Canadian Opera Company favourite (and newly minted Resident Artist) Jane Archibald is nominated for her second Outstanding Opera Performance MyTheatre Award for her brilliantly sung and refreshingly strong, contemporary take on mistreated ingenue Ginevra in Handel’s Ariodante. We caught up with the gorgeous soprano just after her exciting residency was announced to talk about her extraordinary 2016 and what’s coming up next.
Can you remember your first experience with opera?
It was during my time studying with my first voice teacher in Truro, Nova Scotia. She had introduced me to classical/vocal music. The first aria I ever sang was “Voi che sapete”, Cherubino’s aria from The Marriage of Figaro. There was no opera in my home town, and the first time I ever saw a staged opera was in my late teens, shortly before going to university, and it was a production of Don Giovanni in which my voice teacher was singing in Halifax.
What is it about opera specifically that made you want to pursue it professionally?
I did not start out with the intention of becoming an opera singer. I think there are a large number of singers who start to pursue vocal training without necessarily knowing what their end game is. I had had limited exposure to opera, but I knew I loved classical music, particularly concert and recital repertoire. I had had plenty of exposure and experience with pop/jazz/musical theatre throughout my school days. I knew I liked classical music best and wanted to sing for a living. Opera came into the picture later, as my non-vocal talents (acting, confidence) developed.
Where did you train?
I feel like I trained, in some ways, from birth! There was so much music in our home, always, and my hometown is extraordinarily musical as well. I went to an elementary school with a wonderful and passionate music teacher, where music was a high priority within the school. At 11, I started private voice lessons with my beloved first teacher, who nurtured and protected my young and growing voice, letting me put my toe in the water with a few light opera arias, while nurturing my passion for the classical repertoire, especially lieder/chanson/art song. After high school, I went to Wilfrid Laurier University for a B. Mus in performance and studied with a remarkable pedagogue named Victor Martens, who was instrumental in guiding my technique. In my early career, I also attended summer programs (Orford, Tanglewood and Merola) and was an apprentice with the San Francisco Opera in my mid-20s.
What performers have always inspired you? Are they the same today?
I admire the artistry of a lot of singers, both my colleagues and stars of the opera world past and present. That being said, I have always tried to forge my own path and there is not one specific person who stands out as being uniquely inspirational for me. I try to draw inspiration from the colleagues in each production in which I perform.
Tell us about your first big role.
There were two. My first truly professional gig was right out of university, with Toronto’s Queen of Puddings Music Theatre. I was the youngest of a group of 6 amazing singers and we did an all-woman, a cappella show of contemporary music. My first “standard” big role was Lakmé with Opera Ontario, in Hamilton (with Yannick Nezet-Seguin conducting!)
How does working with the COC compare to other international companies?
Very favourably. As a Canadian, it has the added bonus of feeling, culturally, very familiar: full of friendly people who share the same tendency for self-deprecating humour and openness, which I really enjoy. The facilities are world class. The standards are world class. It is just a fantastic company.
This is actually your second MyTheatre Award nomination. The first was in 2012 for Semele. What do you remember most about that production?
I have a lot of really wonderful memories of that production. It is a role that felt beautifully suited to my voice and my sensibilities, and I enjoyed the flawed and vulnerable nature of the character. It was fun to play a woman who was motivated by power and sex. I also particularly loved the freedom I had in exploring many different colours in my voice and the extremes of my range. I have never had so much fun with ornamentation as I did in that production, and I owe a great debt to the conductor and the musical staff , who helped me come up with some interesting and very personal ornaments in the da capi.
This year your nomination is for Ariodante, which has been updated and given a new more powerful ending centered around your character Ginevra. Tell us about your contemporary approach to that character and her traumatic arc.
Well, the production came from Aix and Amsterdam, so the updates and changes to the plot, particularly at the end, were already in place when we started rehearsing it in Toronto. I struggled, at first, to find my way into the character because the women who had played her before me in this production were physically very different, and I feel that my physicality, the way I inhabit my own body onstage, informs my take on many of the characters that I play. It took several weeks of back and forth with the revival director to find an approach that felt organic to me and also worked with the production. I worked hard to maintain a certain vulnerability and child-like quality that was desired by the director while also respecting my own strength and the strength I felt was inherent in the character and in her music. In the end, the work that we did resulted in a portrayal in which I was deeply invested and with which I felt very comfortable.
