OperaMetro (OM) has the esteemed privilege of speaking with Alisa Jordheim (AJ) and Hannah Ludwig (HL), both stars of Teatro Nuovo’s performances of the rarely performed La gazza ladra.* We’re sitting together at a different local bistro near Jazz at Lincoln Center, gotta shake things up here, but still making observations, espousing opinions, smiling, sharing insights, revealing trade secrets and ideas, all swirling around before the upcoming performances by Teatro Nuovo in mid-July.** Don’t miss the chance to hear these two wonderful singers live on stage…
OM: Thank you both for agreeing to chat with me.
HL & AJ: Thank you for inviting us!
OM: You’ve both worked with Will Crutchfield before. Hannah you are returning for your second season and the company of Teatro Nuovo. It’s probably safe to assume that your experience last year was positive, oui? What role did you perform last season and what, in your experience, is special about Teatro Nuovo’s preparation for your role this year, in contrast to any previous coaching, training, performing programs you’ve participated in?
HL: I really enjoyed myself last summer! I sang the role of Isaura in Rossini’s Tancredi. What I love most about Teatro Nuovo is the collaborative atmosphere of singers and orchestral players. I am a huge fan of performing chamber music and that is exactly how it felt last year. It’s what I was most looking forward to when I knew I would be returning. There is freedom to make music together, to choose tempi based on feeling rather than what is tradition. It’s reviving the true bel canto style of making music together and not feeling like soloists as separate participants.
AJ: You’re right, this is my first season at Teatro Nuovo, but the first time I worked with Will Crutchfield was at Bel Canto at Caramoor in 2015. I sang the role of Constance in Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmélites.
OM: I remember that season! Will’s daughter directed the staging, as I recall. Dialogues des Carmélites is one of my favorite operas!
AJ: Oh yes, one of mine as well. That production was a transcendent experience for me in so many ways; therefore, when the opportunity arose for me to sing Ninetta in La gazza ladra this summer at Teatro Nuovo, I was so excited to work with many of the same colleagues who had such a profound professional impact on me back in 2015.
OM: Experience with the Company so far?
AJ: I appreciate so much that Teatro Nuovo focuses on the true bel canto traditions of the past, as well as encouraging us singers to have the most authentic Italian pronunciation possible. This focus on working the music and text simultaneously for six weeks (instead of just a typical three-week rehearsal period) is exceptional. We also get to work with members of the orchestra well in advance of the performances, which is a luxury and a joy.
OM: Teatro Nuovo used period instruments last season to marvelous effect. Does this practice in anyway change the vocal approach to performing your role?
HL: It makes the overall pitch lower and for a mezzo that is actually fun! I love singing in my lower register. The initial shift from practicing at home at a “normal” tuning pitch is an adjustment at first but this time around I was used to it.
AJ: I have sung with period instruments before and find the experience fascinating. It's a way for me to go back in time and experience what these pieces would have sounded like in the composer's day. Our tuning for La gazza ladra is at A430 rather than A440, so the pitch difference isn't terribly noticeable (approximately a quarter of a step lower than what we are used to today). Graciously (and thankfully) the Teatro Nuovo/SUNY Purchase staff tuned some practice room pianos to A430 so we can get used to the feeling of the new pitch well in advance of the performances. When I performed baroque repertoire with period instruments at A415 (which feels like a half-step lower than A440), I was aware of a much bigger difference, and in that case, I will practice the music a half-step down so I'm not surprised during rehearsals.
OM: Interesting! Last season Teatro Nuovo, at least for the Tancredi I reviewed, used few or no sets. Will the absence of sets and props, maybe character specific costumes, pose any additional challenges to your performance, Alisa?
AJ: Because of the importance of various items in La gazza ladra, we are actually using props! We are also wearing attire that helps us tell the story in the absence of costumes and a set. But on the whole, our semi-staged version of the opera is freeing: while we do have minimal props and stage movement to tell the story, we are given the opportunity to let the music speak for itself, especially in the more reflective moments of the score.
HL: I agree. If anything, it removes the distraction of having to remember other stage items and just allows me to truly focus on my singing.
OM: Alisa, you’re singing Ninetta, the young servant, the accused thief in La gazza ladra. First, have you performed this role before or, if not, what is your acquaintance with La gazza ladra in performance or on recording? With Rossini’s operatic style in general?
AJ: This is my role debut of Ninetta! I didn't know much about La gazza ladra before being offered the role. I have studied bel canto and the Rossinian style before and, having performed Rosina in Il barbiere di Siviglia, the musical elements in La gazza ladra were not unfamiliar to me. There aren't many recordings of La gazza ladra, but I did listen to one before diving into the score myself. Knowing the appropriate vocabulary for ornamentation is perhaps the most challenging aspect of making a bel canto role one's own, and I so appreciate Teatro Nuovo's attention to that element of education and the program's encouragement to explore what works best for each individual voice. I'm so grateful to know the opera now: what a gem!
OM: Hannah, you were in last season’s heroic epic Tancredi, yet this season you’re singing a trouser role in Gazza ladra in a semiseria opera. Are you finding subtle differences in the style?
