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Lisa Vroman: Soprano For All Seasons

January 3, 2013

Lisa VromanSan Francisco theatergoers familiar with Lisa Vroman, from her six-year starring run in San Francisco as Christine Daaé in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera, may be unaware that Vroman really does sing opera and other forms of the classical repertoire. She was the featured soprano in last month’s “ ’Twas the Night” celebration with the San Francisco Symphony, and she’ll appear later this month with the Symphony Silicon Valley in a showcase of the music of Kurt Weill. A few days before her holiday trek north, Vroman spoke with SFCV from her home in Pasadena, which she shares with her orchestrator/composer husband, Patrick O’Neil, and their dog, Romeo.

How is it that you have a 415 area code cell phone number?

It’s nostalgic. I just kept it from the time I was up there in Phantom.

Since Phantom, you’ve done opera, including a couple of contemporary ones — John Musto’s Basitanello and William Bolcom’s Lucrezia [released together by Bridge Records in 2010]. Do you bring a theatricality to operatic roles, drawing on your Broadway experience, and does that make you a special soprano?

Special? What I tell students is, the more varied you are in your training, the more you bring to the plate. Opera should be theatrical, without sacrificing your voice or the music. And I sang the Brahms Requiem a couple of seasons ago, with Symphony Silicon Valley. I hadn’t sung it for 15 years, and when I went back to it, I felt all those years in theater infusing, physically, what I was presenting. It felt like putting on an old glove, but far more comfortable. Or maybe it’s just maturity. A couple of musicians in the orchestra had played in Phantom with me, and they came up and said, “We always thought your voice was beautiful, but we were in the pit. This is who you are!” They had tears in their eyes.

Were you brought up with a variety of musics?

My mother, Gail Vroman, was our school music teacher in upstate New York; I played flute in the band, I was in the choirs, so I didn’t have a choice. My father, E. Ross Vroman, was much older than my mother; he was an undertaker, but he was a wonderful artist also, and his love of music is why he married my mother; he wanted to have it around him, it soothed him. He played Ella Fitzgerald constantly, and I was listening to the freedom of connection to lyrics that she had. My stepfather, Calvin Gage, was a Robert Shaw Chorale singer in the ’40s and ’50s, and head of the choral faculty at [State University of New York] Potsdam when I went there [in the late ’70s]. When I got to college, someone gave me a recording of Mirelli Freni singing Bohème. Everybody else said, “It’s not the most florid,” but to me, I felt she was the most beautiful [Mimi]. She said, this is what I have to offer. Now when I teach, I have kids saying, “I want to sound like this,” and I say, “Why don’t you just sound like you?” A lot of students don’t get told that their voice is worthy and beautiful early on enough.

I tell my students, “Why don’t you just sound like you?” A lot of them don’t get told that their voice is worthy and beautiful early on enough.

My editor told me that a couple of your Potsdam schoolmates, Renée Fleming and Stephanie Blythe, have kept in touch with you. [Fleming will be performing with the San Francisco Symphony during Vroman’s weekend with Symphony Silicon Valley.]

We’re all Potsdam girls! Quite a few wonderful singers went to school up there, and my stepfather had Stephanie as his right-hand mezzo. Renée and I spent a lot of time together when I was doing Phantom; she’d come in [to San Francisco] every year and do an opera, so we got to hang out and talk about our influences. She’s very interested in education, as I am.

What is it about Potsdam?

I told Renée that it’s because it’s geographically isolated from the rest of the world, and you have nothing to do but work and study; there’s no conservatory pressure, you’re not fighting a big city. I thank Potsdam for allowing me to grow at my own pace. My first year, we did the Berlioz Requiem, and [Aaron] Copland came in my sophomore year. He was 78, I think, and we did a chorus and orchestra concert of his music. The last piece was “The Promise of Living” from The Tender Land, and I remember him sitting on a stool during the concert with tears streaming down his face; he just stopped conducting and we kept singing. There was no arrogance up there at the time, and that affects you. [Vroman revisited the Copland piece at the Cabrillo Festival, in 2000.]

And you chose to continue with graduate school, at Carnegie Mellon.

I’m glad I went back and finished my master’s recital, working with my wonderful teacher who passed away last year, Beatrice Krebs, who was a mezzo; she did Mama McCourt, with Beverly Sills, in Baby Doe. She knew I didn’t want that classical life, but she pushed me to learn as much as I could about my voice and to get through my recital, which gave me confidence when I got out of school and was poor in New York. It’s not an easy life, but it can be a joyous one, if you find the people that support you.

Our readers will inevitably want you to say a bit about Phantom. And I’m curious about whether you think Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music supports classical training.

I can’t really tell you that. I had an easy time with it, because I had a fully matured instrument by the time I started it [in 1993]. Christine’s music flips up and over and below, and if you’re not conscious of the [vocal] weight you’re using, it could cause damage. I knew what my lower register could do, so I was able to use it well. What I’m not gonna do is say things about the music not being this or that; I don’t think that’s my place. I loved the job, it bought me a house, and I’m so appreciative of the comrades I had in the show and the joy we had backstage, how incredibly taken care of I was. And I had the support of [director] Hal Prince for so many years, wanting me to stay in the show. You just don’t say “no” to someone like that.

