Interview with Mezzo-Soprano Janice Edwards

Janice Edwards head shotMezzo-Soprano Janice Edwards will perform the roles of Sieglinde and Fricka at the Boston Wagner Society’s all-Wagner concert on November 11 at Old South Church.

You have a wide-ranging repertoire, from oratorios to song recitals to operas and from Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Verdi to Wagner. How did you train for such different styles of music, and how did you develop so much versatility? 

I have loved all genres of classical vocal music all of my life, and started trying to imitate operatic voices when I purchased my first LP (highlights of La bohème) at about the age of 12. I started voice training with a local teacher at about age 14, and we both knew that I had a––let’s call it––strong voice even at that age. I knew in my heart that I was destined to become a singer of “serious” music. My earliest operatic singing experience was in undergraduate school, where I sang Baba in Menotti’s The Medium and Dinah in Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti. It was then that I was thoroughly infected with the stage bug. 

When I attended graduate school at Indiana University, I was immediately assigned (cast in) two oratorio alto parts – Mozart’s Requiem and Bach’s St. John Passion. Frankly, to me this was just beautiful music and I didn’t give much thought to whether my “opera voice” would be suitable. For most of my professional career, I have sung oratorio roles that require a darker, rich sound. But this timbre has, of course, served me well in opera, too. 

In the late 1970s you studied with famed soprano Eileen Farrell for two years. Tell us what your experiences with her were. 

It was a great honor to be a member of Miss Farrell’s studio––at that time, Indiana University [IU] had one of the best opera schools in the world. The voice department alone had over 900 students, and Miss Farrell only chose 20 for her studio. Even though I had had two voice teachers prior to attending IU, I hadn’t picked up much about vocal technique. I just opened my mouth and out came a rich, mature sound. I was fortunate that I started piano lessons at the age of about seven, so I have always been a good musician and able to teach myself roles. But vocal technique was fairly foreign. 

I learned so much from Miss Farrell, especially about how to be a singer––how to protect yourself vocally, say, if offered a role that is not right for you; how to handle yourself with agents and other professionals in the business who could take advantage [of you]. Everyone in her studio benefited from her distinguished career as one of the greatest American sopranos of her time––if not of all time. She also emphasized the importance of text––of learning what every word means and communicating the intent of the composer and how he or she wrote for a character. She showed me some of her piano/vocal scores where she had carefully penciled in word-for-word translations, and made sure I did the same for every single piece we worked on––song or opera or oratorio (whatever was not in English, such as the Verdi Requiem or Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis or a Bach Passion).

Did you touch on Wagner at all with Eileen Farrell? 

Studying Wagner’s Wesendonk-Lieder with Miss Farrell was one of her greatest gifts to me and my first exposure to Wagner, aside from an LP of overtures that I listened to in my early teens. She had already released two definitive commercial recordings, and must have recognized that they would suit me. We worked on them for nearly two semesters, and I sang them on my first graduate recital at IU. Her sense of style, phrasing, respect for diction and inflection were invaluable. I will never forget that experience.

Which roles did you perform in your early career? 

Aside from two fairly minor roles at IU, I made my professional debut with Kentucky Opera as the Page in Strauss’s Salome, which was truly a thrill. The following season I was engaged by Kentucky Opera to sing Suzuki in Madama Butterfly (the first of many; I’ve sung that role with six different opera companies over the years). I moved to New York City in the early 1980s and, like most newbies to the city, auditioned for Amato Opera, a great training ground for young singers, though Tony Amato did not pay his artists. But his experience and knowledge of Italian opera style were invaluable. I sang Amneris, Carmen, and Preziosilla.

Getting back to oratorio for a moment. I lived in New York City for 15 years and was mostly hired to sing oratorio (as well as paid church gigs)––Bach Passions, Beethoven’s Ninth (I’ve lost count!), Mozart Requiem, Verdi Requiem, and lots of Mahler over the years in New York and Europe (Kindertotenlieder, Symphony No. 2, Das Lied von der Erde). This bears out the versatility of a lot of professional singers: we can “adapt” our voice to the repertoire and the style required without doing any vocal harm. At least, that is what a smart singer does.

In the 1990s you sang Fricka in Arizona Opera’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, the first performance of this work in the American Southwest, to great acclaim. You were then asked back to perform Fricka there a few more times. Had you sung a Wagner role before? And if not, how did you make the switch to this dramatic repertoire? 

