The Emotional Roles of Dominique Labelle

Trista Bernstein on April 3, 2012

Dominique Labelle is a diva in her own right, but you’d never know it when speaking to her. She does not discuss her great success on the international stage with such roles as Donna Anna. Neither does she speak of her critical acclaim from Boston to Germany regarding her work with esteemed conductors and composers such as the Pulitzer Prize–winning Yehudi Wyner. Nor does she give note of her great musicality, which has enabled her to span the soprano repertoire from Handel to Shostakovich and brings her back to San Francisco for Alexander’s Feast with Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra. Instead, when I met Labelle via Skype at her request (she thought it would be more fun), she spoke of the emotional impact of her music, her desire to teach, and her pride in her children.

Your career has encompassed a vast array of repertoire and roles. What do you enjoy most? What do you enjoy performing most?

What I enjoy the most is making music. It doesn’t matter — well, it does matter with whom. Making music on a very high level, a very committed level from the musicians I’m making music with. I myself am very committed to what I do and I expect the same from everyone behind or in front of me. It has to be a team.

What is your process when preparing for a role?

Dominique Labelle
Dominique Labelle

I don’t do a lot of operatic roles. I do mostly concert work, but if I do a role, there is a lot of preparation, mental preparation, emotional preparation. It’s never just about the notes. You always have to look at the intentions of the character, if she sings an angry aria or a sad aria. And when I look at roles I always try to find the most interesting ones, maybe not the prettiest ones, but the ones that are the most challenging. I love to do mean roles just because they are always very interesting. You always have to look at why does she have to kill those people? Why does she end up killing her children? If I do a sorceress, for example, I always look at what’s under the hatred. So I do a lot of emotional work and inner research. I try to read as much as I can about the character so I know where she comes from. And then, well, of course you have to learn the notes, but that’s the easy part!

And how does that translate to preparing for a concert?

Well, the concert is about the same but it’s not as involved. Because for an opera you’re going to spend at least a month rehearsing, working on gestures, intent. And then usually you have more than one or two performances. You have six or eight performances. So it’s a longer process but it’s about the same as oratorio, for example, or concert work. But that is just because of who I am. That doesn’t mean that all singers are like that. This is just the process I go through.

Even tonight, I’m doing the role of Piacere, the role of “Pleasure” [in Handel’s very first oratorio, Il trionfo del tempo, in Seattle]. And that’s a very interesting role because it’s a masculine role, first of all. And he has to seduce Beauty and convince her that she should go with him, instead of going with a more spiritual search for herself. “You should have pleasure.” “You should enjoy life.” “Don’t think about getting old.” And at the end, Beauty throws him away. She says, “I don’t trust you anymore.” And then Pleasure gets really upset. It’s not just pretty. Pleasure is trying to be very charming and alluring. But there is a lot of deception underneath, and it’s all in the music. And for me it’s the biggest challenge, really. It’s the emotional impact of the role. And then the notes: The notes are something else!

The notes are something else!

What was your emotional preparation for the upcoming Philharmonia Baroque concert?

The soprano role is not a specific character. I’ve done this piece many times with Nic [PBO Music Director Nicholas McGegan], but not in California. But I’ve done it with him in different towns, in the Midwest — St. Louis. It’s a beautiful piece. The soprano arias are gorgeous. And with that, the work is mainly with the music: how to make this beautiful, how to make the lines. There is this one really fun aria. It’s called “The Prince Unable to Conceal His Pain.” It’s a very silly aria and the soprano only sings, “he sighed and he looked and he sighed and he looked and he sighed and he looked” for about four minutes. And she describes the Prince looking at a woman’s breasts. And, I mean, it looks really silly but you really have to decide some musical choices. It repeats and repeats and repeats, and you have to make it interesting and musically interesting. You have to work on a lot of details with this. But I’ve worked on this with Nic many times and it’s going to be just fun.

You’ve worked with young singers and conducted master classes. What advice do you typically give young singers who are just starting out?

I think I have a lot to bring young singers as far as commitment, technique, artistry, musicianship, attitude.

First of all, they have to know why they are doing it. It’s one thing to have a pretty voice but they have to really know why they are doing this. What do they need to do with the music? Is it that they want to sound good, or is it because they want to make the most of this wonderful art that’s not being taught in schools anymore? It’s difficult. It’s a big challenge and it’s my next one. I really want to start teaching in a more serious way. I think it’s important. I think I have a lot to bring young singers as far as commitment, technique, artistry, musicianship, attitude.

It’s really difficult. Especially when you finish school, and now what? You can’t apply for a job. You have to be asked. Especially at the beginning, you have to be aggressive — not in a mean way, but you have to show people you’re there. You have to be available for auditions. You have to be very active in your role. If you wait for people to knock at your door, it’s not going to happen. And that’s tough. It’s tough to sell yourself and go to people and say, “I’d like to sing for you.” It’s horrible.

You have two children. Are they singers, as well?

My daughter is; she’s 17. But she likes Japanese rock. That’s what she likes. And I can’t tell her anything. I leave her alone. She has a beautiful voice; it’s beautifully placed. My husband is a tenor. I think she heard us and she knows. She’s very, very talented. But I have no idea how you make a living singing Japanese rock. But she’s going to have to figure it out.