Use your voice well, and know how, or it’s not going to serve you forever.

You said your dad was an undertaker; did that figure in your Phantom experience?

It very much did! Christine is a young girl who has lost her dad, and my dad died when I was 20, and was an undertaker, so I don’t think anything could have been more comfortable to me than singing her second song, at her father’s gravesite, ’cause I still do that when I’m home. Plus, that’s the moment when Christine gains some strength and choice that allows her to grow up.

I’d like to switch to another hit show you were in, Les Misérables, all the more popular now because of the movie. What is it that allowed you to be one of the only singers to have played both Fantine and Cosette?

Cosette was the natural progression for any soprano, but they asked me to cover Fantine when I started. It’s a belter’s role and has a lot of weight, and I had to be really careful, but this was after going to graduate school and being mostly coloratura. I learned how to shift the [vocal] weight. I was on the floor, playing a death scene, and I love playing anger. I tend to be a very physical performer and it allowed me to use that. Sopranos don’t get to do that; we’re playing the ingenue, mostly two-dimensional characters, and it gets old. I was never a typical ingenue.

Do you choose your jobs on the basis of what fits your voice and personality?

Absolutely. You always have a bucket list of things you wanted to do but hadn’t gotten to. Last year I was with Lyric Opera of Virginia, and I did The King and I. From the last few years, some of the oratorios I’ve done, like the Mozart Requiem, have been the most fun. And one of my very favorite things was doing Aunt Birdie, in Marc Blitzstein’s Regina [an opera in English, premiered in 1949 and based on Lillian Hellman’s play The Little Foxes].

I’ve been head-over-heels in love with Regina, ever since I found a copy of the New York City Opera LP recording [on Columbia, 1958] at a sidewalk sale.

We did a production with a spectacular group with the Utah Opera, under Keith Lockhart, who was a grad school friend of mine. Regina is still pretty current, don’t you think?

Ain’t it, though? What about Birdie fit you?

The range is perfect, and what it does musically suits the level of maturity I have right now. I was involved with it being very southern, and with Birdie’s drinking. When someone’s drinking, there’s something that happens to their voice, their language, their body. I’m tickled you know Regina. So many interviews we do, they haven’t studied the music, it becomes “What’s your dog’s name?” and there’s nothing about the music.

What about Kurt Weill’s music, which you’re showcasing with Symphony Silicon Valley?

Keith [Lockhart] was the one who introduced me to Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins. I was doing Phantom at the time. He said, “If there was ever a piece for you, this is it.” Are you familiar with it?

Not as much as other Weill.

We’ve chosen a second act of cabaret songs, not all the ones that are completely well-known, but others that people know and that have been recorded over and over. The second act is all in English. Seven Deadly Sins is in German, but we have all the surtitles; it’s a dense text [by Bertolt Brecht]. It’s usually done with a singer and a dancer who play the same person [separately], and you have to wrap your head around it.

What’s Weill’s appeal to you?

The orchestration is brilliant — the amount of theater that’s involved, the way the rhythms intertwine. He worked with so many beautiful lyricists, including Ira Gershwin and Ogden Nash, and they’ll be featured in the second act. And I’ll be with some of the musicians I’ve worked with in the Bay Area for a long time. Joseph Meyers, who will sing with me in the quartet in Seven Deadly Sins, is a terrific tenor and a wonderful actor, and that’s just what that piece needs. People say, “It’s just a concert piece,” but it’s an opera, an oratorio; it’s theatrical. After San Jose, I’ll have something every weekend until the beginning of March. I’ll be in Hong Kong, with the Philharmonic; I’ll be in Seattle for a Marvin Hamlisch celebration; I’ll be in Macon, Georgia, for a recital and master classes. Where else am I going? When it rains it pours, and you have to take the work at hand.

How do you work as a teacher?

I don’t want to hear Broadway things sung in an operatic style. That isn’t “crossover” to me, it’s more complicated than that. But I also don’t wanna hear … a lot of the girls I coach, they start to sing, and all of a sudden they’re belting in a pop technique and not exercising their upper register. “I just want to sing Broadway pop.” You can sing that, but your technique will suffer. I want them to be able to sing an Italian song, to hold a vowel. Use your voice well, and know how, or it’s not going to serve you forever.

What’s it like for your dog, Romeo, when you’re rehearsing?

He’ll get between my feet and the piano bench, and he’ll fall asleep. Right now, I’m walking up and down stairs as I finish packing, talking with you, and he’s very attentive. He wants to make sure he’s going too, but I have to say, “not this time.”

Jeff Kaliss has featured and reviewed classical, jazz, rock, and world musics and other entertainment for the San Francisco Chronicle and a host of other regional, national, international, and web-based publications. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University, and is the author of I Want to Take You Higher: The Life and Times of Sly & the Family Stone (Backbeat Books) and numerous textbook and encyclopedia entries, album liner notes, and festival program notes.