It can be difficult when you feel pressure not to be a certain way. You can spend a lot of energy trying to tamp down instincts and that can result in a somewhat muted performance, so it is important to continue working until you discover the essence of what the character does need to be as opposed to the things she should not be. I was very grateful to Ben, the revival director, for his patience in helping me get to that point. In the end, I think her core strength needed to be a common thread throughout the course of the opera in order to have the feminist ending make sense. There was, certainly, plenty of vulnerability as she was viciously abused by the community and by her father, but she needed a certain strength in order to transform her grief into the resolve needed to leave her former life.
Every woman I know was thrilled with the feminist updating.
What’s your favourite piece of Handel’s Ariodante score?
Ginevra’s Act II aria, “Il mio crudel martoro”.
You also appeared in The Marriage of Figaro last year. What do you bring to Susanna that’s unique to your interpretation?
I do not set out to make my interpretation unique, necessarily, but rather true and authentic, so I am not sure how to answer that question. Figaro is an absolute masterpiece and the way he and Da Ponte have created such deeply human characters that resonate so strongly with the audience is an incredible gift to anyone lucky enough to sing one of the roles in this opera. I simply take my cue from Mozart and Da Ponte, and it all flows naturally from there.
Who are some of your favourite people to sing opposite?
If I sang regularly with a core group of people, I might find that question easier to answer. I am constantly starting a new job at a new opera house (occasionally peppered with familiar faces), so it would be hard to name any one person. The easiest colleagues with whom to sing are those who are down-to-earth and relaxed during the rehearsal process because all of our energies can go into the performance, and I am not wasting any brainpower trying to figure out what they are thinking or what they might do. I am a big fan of keeping all the drama ONstage!
What about composer?
Mozart and Strauss have both been very good to me, but I could not pick one favourite composer. I do not sing much Verdi yet, but find his music thrilling and hope there will be more of it in my future.
Beyond your voice, something that stands out about your performances is the quality of your acting. How much focus do you give that side of the performance when you’re rehearsing a role?
The acting and the music are inextricably connected for me. The music inspires the character, and the character inspires the phrasing and vocal colours. It is not something that I think consciously about but I will say that I have an extremely hard time feeling grounded without direction with regards to the development of my character, and there is nothing worse than being given the “gift” of being allowed to just stand and sing an aria. That is not to say that it cannot be incredibly powerful to be still on stage, but it still requires direction and intention in order to feel right.
What has been your favourite role to date?
People love to ask about favourites whenever I am interviewed. I do not have one. I am not sure what it would say about me as an artist if I did. I want to grow and learn and explore. I want to experience the broadest possible array of musical and dramatic experiences that I can for however long my career may last. So, it would be very difficult to single out one role as standing above all the others. There have been many that have been thrilling in their own way.
Do you have any dream roles?
Lots of roles I’d love to sing, but Violetta is at the top of my wish list right now.
It’s just been announced that you’re taking on a residency with the COC for the coming season. Tell us about that and what we can expect to see next season.
I am thrilled about this development. It is so wonderful and so rare in this career for the stars to align in a perfect way. This comes at a wonderful time for me, personally, as I near the end of my time traveling with my daughter, who will start school in the fall of 2018. It has been amazing to have her with me these past 3.5 years, but also an incredible amount of work. So, I am happy to be spending a significant amount of time in one place. The fact that it is happening at the COC is what makes it perfect. As to what you can expect, we are still very much in the discussion phase. Obviously, I will be performing as announced in three of the COC’s operas next season. I will also be presenting a recital with Liz Upchurch, and I am extremely excited about that. We are diving into lots of repertoire and coming up with a lovely program, tailor-made for my voice. I do not get to do much recital work, and I adore this repertoire, so I am thrilled that this is part of the artist-in-residence package. I have done very little teaching, but I will do my best to be involved with the singers of the ensemble studio in whatever way makes the most sense. I am looking forward to dipping my toe in the water in terms of working with younger singers, and how lucky am I to be doing that with such an incredibly talented group of young artists.
What are you working on now?
I am preparing Angelica for the spring production of Orlando Paladino at the Zurich Opera. I have sung it before in concert, but that was eight years ago. I am also singing through some new repertoire looking for new challenges. I am singing Rosalinda’s aria and Violetta’s Act I Scena from Traviata at the Aids Gala in Dusseldorf, so I am looking forward to diving into those scores. They are roles that I have not sung before. Other than that, I have three role debuts coming up next season. Two at the COC (Zdenka and The Nightingale) and one on tour with THE ENGLISH CONCERT (Armida) in Handel’s Rinaldo.