Talking with singers: Jennifer Rowley

Talking with singers: Jennifer Rowley

Photo: Matthew Holler Photography.

Soprano Jennifer Rowley is in the middle of a three-run stretch of Puccini's Tosca, starting in August with The Finger Lakes Opera, and ending in January with David McVicar's new production at The Metropolitan Opera. Currently, she's in Nashville, set to open John Hoomes' production of Tosca at Nashville Opera on October 5.

It was a treat to talk with Rowley about the layers of learning that come with revisiting a role like Floria Tosca, her pre-performance routine, and what it truly means to be part of a career that is ever-changing.

What kind of woman is Floria Tosca? Do you find there are any common misconceptions about her character?

Tosca is very close to my heart because she reminds me of myself in many ways…She is young and vibrant and full of love and passion! Sardou's play La Tosca, on which the libretto for the opera is based, very clearly outlines her character as one of a young opera star. The timeline of the play has her making her debut at La Scala when she is 16, and when we meet her in Act I, it is several years later, so I would place her in her early 20's.

The fame she is experiencing is new to her, and her experience in relationships with men is also completely new. In Act I we meet a young person, newly in love, and passionate about so many things – religion, music, and her lover, Mario. Puccini's music is lighter in Act I, and almost coquette-ish in his themes. There is even a nod to Musetta's theme in La bohème in the first scene of Act I, and I believe that Puccini meant for Tosca to start out young, fresh, and vibrant – probably all the reasons that Mario loves her!

When I look at Tosca's jealousy over another woman, I honestly relate it back to my first real boyfriend in high school, and how jealous I was as a young person newly in love! I would never describe her as a "crazy, jealous diva" as people tend to do. The love and passion she feels for Mario is new and exciting for her, and we all know that when we are in a new relationship, we all tend to lose our heads a bit. I think she is funny in her jealousy, and I really like to keep that youthfulness in her, always.

As the opera progresses, and Tosca experiences immense tragedy and torture at the hands of Scarpia, her music and the orchestration get bigger, more intense, and more difficult – she grows in every way. It is an amazing journey to take, because the music really fills the character and her actions. It is as if Puccini was choreographing for Tosca in his orchestral writing, especially in Act II. So much is in the music that fuels the character, the choices she makes, and the change she experiences. This journey is the most exciting part of singing Tosca – both the journey of the evolution of the character as well as the music.

Photo courtesy of Nashville Opera.

As a singer, what do you discover about a role by performing it in multiple productions? What unique challenges come with this process?

There is always something to learn every time you do a role – from the very first time and all the times after. I find something new in the character and music every time I sing Tosca, and it astonishes me that I can add a layer to her character each and every time.

The last time I sang it, I actually heard something in the music that I had never heard before. I was in a staging rehearsal for the death of Scarpia (SPOILER ALERT), and as we were doing the first stab, I heard a small theme in the piano right before she says, "Questo è il baccio di Tosca!" I stopped cold and asked the director if we could listen to something again, and I asked the pianist to please play those few measures again. And there it was, a small two-note theme that fully suggests that Tosca twists the knife after the has stabbed Scarpia! I had never even noticed it before, and I am so happy that I did! It is a small thing, but honestly it tells me so much about her mindset in this moment. I love this part of singing roles many times – there is always something to learn, some way to grow!

How do you stay healthy and sane while on the road for work?

I really try to stick to a similar routine when I am home and when I am on the road, and I find that it helps keep me calm and focused. I make sure that I get good sleep every night and am awake three hours before our first rehearsal of the day to start hydrating! It is amazing what being well hydrated throughout the day does for the voice. Throughout the day, I try to keep my actual singing to two full hours - I usually sing some and mark some when I have a full six-hour day. It's normal for me to sing every day when I am home, so it makes it easier for me to keep on that path through the rehearsal process. I also try to find a good balance of eating every two hours or so, and adding in protein shakes in the morning and afternoon to make sure that I have enough energy to get through the whole day, and to keep from having any "brain crashes" in the afternoon.

5-6 times a week, I like to do 45 minutes of cardio before rehearsal; I always do 30 mins of cardio and 30 mins of yoga on a performance day – it really aligns the body, stretches out the back, and releases the breathing, as well as tension in the neck and shoulders, which allows for optimum singing. It's really important to take care of yourself when you are working and on the road – I believe we are singing athletes, and it is really important to treat our bodies properly to use them for the entire day. I am also very conscious of when I need to rest – I have become a very good "rester"!

What do you know now about the singing career, that you wish you knew 10 years ago?

Wow. That's quite a question! I am so young in my career, and in the last 10 years I have learned so much and grown in so many ways! It has been important to me to learn the lessons that this career teaches you as they come, so that I can pass those lessons onto the next generation of singers – which is something that I take great joy in doing!

I think the biggest lesson I have learned, and live every day, is that we are never finished. We as singers and actors must have a strong desire and need to continue to learn and develop in our craft, as a person, as an actor, and as a member of this amazing community we get to be a part of. We are never done learning. The voice is constantly evolving and changing, and we have to continue to develop the solid foundation of vocal technique as we grow. There has to be a hunger and a willingness to be open and honest in the exploration of the amazing characters that we get to play – I am constantly studying, reading, and working with teachers and coaches to continue to improve myself and my craft.

This desire to continue to learn and continue to grow drives me forward in this career and keeps me evolving with every job, every role, and every experience. There is always something to take with me, and I love that about what we do.

Why do you sing professionally?

Opera has the power to move you like nothing else does. Not only is it about the storytelling, but the power of music and raw human emotion to get inside of you and move you is a feeling that I can't equate to anything else in life. We all need this. We all need to experience this, to escape our lives for a few hours and allow music to move us.

This why I sing. Not only do I need to sing, but I also have an innate need to tell stories. It is something I love, and I don't think my life would be the same without it. Opera is something to be experienced; whether you experience it in an opera house or a movie theatre, it really is the only medium of its kind. The power of the unamplified human voice soaring over an orchestra is a phenomenon of science that needs to be experienced and felt. I feel very honored that I get to be a part of this for our audience.

Jennifer Rowley steps into the title role in Nashville Opera's Tosca, October 5 and 7, 2017. For details and ticket information, follow our box office links below.

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Written by

Jenna Simeonov

Jenna Simeonov

Jenna is the editor and co-creator of Schmopera.com. She's also a pianist, vocal coach, and répétiteur, and working with singers is how she fell in love with opera. Her favourite operas include Peter Grimes, Ariadne auf Naxos, Tristan und Isolde, Written on Skin, and Anna Nicole.

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