Talking with singers: Jennifer Zetlan Photo: Arielle Doneson.

Talking with singers: Jennifer Zetlan

Jenna Simeonov

New opera is par for the course for soprano Jennifer Zetlan. She’s the original Rhoda in On Site Opera’s Rhoda and the Fossil Hunt, sang in the premieres of Matthew Aucoin’s Crossing and Nico Muhly’s Two Boys, and has an ongoing working relationship with Ricky Ian Gordon.

This month, she’s set to create the title role in Gordon’s newest opera, Ellen West, happening June 30 to July 12 out of Opera Saratoga and Beth Morrison Projects.

We spoke with Zetlan about singing with the composer in the room, and what she loves in a new opera.

Why do you sing professionally?

I love to tell stories and I love great music, and I can’t imagine a better blend of the two! That I get to do it for a living constantly astonishes me, no exaggeration.

What are the unique challenges and rewards of working on an opera with the composer in the room?

I love having the composer present in the room. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve wanted to ask Richard Strauss a question! It’s so wonderful being able to just turn and ask and then shape what I’m doing based on the answer. The piece always ends up feeling finely tailored in a really wonderful way when the composer is present and can make adjustments and suggestions along the way.

What do you enjoy most about working with Ricky Ian Gordon?

Ricky is such a wonderful presence in any room. He’s wise and funny and soulful and we connect so well. It’s so gratifying to work with him, and to be able to call him a dear friend.

Jennifer Zetlan, soprano. Photo: Arielle Doneson.

What do you think singers appreciate from composers in new opera?

Story telling with a deep, underlying meaning. We are opera singers because we like to communicate stories with morals and meanings, so we love to have something meaty to be able to hook into. Also, singers will always appreciate a composer who really understands how to write for the voice (for all voices, and for their specific voice).

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

I used to spend a lot of time fretting about what made me different from all the other working singers, as if being unique was not an asset. I wish I could have been more confident in knowing that what makes me different and unique is exactly what I should be relying on. That I, just as I am, am enough. It might not have changed my career trajectory, but it certainly would have saved me some angst!

If you didn’t sing for a living, what would you do instead?

I can hardly even imagine a world in which singing/acting wasn’t my occupation, but in another universe I might have been a lighting designer. Or - totally different - I would own/run a yarn store.

Ellen West runs at Opera Saratoga June 30 to July 12.



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