An Interview with Jessica Strong – Soprano
Hailed as a confident and accomplished soprano, Jessica Strong performs in the 2013-14 season with Calgary Opera as Elvira in Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri, Opera in Concert as Contessa in Le Nozze di Figaro and gives a solo recital with the Women’s Musical Club of Winnipeg.
As a recent graduate of Calgary Opera’s Emerging Artist Program, Jessica performed as Annina in La Traviata (Violetta cover), the title role in Il Segreto di Susanna, and Ginevra in Handel’s Ariodante. Other roles include Alice Ford in Falstaff and Mimi in La Boheme with Calgary Opera (covers); Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni, Gretel in Hansel and Gretel, Frasquita in Carmen, Cunegonde in Candide, and Clarice in Il Mondo della Luna at the University of Toronto; Anne Truelove in The Rake’s Progress at the Music Academy of the West; Rosalinde in Die Fledermaus with Opera NUOVA; and Helena in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Aspen Music Festival (cover).
Jessica has won prizes from the Sylva Gelber Foundation, the National Music Festival (1st place), the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions (National Semi Finalist and 1st place Northwest Region), the Hans Gabor Belvedere Competition (semi finalist), the Marilyn Horne Song Competition (runner up), the Vancouver Opera Guild, the Solti Foundation, the Jacqueline Desmarais Foundation and the WMC McLellan Competition (1st prize). Originally from Winnipeg, Jessica completed a Master of Music from the University of Toronto’s Opera Division, and a Bachelor of Music and Post-Baccalaureate Degree from the University of Manitoba.
1. When did you become interested in singing and in opera in particular?
I suppose my road to opera was quite gradual. I was always involved in music in some capacity, from the age of 5 I have played the piano, and I was always humming and singing. In high school I joined choir, a jazz group, and had my first introduction to the stage with participation in school musicals. When I entered the University of Manitoba for my undergraduate degree, I had never sung an operatic aria. I had great teachers who helped me explore the operatic repertoire, but I don’t think it was until I attended a training program called Opera NUOVA in Edmonton, where I was actually able to perform a complete role. I sang Rosalinde in J. Strauss’ Die Fledermaus, and I was hooked!
2. Describe your experience auditioning for the Met Opera.
My experience auditioning for the Met was exhilarating and educational. I had a fabulous time in Vancouver for the District competition. When I compete, I don’t normally listen to my competitors, but I was #4 that morning and had some time to wait and I think I listened to almost everyone. It blows me away how much talent there is in this country! I was so pleased to represent the west coast when I went to Seattle, and I was shocked and thrilled when I won the regional round. It was particularly exciting singing in Seattle, as it was an anniversary of the competition, and the theatre was completely packed. It is always so much more fun to perform for a large and enthusiastic audience.
In New York, I was a little torn. I was incredibly excited to be there, but I’d also just (on the plane from Calgary) caught a viral infection. I was able to sing in the semi-final competition, but I can’t help wondering what might have happened if I’d been able to give my full 100%. It’s not the first time an artist has been sick, and it won’t be the last. However, it did teach me about my own limits as an artist, and that adrenaline can help you get through a lot more than you realize!
3. How did you choose your pieces?
Ha, well my list of arias has been about 8 years in the making. Until last year, I don’t think I had an aria stay in my package for longer than 6 months before I changed it for something else. There has been a lot of trial and error for what works in my voice, and what best represents me as an artist. As a student, you are taught that you need to cover all of your bases. You need an aria from each historical period (Baroque, Mozart, bel canto, romantic and 20th/21st century) and a list that covers the four basic languages of Italian, German, French and English. While I think it is definitely important to explore all genres of opera, some singers just aren’t meant to sing Mozart, or Handel, or Bel canto repertoire, etc. The best piece of advice I’ve received is to above all else, sing the music that makes you happy and feels good in your voice. During my Masters degree, someone recommended I sing Ilia’s first aria from Idomeneo. I HATED it! I didn’t like it in my voice, I couldn’t motivate it dramatically, but I tried for several months to make it work. I knew then that it wasn’t the right choice for me, and I should have listened to my gut.
For the competition, I offered arias by Bellini, Mozart, Handel (all Italian), Stravinsky and Meyerbeer. Two of those arias are bel canto, and all show different strengths of my voice. I like this list because it shows lyricism, agility, and character versatility.
4. What has happened to you since the audition in Vancouver? Where do you go next?
Since my audition in Vancouver, I’ve completed my training with Calgary Opera’s Emerging Artist program and am embarking on a freelance career in Opera and classical music. During the summer I was in New York and Amsterdam competing in the Belvedere competition, in Toronto for the summer music festival with Elly Ameling and Julius Drake, and on the east coast to reconnect with my teacher, Wendy Nielsen, at her program in St. Andrews, NB. I am currently back in Calgary to sing Elvira in Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri, and thanks to a generous grant from the Sylva Gelber Music Foundation, I will be embarking on an audition tour of Europe in the new year.
5. My advice for future participants:
– Start with the aria that showcases you the best, but make sure you can sing your hardest aria immediately following. They WILL ask for it if you list it.
– Treat your pianists well. They are playing for so many singers, help them out by having clean music with clear cuts and markings.
– Finally, pack a dress that travels well. If you look good, you feel good, and you can concentrate on singing!
6. Do you have any thoughts on the Vancouver Opera Guild and its role in the Opera community?
I think the Vancouver Opera Guild is doing a fantastic job. Their support allows young artists to travel and gain exposure in a challenging and competitive field. I have been lucky not only to have their support in the MONC competition, but also as their 2012 scholarship recipient. Their support has allowed me to sing for people that I otherwise might never have met. I am so grateful to the VOG for all they have done, and will continue to do, in their support of opera in Vancouver and in Canada.