We are truly lucky to witness coloratura soprano Kathryn Lewek making her role debut as Lucia, given that with her phenomenally beautiful timbre, precise pitch control, agile voice, and attractive looks, she seems made for the role. This is Opera Lively's interview # 168.
Luiz Gazzola for Opera Lively – First, let’s talk about this Opera Carolina production. Rehearsals have just started, but do you already know something you could tell us about what to expect? Is it traditional, or with more modern elements? What can you tell us about your colleagues?
Kathryn Lewek – In general it is a pretty traditional production. I actually just arrived yesterday so I haven’t had too much opportunity to familiarize myself a ton with the concept but I have had a chance to look at a few of the mock-ups of the sets and it looks pretty traditional. I took a peek at my costume today and it looks pretty traditional as well. It’s really nice to have just a really solid, new, but traditional production here, to do my first Lucia.
My colleagues are great. I know a few of my colleagues from past experiences. In fact, I met my lover in the show, Edgardo, Zach Borichevsky, when we both placed third in the Operalia competition in Verona.
OL – Nice. Now, the role of Lucia. Of course, the Mad Scene must be a major topic. Please describe the experience of singing for 18 minutes non-stop this difficult coloratura, while having to act in extremely dramatic fashion. How hard is it?
KL – Oh, Gosh! Yeah, it’s definitely the showpiece of the opera, and it not easy! [laughs] But it’s written really well and I think that it goes to show that Donizetti really knew the voice. It has its tops and downs, it has its periods of wild singing, and it also has those really dramatic impressive moments as well. And then, of course there is the cadenza. I’m doing a brand-new, original cadenza about which I’m really excited. I brought in elements and different thematic materials from all over the opera, to signify different moments she is going through just in that short period of time, as well as bringing in some material that pays homage to great divas of the past – Beverly Sills, Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland. So, I brought a little bit of their material in my cadenza. I think it’s a really nice mix of things that opera goers will recognize with hints of “traditionality” as well as some new things.
OL – Nice! I look forward to it! Other than the mad scene, are there additional vocal challenges in this role from the technical standpoint, such as exposed arias and wide ranges? I’d guess that “Regnava nel silenzio” is pretty exposed, before you have time to warm up [she interjects “Oh, yes!”], and the end of “Quando, rapito in estasi” is pretty high.
KL – Again, I have to thank Donizetti himself because he wrote “Regnava” for a reason in the technical sense, which allows the voice a natural time to blossom. Of course I am going to be warming up a little while before I go on stage at all, but once I step on stage and having that opportunity, yes, it is difficult, and yes, it is exposed, but also immediately it gives me the opportunity to get into character and to also use all of the different parts of my voice in a natural way that is not too acrobatic yet; it’s just simply a really large expression of my range, but it just has a lot of facility. I think in a way “Regnava” really helps me warm up and get ready for the rest of my other challenges which I think are mostly just making sure that I don’t sing too much, too soon.
It is difficult sometimes when you are doing duets with really large voices. Both Zach (Edgardo) and Yun Hyang (Enrico) have really large voices. So, when I sing these duets with these two gentlemen, I have to be sure that I’m not pushing too much and trust the fact that my voice will carry over the orchestra and be heard next to these really large voices. And then at the finale, of course, when the whole chorus is on stage and all of the characters are singing, it’s also a challenge to make sure that I keep the voice just right in line and I’m not pushing too much.
OL – I’m assuming Opera Carolina is not using a glass harmonica, just due to how hard it is to find good glass harmonica players.
KL – Right.
OL – Do you think a flute substitutes well?
KL – I think it would be really fun to do it with a glass harmonica sometime but I also think that the flute has become another one of those traditional instruments that you hear in conjunction with Lucia. With that being said, it can go either way. The flute is going to be really nice in this, and I’ve written my cadenza to go with the flute, specifically.
OL – Let’s talk about the psychology of Lucia. Do you portray her as a bit unhinged from the beginning (well, she does show some morbid traits already in her first scene by the fountain, talking about a ghost), which makes the Mad Scene come as less of a surprise, or do you prefer a strong rupture with reality?
KL – I would say that I definitely like to show hints of it from the very beginning of the opera. The story tells itself better in that respect when the audience is sort of in the loop. I want the audience to know that the insanity is there before I do, as a character.
OL – Interesting.
KL – Because I think that that puts the fear forward and makes it more thrilling for the audience to actually really see and understand more of what she is going through even if Lucia's innocence and ignorance prevent her from understanding the path she is headed down. So I show hints of it here and there from the very first entrance, which is actually not at the aria, but at the very beginning of the overture in this production.
