When Jeanine De Bique was born, her mother lost her voice for a week. These days the two women like to think that some sort of transmission was made. “Or it could just be because she was screaming and got laryngitis, but she likes the idea, and I like the idea!” De Bique says, laughing with a broad smile as she makes time for a short interview before heading back to rehearse the lyrical shenanigans of Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro. Mozart’s masterwork opens Oct. 11 at the SF Opera.
If you’d like to count the number of opera stars from the Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago the task can probably be accomplished with one hand, without employing the thumb. But De Bique describes her birthplace as a highly musical and cultural society. “When I was at school there was no option, you had to be in the choir.” So childhood included choral festivals and competitions. And thanks to her mother’s love of music, De Bique and her two sisters also received piano lessons. The rhythms and melody of calypso, folk songs, and carnival were all important to her musical life, she says, but for De Bique, classical music quickly became more than a hobby. And her singing took on greater meaning when she was named a youth ambassador for peace by UNESCO, a service which ended at the age of 21, just as her operatic awakening began.
De Bique continued her education at Manhattan School of Music where her first opera-going experience, a Metropolitan Opera La traviata starring Renée Fleming, made a permanent impression. De Bique went on to become a member of the ensemble at the Vienna State Opera before embarking on an international career, which has included lead roles at the Royal Danish Opera, Deutsche Oper Berlin, and Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona. Concertizing is also an important facet of her musical expression. She performed Mahler’s Eighth with the New York Philharmonic under the baton of Lorin Maazel, and Brahms’s Ein Deutsches Requiem with the Munich Philharmonic. She has performed the music of John Adams and Arvo Pärt, and continues an exploration of art song nurtured by Warren Jones over her time as both undergraduate and graduate student at Manhattan School of Music.
Recently, she has won acclaim in the Baroque repertoire. Though it doesn’t translate well from German, her coloratura has been favorably compared to “rose oil and champagne.” Her performance of “Rejoice Greatly” from Handel’s Messiah at the BBC Proms in 2017 has nearly 200,000 views on YouTube, and prompted a return engagement and an invitation for next year as well. She has upcoming Messiahs in Atlanta and Liverpool and will sing the title role of Cleopatra in Theater St. Gallen’s production of Handel’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto. But De Bique says she is still learning about Baroque repertoire.
“The whole Handel thing is brand new to me, but I’m really excited that people see and feel that I have potential to do it and are willing to teach me. That’s where Iván Fischer [founder of the Budapest Festival Orchestra] comes in, and where Andrea Marcon [founder of the Venice Baroque Orchestra] comes in. That’s where Emmanuelle Haïm [founder of le Concert d’Astrée] comes in. I sang Rodelinda with her. And that’s where William Christie [founder of Les Arts Florissants] will come in the year after next when I work with him in Vienna.
“I’m singing the way I sing anything else. There are people who specialize in this repertoire, and I’m willing to learn from them. The one thing I learned from Cecilia Bartoli when we talked once was that with Handel, and with coloratura, the articulation is what’s most important. Preciseness and the articulation of the notes is what makes a good coloratura line, and this is what’s important for Baroque music and this is what I want to perfect.”
Though firmly in the lyric soprano category, there is a spark of drama in her instrument that inspired one critic to describe her voice as “easy to take, but definitely not easy to mistake.” But De Bique insists that she has plenty left to do in her current territory before even considering branching out. “The heaviest thing I’m singing this year is Micaela in Barcelona. Everything else is Handel and Mozart. Next year is the same thing. My agent says we can do this for another couple of years, but I still have so many roles I haven’t done.” Despite a busy career, there are a few “inas” outstanding. “I haven’t done Pamina [Mozart’s Magic Flute], Adina [Donizetti’s Elixir of Love], or Norina [Donizetti’s Don Pasquale],” she says.
“It’s not only opera, there are so many symphonies I have not done; there’s so much I would like to do. I don’t want to only be known for one thing. But I do think people are rather confused by my voice, where it’s going, what will it do, and what it can do. And I say, ‘just let it do what it’s doing.’ But it’s definitely not an over-covered instrument. Maestro [Lorin] Maazel, when he was alive, he took a keen interest in what I had to offer. We didn’t spend much time together, but he gave me some specific words of advice about waiting to sing heavier repertoire for a very long time. He said, ‘Really master Handel and Mozart before you move on to anything heavy because you have all the time in the world.’”
Despite her success, De Bique says she identifies with the frustration her character Susanna, in Le nozze di Figaro, feels.
“I connect with her very much, because at this moment in my life I am constantly trying to have my voice heard in different situations, and you can’t force people to listen to you. She can’t force people, she can only suggest, and gently do so. You have to allow people to arrive there.”
