Raise the Curtain! Introducing American Soprano and Opera Director, Brenda Harris

From a little town in Illinois to New York, soprano Brenda Harris sits down with us to talk about her life as a world-travelling Opera Singer.  She makes her Wexford debut singing the role of Carlotta in Dinner at Eight by William Bolcom, as well as directing the ShortWorks production of La fanciulla del West by Puccini. What can’t she do?

When did you first realise you could sing?

*Laughs*When I was about three, I used to go to recitals with my uncle who played the accordion, but they weren’t classical songs – they were popular songs and country songs. I would stand up and sing if anyone said, ‘oh do you know...’ and BOOM! I’d be up! I kind of lost that a little growing up, until junior high (grade 7 and 8). And then I a good choral experience, so I thought I was going to be a high school music teacher. Ha! *Laughs*  I come from a pig farm in , so I grew up on country music and I didn’t hear an opera until I performed in one in college - in the chorus. But singing was just always something that we did.

When did you decide to do opera? When was 'that moment’?

That’s a really good question because I went ahead and got my music education degree, because my parents made me.But I got a double major performance degree as well.I was still insecure whether it was something I could do. Then I was cast in the chorus of an opera at Opera Theatre of St. Louis.And I remember coming back from the first day of music rehearsal after being with all these young talented singers who were so eager and hearing them talk about all these incredible experiences and programmes and I remember coming back to the farm. My dad was climbing off the tractor and I said, “Ok this is it! I just had the coolest experience, this is it I am doing this!” My dad just shook his head.He was like, ‘Oh God she’s really going to try be an opera singer’.

What has been your favourite role so far to perform?

The one I’m currently doing!! That is always the answer. I am the luckiest woman on earth and I have sung unbelievable things throughout my life, but I swear to you it’s whatever I’m doing at the moment is my favourite. But I also can’t pick.It’s like picking your favourite child!

Tell us a bit about your role as Carlotta. You usually perform more dramatic roles. Is there a different approach to comedy? 

Well I actually think comedy is really fun and a lot harder.  But this woman (Carlotta) is so well drawn.  She’s just an over the top diva and I have a lot of experience to draw on *Laughs*!  She has no filter.  She just says what she thinks and has no idea that she’s being tacky or overbearing or insincere.  She’s just really fun. I also think timing in comedy is harder. There is so much detail.  I’ve done a number of comedies and I just love them. There’s nothing like getting laughs - I totally understand why people are stand up comedians.

You created the role of Carlotta, but when performing roles from more popular repertoire, how do you bring something new to a role which many singers have previously performed?

Some of the roles I’ve done have been huge and they are women who are larger than life. For me, it’s harder when you are portraying a real person, for example Queen Elizabeth the First. She was a force - so I do as much research as I can, about the person; about the composer; about the librettist, but you know, no matter what you do to prepare, the interpretation is going to be unique because our voices are like finger prints.  So I think the goal is to just try to do what’s on the page, which is really hard sometimes depending on the composer. But I don’t think about how I can put ‘my stamp’ on it because I think that I am no where near as talented as the composer, so I just try to come close to what he/she asked for.  And then you have no choice but to be an individual because you will come through that beautiful writing.

How long do you practice daily? Do you have a routine?

Well – it’s a little different here as I am also directing one of the ShortWorks which begins rehearsing at 9.30 in the morning.  And I’m a huge ‘warmer-upper’, but I’m actually finding it challenging to rehearse in the hotel so early. Generally, if I’m rehearsing for a show, I warm-up as usual, but rehearsals keep me in shape. I practiced a lot more when I was younger, and it takes time to figure out your vocal technique. The beauty of getting into all these roles is, that the repertoire feeds into your voice and hopefully, if you’re doing it right, just rehearsing with these great composers keeps you in really good shape.

You do a lot of masterclasses for young singers.  What got you interested in doing this kind of work? 

I would say it was about 8 or 10 years ago I was doing roles in summer festivals where there were many operas going on at once with so many young performers.They would come ask me to listen to them or coach them. So, I would listen to them and coach them and then eventually these companies asked me to give a masterclass. I think it’s really important because I’m seeing a frightening trend in young artists today that their careers are very short, many leave the business.I like talking to them, not about singing, but about preparing for their career and how to behave and what’s important – don’t forget that you like to sing! Because after a while, like any other field, the daily nuts and bolts of the business can take over: managers, auditions,travel.So you have to remember that you also get Verdi and Donizetti and Puccini and all these brilliant composers to interface with on a daily basis.

As you are performing in Dinner at Eight and are also directing La fanciulla del West for our Short Works programme.  Both roles are so demanding, have you done this before?

I’ve done it with opera scenes with various festivals.They’re different hats, but I don’t have a problem wearing them, I just think it’s fun! When I direct, I think as a singer when I’m directing so it’s not a big stretch to work with these guys here - who are super enthusiastic, so I think it’s going to be awesome. Carlotta is not a tremendously vocal role for me, so it’s a perfect fit this time.So when David Agler asked me to direct in Wexford, I agreed in a heartbeat!

Are you aware of the audience during a performance?

Hmm... I’m aware of the attitude of the audience, but not necessarily aware of them as people or a persona. But each audience has a personality and what they give you is unique. There’s no barrier between me and the audience. My voice bounces off the walls; off their bodies and there is an element of nothing like - this is happening ever again.

So, it’s your first time here in Ireland, what’s your first impression?

So friendly! My cousin always told me she would love to buy a home in Ireland and I always thought- what’s the big deal? Now I understand. And the food is pretty darn good too! And beer - you have loads of fabulous beers.

You grew up in a small town, do you feel more at home in Wexford than a big city?

Yes, I do! My hometown only had 400 people, my husband said there can’t be 400. He insists they’re counting livestock! I love cities and spend so much time there, but I’m so grateful to be brought up in a small town because there’s – very close to humanity about it - something very comforting about it.That’s how I feel here.

Brenda Harris sings the role of Carlotta in Dinner at Eight by William Bolcom, 20, 23, 26 October and 1, 4 November.Her Wexford directorial debut of the ShortWorks production of La fanciulla del West by Puccini performs 23, 26, 30 October at 2 November.