From the archetypal tragic heroines the likes of Lucia or Gilda, to a knock ‘em dead Cunegonde, not to mention madcap seconda donnas Morgana and Adele, soprano Anna Christy brings to the stage her trademark crystalline vocalism and striking theatricality. Toronto audiences have fond memories of her in the controversial David Alden production of Lucia di Lammermoor a few seasons ago. Her girlishly vulnerable Lucia was deeply affecting, for its pathos as well as tonal purity.
My first experience of the Christy soprano was fifteen years ago at the Santa Fe Opera. Still very early in her career, the soprano wowed everyone with her stratospheric high notes as the young Jiang Ching, in the American premiere of Bright Sheng’s Madame Mao. I’ve since heard her effervescent Marie in La fille du regiment, the innocent Soeur Constance in Les dialogues des Carmelites, and last summer as an irrepressibly funny Morgana in Alcina. Anyone not familiar with the Christy stage allure would do well to check out her smashing “Glitter and Be Gay,” as a Marilyn Monroe lookalike (!) Cunegonde in the Robert Carsen production of Candide at the Paris Opera.
With her back in Toronto to take on Gilda in the Christopher Alden production of Rigoletto, I took the opportunity to have a chat with her. Given the tight rehearsal schedule, it wasn’t easy to find time, and our chat was kept short. But as they say, it’s not the quantity but the quality that counts. We were in the Four Seasons Centre’s “green room,” an unglamorous space that serves as an artist lounge/canteen, with a few cafeteria tables and a couple of couches for catnaps. People wandered in and out, but we weren’t disturbed. In our wide-ranging conversation, Anna Christy fielded my many probing questions with disarming honesty:
First of all, welcome back to Toronto and the COC. We have good memories of your Lucia. How is rehearsal going?
Thanks! Rehearsal is going great. I love working for this company. They take care of everything. It’s very easy to do my work and the emphasis is on the right things.
Have you worked with your colleagues before?
I’ve worked with Stephen Costello and the other tenor, Joshua Guerrero. I’ve never sung with Roland Wood, the Rigoletto, or the others.
You’ve worked with Stephen Lord, right?
Yes, and Christopher Alden, many times. It feels like coming home.
It seems that Gilda and Lucia are your two most frequently performed roles?
No, this is only my second Gilda. Lucia I’ve sung a lot.
You do tragic women, and you also do funny women.
I think I do funny women more often. Because of my voice type and I’m short, I’m usually the younger sister or the maid. When I get the opportunity to sing a dramatic character like Gilda and Lucia, it’s interesting for me.
Do you prefer the tragic?
No, I prefer the comedic, but it’s a nice change once in awhile.
Do you have a favourite role? Maybe it’s not a fair thing to ask.
It’s probably Lucia, just because there aren’t so many roles I sing that revolves around me [laughs] So in that sense, I can have a lot of control.
Opera has a lot to do with history. These pieces were written 150 to 200 years ago. It’s a little unfair to project our current ideals on operas written when things were very different.
This brings up a question I really want to ask you – what are your thoughts on singing these women as victims, especially in today’s climate?
Opera has a lot to do with history. These pieces were written 150 to 200 years ago. It’s a little unfair to project our current ideals on operas written when things were very different. I understand the disagreements, or sometimes even uproar, over the way something is staged. For example, in the Christopher Alden production we are doing here at the COC, women are used as currency. He sees Rigoletto the opera is about the repression of women, how women are used. For me, because I believe in his vision, I don’t have a problem with that. It’s a story; we are not talking about real life. It doesn’t mean we condone that way of life.
It’s really a period piece.
It’s absolutely a period piece. He’s setting it in the Victorian era, when it was written. Gosh, it was a time not only of the repression of women, but repression of emotions in general. The whole piece is about repression! It’s at odds with Italian bel canto, especially Verdi. What you see on stage and what you hear is such an interesting juxtaposition.
Currently, we have people who say we should re-think these standard works for 21st-century sensibilities. For example, in the production of Carmen right now at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino in Florence, at the end when Don Jose stabs her, she pulls out a gun and shoots him dead.
But that’s not part of the original story! Carmen doesn’t kill him… I feel, please! Carmen is strong enough! For me she is the model of a modern woman. You know, I don’t judge other productions — it’s fine! But it’s a little surprising to me. For me in a production, I just want it to be interesting and to make the most sense. If a director asks me to do something and it makes sense, fine. I’ll do it.
Since you’ve worked a lot with the Alden brothers, you must be used to the Regieoper approach.
