Opera Today: An Interview

An interview by Gary Hoffman

This season Santa Fe Opera offered new productions that ranged from standard repertoire (Madame Butterfly and The Magic Flute) to a world premiere (Lewis Spratlan’s Life is a Dream) with The Tales of Hoffmann and Albert Herring falling somewhere amidst.

With great fanfare, the company placed much emphasis on the unveiling of Kelly Kaduce as the guileless Butterfly and on the return of Christine Brewer as the imperious Lady Billows. Yet it was mezzo soprano Kate Lindsey as the Muse/Nicklausse (the protector of the libertine Hoffmann) and as Nancy (the liberator of the over-protected Albert) who enraptured the audience with her dramatic presence, nuanced phrasing and effortless technique. In reviewing her earlier appearance at the Met in the role the Muse/Nicklausse, our John Yohalem wrote:

"The trouser role of Hoffmann’s pal, Nicklausse — who is secretly the Muse of Poetry — has been increasing steadily from edition to edition. On this occasion he/she was elevated from sidekick to prima donna, and Kate Lindsey, young, slim, attractive, with a dark, flawlessly placed mezzo soprano and a range of expression from foolish to satirical to sympathetic, gave it star quality. Although the role is now longer than it ever used to be, she was almost the only singer of the night who never seemed to be struggling for enough breath to support whatever phrase she cared to sing, as loud as might be needed or as softly, persuasively as the drama called for."

So, too, she admirably met the demands of light comedy in her performance of the charmingly inconstant Nancy. In Albert Herring, the elite of the fictional Loxford, under the heavy-handed rule of Lady Billows, holds a Manichean view of woman as subservient to demons, the instrument of seduction, who causes the shipwreck of youthful sexual desire. Lindsey’s Nancy rebels by subtly showing concupiscence as a natural part of the human condition (the vita activa) yet not at the expense of modesty and reserve. When Albert finds a “wild explosion” as his “only way-out,” Lindsey’s Nancy provided the light-heartedness needed to steady Albert’s course while simultaneously affirming his deliverance from the metaphorical chains of Loxford, all with her mellifluous mezzo and uninhibited presence.

We spoke on 23 August.

GH: You were raised in Richmond, Virginia. Were you from a musical family?

KL: No, I am not from a professionally musical family. Except for me, no one pursued music as a career. I remember fondly, though, when my family would frequently drive to South Carolina and North Carolina visiting family. We sang in the car in harmony, made up shows. We took piano lessons. My sister was a great musician, a great singer.

GH: When did you first begin to take special interest in music generally and classical music in particular?

KL: I grew up as a tomboy. I sang in both my school choirs and church choirs. But soccer was my real passion. When I was 13, I tore a ligament, which took a year to heal. Then I tore a ligament in my other knee. So I started to reevaluate things. Music was my salvation. I tried out for musicals. I was a shy girl. So when I got into a musical at age 15, it seemed amazing and terrifying!

I was in chorus one day. The girl sitting next to me said I had a good voice and suggested I take voice lessons. She referred me to a teacher who only taught classical music. We started out with Italian arias and then moved on to French and German literature. In my sophomore year, she told me that I had a lot of potential and that I should develop that gift to the best of my ability. She also said to me that as quickly as something can be given to you, as quickly it could be taken away.

GH: You attended the University of Indiana where you obtained a bachelor’s degree in music. Why there?

KL: I went to Indiana University — the “factory” — because I wanted variety. I felt that a conservatory setting would be too claustrophobic. And Indiana had an abundance of voice teachers. In some ways, Indiana is not the best place for undergrads. Some do very well, depending upon their level of self-awareness.

As part of my work-study, I worked at the library there. I loved reading biographies of singers and then composers. Indiana was a tough school academically.

At 18, I knew I was not ready for opera on the big stage at IU. I went to the IU Theater School where I did musicals every year. I learned about acting and presence on stage.

GH: What did you sing for your auditions?

KL: I sang works for soprano by Fauré , Handel and Mozart. I focused on light and simple works that didn’t push the voice.

GH: Who were your voice teachers at Indiana?

KL: I had Patricia Wise the whole time I was there.

GH: What was the defining moment when you knew you were a mezzo and not a soprano?

KL: That question lingered for several years. There was not one defining moment. Within a month, Patricia Wise thought I was a lyric mezzo. I found “O mio babbino caro” too hard. I was struggling with the tessitura. She had me try “Non so più” and then I immediately felt comfortable.

