Wallis Giunta is the archetypal new generation of opera singers. She has all the requisites and then some — a gleaming lyric mezzo, top-notch training, uncommon musicality, sure-fire dramatic instincts, communicative power to burn, and the drive to succeed in the tough business that’s opera. It doesn’t hurt that she’s also blessed with the face and figure of a supermodel, no small asset in our visually oriented 21–century.
A native of Ottawa, Giunta started in the voice program at the University of Ottawa, later transferring to the Glenn Gould School, the professional arm of the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. The first time I heard the Giunta mezzo was in April 2009, during her time at the Glenn Gould School, as Dorabella in Cosi fan tutte. In my review of the performance, I wrote: “Blessed with glamorous looks, a gleaming mezzo and good dramatic instincts, Giunta’s Dorabella was an unalloyed pleasure.”
After graduation, Giunta was chosen to join the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble Studio, followed by two years at the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artists Program and the Juilliard School in New York. A year ago, Giunta made the big leap, across the pond to forge a career in Europe. She joined Oper Leipzig as a “Fest” artist, or a member of their Ensemble. With an ideal contract that involves only a modest number of performances each season at her home opera house, Giunta is able to “guest” in other places, crucial for career building of young artists. Still only 30, Giunta has already amassed a resume that’s the envy of singers many years her senior.
This fall, Toronto audiences get to reacquaint themselves with the lovely Giunta mezzo, when she returns to Opera Atelier in a role debut, as Dido in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. She’s coming back to a Company she knows well: “I was in the chorus of The Magic Flute, something like nine years ago. I think I was about 20 and still an undergraduate at the Glenn Gould School. My first solo role was as a Cretan Woman in Idomeneo. My first “real” role was Cherubino, in Marriage of Figaro in 2010. Then it was Bradamante in Alcina in 2013.” Recently, Giunta took time out from rehearsals to meet me for an informal chat. We found a quiet spot in the lobby of the King Edward Hotel, where I got all caught up on her latest career adventures.
In an hour-long conversation, she talked about what it’s like living and working in Leipzig, once a rather grim city in what used to be East Germany. I was there recently, on a side trip from Dresden. I remember being quite struck by the imposing, if austere and even forbidding, exterior façade of the Leipzig opera house, a remnant of the Soviet style architecture. Giunta assures me despite the cold exterior, the theatre inside is lovely, with an opera company full of warm, nurturing and supportive people, just the right environment for music-making. We started our conversation with OA’s Dido and Aeneas:
JS: First of all, welcome back to TO! Is this your first Dido? How are rehearsals going?
WG: Thank you. Yes, it’s my first time singing Dido. Rehearsal is going extremely well. We have the show completely staged. The opera is about an hour and fifteen minutes. They are adding a prologue, made up of dancing. There’s a precedent — (in Purcell’s time) when a new opera was being presented, they would add a prologue, a little montage, often to pay homage to the patrons of the opera, a little nod to those footing the bill…
JS: I’ve always wanted to ask this question about OA productions. The Company performs six shows in a little over a week, and it’s usually not double-cast. How do you cope with this?
WG: With OA, the pitch is A-415 (instead of the typical A-440). It makes a big difference, that semitone takes so much of the edge off. And everything is kept quite light. The Elgin Theatre isn’t so big, so you don’t have to use as much of your voice. The smaller baroque orchestra is gentle, with a lightness you won’t find elsewhere… it’s a much more authentic experience here.
JS: What other Baroque pieces have you done?
WG: I’ve done Handel and Monteverdi. I was the understudy for Ottavia in Coronation of Poppea. I’ve also sung a lot of concert scenes of baroque music.
JS: You are singing opposite the Aeneas of Christopher Enns…
WG: Yes, we were in the Ensemble together, in quite a few shows. He was Tamino in Magic Flute, and I was Second Lady. We also did school tours and Death in Venice. I’ve also worked with my other colleague, Meghan Lindsay (Belinda). She and I go way back! We grew up singing together in Ottawa. She was also at the Glenn Gould School at the same time. She and I were roommates for several years, and we sang together in Ottawa since we were 12, 13.
JS: How do you enjoy singing Purcell? I have to say I’m used to Dido a lot older than you, like Kirsten Flagstad or Jane Baker…
WG: I find Purcell very natural and easy. Older Dido? She’s not, though — she was a very young bride, and then her husband passed away and she became a widow when she was a young woman.
JS: She was probably in her mid 30’s?
WG: Oh no, maximum 25! She would have been married since she was 16 or 17, and her husband probably died when she was 21. She has been fending off suitors for several years. Dido isn’t a tortured matron — she’s a young, beautiful, hot-in-demand woman!
