Rising star Ola Rafalo has a voice that the Palm Beach Arts Paper has called “attractive, dusky, and powerful”. In additon to Opera Carolina, she is performing this season with Syracuse Opera, Lyric Opera Baltimore, the Washington Chorus at the Kennedy Center, and Opera Tampa. Recent engagements include Leonora in La Favorita with The Opera Atelier; as well as Dalila in Samson et Dalila, Fricka in Die Walküre, Suzuki in Madama Butterfly, and the title role in Carmen with the Lyric Orchestra. She was a member of the Young Artist Program at Sarasota Opera and Palm Beach Opera, where she recently performed the title role in Catan’s Florencia in El Amazonas.” In 2008, she was awarded Grand Prize of the Elgin Opera competition and First Prize of the Sherrill Milnes Opera Idol competition.

Opera Lively – I think the role of Fenena is very sweet and delicate. How do you read the psychology of your character, and how do you plan to portray her?

Ola Rafalo – In contrast to Abigaille I can see that, as far as her delivery, but she is very strong and fortified as a person, not fragile at all. To me the two young women are both very strong archetypal representations of femininity. Abigaille reacts to life's upsets with fire, fury, action, and vengeance – she's very aggressive. And Fenena is more the darker side of the feminine power, the unseen, the mystical, and she responds to life's challenges by going inward into spirituality and religion. Its a wonderful contrast of the two, and Verdi actually wrote those colors into the music for the two women, which is so genius!

OL – It is unusual for a young mezzo to have already performed Fricka in Die Walküre. Would you tell us more about that experience? Did you approach it with a lot of trepidation?

OR – Honestly, If I had any trepidation about it I would not have sung it. I think in order to do a role, one must honor the music completely, and hesitation or uncertainty can only interfere with that. I approach all my repertoire with the same technique. If one is born with a dramatic instrument and it is developed correctly technically, then a role like that is nothing to fear. For someone like me, repertoire that is too light can be more dangerous because the tendency is to shut down resonators, and lighten the voice which is extremely damaging.

The tools are the same for singing Verdi and Wagner in my opinion. Both require a rich lush sound, and a palette of many different expressive colors and textures. They are just used in different ways. Verdi gives you more range to stretch out into and keep the voice always moving up and down. Wagner is different in that it is less of a huge range, pitch wise, but within that, a lot of variance of colors and dynamics can be explored. It's more important to focus on staying buoyant and not drive the voice in Wagner, whereas Verdi kind of bounces you all around already!

Wagner is a joy to sing- it's just like reclining into a warm bath – very flowing! I was so excited to play a part in the deep philosophical narrative that Wagner created in these characters! And the music is so very expressive of each smaller idea within a scene, as well as the overarching threads of plot. Its just fantastic! Embodying the Matriarch of the Gods was fascinating because as a person, I had felt more sympathetic to Wotan in their confrontation, yet as an artist, I had to delve into the plight and truth at the core of her character.

I find that within each character we play we must find ourselves, or find them within us… whichever way it turns! Channelling Fricka's experience of the story through my emotions and expression was profound. It surprised me how much depth of feeling her musical lines provoked in me, and I had to work to contain my emotion within the expression of the singing. I didn't expect that when I first took on the role. She's an amazing figure, and I understand her pain and her strength, and hope that I was able to express that to the audience, and I hope that I will get the opportunity to do so again in the future!

OL – Fantastic answer, thank you. I noticed that you once had a coaching session with Dame Kiri Te Kanawa. That must have been something. What kind of advice or take-home line the great singer delivered to you?

OR – Yes! I was a young artist at the time, singing soprano repertoire— I sang in Fredericka Von Stade's masterclass and she was very impressed with my performance, and she introduced me to Kiri Te Kanawa, so that I coach with her for a week while she was teaching at the Met. It was a huge validation to be acknowledged by Von Stade, and also to get to coach with Te Kanawa; it was a great experience!

I remember arriving at the Met and being so intimidated by the history of that building itself! I was very nervous to sing for her, and there, of all places! It was intense!

But she was extremely down to earth and personable, just as Von Stade had been. It was actually Kiri that was the first person to tell me, or to discover, after vocalizing me, that I am a mezzo! So it was a HUGE take-away!

OL – I’m very interested in contemporary opera. You’ve performed the title role in Catan’s Florencia en el Amazonas. Would you please describe that experience? It is actually, I believe, a role for a soprano. Was it a difficult sing?

OR – It was a fantastic experience! The music is challenging, Florencia is a dramatic soprano role that is vocally similar in a way to the role of Salome. The character however, is very different. She goes through a fantastic emotional transformation. I found a lot of myself in her, as I think most of the women who sing it may. Like Tosca, Florencia is an Opera Singer. It was the last role I sang as a soprano, before switching to Mezzo.

The music and drama of Florencia en el Amazonas are great and I am so happy to see that opera is now being performed more frequently. It's truly a fantastic work.

OL – You are in the first few stages of your rising career. Please tell me about some of your career goals and expectations.

OR – Of course I do have my dream roles and dream situations, which I am always working towards! More generally though, my goal is always to honor the music. I am very old-fashioned and I like to study a role thoroughly and give it time in my psyche to come alive before I present it. I try not to have any expectations, but simply to participate in my life as fully as possible, and share my gifts wholeheartedly. I feel that Fenena in particular is an excellent first Verdi role as a mezzo, and hopefully she will open the door to Amneris, and Azucena in my future, which I have been studying.

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?

OR – Well, I played classical flute since the age of 9, and fell in love with classical music through my experiences as a young instrumentalist. I was fortunate to have a fantastic music teacher in High school, Terry Redford, who knew how to introduce young people to classical music in a way that created a deep and fulfilling connection. Many of my classmates from that high school band experience went on to be classical musicians professionally, and I am certain that the ones who didn't still listen and enjoy it. We were playing fantastic works like Rimsky Korsakov's Sheherezade, Russian Easter Overture, Dvořák's New World Symphony, and all kinds of fantastic stuff, in high school! So I guess deep down, I will always be a band geek!

But I also started to listen to opera at the end of that time period, and fell in love with the voice of Maria Callas, and that was the beginning of the rest of my musical life. The last piece I played on the flute was François Borne's Fantaisies Brillantes on themes from Bizet's Carmen, oddly enough. And now, many many years later, Carmen is one of my main roles!

Coming from an instrumental background, I suppose my singing path has been unconventional. I had the honor to sing for brilliant violinist Shmuel Ashkenasi, of the Vermeer Quartet. He taught me expressive phrasing techniques and musical ideas that I still use and think about all of the time. He said that as a young violin student, he listened mostly to Maria Callas, and Fischer-Dieskau in order to learn how to make the violin sing. I was really struck by that, because I was listening to Heifetz all the time, and learning about musicality that way. So the circle continues!

Outside of music, I am a wife and mother, and I love spending time with my family and being in nature. I am a big animal lover. I am also a tea connoisseur! Every city in the world that I travel to I always go to their tea shop!

Interviews by Luiz Gazzola from operalively.com – click here to visit the full article.