OL – Modern women don’t usually go mad because of love, but on the other hand they are not usually forced into arranged marriages. How do you relate to this character, psychologically? Did she go mad just because of the way her brother treated her, or is there something else?
KL – Yes, it’s interesting. Post-feminism, it’s definitely an interesting position, to play the role of the dutiful sister who is forced to do what the head of the family tells her to do. Obviously this is not something that I am familiar with. I married my husband for love and I’m very grateful that I had the opportunity to do that in this time and age. I can imagine that that would be a dreadful thing for anyone, especially for someone who is already in love with somebody else. That has to be the most painful, the most tragic thing that can happen, to be in love with someone and to know that you won’t have the opportunity to be with him for the rest of your life.
There are a lot of reasons for her madness. If we look at it with the knowledge we have about mental illness now, we realize that it isn’t necessarily just one thing, and it can also have to do with her internal state. It could be that the mental illness would have happened either way even if she didn’t have traumatic events happen in her life. She might have gone mad anyway. It is interesting to think where her life would have led her if certain events didn’t happen. But in the real life story, also in Sir Walter Scott’s novel, and also in the opera, in a short period of time all these crazy events happened in her life.
It presents a good opportunity for an opera to be made of this story. With the arranged marriage, people thought “oh, that’s the reason why she is crazy” but I’m more inclined to believe that she would probably be crazy no matter what. She probably had something going on. Something wasn’t wired right. Who knows? Maybe she had a brain tumor. We don’t know. There are so many reasons. But I think it makes for an interesting story, both literarily and operatically, to try to make a reason for why it happened, even if it would have happened anyway.
OL – In terms of coloratura challenges, how do you compare this role with another one you’ve been doing a lot, the Queen of the Night? How does bel canto coloratura compare with Mozart’s coloratura?
KL – Oh wow, it’s sort of opposite! [laughs] It’s been really lovely to work on Lucia, because I have to say that it really fits my voice wonderfully. I know that a lot of people have argued that I make a great Queen of the Night, that it is the perfect thing for my voice, but I really have to argue, because the Queen of the Night takes a lot of effort all the time and it is tiring. While it is exciting and I’m really grateful that I have had the opportunity to sing it so many times all over the world, I’m just ecstatic to sing something [Lucia] that I feel is made for my voice. It’s just the right kind of coloratura for my voice. It doesn’t take force; it takes finesse, and strengths, and radiance, and joy, and tragedy. I love bringing all those different colors into the different facets of my instrument.
OL – Talking about the Queen of the Night, you’ve just finished a run at the Royal Danish Opera. This company is known for daring productions. How was your experience working with them?
KL – It was definitely an interesting production, very minimalist, in Denmark. I would say that my role as Queen of the Night in the Marelli production that I just did there was not quite as daring as a couple of the others that I did recently, like in Bregenz or Aix-en-Provence. It was a little bit more real life, more realistic. I did walk out on a very skinny catwalk in front of the audience, between the orchestra pit and the audience, which was a little hair-raising. Of course, the audience was literally three feet away from me which is exciting for all of us but it definitely wasn’t quite as daring as I was expecting, because I had heard that too, you know, “be ready for anything at the Royal Danish Opera!” It was surprising that it was much more realistic than I expected.
OL – You’ve been twice to the Bregenz festival. It’s open air, and it uses mikes. What are the difficulties involved in that?
KL – I did two summers there, 2013 and 2014. It was an experience! I’m sure many of your readers have heard about the falling-into-the-lake situation, where the boat tipped over and four of my colleagues and I all went into the lake [laughs] after a storm. That was interesting. As far as going up on that platform every night, rain or shine, with bugs flying on your face, and having a microphone sort of like a rock star opera, was definitely an interesting experience. I’m really, really glad that I had the opportunity to do it, but it is definitely different than a stage performance. Because it is stadium seating for seven thousand people and across the lake, there is a lot of space between even the first row of the audience and the performers. There is very little opportunity to express yourself in a nuanced way. I really had to learn how to control my body positions to portray the emotions I was feeling. I found myself being very efficient with the position I put my arms in or the way that I turned my head so that they could see the position of the helmet I was wearing. So it definitely made me think about different things than if I was just across the orchestra pit from the audience.
OL – One of your Bregenz appearances must have been quite special: the posthumous world premiere of André Tchaikowsky’s anti-racism piece The Merchant of Venice. It’s a pity that the composer died so young of a cancer. This memorable performance was preserved on DVD. Please tell us about this experience.
