Yulia Van Doren

Yulia Van Doren: In It For the Music

Lisa Houston on December 13, 2014
Yulia Van Doren
Yulia Van Doren


Bay Area audiences will have three chances to hear the San Francisco Symphony’s Messiah next week. Jane Glover CBE will be at the podium bringing her acclaimed and individual interpretation to the piece, and one person who is “very interested to experience her Messiah” is soprano soloist Yulia Van Doren.

The eldest sibling of eight, Van Doren was home schooled in a musical family, partly in Pennsylvania, partly here in Berkeley, and was working professionally before finishing her higher education, moving quickly into the role of sought-after soloist for early music ensembles, symphonies, and music festivals. Despite a long list of accolades and the tag of “star-to-be,” it would seem ill-advised to predict the future career of such a talented and creative performer, whose unconventional upbringing seems to make her a good fit for collaborators such as choreographer and director Mark Morris and pieces such as Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. We began our discussion of how her voice, described as “bell-like,” and the “perfect lyric soprano,” came to be developed.

You’ve said, “Slavic singers bring heaviness and pathos to all of their singing.” Having a Russian mezzo for a mother, how did you come to realize that the Baroque/Classical repertoire, that is very much not that, is the best fit for your voice?

That’s a very good question. My mother is both a fantastic voice and piano teacher, and we really concentrated on my piano studies until I was about 15 years old. It was through our concentrated study of Bach's keyboard works that my ear for Baroque music was first developed.

The Baroque part of my singing was actually a very happy and serendipitous event. I was in college, I had a voice teacher at NEC [New England Conservatory] who was a Wagnerian mezzo and she was singing in the Ring cycle in Seattle and said that, if I wanted, I could come and take private voice lessons with her for the summer. Someone mentioned that they’d heard of a 10-day Baroque workshop in Seattle. I hadn’t ever studied Baroque singing, but I sent in a tape and was given one of the scholarships that they give out every year. That program was run by Stephen Stubbs, who is a co-director of the Boston Early Music Festival; he’s now based in Seattle, after many years in Germany. And basically that provided the start of my exploration of Baroque music.

Steve was very encouraging and taught me so much, really quickly, almost by osmosis, during this workshop. He hired me, after the workshop was over, for my first professional engagement. It just kind of happened. I didn’t go to school for historical singing, which, when I first started out, I felt insecure about because a lot of my colleagues had studied all the ins and outs of historical singing. But I’ve learned a lot on the job.

Maybe a year later, I sang in the American Bach Soloists competition and I won a prize. Jeffrey Thomas was an early and very important supporter as well because he, along with Steve, hired me for some of my very first work and was encouraging. When you’re starting out, you just need someone to believe in you, and Steve and Jeffrey were the people who believed in me. If it wasn’t for them, I don’t know if I’d be singing right now. I don’t know if I’d be singing Baroque music, or singing at all, so I’m very grateful. “When you’re starting out, you just need someone to believe in you, and Steve and Jeffrey were the people who believed in me.” — soprano Yulia van Doren

You used the term, “historical singing.” How do you feel about the label “early music singer?” Should there be a line drawn there?

I think that label is redundant now. We live in a time when many of the mainstream opera houses are doing Handel operas. Some of them are even doing Cavalli and Monteverdi and other off-the-beaten-track things. Certainly, when the revival started in the 60’s and the 70’s there was a definite divide. But nowadays, Renée Fleming has a Baroque CD. Everyone, it seems, has a Baroque CD; there’s really not that divide. The early pioneers did fantastic work and research and there’s an exciting continuation happening of people integrating some of the more bel canto singing technique into historical performance practice and it’s making for some spectacular and beautiful results.

How did you choose Bard College, and can you talk a little bit about the program there and your connection with one of your mentors, Dawn Upshaw?

That is a funny story. I took a semester off in undergrad. I was unsure about whether or not I wanted to be a classical singer. So, I was a semester behind my classmates and people started talking about this new program at Bard College run by Dawn Upshaw. I remember going on their website and thinking, “this sounds perfect.” At that point, I had no desire or ambition to go to grad school. I was already starting to get work as a soloist and I was home schooled growing up, so going to college was already something I wasn’t sure would fit into my timeline.

However, about a month later I was sitting in my car eating some soup and I got a phone call from a blocked number. I assumed it was the library calling to tell me I had an overdue book. I picked it up and the voice on the other end of the line said, “Is this Yulia? This is Dawn Upshaw.” I don’t know why I didn’t think it was a friend crank calling me. Long story short, she said, “I’m starting a new program at Bard College and we’re looking for the eighth singer.” She had heard me the year before. I had been wait-listed for Tanglewood and she was one of the people who auditioned me and she said “I remember your audition from last year and I would like to invite you to be the eighth member of our program.”

So I actually dropped out of NEC — they would not let me finish my four remaining credits, which I am still a little bitter about [laughs]. So, I don’t have a high school diploma, I don’t have an undergraduate degree, but I have a master’s degree from Bard. And the program itself was fantastic. When I first met Dawn that fall, I started crying so hard that I couldn’t speak, because she’s been such an inspiration in the way she approaches music. The joy and honest simplicity she brings to her singing, has just been such an inspiration and she’s also, as I learned, just a fantastically warm, wonderful, and kind person, and knowing her has been a true blessing.

