cheap. But what you choose to go and see is something you have been exposed to for a long time. There were all those ads on TV. You have seen that comic or at least SOME comic on television, so you know what that will be like. You think, “It is great to laugh on my own couch… wouldn’t it be great to do it live?” “I have watched basketball or football or hockey on TV for years, I know the sport… I played the sport when I was younger. I think I will get my butt out tonight and see a live game.” “I have seen this video one million times on TV and heard the song over and over on the radio. I bet this pop concert would be fun… and cool. It’s on TV and the radio! Maybe I will shell out the extra money to see that in person!”
The performing arts fit into that last category: Performances are not so close, require some planning, and are not super cheap. In order to be one of the things that people choose to do on a Saturday night, we have to actually make it on to their radar. We have to be the thing that they saw on the commercial and we also have to be cool! Television is a fantastic form of marketing. Think of all the show choirs that popped up once Glee came on the air! Think of how many people have become home gourmets since the advent of the Food Network, and how well Home Depot is doing since we all want to be the Property Brothers! I think our media presence has to be much bigger. The difficulty is that each of our companies has a great marketing department, but we need a HUGE arts partnership marketing TEAM to really make a difference like this. I wish there was some way of all banding together in this. I think the idea of putting opera in the movie theaters is a nice one, but we skipped a step… we haven’t really created a buzz about what we do in the first place.
In addition, and even more importantly, WE MUST BE EXPOSING CHILDREN TO THE ARTS from a young age. We are losing out with the kids. I think we all underestimate the importance of little kids going to live performances several times a year. My daughter still talks about Wayne Tigges’s chicken spitting Leporello from my first Giovanni. She was 3 when she saw it. Now, not everyone has an opera singer mom, so the best way for us to reach them is to hijack them during school! I think I have a photo of the kids in my daughter’s kindergarten class seeing the Atlanta Opera school show in their gym. The kids were completely engaged and into the story and rooting for the hero. It was similar to the way they would watch a movie only the kids were more alive… almost ready to jump out of their seats. I also love when we do school performances. The kids’ reactions are so huge. In heartbreaking moments, you can hear a pin drop, in funny moments, the theater erupts in laughter. Every one of those kids is right with us, and at the end, it sounds like you are in a rock concert because of the thunderous applause. When they get home, they will tell their moms and dads and then we have THREE butts in seats and three new arts lovers. You cannot love it if you are never exposed. As we grow older, it becomes more difficult to understand and to let go of preconceptions and misconceptions about how you have to act and what kind of fuddy duddy goes to the opera. Little kids don’t have those ideas yet. They are open to it all… and as for arts’ importance, I think the proof is in the pudding. The fact simple exposure to the arts makes someone want to come back again, then the arts are something that we need in our lives. They make us feel in a deeper way. They make us all more human. You can forget yourself for the duration of the performance. You can forget the piles of paperwork on your desk, you can forget the sewing that needs to be done, you can forget about the clicking sound that the engine is making, and you can just be. You can be transported out of now, and into another time or city or situation. We can watch people with much bigger problems than our own and feel deeply for them, or laugh with them! We are able to uncover emotions that we cannot always explain.
But people can’t know about that if they haven’t ever experienced it. I wish there was a way to get more money to do more educational outreach and to do more kids shows for free. Catering to the young folks and those who don’t know if they want to spend the money on opera tickets is a great things too. Efforts like Opera Philadelphia’s Opera in the Park, where they show the opening night film on a big screen for free in the park. I loved seeing so many families and 25-40 year olds on their blankets with picnics. I ran into some old friends of mine who had no idea I was on the screen until they got there. They just wanted to come. I love that English National Opera allows you to bring your alcoholic beverage into the theater! What a great way to encourage you to have FUN while watching the opera!. It takes the pomp and weirdness out of what we do and makes it something to try. If we could ramp up the already fantastic efforts of opera companies, we may be able to get the arts back on track in the next 20 years. It’s a long commitment, but it is so worth it.
5. Is there a teacher or an influence you’d care to name that you especially admire?
There is a group of people who puts in more hours and harder days than any other on the stage. They arrive before the first day of rehearsal and they clean it all up after the final performance. They make sure everything is running smoothly every day, and if something goes wrong, they take the blame (even if it isn’t their fault). They field the rolled eyes and the diva fits and the demanding directors. They have to know where we are at all times in the score so they can tell stupid singers when to enter, or what the next line of recit is, where they are supposed to be on stage at any moment, or when to simply be quiet backstage. They have days where they don’t feel good, or when their mom is in the hospital, or there was a flood in the basement, but they still come in before everyone else to set up the rehearsal room or unlock the dressing room doors, and they leave way after everyone else when all is cleaned up and locked again. These men and women are highly intelligent, and incredibly talented. They are also amazingly selfless (something we don’t find often in opera!).
The difference between a great Stage Management team and a not so great one is the difference between a great performance and a terrible one. The stage management team here [at the Canadian Opera Company] is fantastic. Jenn, Tiffany, Stephanie, and Jane are always smiling… and they always have our backs. There are so many things that could go wrong backstage, but because I trust my stage management team, I can concentrate on performing and not of all of the stuff that could kill me in the wings. I could not do their job… most people couldn’t… But I am so grateful they are so great at it.
Sometimes it’s just a person who reminds me how important it is to treat everyone with respect and kindness.
I can’t wait (…but it’s not Saturday yet!).
The Canadian Opera Company’s production of Don Giovanni opens January 24th at the Four Seasons Centre, running until February 21st.