Friday, February 4, 2022

Three Ladies Sparkle in San Diego Così

Courtesy San Diego Opera

INTERVIEW: Sarah Tucker, Samantha Hankey, Alisa Jordheim 

San Diego Opera, Civic Theatre

San Diego Opera’s performance of Mozart’s Così fan tutte on Saturday, February 12, 2022, celebrates the Company’s safe return to the Civic Theatre since February of 2020 and the first time this opera has been presented by the Company since 2005. Three young American sopranos head the cast. As Fiordiligi, Sarah Tucker made her company debut as Micaëla in 2019’s Carmen. Mezzo-soprano Samantha Hankey makes her Company debut as Dorabella. Alisa Jordheim, as Despina, made her SDO debut as Gilda in 2019. All three, with their sparkling, youthful voices, are making names for themselves in major houses worldwide.  

I caught up with this dynamic trio during their hectic rehearsal schedule. Their onstage chemistry as two sisters and their confidante definitely carried over in this lively discussion—and we laughed a lot! 

Erica Miner: Is this your first time singing together? 

Sarah Tucker, Samantha Hankey, Alisa Jordheim: Yes!

EM: How’s it going so far? 

SH: Beautifully. 

EM: It’s only been a few days since you two “sisters” started rehearsing. Since you’re only just getting to know each other, do you feel you’re bonding in a close, sisterly way? 

ST: We were just laughing about this. Both of us are only children [Laughs] in our real lives, so we were thinking it’s going to be an extra challenge to feel like sisters. But I think playing sisters you come to start bonding right away. You have to listen to each other musically. 

Sarah Tucker
Courtesy of the Artist

SH: Also, as the rehearsal process continues, we’ll just naturally get closer. I’m really looking forward to the next few weeks of putting the show together.

ST: She’s my neighbor in the building we’re staying at. 

SH, ST: [Both Laugh] 

EM: So, you hear each other practice. 

ST: Yes. Barely. I have not heard you. 

SH: Good!

Samantha Hankey
Courtesy of the Artist

EM: This opera is really unique, in that you two are singing in thirds much of the time, as if Mozart wanted you to be sisters musically. 

ST: Exactly.

SH: I believe I had read that when Mozart originally composed the opera, the two singers were in fact sisters. 

EM: He also had wanted to marry his wife’s sister but ended up marrying Constanze, so sisters must have been a theme for him. Do you feel there’s a problem with the plot as far as women’s roles in today’s social climate? 

Alisa Jordheim: It’s true, the story is challenging! Believing in and exploring the characters’ true human emotions despite ridiculous circumstances helps me accept the plot, and Mozart’s music brilliantly reflects each character’s emotional state. The men’s trickery, while humorous, forces the sisters to seriously examine their feelings and consider whether or not they’re choosing the most ideal partner (a relatable question). Despina believes in gender equality and agency in one’s circumstances. She is a very layered character—her past experiences have given her a cynical outlook. Digging deeper below the surface of these characters is what makes them and their story relatable today.

Alisa Jordheim
Courtesy of the Artist

SH: I think that could be said of most operas that we bring to life. It’s our job as artists to make the characters as modern and relatable, as human as possible. It’s also the job of our director to make it accessible. Opera as art is meant for the people of the time. It’s the glasses that you put on for the piece. 

ST: Also, just because misogyny or unequal situations happen in an opera doesn’t necessarily mean they’re being promoted. I think you can send a message with a modern lens without changing the plot. Audiences are smart enough to pick up on those things, through the same lens we’re looking through. If we come to a consensus about how to deal with those topics as artists, the audience will be right there with us. 

EM: When the music is this sublime, I tend to tune out other issues. 

ST: I see it as an opportunity for creativity. Our director has come up with some interesting theatrical conceits to deal with some weird things in the plot, clarifying and keeping it lighthearted and funny even though we might be giving a message that’s a bit different from what Mozart originally intended. 

EM: What period is the production set in? 

SH: It’s a little complicated. It’s initially set in the 1950s, a kind of vaudeville setting, Toward the end it becomes clear that it’s a show within a show, like The Truman Show

ST: A Shakespearean play within play. The 50s is a perfect setting because those rigid gender roles were such a part of what we envision as the American ideal at that point. We’re also bringing in an Americana element. I’m excited about the 1950s costumes [Laughs]. Other things might not have been ideal in that era, but silhouettes for evening gowns absolutely were. 

EM: That’s so much a part of the fun, especially when you like and relate to them. You’ve all sung an impressive number of roles. Which have been your favorites? Which have you not yet done that you would like to do? 

SH: Dorabella is the role I’ve been dying to come back to. I absolutely love the music of Così. There’s nothing like ensemble singing for me. I haven’t done the role in almost 7 years. It’s exciting and a unique challenge to bring it back to life, dust off the cobwebs, relearn it with a more mature voice. I also love singing Sesto (La Clemenza di Tito). I think that’s my favorite Mozart role. After this I go on to sing Cherubino again. 

EM: Sounds like Mozart is at the top of your list. 

SH: If I could have dinner with someone, it would be Mozart. I think it would be so much fun. 