As my voice developed over the years, I received a lot of opinions from people. Finally my teacher said, “Who cares what you are or are not. If we train the voice properly with a healthy technique, the voice will eventually tell you what you are.” Definitely by 2007-08 my voice settled into the mezzo tessitura.

GH: Did you attend any summer programs such as AIMSBrevardIntermezzo?

KL: In my freshman year, I went to BASOTI [Bay Area Summer Opera Theater Institute]. There I was offered to sing Cherubino. It was life changing. All of my questions were answered. I knew I wanted to do opera. I then went to Brevard in 2002 and to Santa Fe the following summer.

GH: There is a new book on the University of Indiana Opera Theater. It lists you as performing Dolly in Jeppe (2002-03) and Mrs. Meg Page in Falstaff(2003-04). How would you describe the experience in performing those roles?

KL: By my junior year, it was time to start auditioning for operas. I was psychologically ready. After Brevard, I was in Jeppe, an opera by a Swedish composer. It was sung in English, fortunately. It was nerve-racking. I was standing off to the side of the stage and asked myself “What are you doing?” People now ask me whether I am nervous going out onto stage. I always say, “Nerves or not, the time will come that you have to get out there and do it, so I choose not to dwell on fear.” Jeppe was a growing experience.

GH: What did you do after graduation in terms of professional development?

KL: I started my masters at Indiana. I received a graduate assistantship, and I got the part of Meg Page. At that time, I entered the Met auditions just for the experience. There were so many singers there. When I was awarded one of the prizes, I was flabbergasted. I then went to the regionals in Indianapolis where I received second place. A few months later, Lenore Rosenberg asked me to audition for the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program. I went to watch master classes. I was salivating. I wanted to learn so badly. Following the “first round” of the audition and interview process, I was called to audition for James Levine. The next day I was asked to join the Program.

In April 2004 I was in the summer young artist program in St. Louis. I then went to New York, which was overwhelming and incredibly invigorating. I was walking into work where all these famous singers were walking around, whose recordings I was listening to just the year before. The most valuable thing was watching dress rehearsals of every production, which was mandatory. It was hugely educational — how they dealt with things, what you liked in performances. You absorbed what touched you and shaped your artistic identity. We had classes in Italian, French and German. We studied acting. We gave recitals. We had role studies, two per semester. We had master classes with Maestro Levine. Opera companies came specifically to hear members of the Program, which was incredibly convenient. It was like we were “cooked in a slow cooker,” intense yet protected. We had ample guidance. We were encouraged to start creating for ourselves. I developed a number of really special friendships.

GH: You also received several grants/awards in 2006 and 2007. How did they assist you in developing your voice, your dramatic skills and the like?

KL: These were scholarship competitions. It was, number one, an honor to have placed. They were helpful financially to work on studying. I had stronger language skills in Italian and German than French. I needed to focus on French because I must sing a lot in French. So I used the money one summer for intense work on the French language. I went to a woman’s home on Île de Ré off the coast of western France where I worked intensely to improve my skills within a limited amount of time. We would work in the morning and then go to the market…do everyday things. We would go to different towns to get my mind into another zone. It was a good way to absorb a lot in a short amount of time. I then went to Germany for a month. I wish I had more time to study languages. You lose it if you don’t use it often enough.

GH: What was your first appearance as a professional singer?

KL: My first appearance as a professional singer was during the fall of my junior year at Indiana when I attended a study-abroad program in Vienna. There was a group of singers and instrumentalists who studied with teachers from all over. I studied with Donna Robin, a soprano. Someone had written a piece for her but she couldn’t sing it because it was too low. So she gave it to me, which was my first paid gig.

GH: Who is your current voice teacher? Your coach?

KL: I am currently working with Ruth Falcon in New York. I don’t have a particular coach. I work with different ones depending upon who may be [geographically] close at the time. I do a lot of work on my own and then I take it to someone to see where I am and to check things out.

GH: Do you listen to recordings in preparing?

KL: I listen to recordings for style and to pick things out that I like. I am not too analytical at that point. I then put it away so that I don’t pick up certain “isms” of other people’s portrayals.1

GH: You recently appeared as The Muse/Nicklausse in The Tales of Hoffmann, both at the Met and at Santa Fe. How did you happen to be selected to perform that role in those venues?

KL: At the Met, Elīna Garanča was originally selected to perform Nicklausse. I was to cover her and to perform the role late in the season. Generally, the Met will not put you on stage for a role you never performed before. Last summer, Angela Gheorgiu pulled out of Carmen. Elīna was moved over to perform Carmen. I took over Nicklausse, which was exciting. I started working hard on it…doing research. I am excited to be going back to the Met this fall to revisit the role.