Too often described as “feisty” or even worse, “spunky,” Susanna is indeed one of opera’s most self-confident, if oft-thwarted characters. “My Susanna is a Susanna who is self-confident, yes, but she is constantly trying to get her voice heard,” De Bique says. “She spends the whole opera trying to get her voice heard. Nobody listens to her. She’ll tell the Contessa, ‘you know what, stand up for yourself, don’t fall into the Count’s arms!’ And then in two seconds the Contessa goes back to him. Or when she’s talking to Figaro, she says, ‘no, that’s not a good plan,’ but he goes ahead anyway, and then she has to do her own plan. When she sings “Deh, vieni, non tardar” (Oh, come, don’t be late) in the garden, this is the point where everything has just fallen to crap, and she can’t understand why this stupid man, whom she loves so much, will not see that she loves him and would do anything for him. How can he think she would be in the garden doing anything but thinking of him and loving him? At the end, with the beautiful cadenza, this is a big sigh of disappointment.”
In the business of opera, where artists are not always defined as singularly as they deserve, De Bique admits to being tired of comparisons to Kathleen Battle or Reri Grist. “Of course, it is a compliment, but our voices are so different.”
At a practical level, travel comprises a large part of a singer’s life, and here race also plays a role. As a woman of color, with border crossings of various degrees of cultural sensitivity, that can mean problems. There is one country, De Bique says, she simply will not go to anymore.
“If I am going to be subject to any kind of brutality or abuse before I get to do my job, why am I doing that? My job is to sing with the gift that I have and bring peace to others through my job. That’s what I believe I am doing. But I still feel like I have to be prudent and protect myself, and not put myself in harm’s way.”
As we conclude the brief interview we linger a few moments in conversation, and De Bique says, “You didn’t ask me about being black.”
I am not sure if she is disappointed or relieved, but either way I am taken aback by the comment. In truth, it had never occurred to me to ask such a question of her, nor of any of the other singers of color I have interviewed over the years. But as I leave the opera house, I wonder if that omission is entirely to my credit. After all, it’s not as if I only ask singers about their characters, or their passaggios. I have asked singers about the challenges of traveling with young children, performing under oppressive regimes, singing while going through during difficult divorces, and lately I have asked several singers what they have to say about the opera world in the #MeToo era. But in more than a decade of doing this, I have never asked a singer about the challenge of operating in a mostly white environment.
Usually, at the end of an interview, I have come to the end of my list of questions, but De Bique’s comment leaves me with many more, starting with one men have begun to ask themselves lately: Am I an ally?
Am I, as a white person, and as a journalist, an ally to singers of color?
Is the San Francisco Opera an ally? (They are certainly trying to be. In June, General Director Matthew Shilvock announced the establishment of SFO’s Department of Diversity, Equity, and Community.)
Is the operatic community at large an ally?
In 2017, De Bique took on the role of Annio in a production of Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito in which the authority figures were cast as people of color, while the nonroyals were played by white singers. Alex Ross, writing for The New Yorker, applauded director Peter Sellars’s casting for the production, which took place at the Salzburg Festival, because it “makes the moral vision stronger.” He went on to say, “This inversion puts the drama in a fresh light and advances Sellars’s long-term campaign against systematic racism in opera.”
De Bique, who has frequently spoken openly on the issue of racism in opera and society, has said that the Sellars production was the only time her race played a part in her being cast, and she cites it as among her most profound experiences as a performer. “It was the first time that I had the permission to put my full experience of being a minority in the music and share it on the stage.”
As the world mourns the loss of the epic talent and mastery of the incomparable Jessye Norman, it is easy to forget the kinds of challenges she faced in her career. In her autobiography, she titles a chapter, “Racism as It Lives and Breathes,” and recounts many subtle — and not-so-subtle — remarks by conductors and others. Words spoken unconsciously, perhaps, but extremely hurtful nonetheless. “Pervasive racism sears,” she wrote. For a time, Norman kept a journal of these remarks, attempting to understand more deeply the language of racism worldwide. Eventually she gave up the project, essentially because she ran out of paper. The scope of the problem was simply too vast.
Pervasive racism not only sears, it persists. But De Bique shares a trait common to all singers of her stature, and that is the ability to set any and all problems aside the moment the curtain rises. Eric Owens once described it to me as almost a survival mechanism, an ability of “the subconscious to go into that gear as a performer.” Paraphrasing the great George London, “I sing for free, they pay me to deal with all the other stuff.”
De Bique’s star is rising, on the wings of a great voice to be sure, but also perhaps thanks to other gifts, which include a willingness to address issues others choose to ignore, and intensity of purpose. A desire, as she put it, “to make her voice heard.”