ST: Me too [Laughs]. There’s such ecstatic joy in his music. For me, Fiordiligi is quickly becoming a favorite to sing. I can’t say what I think about playing her yet because we haven’t really done that. I think I’m going to love it. Prior to this I loved Tatiana in Eugene Onegin. I’m obsessed with Russian opera. I love Tchaikovsky and Romantic music. I hope to do it again. On my wish list would be Violetta and Desdemona in Otello

EM: That’s quite a wide range. Dramatically it gives you a huge spectrum. Tatiana’s transformation throughout the opera gives you so many opportunities to milk the drama. 

ST: It’s all her inner emotions and turmoil. It’s so raw in the music. I love that opera.

EM: Desdemona is a whole different challenge. 

ST: Yes, that one I keep for the future. 

SH: I’ve also done Octavian, in ’21. That was probably my favorite experience professionally thus far. And I dream of singing Charlotte. 

ST: Oh yes. 

EM: Ah, Werther. Talk about raw emotion. You also both have sung Wagner. 

SH: [Laughs] A little bit. 

EM: Sarah, you did Freia. 

SH: I scream, “Help me, help me” a few times and then that’s it [Laughs]. “Save me, save me!” 

EM: Had you ever imagined you’d be singing Wagner? 

ST: No! I thought maybe one of the Rhine Maidens at some point. What I was surprised to learn about Wagner is that he actually wrote lyric roles that don’t necessarily require the same dramatic heft in the voice. Freia is one of them. She’s the goddess of love and beauty. I guess she can have a little more lyricism in her sound. But the most fun part about that production was singing with my husband, who was playing the giant who falls in love with me and kidnaps me [Laughs]. I’d love for us to do Faust together. 

EM: Samantha, you’ve sung Wellgunde in Rheingold. Was that fun? 

SH: Oh, I love singing in German. I approach everything now as if it was German. It’s my favorite language to sing in. I spent time in Germany and for me the language is musical. There’s so much sound within the consonants. We have this perception that Wagner is supposed to be this huge music, but when he was composing it for Bayreuth the instruments were largely gut strings, and the pit is so far underneath the stage. When I was performing Das Rheingold at Bayerische Staatsoper, I was hearing a lot of very light voices singing these roles. It sounds completely normal in a 2500 seat house. I’ve done the Ring Cycle at the Met. It was the first time I’d ever worked with Wagnerian singers. I remember thinking, “Wow, this is just the next level of singing.” Incredible voices, but lyric voices as well. We all have a place. 

ST: I think he intended it to be more like bel canto but failed to keep the orchestration light enough [Laughs]. 

EM: He just couldn’t help himself. The orchestra was all-important to him. 

AJ: Some of my favorite roles have been Gilda in Rigoletto, Constance in Dialogues des Carmélites, Rosina in Il barbiere di Siviglia, Cunegonde in Candide, and creating the role of Lola in Aldridge’s Sister Carrie. I’d love to sing Lucia in Lucia di Lammermoor, Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier, Cleopatra in Giulio Cesare, and Tytania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

EM: What was it like to perform Constance in one of the most dramatically difficult final scenes in opera?  

AJ: Dialogues des Carmélites is one of my favorite operas. The final scene is among the most haunting and moving in the entire repertory. My “sisters” and I bonded so much throughout the production, which made that final scene even harder to get through without crying! It’s impossible to avoid a deep visceral response to the sound of the guillotine and hearing the voices drop out one by one. Constance is such an endearing, mystical character and Poulenc’s music is so affecting—a character I’d love to sing again soon!  

EM: What’s coming up for you all after Così

ST: Pamina (in Magic Flute) at North Carolina Opera. I’ve got to relearn a lot of dialogue [Laughs]. We’re thankfully doing the dialogue in English. 

SH: I head back to Munich for nozze di Figaro, then to the States for a Tully Hall Juilliard alum solo recital in New York. Then Munich singing Octavian in a revival of Der Rosenkavalier at Bayerische Staatsoper. A live audience instead of livestream. I can’t wait. 

AJ: I am thrilled to be making my role debuts as Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro with Virginia Opera and Adele in Die Fledermaus with Central City Opera. 

EM: How would you describe your feelings, from the perspective of your journey during this pandemic as a performing artist not in a performance venue? How has it affected you, over the past two years and now?  

Samantha Hankey
Courtesy of San Diego Opera

ST: Just grateful for whatever opportunities. When everything slows down it forces you to come back to yourself and remember why you’re pursuing music, which I found grounding. I feel less of the “what’s next” feeling I used to get before the pandemic and just enjoy the production I’m a part of. 

AJ: This pandemic has been physically and mentally challenging for us all in so many ways. I appreciate the joys of travel, collaborating with others (in person!), and sharing live music and theater with an audience even more than before. I am filled with a renewed sense of gratitude for every opportunity to perform. While the past two years have been immensely trying, they have also enabled me to focus on who and what is most important in my life. As a result, my husband and I had a covid-safe wedding in February 2021. 
Sarah Tucker
Courtesy of San Diego Opera

SH: There’s this sense of joy and appreciation in the room. We’re all so happy to be back at work together. Before, people would be wanting to go on break or leave rehearsal early. I feel that every opportunity we have to be working is a newfound appreciation, both in Europe and the States. The safety measure and what’s allowed by the government are all over the map. What I notice most is how grateful the audiences are to be there. It’s palpable at curtain call, how live theatre is needed. It’s an escape, so much a part of everyone’s lives. 

EM: And for our souls. This has been a delight. Thank you so much for sharing. Toi, toi, for Così

Così fan tutte runs for four performances at the San Diego Civic Theatre February 15, 18, and 20 (matinee).

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