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Jessica Rivera: Singing From the Soul

February 9, 2010

Soprano Jessica Rivera first made her mark internationally when she created the character Kumudha in Peter Sellars’ production of John Adams’ opera A Flowering Tree. After repeating the role in the San Francisco Symphony’s Bay Area premiere, her success helped land her the role of Kitty Oppenheimer in the European debut of Sellars’ production of Adams’ Doctor Atomic. She has since sung the part with Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Metropolitan Opera.

Rivera, who is also associated with several major works by Osvaldo Golijov, also sang Anastasia in the premiere of Deborah Drattell’s Nicholas and Alexandra at the Los Angeles Opera, where she was a artist in residence. Her calendar for 2010 includes a number of prestigious engagements as soloist in recital and with orchestras, two of which are in the Bay Area.

On Feb. 11, Rivera joins the Berkeley Symphony under Music Director Joana Carneiro for Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Five Images After Sappho. She returns to Berkeley on April 1 to perform Samuel Barber’s beloved Knoxville, Summer of 1915.

You live in the Los Angeles area?

Yes. I was born and raised in the San Fernando Valley, so that technically makes me a Valley Girl. I didn’t go far away for my education, because who would want to go far away from beautiful Southern California? So I earned a bachelor’s at Pepperdine, and my master’s at the USC School of Music shortly before it was christened the Thornton School.

Do you come from a musical background?

Not a professional one. My mother studied piano when she was a girl, and my father’s sister is a professional organist who earned her degree from Peabody in Baltimore. She was actually the person who recognized my talent when I was 2 or 3. She was visiting, and said to my family, “You know, this girl can actually sing in key!” They started me with piano lessons when I was about 5. I started voice lessons when I was about 9.

At what point in your career did you feel that you had the potential to become a leading soprano?

When I went to Santa Fe, one of the best pieces of advice I got was that “slow and steady wins the race.” It’s a great jewel of wisdom that I still hold onto to this day. There are a lot of people who make their mark real early, but people like Christine Brewer and Ben Heppner did the family thing first, then had their big success. I think a good, steady course is always the best one.

I had the great fortune to be in the right place at the right time and to be prepared to step in as an understudy at Los Angeles Opera. After Santa Fe, I was singing in the chorus at L.A. Opera and working at my alma mater in an arts facilitator position for education programs. I was covering Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro. With literally a moment’s notice, I had to go on in the final dress rehearsal period.

That was the longest audition of my life, and people sat up and took notice. Three days later, I was in Placido Domingo’s office joining the Resident Artists program, studying, covering, and performing. My time there opened a lot of doors for me, specifically at the L.A. Philharmonic and to Osvaldo Golijov.

Joyce DiDonato told me that when she first entered the program at Santa Fe, her teacher interrupted her a few minutes into her first lesson to tell her that her voice wouldn’t last, unless she changed her technique.

Right. I had a similar experience with my teacher, Nina Hinson. I actually met her when she was visiting Santa Fe, and a colleague of mine who had studied with her and really progressed came into the dressing room and said, “Nina’s here. When do you want a lesson?”

She didn’t give me a way out of it, because she knew Nina could help. Later that summer, when I was in my first lesson with Nina, she said, “You know, we can fix what’s wrong with your voice. You need to heal your spirit.” And I thought, “OK, I think this lady knows what she’s talking about.”

Voices can be built. But as artists, we’re all sensitive souls. Sure, young artists are probably more sensitive than most because they’re being bombarded by so many different opinions, and they don’t have the experience and perspective to know within themselves what is the right answer for them.

What in your spirit did you have to heal?

I went into Santa Fe knowing who I was as a singer and as a person, and I was met with a lot of ideas and opinions. I realized that I was no longer a whale in a puddle, but rather a tadpole in a vast ocean of very talented singers. It really threw me, because I had to redefine how I fit in this new world. As we’re always evolving and growing as artists and people, it was a matter of understanding that I was still who I was, but we were going to make a better version of me.

On your recordings, I’ve been struck by your soulful quality. You have the ability to tap into a common well of emotion that speaks universally. Did this come from something that happened to you as a child, such as your parents’ divorce?

Thank you for this huge compliment.

For me, singing is an extension of my soul. That’s why it was so poignant when my teacher, Nina, said I had to heal my spirit.

I do feel like I have a deep soul, in that I was raised in the Presbyterian Church and I have a deep connection to God. I’ve always felt that, since I was a young child. My singing is sort of like me allowing myself to be a vessel, and to channel that love and communicate what I have experienced in my relationship with God. So, for me, it is a very deep thing.

It’s also very tied into my family, including people I haven’t actually met. A few years ago, I was on the phone with my dad, who asked me to sing for Uncle Lucho, who lives in the jungle of Tingo María in Peru. After I sang, my uncle was very quiet.