JS: In addition to your OA gig, you’re also singing at the Rubies in a few days…
WG: Yes, I’m singing “Se Romeo t’uccise un figlio” from Capuleti e i Montecchi, the first aria of Romeo. I’ve never sung it in public before…
JS: You graduated from the COC and then joined the Met Lindemann Young Artists Development Program. Did you go directly to Leipzig after that?
WG: I finished Lindemann in 2013. I stayed in New York and freelanced for two years. I kept working at the Met. From there I went to Leipzig.
JS: How long have you been in Leipzig now?
WG: Exactly one year. I started at the end of September 2015, although I’ve been gone a lot. In total, I’ve been there about six months out of the year.
JS: You are there on a Fest contract, which allows you to guest?
WG: A lot! I got really lucky. Most people I know with a Fest contract in a good house, they are used for 30, 40, 50 performances in a season. I only have 16! They do a lot of productions but not as many performances (as other houses). Like the Parsifal this season, we do only one performance! When I was guesting in Frankfurt, we did Carmen, and they have two casts. Altogether they did 16 or 17 performances. In Leipzig, the average number of shows, even new productions, is between 3 and 6. They are doing a brand new Salome this season, and there are only two performances. Because of that, I have a very light load there.
JS: What is it like to live and work in Germany?
WG: I really, really like it. A lot more than I thought I would. Lifestyle-wise, from New York to East Germany is a major change in the pace of life and the expectations. Germany is like slipping into a warm bath in comparison to the pace of life in Manhattan. I was in New York for four years. Every day there I felt I could barely keep up with my own expectations and what people’s expectations of what a person should be able to accomplish in 24 hours. In Leipzig, they really do value the quality of life, taking time off. When it’s time to go home, they go home. People don’t stay at the office until 10 pm.
JS: Do you live in the city? Are there other Canadians at Oper Leipzig?
WG: I do. I’m a six, seven-minute bike ride away from the theater. There are three Canadians there — (COC Chorusmaster) Sandra Horst’s brother, Keith Boldt, is there. And there’s another guy, Randall Jakobsh, who just started.
JS: Are you fluent in German?
WG: No but I’m getting there! I picked up a bit when I spent three summers in Bavaria in a training program, with (soprano) Edith Wiens. When I started the Lindemann program, I continued with her. Since I finished at the Met, I’ve continued to make regular pilgrimages to New York to work with her. She’s my main teacher.
JS: Who do you coach with?
WG: Lots of people. One of my most important coaches is Ken Noda — he accompanied me here in Toronto, in recital at Roy Thomson Hall. Jordan de Souza — he’s now at the Komische Oper. I coach with him in Berlin.
JS: I’m curious — in your Fest contract, is it written that you’ll only do sing certain roles and that they’re not going to throw you in everything and the kitchen sink?
WG: Each year, they tell you what your assignment will be for the following year, and you have a period of time to negotiate if you feel really strongly about something.
JS: What are your dream roles?
WG: I’d love to start singing Strauss – Octavian and the Komponist. There are plans for an Octavian in a couple of year’s time… I can’t say where, but it’s coming down the pipe. I’ve been offered Komponist twice and I turned it down – it was too soon. I’m ready now – if someone offers it to me, I’ll say yes! I’ve learned it. I studied the role during my time at the COC when they were doing it. It’s a logical progression for a Cherubino, whose voice is getting larger. Some mezzos who sings Mozart pants roles, and that’s where their voice stay, but mine has been getting bigger every year.
JS: Would you say you are a high mezzo?
WG: Just a regular lyric mezzo. I can sing high notes — any mezzo should be able to, but it’s not where I like to stay.
JS: Would something like Adalgisa be in your future? I’m thinking of that because of the current COC Norma…
WG: For sure, it would be. It’s for a regular mezzo. I’ve actually sung scenes from it.
JA: It goes to a C…
WG: So do I (laughs)! I am wary of the term “high mezzo”. The only differentiation between a soprano and a mezzo is the colour. The range is the same. A lyric mezzo should be able to sing a high C. A lot of repertoire, like Rossini’s coloratura roles, or Urbain in Les Huguenots, Stefano, even some of the Mozart I’ve always have in my repertoire, roles that will take me up that high in the voice.
JS: I agree. In Mozart’s time, there was no such thing as a mezzo, just soprano 1 and 2.
WF: Exactly. It’s the colour of the voice that determines who’ll be Susanna and who’ll be Cherubino.
JS: Can you tell us a bit about your upcoming Angelina in La cenerentola for Opera North?
WG: It’s a new production that’s going to be relatively dance-based, with lots of movement. It’s my Opera North debut.
JS: Is it your role debut? You feel comfortable singing Angelina?