GH: Santa Fe used the Michael Kaye edition. Did the Met use the same edition?

KL:No. They are not exactly the same. For Nicklausse, The Met’s version uses the “Guitar aria” and the Kaye version calls for the use of the “Puppet aria”. The Kaye version includes a lot more spoken dialogue as well. There are also places where there is the same music in both version but different words or even different notes are set to that music. Kaye’s version of the Giulietta act is vastly different from the Met’s.

The Met production is dark, visually and psychologically. The stage director, Bart Sher, is very focused. He is concerned with dissecting the psychological makeup of Hoffmann and creating the clarity of the triangle that is forming between Hoffmann, the Villains and the Muse. Because of a scheduling issue last fall, we had to stage the Prologue and then skip to Act III. Because we jumped to the end, we found some answers that were key to the thread that enabled us to maneuver through the opera. We specifically had meetings to discuss how important it was that the members of that triangle were all connected in terms of our thought processes.

GH: Where do the four incarnations of Stella fit in vis-à-vis this triangular relationship?

KL: Stella is the catalyst in Hoffmann’s intense meltdown and inability to write and create. All the women (Olympia, Antonia, Giulietta) represent three different parts of Stella in Hoffmann’s eyes (i.e.…a perfect doll, a beautiful musician, a sexual temptress). I think the goal of “the triangle” is to force him to sort through his despair from losing Stella so that he can create again.

GH: Early on you (the Muse) are trying to divert Hoffmann from his dissolute life. What motivates you?

KL: The Muse is not a physical being. She is a part of Hoffmann’s psyche, as are the Villains. Hoffmann’s struggle is between the Villains (his dark side) and the Muse who pulls him toward art. No female form will ever be capable to compete with his art. The “Violin Aria” is about his need for art, which is Hoffmann’s one true, all-encompassing love. This is a constant struggle for artists everyday — what is our greater love? Partners, spouses? From the perspective of the Muse, she cannot just sit down and reason with Hoffmann in order to get an idea through his head. He has to experience everything fully so that he can make a large leap and learn from its consequences. To return to himself, Hoffmann has to fully embrace these stories. He has to fall down and get back up, and then he’ll be ready to write again.

GH: In Act III of the Santa Fe production, you are sitting alongside Giulietta and cohorts scheming to steal Hoffmann’s reflection (or his soul). A co-conspirator if you will. You are then seen holding the mirror, the instrument by which Giulietta executes her scheme. How is this helping Hoffmann? You seem to be Hoffmann’s antagonist.

KL: Many people have asked about Dapertutto putting a picture frame about my head. It was vague at first for me as well, but I found it linked very specifically to a moment in the prologue, which helped me to form meaning in the movements. In the Prologue there is a moment where I crawl to Lindorf, who holds me as Hoffmann sings about his love. At that moment it becomes my struggle not to go to Hoffmann’s dark side. If I could save Hoffmann myself, I would. But I can’t save him alone. I have to use the Villain to get Hoffmann back. During the Giulietta Act, Hoffmann tosses me to Dapertutto. At that point he puts the frame (a metaphor of the mirror) around me. I am trapped in this and I have to become a co-conspirator because of the pact with Villain I have made. I have no choice but to hold the mirror. The dark side has taken me further than I would have been willing to go.

GH: In Albert Herring, you performed the role of Nancy. How would you describe Nancy?

KL: On the first day of rehearsals, Paul Curran asked “Who is Nancy?” I came forward and said that Nancy is a fresh-faced young girl trying to keep up with the latest fashions. She has a relationship with Sid but also some sort of attraction to Albert. Paul said, “Nancy is sex.”, and that was all he needed to say!

GH: The relationship between Albert and Nancy seems to be ambiguous. At one point, Albert complains about Nancy pitying him but at another he notes that Nancy blushes and stammers in his presence. How would you describe the relationship?

KL: Nancy is not shy around Albert. I am intrigued with Albert’s virginity. The blushing and stammering occurs before the point when he says that I pity him. During the May Day festival, there is a bit of contact with him because I am concerned that Sid was not truthful about what he put in his glass. Albert is inebriated then. In the following scene, Sid and I talk about Albert, the poor guy. Albert hears that, and he bemoans being pitied.

GH: Is Albert a threat to Sid?

KL: No. I don’t think Albert is a threat to Sid, but Sid and Nancy are not going to end up together.

GH: There is some controversy regarding the ending of the opera? What do you think ultimately becomes of Albert? Will he remain a grocer in Loxford or will he move on elsewhere?