My dad called me later to say he was quiet because he was choked up. He said, “The timbre of her voice is exactly like our mother’s.” That was my grandmother, who I only met a couple of times when I was a child because she lived in Peru. She died in 1991. But I understand that I’m a lot like her. So I feel my voice is an extension not only of my spirit, but also of my ancestry, genetics, and heritage. They say some of the ways I look are like hers. And she was a deep lover of opera. She played opera and zarzuela and a lot of things in her house. So my voice is an extension of who I am — my family, my experiences in life, and my own very deep faith in life.

Let’s jump to Salonen’s Sappho. What are we hearing?

Having sung a lot of new music, especially the music of John Adams, I know that you have to learn the language of a composer. This is my first time doing any of Esa-Pekka’s music, even though I’ve seen him many times and worked with him once or twice.

I find that he likes to create a certain atmosphere that the singer lives within and around. Some of the lines are actually quite atonal. That tends to be a challenge. But the greater blessing or prize in that challenge is to figure out how to make it tonal or resonant so you can communicate it.

Esa-Pekka’s music is inspired by some of the poetry of Sappho. He’s made five what he calls “images.” The first one he calls “Tell Everyone.” It’s about someone who is singing for her friends’ pleasure. It’s really beautiful, with a lot of dissonance that is quite resonant, if that makes any sense.

Number five is “The Wedding.” It starts with a declamation. There’s a refrain that comes three times that says, “Raise up the rafters high, hurrah for the wedding!” Then there’s this conversation between the bride and someone in which she expresses her fears of stepping over the line into marriage. After she’s encouraged to enjoy the bridegroom, the music becomes orgasmic. The song talks about how, after the consummation, they were exhausted; it then reflects on the experience.

It’s a really big step from this to Knoxville, Summer of 1915.

Completely. Last night, when I was going through that score, I was trying to figure out how to do certain things. Some of the singers who have done it have perfect pitch, and I do not. So I have to figure out how I’m going to fit things into the texture and harmony.

I’m really excited to be doing these pieces with Joana. When we first met and spoke about all the things we wanted to do, one of the first things on the list was Knoxville. I cannot wait to do it with her in April.

How did you connect with Adams and Golijov?

I first met Osvaldo through the L.A. Phil’s Green Umbrella series. I was asked to perform some of his chamber music and excerpts from his La Pasión según San Marcos. That was a very powerful performance, and connected the two of us. Osvaldo then asked me to do [his opera] Ainadamar as part of the original cast, but it didn’t work out until I could join the cast in Santa Fe in 2005 singing Nuria.

Then Osvaldo introduced me to Peter Sellars in Santa Fe. The following summer, Sellars’ office called to say that he wanted to meet with me, as he was flying to London. We just missed each other, but two days later, I got a call from John Adams. I knew who he was, because when I was in high school, my whole class went to see Nixon in China at L.A. Opera, except that I didn’t see it because I was doing a competition the same exact day. But I knew who he was.

It was the most surreal experience to have him on the other end of my cell phone. He told me that Peter had suggested me for a piece he was writing, and he wanted me to come up and sing for him. I said I was on my way to sing Ainadamar at Ojai, and then heading to Chicago to sing it at Ravinia. So I worked it out so I could stop in Berkeley to audition on the way to Chicago.

Oh my God, that’s an on-the-fly audition if there ever was one!

It was literally on the fly. I flew Burbank to Oakland, and he picked me up at the airport. I still to this day have this voicemail saved saying, “Hi. This is John. I’m at the Oakland Airport. Just come out of the terminal, and I’ll be waiting for you. I’ll be driving around in circles, which is appropriate for a composer. I look forward to your call.”

He picked me up and drove me to his house. He brought a pianist in, and I think I sang Mimi’s aria and Susanna’s “Deh vieni.” Then he said he needed something in English, so I sang “This Is My Beloved” from Kismet. And John gave me one of the most genuine responses I’ve ever received from singing for another person. He just said, “Wow. Wow.”

My darling, did you even have time to warm up?

I’d been singing all weekend. It was crazy. I don’t even know that I was in great voice that day. I just kept praying that something was going to come out. [Laughs] But I think what he saw and heard, and what you heard, is my soul. Although it’s hard for me, because I’m my worst critic, to say I have a beautiful voice, I think what I’m able to give the world is my soul. That’s what I hope comes through, and that’s what I think he saw that particular day.

Jason Victor Serinus regularly reviews music and audio for Stereophile, SFCV, Classical Voice North America, AudioStream, American Record Guide, and other publications. The whistling voice of Woodstock in She’s a Good Skate, Charlie Brown, the longtime Oakland resident now resides in Port Townsend, Washington.

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