WG: No, my role debut was this past season in Leipzig, that was also my Rossini debut. I really like singing Cenerentola. (Also) I’d love to sing a Rosina….
JS: You’ve sung baroque, Mozart, 20th century, a very wide range. Do you make vocal adjustments depending on the rep, from one style to another?
WG: I make specific choices of vocal colours here and there, to use it as a tool, like a colour on your palette. In this production of Dido, I’ve been experimenting with that. I did a modern piece that’s less classical, John Adams’s I was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky. It’s a hybrid. The show is more like a Broadway show in structure but with a difficult rhythmic base to it. It requires classically trained singers. There’s no orchestra but a band in the pit — drum, electric guitar, keyboard… It’s a really a powerful piece, about racial tension in Los Angeles in the mid 90’s, it’s heavy but gorgeous.
JS: When you sing contemporary music, are you worried that it may… I don’t want use the word ‘damage,’ but that it may not be as grateful to your instrument? Have you sung 12–tone?
WG: No, I never have (sung 12–tone), not yet. I love contemporary music, but I always gravitate to pieces that are based in tonality. In terms of keeping my voice healthy, I make sure I strike a balance. I think I am always going to sing Mozart — I keep these roles in my repertoire, to keep my agility and to sing healthily.
JS: What advice do you have for young singers who are thinking of going to Europe for a career?
WG: Learn German before you go! Just to know it’s actually a lot easier, and less scary than you think it’s going to be. It might seem that you’ll be lonely and isolated, but it’s actually a lot less different than it appears, in the way they work, the lifestyle there, the people.
JS: It strikes me the main difference is that classical music is a much more central part of their lives…
WG: It is, and that’s a lovely way to be. I was expecting it to be rigid and impersonal and the people would be stand-offish, but in my work environment, there are people from South Africa, Korea, Sweden, UK…. We have a very lovely, supportive, inviting, inclusive community, and the company itself is very sensitive (to our needs.) The environment is great for us to do our best, it’s non-judgemental. If you are not perfect that day, you don’t feel your job is on the line.
JS: Can you give me one example, of something that happened to you, that makes you very happy to be there?
WG: In April this year, I was in three operas in one weekend. I had Friday, Saturday and Sunday shows — Parsifal, Figaro, and Cenerentola, all back to back. They needed me in the Parsifal with its complicated choreography for the Flower Maiden. They didn’t have anyone else in the company who could do it. They needed me in Cenerentola — my face was on the poster, and I was the only mezzo in the company who could sing it. In the few days going into it, I was starting to have vocal fatigue from all the rehearsing. I was really tired, but I didn’t say anything. One day the Intendant came to me and said — “I think we’ve made a mistake asking this of you. I’m going to take you out of the Figaro and bring in a guest to sing the Cherubino so you can focus on the Parsifal and the Cenerentola. And I didn’t even ask!
JS: That’s nice to hear. It shows they are caring. Finally, I’d like to ask you about your well-known interest in animal activism…
WG: I foster rabbits! I am currently fostering a rabbit while I’m here. Her name is Emily. So every time I come to Toronto for a contract, and if I am here for more than a few weeks, I go to the humane society, and I volunteer my services. Emily is my 14th foster rabbit in five years…
JS: I am going to ask you a difficult question — how do you feel that so many Europeans eat rabbits?
WG: Everyone is on a journey, and I do not judge people for that. We all have our own level of consciousness. My life experience has led me to the place where I am at now. I was raised vegetarian, all my life. I am vegan now, on my own. It comes naturally to me. I do the rabbit fostering and volunteering because I love to give back, but it’s also a nice balance. When I am in a new place, like when I did a La clemenza di Tito in Taiwan, I was in Taipei by myself for five weeks… didn’t speak the language. I had some colleagues whom I didn’t know before, and we became friends. Through a friend, I got in contact with a rabbit rescue in Taipei. The second day I was in Taipei, I went to this rabbit shelter. Taipei has one of the best rabbit rescues in the world that I’ve seen. A lot are domesticated rabbits that have been surrendered. Rabbits are popular pets there. People change their minds, people pass away, they move to a new building with a no pet policy… there’re all kinds of reasons. When I was in Taiwan, I went to the shelter every second day. The connection with the shelter, with the animals, and with the people involved in rabbit rescue really helped me feel that I wasn’t alone.
JS: Do you have a pet in Leipzig?
WG: No, because I’m gone so much. So I foster, and I volunteer. When I was in school, I had a pet rabbit for five years. When he passed away, I thought my schedule was getting so crazy, and I was traveling so much that it wouldn’t be fair to take on a pet. So since then I’ve just been volunteering.
JS: Thanks, Wallis, for sharing your interesting stories. Toi toi toi for the opening!