Opera Arias for the Twenty-Something Mezzo: Dramatic Mezzo

This post is a wonderful interview with Dramatic Mezzo-Soprano Eugenie Grunewald. She gives some suggestions on repertoire for the young dramatic mezzo, but she also agreed to an interview which was a great deal of fun for me!

I recently was introduced to Eugenie’s work through viewing several Youtubes of her in performance. The first is of her singing the role of Azucena in Il Travtore with The Houston Grand Opera, and the second is of her singing a La Gioconda duet with soprano Deborah Voight in the “Pavarotti Plus” Concert.

Cate: Who are some of the mentors, conductors or teachers who guided in your vocal development? What was it about them that made a positive difference in your life?

Eugenie: The teacher I have been with the longest, and who has gotten me through my career, is Arthur Levy in NYC. He also taught many years at Mannes School of Music. He really “lined me up” and was the one who first helped me re-work a few opera roles that I was already performing, and the one who helped me work all the new roles into my voice. He was also generous with his time, in that he would travel to be with me during the dress rehearsal and first performance of a new role I was singing. He is a brilliant teacher for all voices and knows how to keep you on track as your voice goes through sickness, changes and age. I can’t say enough good things about him! Also I was lucky to have two amazing music teachers, Carol and Jim Gallagher, in Jr. High and High School, who are still my “Music Parents” today. I also have to credit all the amazing coaches and conductors I have worked with over the years and from whom I learned so much.

I owe a great deal to my dear friend, Eileen Davis, Professor Emeritus at Ohio State University School of Music, who was my last teacher there before I went to NYC. She has always been there to coach, advise, and support me by lending an ear to listen, a shoulder to lean on, and eyes which notice opportunities for me. She has been my “other mother” in every sense of the word.

It takes a village to raise and opera singer!!

I owe my start in Europe to two men. Albin Haennseroth – God rest his blessed soul – was the head of the Liceu in Barcelona, and Miguel Lerin, who is still one of the biggest agents in Spain. My first manager brought me to the attention of Miguel, and I sang for him in NYC. Six weeks later he called and said Albin was going to be in Washington DC to cast Jane Seymour for Anna Bolena. Now, Albin did not know me – I was a total unknown- and he gave me all six performances with Richard Bonygne conducting! (I am not sure why but Albin thought I was ready, liked and trusted me. I have always been grateful to him for that.) I then went on to do five more productions in Barcelona over the years there and thanks to Miguel – all over Spain. Albin went on to run Hamburg Staatsoper, where I performed four different productions over three seasons. All my other work in Europe came mostly through those two men.

Cate: What are YOUR essential qualities, the things that no one taught you, that made you the singer you are and helped you navigate the business?

Probably the fire in my belly – that performance bug that hit at an early age. After college, I always say ‘pig-headedness and naiveté’ took me quite a ways, but I learned a great deal by making mistakes, picking myself up and trying again and again. I also learned to trust good people for advice. And hopefully, as you get older, you do get wiser. It is why I now teach Career Development Workshops with my Master Classes – what I call the “Everything I Wish I Knew Before Going Out in The Real World as an Classical Singer!’ I just hope that I can help some singers pass up some of the pitfalls I had and save themselves some time, energy and grief.

Cate: Can you suggest 5-6 arias appropriate for a budding young dramatic mezzo-soprano in their 20’s?

Eugenie: That is tough question and probably every voice teacher who reads this will have good opinions, but I can tell you what worked for me. Sing the big lyric mezzo soprano repertoire. Look at ‘Dalila,’ from Saint-Saens’ Samson and Delilah and ‘The Composer’ from Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos. Verdi’s first opera, Oberto, has the role of ‘Cuniza,’ which I did get to sing once and received my first NY Times review. Any of the bel canto roles from Anna Bolena, Roberto Devereaux or La Favorita would work. The aria “Adieu Forests,” from Tchaikovsky’s Jeanne D’arc, is something I always sing in the original Russian. For English, you can now get in the Schirmer English Anthology “The Psychiatrist Scene” from Trouble in Tahiti. I think it is much better that “What a Movie!” Also, the mother in The Consul has a lovely lullaby and a great aria she sings after she realizes the baby is dead. For Mozart, I recommend “Parto, Parto,” which requires agility.