When you perform, how much of the time are you thinking about the music and how much of the time are you thinking about your voice?

That’s a constant struggle. I have read reports of musicians and performers having out-of-body experiences where they go on stage, leave their bodies, and come back an hour later. I keep waiting for that experience! I have very loud inner gremlins of self-doubt that most of us deal with. I remember reading a section of Renée Fleming’s book [The Inner Voice] where she narrates her mind during a performance and I recognized that same narrative which I wish I could turn off. Sometimes it does turn off, thank goodness. For me, classical singing has a lot in common with sports. If it’s traditional repertoire, the audience knows when difficult moments are coming up and they’re kind of listening to see if you make it, in the same way an audience waits to see if a skater lands a jump, for instance. That can really mess with your head if you let it. I always start a performance thinking, “Open your heart. Look at the audience and send them love and know that at least some of them are loving you.” It’s so easy to think that everyone is listening with a judgmental ear, but if you think that way, you’re screwed. In the best-case scenario, I just try to communicate connection.“Open your heart. Look at the audience and send them love and know that at least some of them are loving you.” — Yulia Van Doren

I’ll quote you to yourself again: “I have always struggled with the uncool factor of being a classical singer.” Is that what draws you to work with some of the cool kids, like Mark Morris?

He’s definitely a cool kid! My father’s a jazz musician, I’ve almost exclusively dated jazz musicians, and I’m married to a jazz musician. The thing that I’ve learned about living side by side with jazz musicians, the gift that that has given me is the daily sense of play that they bring to their music and collaboration. You can make the argument that there aren’t mistakes in jazz and I love that. Classical music is often too married to the page and too married to tradition. Working with people like Mark, and new composers, it has more joyful experimentation, often, and I really respond well to that. It just feels better. “One of the things I’ve learned from Mark Morris is that everything needs to swing. All music needs to swing.” — Yulia Van Doren

What is it like singing with Mark Morris at the podium?

It’s a lot of fun because he conducts in a very demonstrative and fun manner. I’ve never sung under someone like him. Collaborating with Mark is a whirlwind. He has taught me so much. Mark is a phenomenal musician, a phenomenal natural musician. One of the things I’ve learned from him is that everything needs to swing. All music needs to swing. That’s something which, living with jazz musicians, I do my best to incorporate into my singing, a good sense of rhythm. I think, as classical musicians, we don’t focus enough on rhythm in our training and that’s something I’ve learned from Mark.

Why do you think that singers who specialize in early music also specialize in contemporary, while leaving out the centuries in between? Is it because of the size of the orchestra, or is it something more than that?

I think it’s that sense of play that I was talking about earlier. In Baroque music, there is an element of improvisation. I think you should make up your own ornaments and I think it would be really fun if people became more comfortable with ornamenting on the spot in a different way every night. Some people do that, but rehearsal periods are so short, a lot of people aren’t comfortable doing that.

Contemporary music, of course has that same sense of exploration and trying something new. All singers agree that Mozart is vocally very challenging; however, there is a sense of safety, I find, in knowing that you can sing what’s on the page and that’s enough. That’s not enough in Baroque music and that’s not enough in contemporary music, often. There are composers who want you to sing what’s on the page, but some of the best composers are open to collaboration. For a singer, that’s very exciting.

As you move through the professional world, there are a lot of unhappy professional singers out there and I’ve given a lot of thought to why this is. I think a huge part of it is the lifestyle of travel and the sense of competition, but I also think a large part might be the sort of dissatisfaction you hear about in orchestra players. You often get the sense that your artistic input is quite low on the totem pole. You might spend months at home working on your interpretation, only to show up at a rehearsal and have a conductor not only not ask for any personal input as to how you would like to sing the piece, but he completely imposes his own will. And then after that, you have a director who, in a lot of cases, tells you exactly how your interpretation should be. That can make you feel like your hands are tied artistically and of course that can be very unstimulating and frustrating.

What is your favorite moment in Messiah, and what is your favorite moment for the soprano?

My favorite moment overall? It’s very easy to answer that. A few bars from the end of the piece, in the Amen chorus, there is a rest. A big, fat, rest. It’s such an amazing moment, almost always. Unfortunately, sometimes somebody doesn’t realize it’s coming and you hear them talking, or coughing, and that’s always a little sad. But gosh, after three hours of music, it just barrels to this glorious finish.

My favorite moment for soprano is when I nail the “Rejoice” run! [laughs]. I was scared of singing “Rejoice,” I think, until this year. I just came back from the first three performances in Kansas City and I thought, “I’m actually enjoying this.”

I find Messiah a challenge. It kind of feels like it’s written for two different soprano voices. A very agile voice that sings “Rejoice,” and then you end up with “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth.” And for so many years I felt I should be bowing in apology that I’m not Leontyne Price, but what can I do? I’m not Leontyne Price. I love singing Messiah, and I truly am happy when nothing gets tangled up in “Rejoice” — that’s those voices of doubt speaking again. But “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth” is hugely moving and I’ve had some very moving experiences singing that. It feels like a holy moment you enter into with the audience.

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