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INTERVIEW | Married Opera Singers Amina Edris & Pene Pati Talk Juggling, Opera & La Bohème

By Anya Wassenberg on October 5, 2023

L-R: Pene Piti and Amina Edris (Photos courtesy of the artists)
L-R: Pene Pati and Amina Edris (Photos courtesy of the artists)

What’s it like to combine international careers as opera singers and a happy marriage? Soprano Amina Edris and tenor Pene Pati are in the thick of it.

Born in Egypt, Amina grew up in New Zealand, where she combined the cultural influences of her background into an artistic persona. Her Cleopatra in the world premiere of John Adams’ Antony and Cleopatra (San Francisco Opera), garnered a lot of buzz, and her calendar has been busy since.

Samoan tenor Pene Pati was the International Opera Awards 2022 Reader’s Choice Award Winner. Accolades were quick to follow his debut as ll Duca di Mantova (Rigoletto) at San Francisco Opera. He’s now an exclusive recording artist for Warner Classics, and his self-titled debut album, released in 2022, won the Opus Klassik Newcomer of the Year Award.

The Interview

The singers will be starring in the roles of Mimi and Rodolfo in the Canadian Opera Company’s revival of La Bohème, opening October 6. We caught up with them to talk about opera, careers, and what makes a great role.

A Marriage In Opera

“We met when we were students,” says Amina. It was a short 10-day programme that gathered opera singers from throughout New Zealand. “They had pre-selected a couple of singers from each town,” she explains.

Amina had been chosen for Christchurch, while Pene came from Auckland. The world of opera is tight in New Zealand, and they had friends in common. The relationship developed as they both continued their studies, and it laid a solid foundation for a marriage of two performers. Both were selected as Adler Fellows in the San Francisco Opera’s training programme.

“What makes it easy is that we understand the career quite well. We understand the sacrifices that are needed,” Pene explains. “You actually schedule the time to see each other.” They both take the time to see each other perform, if schedules permit. “You can always Facetime each other,” Pene says. “Thank god for technology.

Day-to-day, maintaining a busy performing schedule and career along with a healthy marriage can take its toll. The basics become important. “I am a sleeper,” laughs Amina. “I need enough hours of sleep. Otherwise, I just don’t function.”

It’s not just an average career, either. The demands of a performing opera singer can be stressful, and include both physical and mental demands.

“Your personal life twines a lot with your career,” Pene says. The trick is to keep the personal and the professional separate, as much as possible. “You’re singing all day, and if you go home, and you’re singing again, it’s too much,” he says. He recommends finding a hobby completely outside the world of singing for a mental break.

In many ways, opera singers are like athletes. “There is something to be said for that,” Amina agrees. She mentions reading Renée Fleming’s book The Inner Voice: The Making of a Singer as an undergrad, and absorbing its message. “Singers are vocal athletes,” she adds. “You just wobble your way through it. In a similar way to an athlete, it requires discipline.”

It’s about finding a kind of structure that works. Luckily, this past year, it has included opportunities like the Canadian Opera Company’s, where the couple can perform in the same production. It’s not always the case.

“This season has been the most we’ve done together,” says Amina. “It’s been kind of nice.”

After Toronto, however, they part ways. Pene goes on to San Francisco for another production, while Amina is off to Italy.

“It’ll be the first time we’ve split in over a year.”

Recitals are easier to schedule together.

Operatic Roles

Both singers have performed a variety of roles. Pene has taken on Rigoletto, and Percy in Anna Bolena, among others, and his debut album includes Italian and French arias recorded with Orchestre National Bordeaux Aquitaine. Amina’s performing experience includes everything from the baroque to world premiere roles, and she’s known for French repertoire in particular.

What do Amina and Pene look for when it comes to a role they’d like to tackle?

“I think characters who speak to me the most have a big arc, the ones that have room to evolve,” says Amina. It’s what drew her to the role of Manon in Massenet’s opera, a role she performed in Bordeaux and in Paris. “It’s a role that I really love,” she says. “I love the ability to start as one person […] and to be able to grow in that way.”

Many roles, as she points out, are somewhat static emotionally. “I like to have something to look forward to as an actress as well as a singer,” she says.

“I’m the same,” agrees Pene. “If the character isn’t interesting, at least I hope the music will be,” he laughs.

O Soave Fanciulla from La Boheme sung by Amina Edris and Pene Pati:

La Bohème

Is there something special about Puccini’s La Bohème?

“For me, it was the first opera I saw, the first ever opera in New Zealand. I didn’t even know it was sung, let alone in Italian,” Pene laughs. For him, it was just an excuse for a day off school, or so he thought. “I was emotional about it by the end,” he says. “I always thought, one day, I want to sing that role.”

The idea remained at the back of his mind as he went on to study voice. Still, he wanted to wait until the moment was right, and he felt he could do justice to the role of Rodolfo. “To be able to sing it now after […] 15 years later,” he says, “I’m satisfied that I waited this long for it.”

Along with the role, he already knew the music well. “It’s the opera I first learned, and I never forgot it.”

For Amina, it was natural to go after one of the opera world’s most popular roles. “Bohème is one of those signature operas that everyone loves,” she says.

Unlike Pene, her exposure to the music came along later in her studies. “My music teacher was obsessed with Mozart,” Amina recalls with a laugh. “I feel very lucky to do it with him, to do my first Mimi with him,” she says of the opportunity.

Unusual in many operas, La Bohème combines lighter moments with the tragic ones.

“There’s something incredible about this opera,” Pene says. “It’s very relatable. It’s funny, it’s not long.” The theme of losing someone you love is one that many people can connect with. “I think everyone can relate to it.”

The Canadian Opera Company’s La Bohème opens on October 6 and runs until the 28th. Tickets and more information [HERE].

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