KL – Gosh! How do you sum up that kind of experience in a few sentences? It was really eye-opening and amazing to see. I was portraying a young Jewish girl, the daughter of Shylock, and to experience racism during the opera from the other characters, and to see it played out against Shylock during the scenes that I wasn’t in was really powerful. Yeah, it was… [pauses] Sorry, I’m having a hard time describing it. It was a very intense, very powerful experience to be part of that, and to know that we were bringing to life something that had never been heard, never been staged, and something we all knew was a very important project to be doing, so I feel really, really fortunate that I had the opportunity to be part of it.
OL – You won Third Prize and Audience Prize at the 2013 Operalia. How was this event for you, psychologically speaking?
KL – That was a whirlwind week, really, at Operalia, and Verona was an absolutely enchanting city to be in while doing it. In something like that, you just meet amazing people, the most of which was Plácido Domingo. That was just an incredible thrill to work with him, not only in a private coaching, but also with the orchestra. In a way, it was sort of like the week you get married and everything just kind of blurs together and you can’t remember everything but these details just kind of pop out in your head. I just remember the elation of being able to work closely with Plácido himself, and hear him critique my singing, and hear his encouragement for my artistry; that was an absolute thrill, for someone who is such a legend to be so supportive and enthusiastic! And of course I met my friend Zach who is doing Edgardo in this production here. It’s definitely such a pleasant memory to think back on! It was a wonderful experience.
OL – Comparatively, maybe another competition was even more important for you, since you got a Deutsche Oper Berlin permanent contract after your 2011 grand prize victory for the Opera Foundation’s International Vocal Scholarship.
KL – Right.
OL – A singer recently that it is very difficult to have a successful international career without a stint in one of the German-speaking houses that put their singers through very intensive and frequent performances, which pretty much prepares them for anything they are asked to do, afterwards. Do you agree? Is this what you’d recommend to young singers trying to break into the business?
KL – Ah yeah, absolutely! It’s funny, because when I was doing the Music Academy of the West out in California with Marilyn Horne, one of the things that she kept saying to all of us students out there, was “you've just got to go to Germany! You've got to go to Europe, to Germany, get a job there, and you have to sing as much as you possibly can!” It was a terrifying process to just go there, and so many young American singers do just that. They simply figure out a way and they get themselves over there and they take as many auditions as possible. I felt really fortunate that I had the opportunity through the Opera Foundation to go there with a plan, to go there with support, with income, with a provided apartment, it was a dream come true to be able to have that security, to be able to work on my art and to get used to being a workhorse and singing all time. It strengthened me a lot as a performer, and of course I made my debut as Queen of the Night there, which really got things rolling, so it was really a fantastic opportunity.
OL – We are really running out of time [we had just 20 minutes to do this and we were at the 20-minute mark], but would you be willing to answer three more questions about you as a person?
KL – Sure!
OL – How did opera come to be your career choice?
KL – Music was always a big part of my life. I was always singing, I was a pianist, I also played violin and oboe, but singing was always it, for me. It wasn’t until I was in high school that I found myself singing some classical music and falling in love with it. Really, as soon as I started singing opera – and back then I was a mezzo-soprano – but all the same, I just fell in love with opera and knew that I couldn’t do anything else of my life.
OL – How are you as a person, in terms of personality and take on life?
KL – Oh, my! Hmmm… well, I believe in hard work and I believe in being optimistic and never giving up. To be successful in this business the recipe is lots and lots of very hard work and talent, as well as getting lucky. I feel very fortunate because not only did I get lucky, I was ready to get lucky when I got lucky. [laughs] I worked very hard and I honed my craft and I continue to do so, and so when those opportunities come my way, I know that I’m ready to just do it as well as I possibly can.
OL – What do you like to do besides classical singing? Any major hobbies or interests?
KL – I have to keep my body in really top condition to sing the athletic music that I do with coloratura so I’m really into my health and wellness. I’m a dedicated yoga practitioner. I’ve been married for eight years and my husband travels with me full time, so we find ourselves working on our health and wellness all the time. We both love to cook. We are both runners. The time between rehearsals is spent taking care of myself, and that’s my biggest hobby! [laughs] Other than that, it’s reading things that have to do with roles that I’m studying. I just started Mary, Queen of Scots, and the Murder of Lord Darnley [book by Alison Weir].
OL – Nice! OK, I did hear one of your clips, and oh my God, what a pitch control! It’s amazing! You keep the tone and you do everything super right, so I’m very excited about listening to you on the 11th!
KL – Oh, thanks!
OL – I hope things go very well for you.
KL – Great, thank you so much; nice talking to you!
Interview by Luiz Gazzola from operalively.com – click here to visit the full article.