Summer II: Jennifer Higdon

I would like to just fill you in on a few things that happened recently so you know what's been going on.

The Cell show with Emma Lavandier and Melinda Faylor was a complete success! The place was filled, we had a !!FANTASTIC!! time performing and acting, and everyone enjoyed good French wine and cheese. The Cell's space is just an absolute pleasure for a performer: it's spacious, elegant, has great lighting, beautiful and FUN props...and the staff is awesome. Thank you to the cell! I can't wait to return to you.

My last show in NY before moving to Somerville, MA (Boston) is on August 5th at Cornelia Street Cafe. 6 pm. I love the staff there, the space is intimate, and the quaint West Village neighborhood makes for an ideal date spot.

I have actually had a few musical outings that I haven't written about, because the summer has been quite busy. Since performing with the Baroque Opera Workshop at the Queens Conservatory, I have for example, had the pleasure of hearing Julianne Baird perform (she was the master teacher at the workshop). This woman is a true treasure. Her angelic voice, agile technique, and giving personality makes her seem like an angel on Earth. I am so fortunate that I had the opportunity to get to know her a little and study Baroque ornamentation with her. I don't know if I've ever met someone in music quite so sweet as her. She's one of these marvels that just happen into your life suddenly and you always remember how special it was.

I hope to write a little more about what it was like hearing her sing. But right now, I'm learning the role of Despina in Mozart's Cosi fan tutte, which I will be singing for Susan Morton's Sing Through Central in just under 2 weeks. 

Since I haven't written much this summer on account of the busy-ness of things, I want to share something I've had in my archives for the past year -- My notes on seeing Jennifer Higdon at Opera America. Her interview elucidated what it's like being a contemporary composer, and shed some light on how young and aspiring composers can develop their path. Higdon's first opera, Cold Mountain, premiered last summer in Santa Fe. She's won a Pulitzer Prize for her Violin Concerto, a Grammy for her Percussion Concerto, and has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Pew Fellowship, amongst other prestigious honors.

But I remember her as someone with a refreshing sense of humor and down to earth -- She actually stayed after her interview and talked to the audience one on one over wine.

During her interview, she talked about how for composers, the first 10 years is all about experimenting, composing in different styles, learning the craft: "Little things start to appear over and over, and that becomes your voice." She recommends that it is the artist's job to always push forward, always stretch your abilities, be able to explain why you don't like something: "Build your toolbox by figuring out how to solve musical problems. Listen to as much music as possible - listen to one section and figure out what it is doing, like for instance, just the violin section."

Higdon typically composes 4 to 6 hours a day and  likes to write music that is "useable." She said that music has to be interesting for other people too, because you have to get them to want to play it. On writing opera, she said that the characters live in your head and take on a life of their own. When writing for this medium, she composes 7 to 8 hours a day, and 12 hours on particularly inspired days, writing sequentially.  She explained that writing for orchestra (her custom) is very different from writing opera, especially in the use of the strings, because in opera, the strings are largely there to support the singers and drama on stage, rather than be the leading voice of the action. 

In the future, she hopes to write a chamber opera, and as for that Pulitzer? Higdon says: "Having a Pulitzer attached to your name is like having a moving target glued to you."

Jennifer teaches composition at Curtis in Philadelphia. Check out the video of her Opera America interview here.


So I'm currently in Queens doing the Baroque Opera Workshop with Julianne Baird, Christa Patton, David Ronis, and Antonio Fava at the Aaron Copland School of Music. I'm singing in a Lully production, and am loving this experience. I will write a post about it later on when I get a moment to focus on the written word -- but I also want to add that I just completed the 3-week New England Opera Intensive up in Boston, where I was part of an operatic scenes performance at Berklee's David Friend Hall. This was also a fantastic experience, something about which I will write more about after this busy month quiets down.

On another French note (puns intended!), on Friday, June 24th, I am doing a show with my friend, Emma Lavendier, at the cell theatre, 338 W 23rd St, between 8th and 9th Avenues in Manhattan. We are teaming up for a special program of French musical literature which will feature Offenbach's famous Barcarolle, the Flower Duet from Delibes's Lakmé, melodies by Hector Berlioz and Reynaldo Hahn, some hidden gems by Cécile Chaminade, and more. My friend, Brooklyn-based composer and pianist Melinda Faylor, accompanies.

Tickets for the June 24th concert, are $20 for adults, $10 for students and seniors, and free for children under the age of 10, and can be reserved by calling The Cell Theatre at (646) 861-2253 or visiting the events page on

Conversation with Isabel Leonard

The New York City native Isabel Leonard is just 34 years old, but she's already an operatic icon. Known for her physical beauty, lovely mezzo voice, and animated characterizations, she has become a staple at the Met and grand opera houses around the world. On April 7th, I attended her conversation at Opera America to learn a little more about this talented artist, who I had the pleasure of seeing play Cheribuno in Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro last year.

It was interesting to find out that this Juilliard graduate never participated in a young artist program, and instead went straight from her Master's to competitions to the professional stage. She studies with Edith Burs, who has been her voice teacher since the beginning of her undergraduate years. She met her manager, Matthew Epstein, in 2006 while singing at Santa Barbara's Music Academy of the West for Marilyn Horne. Apart from enacting classical operatic characters she also premiered Jennifer Higdon's Cold Mountain in Philadelphia earlier this year, playing the part of Ada. Isabel said creating a new character is exciting because there is no performance practice to adhere to. The exploration is fresh and less binding, and she enjoys working with the directors to bring the story to life.

How does she learn a new role? Pretty much how we all learn them. She just goes through the score, highlighting her part; then learns the text with IPA diction (usually using Nico Castel's books); finally, she learns the music with the text and says the text over and over with recit.

Her advice to young singers is:

  • Technique is number one
  • Technique doesn't get sorted out in your 20s, because your voice and body is constantly maturing. So don't sweat it so much! Allow it to be what it is right now.
  • Every role you do vocally affects you differently
  • Learn to cope with things that make you uncomfortable
  • Change is the name of the game

Isabel Leonard feels like a fresh face in opera, even though she's been doing this for some time now. She is distinctly of a younger generation than many of her colleagues, and certainly behaves much more like a child of the 90s, making references to pop songs that most of her audience is completely unaware of. But that's ok, because what brings everyone together in the opera world is great theater and beautiful singing, and in that regard, Isabel delivers.


If you're interested in watching the whole interview, click on the "source" link below.