What they bring to the table is always interesting. It might not be conventional; it might not make complete sense to some people, but I find when I watch their pieces, I am always emotionally surprised. There’s always a tension on the surface, and underneath it there’s an emotional quality that grabs me and rips my heart out. That’s the kind of reaction I have sitting in the audience, watching their pieces. I have always responded to their work.
When you sing a piece like Lucia or Gilda, do you draw upon your own life experiences?
Sure, of course.
Is it always possible?
No, not always, then you just act! [laughs] When I was studying and going to acting classes, I learned to use emotions I feel in real life and channel it (to the stage.) I think since I’ve had children, these emotions have gotten stronger.
You haven’t played a mother yet in opera, have you?
No, I haven’t. Wait! Technically I have – Ballad of Baby Doe. That was hard, getting through that last scene, because I have kids. Also, the graveyard scene in Our Town, very similar to Baby Doe. It’s about life and you don’t know what you have until you lose it; to be grateful for what you have.
Now, how do you draw upon yourself into portraying Morgana?
[Laughs] Morgana is fun because she’s in control. I always like playing characters that are a little sassy. There’s also an element in Morgana where she’s jealous of her big sister, Alcina. It’s a lot of fun.
I’d bet you probably find Adele fun too.
Yes! She’s hilarious, and she’s also in control.
That’s why I think someone like Gilda would be hard, given she’s so powerless.
Personally, I find ways where Gilda can be strong. There are moments when she kind of almost stands up for herself.
Sure, it takes a lot of guts to show up at the door of Sparafucile, knowing what might happen, to sacrifice herself.
She definitely has the self-sacrifice thing down! In the COC production, she just wants so much to be loved by her father, but she’s just not getting what she needs. That’s why the tenor showing up sweeping her off her feet works so well!
How’s Gilda vocally? Considering you’ve sung very high soprano roles, the lyric soprano Gilda must be relatively easy for you.
Gilda is a challenge. The orchestration is one of the heaviest I’ve sung in. Verdi is in the heavy end for me. Mine is a Donizetti-Mozart kind of voice. Gilda is a big sing for me.
But you also sing Cleopatra, and that’s a big sing, right?
Yes, but the orchestration isn’t as heavy. For her you need stamina.
And for Susanna in Nozze, right?
That last scene in Nozze di Figaro I mouthed a lot of it!
Is that why you haven’t sung it for three years?
Nobody asked me! I am perfect for Susanna! I had a great time, so much fun. And I was even pregnant, but I wasn’t showing until the end.
When I was researching for this interview, I found that your schedule on Operabase ends with this show, and your website schedule hasn’t been updated…
I am nearing…my husband calls it “the career that would never die.” Because I’m now in my early 40s…
You’re not retiring, are you?!
No, I am not retiring. I have two children, a girl (nine), and a boy (three). She’s in school and can’t travel with me like she used to, and I can’t leave her for long periods of time. I just have to be very picky about when I leave home, so that’s a bit of a damper. But it’s a choice you have to make as a parent. Why would I have children if I’m not going to be there for them? I have had to turn down work.
How about more concerts and less opera?
For sure, but that’s a different circuit. It’s something I would love to break into more. But I need the stage, the theatre, that’s what does it for me. That means we have to be very picky and careful with planning. I will be Marzelline in Fidelio, in Boston in the spring, the Boston Baroque. And I have an Adele [in Die Fledermaus] in Iowa in June. It depends on the time of year.
A few of singers I’ve interviewed, singers with families, tell me they home-school their kids, so they can travel together as a family. Is that something you might consider?
It’s just that their father is at home, and he has a full-time job — he’s a physician. It’s important to me that we are together as a family. He’s tied down, but he has some leeway. He and the children were here with me during the winter break. He was here two weekends — he flies out, drops them off, says hello, goes back, does some work, comes back, picks them up, and goes home. Because of his work, I have the luxury of not having to sing all the time. And I want to be home with my children. That’s important to me, to be there, to raise them. I’ve had an amazing, long career already.
Speaking of family, I want to ask you about your upbringing. Your mother is Japanese… I’m curious why you spent the summers as a child in Japan. Is it to learn the culture?
They never told me why. I just assumed it was the only time our grandparents would see us in the whole year. Now as a parent it makes perfect sense. I absorbed the culture the language. Every summer I was there for a month.
You speak Japanese?
I do. Not perfectly, but I don’t have an accent.
What about your children?
I made a point to have a Japanese au pair and had three over the course of four years. For four years, my children had Japanese spoken in the house every day. And my son, when he first started to speak, 50% of the words was Japanese. But we no longer have a Japanese girl living in our home. It was a choice I had to make. To make them bilingual would be ideal. For me, it was difficult enough to be on the road and working. To add one more thing of speaking only Japanese to them would be great but it’s not something I could handle. My daughter has shown a lot of interest in learning. She gets very upset with me when we are in Japan, saying you should have taught me! She connects with the language and culture, and she has a good ear.