Cate: What is your take on singing arias for auditions from roles you would not be hired to sing?

Eugenie: If you want to do it in a recital, that would be fine but never in an audition for a job. In auditions they do not want to waste time hearing you sing something you would never perform in a production of the opera – including in concert opera. They would wonder why you even offer it – especially if you could offer something more suitable which shows what you can do. It is basically a waste of everyone’s time. Also I often hear, “well I could probably sing it in a small house.” No that is not true. The orchestration is the same, even in the smaller houses in Europe, so nothing changes. This is such a competitive business that you must know what it is you do the best and could sell on the biggest stages of the world. This is your PRODUCT and it has to make people take notice–it is a buyer’s marketplace.

The bottom line is, can you hear the voice over the orchestra?

Paring a young dramatic voice down is counterproductive to a healthy, supported and free sound. I have observed that occasionally a voice teacher will not know what to do with an authentically big voice so their solution is to whittle away at it and pare it down in the mistaken assumption that that is building the coordination up.

For singers, I suggest you learn the role, or portions of a role, then let it sit for 5 years before returning to it with your developed voice and self. If someone offers you a role in a smaller house and says they’ll get you through it, they are lying. Don’t do it. This is really hard for young singers to do.

Cate: You are now directing operas and teaching private sessions and masterclasses in dramatic coaching. What would you like to see in place in a singer before they can truly benefit from what you have to share?

Eugenie: All the work I do with singers is strictly from a dramatic aspect – I do not teach vocal technique – I know too many good technical teachers and know I do not have that gift of the language to help a singer in that way. But what I do see missing in many University and Graduate School singers is the dramatic/stage training that is such an important component. I suggest singers take acting classes in school so they can do that kind of work without worrying about their singing so they can see what it takes to ‘Inhabit a Character.’

When someone brings their arias or a role to me, they need to be quite secure with their vocal technique and have coached the diction, etc. so that they are not thinking about all that. You learn to begin your work with the TEXT which is what drives the story and dictates who you are and how you relate to everything and every one in the story.

The next layer is to add the “what are my thoughts, feelings, emotions” as my character, BUT you begin to realize that the great composers support all that with the way they set the text within the vocal line and the music that is under the vocal line. The music that happens between phrases will tell you how and what you are feeling and the dynamics are there for a reason. The composers did not write that in by accident. This is why opera is GRAND – it is drama at it’s highest level. SO many young singers are all consumed with just “HOW DO I SOUND”? That is only the beginning.

Cate: I am continually amazed at what singers, at all levels of development, do NOT hear in the music. They are completely oblivious to anything but their line and their voice, and aren’t even connected to the music in those aspects.

Eugenie: I always say that our only job as a performer – whether it is an actor, singer, dancer, etc. – is to tell the story. The audience does not come to see Jane Smith singing the music of Violetta or Carmen or Aida – they come to experience the STORY of these characters. The best singers use all their techniques – vocal technique, language, style and acting techniques so that the audience just experiences Violetta or Carmen or Aida – not Jane Smith standing there singing with her pretty voice. When you can do that you become a real Performing Artist. Adding that last element is the work I LOVE to do and am passionate about and have found out over the years quite by accident that my teaching talents lie in that area.

Cate If someone is interested in viewing your CV for your work as a director, coach, or workshop facilitator what is the best way to contact you?

Eugenie: They can reach me at my email, GenieGrun2@aol.com, and my performance website can be found at http://www.eugeniegrunewald.com/

Thank you, Cate!

Cate: Thank YOU, Genie! Your passion and caring for your art form and students is clear. Thanks for so generously sharing your experiences and working with me for this post. Blessings on your singing and teaching!