I am deeply grateful that my voice teacher in New York at the time, Elizabeth Cole, convinced Henry Holt to hear me for Arizona Opera’s planned Ring Cycle, to begin in 1993 with Die Walküre. Maestro Holt and Glynn Ross, formerly of Seattle Opera, decided that a “southwest” Ring Cycle would be a novelty and attract a wide audience. They were certainly correct. Henry and Glynn were intent on consistency within the casting, so I was engaged to sing both Frickas. We had the same Wotan/Wanderer for all three operas (Edward Crafts), the same Brünnhilde (Karen Bureau), and so on.

Arizona Opera [AZOP], like many opera companies, will mount one opera per season, then present a complete cycle. I sang five performances of the Walküre Fricka in 1993, but Rheingold was not mounted until January 1996 (again, five performances). AZOP’s first complete Ring (presented in two consecutive weeks) was performed in June 1996 at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. It was immensely popular, and international “Ring Nuts” attended with enthusiasm. It was so successful that AZOP repeated their Ring Cycle in June 1998. Needless to say, this was an unforgettable experience. A few of us cast members were hoping that more Wagner would be scheduled by the company, but that was not to be.

You have also sung Sieglinde with Longwood Opera. As a mezzo-soprano, was it easy for you to sing in the higher soprano range? Or is this role equally adapted for sopranos and mezzo-sopranos? 

When Jeffrey Brody and Scott Brumit made the astonishing decision to present “Tales from the Ring” as Longwood Opera’s spring 2010 concert, many roles were double and triple cast. I can’t recall if Jeffrey or I decided to have me sing a very abbreviated Sieglinde. However, this is the same version of Die Walküre, Act 1, Scene 3, that we will sing at the Boston Wagner Society’s concert this November. I was relieved, both in 2010 and currently, that most of Sieglinde’s music in this scene is cut––I am looking forward to singing “Du bist der Lenz” with tenor Peter Furlong, as well as a few high, important interjections (such as “Siegmund, so nenn’ ich dich!”).

Sieglinde is one of Wagner’s . . . well . . . middle-range soprano roles, and I do not find this portion of the role to be at all taxing. While I certainly have the richness and weight of a true mezzo-soprano voice, I am able to access my upper (soprano) range easily without incurring any vocal fatigue.

How do you prepare to sing Wagner? Is the preparation different from preparing for, say, oratorios? 

Not really that different. As I said, for me, singing is singing. It’s just a matter of adapting to the style required of the repertoire. Due to my many years of working diligently on my vocal technique (I work with a wonderful teacher in New York, Jack Livigni, every other month), as well as daily practice, I feel that my voice is in better shape than ever. Like anything requiring a high degree of muscle training (playing an instrument, athletics), working at it daily is key.

Is singing Wagner different from performing Verdi? Do the techniques overlap, or are they totally different? 

I feel the technique for the two composers are very similar; just the style of singing differs mainly due to the difference in languages. 

Wagner and Verdi are certainly similar in that they require vocal stamina, controlled resonance, highly dramatic acting, and a VERY strong voice! Interestingly, both composers were born in 1813, and Verdi outlived Wagner by about 20 years. But their styles could not be more different.

Do you think you might sing other Wagnerian roles in the future? 

The two Wagner roles on my “bucket list” are Brangäne and Venus. However, given the state of the arts these days, where staging an entire Wagner opera is a daunting prospect, I am not holding out much hope for that. 

But this is why presentations by the Boston Wagner Society, such as the upcoming November concert, and last seasons’ Siegfried, Act 1, are so important for the genre, and to give local artists an opportunity to sing this glorious music, as well as local Wagner lovers to hear his music sung live by professional artists.

You teach vocal technique and operatic singing in New Hampshire. What is your philosophy in training your students?

​My students represent a wide range of age and experience. Many people “of a certain age” want to feel confident auditioning for local community theater productions or community choirs. I love working with these motivated singers to help them achieve their goals. 

I currently have one, and have had in the past, very talented younger singers who are on a “professional track” and aspire to sing opera in regional or national opera companies. For them, we work on preparing for auditions, YAPs (Young Artist Programs), or competitions. 

I do not accept a student based on his or her talent. I accept a student if I think I can help him or her achieve a worthy goal. The human voice is a miracle, and the desire to sing––the most enhanced form of communication––is overpowering for many people. Every singer who enters my studio has a goal, and it is my honor to try to help them achieve that goal.