HL: I have sung some of Rossini’s leading roles before such as Isabella in L’Italiana in Algeri and Rosina in Il barbiere di Siviglia and I’ve always been the most vocally comfortable singing his music. It allows the voice to stretch and move that makes my technique stronger, as if every time I perform I’m getting a nice vocal workout. I will be singing Pippo for the first time this summer with Teatro Nuovo. Before being asked to do the role, I had never listened to La gazza ladra, but I had just performed Rosina. Once I started studying it after Rosina I found a lot of similarities in the vocal part. The coloratura patterns are very well constructed and I don’t feel like I am stretching any part of my voice in an unhealthy manner. It’s very refreshing.
OM: Looking forward, Hannah, what roles do you seek to perform within the next, say, five years? And, for guidance, to whom does one turn for advice on such decisions? Will these roles involve voice training different from that which you’ve received lately? Do you have to re-tool, in other words, for these sought-after roles? Are there dream roles you seek to perform, but…by virtue of your youth and their challenges, you should put off for a longer spell?
HL: At this moment, I’m still considered a young low voice. The main focus of the next couple of years is to keep the voice healthy and flexible before I move into rep like Verdi and Wagner. For now this means singing rep like Handel, Rossini, Donizetti, Mozart etc. I have a wonderful “circle of trust” which includes my teacher, my managers, and vocal coaches with whom I discuss, on a regular basis, the progression of my development and what music I should focus on so that I have a long career. Even though my voice is already pretty dark and big, I need to have patience in singing the big girls. Patience is a virtue here.
AJ: I hope to sing more bel canto repertoire in the near future - I'd love to sing Lucia di Lammermoor, Adina in L'elisir d'amore, Marie in La fille du régiment, and Ophélie in Hamlet, just to name a few. I also greatly enjoy doing concert and contemporary work, recitals, and musical theatre. No matter what projects come my way, I am always excited by the possibility of new characters, new music, and new collaborations; it's all an exciting journey for me. I always consult my teacher, William McGraw, as well as my managers, Guy Barzilay and Michael Denos, about appropriate repertoire. No matter what role I'm singing, I sing with my own voice and technique, and I never try to sound like, or be, someone else. One of the special things to embrace about the human voice is that no one else has yours!
OM: Special things indeed! I have one more question for you and a request… What sorts of things do you enjoy talking about with normal people, myself not included in that group?
HL: Ha! I feel like I am not normal…makes me chuckle. I actually had a coach last year say that I needed hobbies because I tend to make my job a 24/7 affair.
OM: It is an all-absorbing world, isn’t it.
HL: I guess outside interests would be my love of reading and doing any kind of activity that involves history. If there is a museum or historical area in the places I’m traveling for work, it’s where I will be as soon as I have free time. I’m also into fitness so I love working out. Other than that, any time I can hang out with my boyfriend at home is the best.
OM: And you, Alisa?
AJ: I too love reading: I just recently finished Sue Grafton's alphabet mystery series. I very much enjoy watching my Netflix and HBO shows…Breaking Bad is my ultimate favorite.
OM: I’d say ‘Yo Bitch!’ but that might be misconstrued.
AJ: Ha! And of course I enjoy catching up with friends and family on the phone or FaceTime. One of my favorite things about being a singer is the opportunity to travel, so I try to explore the places I visit and soak up the culture (and food!). If I haven't worked out enough in rehearsals, I bring my Insanity DVDs with me when I travel to get some additional exercise!
OM: All right, lastly, here’s the request: If you have an answer to a question I haven’t asked, what is the question and what’s your answer?
AJ: My question is: If you weren't a singer, Alisa, what would you be? My answer is: A hospital nurse or nurse practitioner.
OM: From ‘audible’ to ‘laudable.’ Hannah?
HL: Okay, what is your favorite part of preparing/performing a role, Hannah? Is it the prep work, the staging rehearsal, etc? Hannah thought for a moment, then said: My answer is: there is no better feeling in the world than singing with an orchestra! That initial rehearsal with the orchestra is the most emotional and exciting part of the process. They bring forth all of the colors of your character; they provide the sounds of the scenery where the piece is set. Once you have nailed down the character in rehearsal and then perform it with your orchestral colleagues, it truly feels like the culmination of something glorious that you get to share with the whole world.
OM: Thank you so, wonderful singers! It was a pleasure to talk to you. Look for that new question…
Photos: Alisa Jordheim by Fay Fox; Hannah Ludwig by John Matthew Myers.
* La gazza ladra is performed on Sunday afternoon, July 14 at 4:30 p.m. at The Performing Arts Center at Purchase College, Purchase, NY, and again on Thursday evening, July 18 at 7:30 p.m. at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Tickets for all performance are available at www.teatronuovo.org.
** Actually we did this by email, as usual, but I would have picked up the tab, were there indeed one. Happy we took rain checks for the face-to-face followup.
No, I, still chained to my desk at the OperaMetro office, have been given these wonderfully insightful, intricate and complete answers by emails from Alisa and Hannah. I’m happy not to have to reconstruct it from my dreadful ‘speed’ typing transcriptions…such as they are.
Note that even this interview is split into two pieces. After we finished, another question popped up and I have just received additional answers from Hannah and Alisa. Better, I think, to post the above now and then add, as a second interview, my singers’ rather detailed answers to the new question. It will be posted on the Page Addenda…I love talking to young artists. Like, really.
Happy summer 2019! Hot outside, so I’m told. About time!