Ms. Harris has performed, among others, on the stages of The Metropolitan Opera, the Teatro Massimo in Palermo, Italy, the Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center, the New York City Opera, and the Opera du Rhin in Strasbourg. Of her Elektra, Opera News said that she "delivered a stunning account of the vengeful Greek princess, distinguished by scrupulous observation of the score, including the marked pianissimos that are so rarely heard…." Opera News commented upon the singer's Turandot as well, calling her "a soprano of Wagnerian heft."
Opera Lively – I believe that the role of Abigaille is arguably one of the top five most difficult in all of opera. Its tessitura is very high and wide, and it requires enormous power and projection. Famously, certain singers had their voices destroyed by daring to sing Abigaille, while others refused to sing it. Please describe for us the challenges in this sing, and the steps you take to protect your voice while singing it.
Brenda Harris – Yes, Abigaille is rather infamous for just what you describe. But, the thing to remember here is that Verdi was just coming out of the great bel canto tradition and there is a lot of pure bel canto writing and singing to be found in this opera. That said, it requires a big vocal strategy and I do have one. It would be boring to go into here but for the most part, odd as it seems, she requires a light touch. Getting too caught up in the weight of the role, I believe, is what brings one to ruin. That's not to say it isn't dramatic. Oh no! But, it requires a lot of monitoring!
OL – You were particularly successful in the role of Elektra, another tour de force for a dramatic soprano. How do you compare the difficulties of the two roles?
BH – Apples and oranges. Elektra is a marathon. For me, probably just a tiny bit easier as I'm maybe a little more comfortable with German repertoire even though I've sung much more Italian and bel canto. I'd say the greatest difference is that soaring on the wings of Strauss is very different than the wings of Verdi. Strauss, when it's working, picks you up and carries you through the role. Verdi is pristine and transparent (particularly in this opera), and has a much more narrow margin of error.
OL – If not just vocally fiercely difficult, Abigaille is also a complex character to portray, in terms of acting. She is rather unsympathetic, power-greedy and cold, and only switches to redemption and forgiveness-seeking at the end. Please tell me about your reading of the psychology of this character, and how you go about portraying her in a way that the public can relate to her.
BH – I think she's completely sympathetic and understandable. She's been treated abysmally. When we meet her, she's doing her father's bidding as she's always done and she's rewarded by the knowledge that she's not really his biological daughter but furthermore, his "real" daughter, who is somewhat of a traitor, is being given the keys to the kingdom! I think we see her real soul and sadness in the gorgeous cavatina at the beginning of Act Two. This is where we witness her pain and then her choice to seek revenge. I also believe there are some directorial choices in Act Three (the duet with Nabucco) that allow us to see her vacillate and then to understand and accept her. Vengeful? Yes. But, to me, a very logical and sympathetic choice.
OL – Did you look at some of your predecessors who sang this role, when you prepared for it? If yes, who are your sources of inspiration (I particularly enjoy Ghena Dimitrova)? If not, what other steps did you take to musically prepare for this role?
BH – I always listen to everyone I can when starting a new role…especially one of this breadth and lore. I, too, enjoy Dimitrova but I've also studied Rysanek, Suliotis and of course Callas. Callas is usually my preference simply because of her attention to detail and her ability to deliver the composer's wishes. Of course, I tried to find what I could biblically with regard to Nebuchadnezzar but the opera isn't directly from one source or another. Still, it was very helpful to refresh my memory of the biblical character, the miracle stories of Daniel, etc. Mainly, the preparation for me is vocal. Getting the role in my voice and developing a strategy.
OL – This opera requires significant forces – from a large chorus to six gifted singers in the main roles. How is your expectation for this Opera Carolina production?
BH – I rarely think about my expectations for a production. Mostly, because that's out of my control. I hope the company will be up to the challenge but I figure my best plan of action is to be as prepared and demanding of myself as possible. I am, however, looking forward to being back in Charlotte. I sang Countess/Figaro there many years ago and really enjoyed it.
OL – On a more personal note so that our readers get acquainted with the woman underneath the artist, please tell us a bit about you as a person. Why did you chose an operatic career, how do you define your personality, and what are some of your main interests besides opera?
BH – Well, my story is an odd one. I grew up on a pig farm in a very small town in Illinois! No one in my family is musical and I didn't hear my first opera (Strauss' Elektra no less!) until I was in college. So, my journey is more of a calling, I think. I believe that if there's something you're meant to do, you'll find it or it will find you. That's what happened in my case.
Because of my upbringing, I'd say I'm a pretty down to earth person. Oh make no mistake. I love being on stage! But, I love cooking, entertaining, working with young singers, pop music and many many things outside the opera world. I just feel very, very lucky to have been able to sing incredibly rewarding things my entire career…from Mozart to bel canto to Verdi and Puccini…to be sure, this career has given me much more than I could ever repay.
Interviews by Luiz Gazzola from operalively.com – click here to visit the full article.