The probability was close to zero that Sara LeMesh would become an operatic soprano. That is, until with the entitlement and precociousness of a 7-year-old child, she demanded voice lessons. Fortunately, her nonmusician parents believed in education, and music wasn’t unheard during her childhood — LeMesh recalls first connecting to classical music while listening to Andrea Bocelli on CD. He was singing “Con Te Partirò” (I’ll go with you) while the family prepared Thanksgiving dinner. With that, she was hooked.
LeMesh, 28, known in the world of classical and contemporary opera for lush tone, exceptional high-register clarity, dramatic breadth, and fearless command in roles offering unpredictable vulnerability, is in demand. Earning awards at festival competitions and recognition for scene-stealing performances — recently captivating as Norina in Rossini’s Don Pasquale with the Mendocino Music Festival, among other examples — LeMesh also performs chamber music and concerts featuring songs for which she is the singer-songwriter. Together with her partner, Siggy Bilstein, she is developing Owly, a digital resource to help seniors find local discounts and events. Independently, but in partnership with the Bay Area nonprofit, Bread & Roses Presents, LeMesh performs volunteer recitals for people isolated in nursing homes, rehab clinics, prisons, and similar locations. As a young musician, she frequently performed for audiences filled with people close to or over the age of 80, and she says the nonjudgmental atmosphere is a primary reason she found her voice, confidence, and a vocation.
Preparing to portray Bess McNeill, the character at the center of Breaking the Waves, West Edge Opera’s production of the award-winning opera based on a 1996 film by Lars von Trier, LeMesh finds herself — expectedly — vulnerable. The story is about a woman living in a Calvinist town whose husband is severely injured and who insists that she engage in sexual activities with other men. The part involves misogyny, violence, and strangulating societal conformity, and it requires extreme physical endurance in addition to vocal mastery of the score by composer Missy Mazzoli and librettist Royce Vavrek.
In the course of a long interview, LeMesh talks about early influences, her experience as a woman in the field, and the unique opportunity to play Bess and to define her position as an artist in the larger community.
The training and maintenance of a professional classical and contemporary opera singer is highly demanding. What elements of your adolescence and early 20s prepared you for the discipline required?
A big part was being forced to take piano lessons. My first teacher, when I was 9 or 10, told my mom I should be taking private piano lessons, not group lessons. She said “She really hates piano, but she has a natural ear.” Playing an instrument — you can’t sing every hour of every day after all — meant doing music theory tests, performing constantly, doing voice competitions for scholarships, doing theater, falling in love with Shakespeare. Above all, being vulnerable to criticism and putting your heart and soul out there as a young kid taught me I like connecting to audiences.
As a female opera singer, what roles have provided opportunity for you to expand or define yourself as a female artist, feminist, or however you define yourself?
I wouldn’t say I’ve experienced expansion [in the feminist aspect] in an operatic role, but I’ve definitely experienced it in contemporary music and song cycles. In word, I’m a poetry nerd. My reading about sexuality, oppression … you know Robert Schumann wrote a song cycle from the perspective of a woman about aging, marriage, having children and maturing? It’s amazing! I and other people return to that work again and again for discovery. Another song cycle, singing in French a song cycle about Eve in the garden, taught me to explore myself. Confronted with that work’s poetry — I was 23 at the time — I wondered if I had guilt about my sexuality.
This role in Breaking the Waves is the first time I’ve explored sexuality and feminism in such an intensive way in an opera. Those roles where you can be extremely honest with yourself and with your audience, those are empowering roles and a way to “get” yourself as a musician.
What has most held you back or restricted you when it comes to composing, producing or receiving commissions for writing your own music?
In the opera world, there can be pressure to identify your voice type. It’s more for the sake of other people, rather than for the singers. When I was 22 to 25, I sang mezzo-soprano repertoire, but I was truly a soprano. I didn’t have the right guides or mentors. Although no one can fully discover your voice for you, I felt misunderstood, uncomfortable with what I was singing. Technique is also hard to teach. You know, a confluence of things can be pinpointed as hindering. I needed to grow up, learn to better advocate for myself. Eventually, the external forces don’t matter. You want to get work as a young singer, but to receive external validation is no longer why I do this.
What activities have taught you the most about your voice and the works you want to perform in the future?
I’ve been writing songs since high school. I never really pursued validation for songwriting in an intense way. People just started telling me. They wanted more recordings. I also connect well with composers. That’s just my niche. They asked me to help write works, perform their work at masters’ concerts in college.
How did working well with composers become your niche?
I approach scores from not just a vocal perspective, but as a pianist, from rhythmic and other perspectives. The traditional opera roles I’ve done are great for exploring your voice. But in contemporary music, having a strong connection with the language, I find, brings the performance to another level. You’re doing work that hasn’t already existed for more than 50 years. You have an opportunity to put your mark on it. In traditional opera, there are expectations for the way you present it. You can make powerful decisions in traditional opera, but contemporary operas and songs allow for modern issues, for the singer to discover a composer’s language and voice. I love the challenge.
In preparation for this opera, you visited the Isle of Skye, the location in which Breaking Waves is set. Is that something you do often?
No, it’s not what I normally do. It worked out serendipitously. We had a trip to England and I thought, “I have to go to Skye,” although it’s quite a trek from London. Seeing Skye gives me context for this woman that enriches my capacity to portray her journey.