Being on stage, playing a character, losing myself in the moment, with the energy from the audience. It was what I was born for.
Can you tell us about your early memories of singing on stage?
This is funny! Christopher Alden, who is directing this piece, directed my first opera, La bohème, when I was ten. I was in the LA Music Center Opera Children’s Chorus. I was a street urchin, singing “Parpignol, Parpignol!” I remember this man running around yelling at us; we were petrified of him. Fifteen years later, I was sitting in rehearsal at City Opera with Christopher. He asked me when I got into opera, and I told him. He said: “that was my show!” Christopher was instrumental in helping my early career. David also.
Who was your voice teacher at Rice?
I studied with Dr. Joyce Farwell. She was a real technician. When I arrived at Rice, I was singing with straight tone, as I had sung a lot of musical theatre in high school. I was young and still unformed operatically. She said – hopefully by the end of four years I’ll have taught you how to sing! Those four years were formative and important.
Who’s your voice teacher now?
It’s Patricia McCaffrey in New York. She’s also an incredible technician. With having children and everything, I’ve gone through some changes in my voice.
Has it darkened?
It’s not the colour but the weight which I now have to negotiate. I didn’t have much of a middle voice when I started. Now I do. As a young singer, I had an easy voice with lots of high notes, and I could act and all that. But I hadn’t really formed my artistry as a singer, what I want to convey through my voice. As I got older, I came to understand more the power that I have. Stephen Lord has really helped me with this, the power that phrasing can dramatically convey what you are trying to say. Around the time I started to gain more of a middle voice, I had my two children.
A stronger middle voice, and more weight to the tone gives you more opportunities to explore other repertoire. Maybe you can sing Mimi in a few years.
That’s’ true, but I don’t know if I’ll ever go that heavy. Maybe Musetta. It’s the career that’ll never die! [laughs]
Are you enjoying it?
I am! At this point, I am not singing to make money, but singing to keep myself happy, because I know I was born for this. It’s part of my spirit. Being on stage, playing a character, losing myself in the moment, with the energy from the audience. It was what I was born for.
When you were studying, did you have a role model, someone whose voice you admire?
The closest I came to one is Kathy Battle, because she sang all the rep I knew I was going to sing. I’ve always enjoyed listening to her.
All singers hit that wall. You either come back, or you don’t. And I have, it’s something I’m proud of.
It’s hard for me to ask you about dream roles, if you are going to scale back…
There are still some I haven’t done. I would love to do Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier. I’ve never sung Nannetta [in Falstaff]. And I’ll have a Lauretta [in Gianni Schcchi] this summer; my first one.
Do your children like music?
My daughter, more than anything else, likes to dance. When she comes to rehearsal with me, she loves to watch. But she wants to be a ballerina. My son, on the other hand, sings all the time. [laughs] I imagine one of them is going to get the gift of the stage.
When I interview artists, I always like to ask this question at the end — what’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given, something that has served as your guiding light throughout your career and your life?
[Pause] Well, it’s a really personal thing, because it happened at a very traumatic point in my career. It was in 2006. I was sitting in the cafeteria in La Scala. I was trying to sing Zerbinetta [in Ariadne auf Naxos]. And it wasn’t going well. They gave me a choice — “you can go home and come back next year for Candide, or you can stay but we don’t think it’s going to go very well.” It was pretty traumatic for me; I felt very alone. But the tenor singing Bacchus, Jon Villars, came over and sat with me and said “Listen, I know what you’re going through mentally, and I just want you to know that it’s okay. All singers hit this wall at some point, but you’ll get through it. It happens to everybody.” He just wanted me to know that. At that point in my young career — I was 29 or 30 — things had gone incredibly well for me up to that point. So to hit that wall there was kind of a crusher. Just to have somebody sit with me, and say “this happened to everyone and you’ll get through it.” I had no idea. No one ever tells you this when you are in school! Coming back from that experience was difficult. My manager at the time, Matthew Epstein, also said it’s how you come back from something like this that’s important. All singers hit that wall. You either come back, or you don’t. And I have, it’s something I’m proud of.
You have, indeed! Thank you, Anna. I’m sure your story will inspire young singers just starting out. Toi toi toi for the Rigoletto opening.
The COC’s Rigoletto runs Jan. 20 to Feb. 23, 2018, at the Four Seasons Centre. See www.coc.ca for all the details.