KL: I don’t think Albert is going anywhere. He probably ends up taking more ownership of the shop. At the end, he tells his Mum, “that’ll do”, and I’d like to think that she eventually gives him the shop.

GH: Let’s turn to the future. You will be returning to the Met this fall to appear once again in The Tales of Hoffmann. Then you are off to Seattle to perform the role of Rosina. Then to LA Opera to perform in Il Turco and then to Paris in June to perform in Idomeneo. What is your timeline in preparing for these roles?

KL: The last seven months have been intense. I have time off in November for study. It is not just about learning the notes on the page. I study historical references and other materials. I will use a lot of time in November to prepare for recitals and to work on Turco. I have a couple of weeks before Idomeneoto do final preparations. I make myself a timeline of goals, which helps tremendously. I love the learning process.

GH: You also have two recitals in March and April, the first at Rockefeller University and the second at Wolf Trap. I presume they have the same program. What is the program?

KL: Yes, they have the same program. I am in the midst of finalizing the program. I am at the point where I want to do new things. It is a good opportunity to learn new stuff. In developing the program I will be working with Craig Terry as my accompanist, whom I first met at the Opera Theater of Saint Louis. He is a great recitalist. Kim Pensinger Witman, the director of Wolf Trap Opera Company, will be my accompanist at Wolf Trap.

It is going to be an interesting program — a couple of songs by Bizet, some by Liszt. Then there will be songs of Charles Ives based on poems by Heine, as well as songs by John Musto and by Alma Mahler. I am working with Mohammed Fairouz in creating a cycle that includes songs by Alma Mahler and songs based on her letters and other texts with the music composed by Mohammed. The program will be varied and will probably include Chausson’s “Chanson perpétuelle”.

GH: Where do you hope to see yourself in five to ten years?

KL: Loving the work. There are roles that I would like to sing, people I would love to work with. I used to be more concerned about what would be next. Through time, I came to realize that if I can’t enjoy the moment at hand, then I am never going to be fully dedicated to what is right in front of me. If I give myself to fully the present moment, then the rest of the dreams will work out. The work suffers when I get too tied up in the “small stuff”.

GH: There are many great roles for mezzo-soprano such as Charlotte, the Composer, Octavian and, of course, Carmen. Are any of these on your wish list?

KL: There are so many to do for the first time. Sesto in La Clemenza di Tito. I am pumped for Idomeneo. I have an interest in performing roles in works that are less performed such as Massenet’s Chérubin. Paul Curran has a gorgeous production. Then there is Massenet’s Cendrillon. You can tell I am a fan of Massenet. Then, of course, Rosenkav and Ariadne are on the schedule. Octavian is one of the most important milestones.

Right now, I don’t see myself vocally as Carmen. Let’s see in ten years. People’s ears have gotten used to the Olga Borodina type of voice. I don’t think I have the color or weight of voice that people expect in that role. From an acting perspective, I would love to play the character; but, I wouldn’t want to fall short vocally. But, the character would be amazing to perform.

GH: You have appeared as one of the Rhinemaidens in the Ring. Are there any major Wagnerian roles that you hope to perform?

KL: No. I don’t see a lot of Wagner in my future. I don’t think my voice is headed in that direction.

Long term, after I’m done singing, I would like to take on a professorship. The question is how long do you stay performing versus trying to help bring in the next generation? That will probably be when I will not be able to perform the roles I want to perform.

GH: Looking back at your career so far, who would you say has been the most influential in guiding your musical life?

KL: The most influential is definitely James Levine. He taught me a lot in our work about coming from an honest place. You don’t get into the frills and sparkles before you have a core understanding or connection to the music, the role or character.

There are several people to whom I am so grateful that they took a risk on me. Ruth Falcon, for one, has seen me through a lot of vocal development. She is a dedicated teacher who provides a fabulous support system.

GH: What advice would you give aspiring singers?

KL: In undergraduate school, find a teacher who will teach you healthy habits. There are a lot of great teachers in smaller liberal arts schools. Then go for your masters at one of the bigger schools. A key piece of advice is to take advantage of your summers. It is important to train and to meet people outside your educational “bubble.” This opens up a lot of new avenues of information, and there are good chances to perform.

GH: What is home base for you now? Is it Richmond?

KL: No. I was in New York for six years. But right now I don’t have a home base. I bought a place in Charlotte, so that I can see my family on the rare occasions that I am home!

GH: Thank you so much for your time.

Read the original article on Opera Today here.