Can you describe the demands of the libretto and the technical and artistic approaches that are essential to tell the story with both clarity and expression?
I started preparing by speaking the lines in a Scottish accent. The Highland accent is different than the Glasgow, which is more subdued. After I understood what I was saying, I started chipping away, like carving wood, singing the lines and trying to make a shape. Once I had the curves, I worked on detail, trying not to waiver. Now, it fits into my voice and feels like it was written for me.
The biggest challenge is when I’m singing [the voice of] God, singing sprechstimme [a talk-sing crossover delivered in a singer’s low register]. I’m singing in my chest voice for that, then singing in Bess’s voice — with only a measure to transition to my upper soprano register. You have to find where you can do that safely and still leverage language to demonstrate different aspects of each personality.
Another challenge is keeping your cool, because it’s very emotional. There’s a part Bess screams, a part where I’m invested as a performer where it’s like a tidal wave. You can lose the reins, you can get tied up. When I’m singing the voice of God, I just want to let it rip. When I’m singing with my lover, we have a lot of blocking. Sometimes I get out of breath. You have to find the place where you can both sing and act.
How does composer Missy Mazzoli’s and librettist Royce Vavrek’s adaptation differ from the screenplay?
In the movie, there are a lot of close shots, intense bits that happen quickly. The opera, we have the luxury of unpacking these 30 second moments in 10 minutes. That is delicious. And the movie has almost no music, so Missy’s music is thrilling. She interprets these quiet moments and lends a musical, female perspective to them. The music and timing mean you can process what’s happening, be with Bess instead of just being a spectator.
What is the dynamic between Bess and Jan Nyman, her husband; and between you and singer Robert Wesley Mason?
The dynamic between Bess and Jan is electric. She gets shocked; it’s sexual, loving, very romantic. It’s honest, vulnerable, fun. Working with Wes, it’s very real. When I feel triggered in rehearsals, I’m very up front. It’s authentic and trusting. I don’t see any other way of doing these very emotional lovers. What makes it safe is boundary setting, checking in with each other before every rehearsal.
This is a strenuous role — vocally, physically, psychologically, and maybe more?
Vocally, because I’m always on stage. Emotionally, it’s extremely fatiguing. I need to take a nap, lie down, have solitude after rehearsals. Playing a woman who’s coming of age and experiencing sex for the first time, I connect with the role because it brings up experiences and feelings I have had. It puts me back to when I was 17, thinking about love for the first time. Bess’s experiences are different from mine, but after rehearsals, I have to close the door. I try my best to leave Bess in rehearsal, for my own sanity’s sake! She’s a woman who struggles and I empathize on a profound level. How can you not feel things strongly?
How do the demands alter your preparation for rehearsals and pre-performance routine?
It’s very different. For the past year, I started to exercise more than I normally do. Not for vanity’s sake, but for stamina. I have to be able to sweat and do yoga for 90 minutes. I’ve diligently practiced yoga, and recently ramped up, adding running, rock climbing, swimming — doing something every day to stay strong for this role.
For people who’ve seen the film or who read the synopsis and hesitate to enter such a dark world, what thoughts or insights can you share that could reduce the anxiety they may feel about the work’s explicit, sexual violence and moral tangles?
I’d say to that person that anxiety is totally valid. It’s the way everyone in the cast has felt. It’s perfectly normal to have that reaction. But the violence of the movie is depicted in the opera in a more symbolic way. It’s there, but this opera stands on its own. I’d also tell that person that if they’re worried, I won’t judge them if they walk out after Act II. If they need to leave, they leave. The music and staging make the violence different than the movie. I suggest they listen to the premiere on Soundcloud. Do research and find out what the people who wrote it felt while writing it.
The composer has said this opera explores the true nature of goodness, faith and loyalty: What themes do you believe are inherent in the work?
I have my own interpretation. For me, this is simply about being a woman. And how women are constantly struggling to be good. It’s easy to feel you’re too sexy or not sexy enough or your pants are too tight or too loose. Men can tell people a woman smiled too much and if they are raped, they dressed or called for it in a certain way. It’s Bess, a woman in a repressive society. She can’t win. She can’t win if she enjoys sex too much, for example. Society influences the way she internalizes criticism.
You perform the work once, then have a few days off before coming back to it for the final weekend of two shows. Do you listen to a recording, watch video, read reviews, or set it all aside and do other things?
I’m not going to be able to push it aside. But I don’t plan on freaking out and fixating on the character, because I want to access the character again. I’m sure I’ll work on how to honor the score better, make what I do better. I hope to do the role again and again when other companies do the work.
Tell us about the work you do with the Bay Area nonprofit, Bread & Roses Presents.
I’ve been singing in nursing homes since 2003. Jails, rehab centers, places where you don’t think opera would be. I have a soft spot for elderly folks who are isolated because I’ve been singing for them since I was a child. People in their 80s, they just kind of get it.
What caused you to found Owly, the senior discount resource app? What can you tell us about its development and future plans?
We’re working on an app that will help seniors to step outside of their normal realm. My partner has been coding while I’m at rehearsals. It will be released in the coming months. People will be able to help their grandparents use it to log on, build a profile, and find discounts for things to do that are affordable. Discounts at restaurants, gyms, concerts, or meet ups with people their age, access to their communities. Seniors and people in jail are very overlooked. Rooting for the underdog is my interest, just like I’m always fascinated by what we don’t talk about more than what we do.