Talking with singers: Rena Harms Photo by Fay Fox.

Talking with singers: Rena Harms

Jenna Simeonov

Santa Fe-born soprano Rena Harms sang her first performances of Cio-Cio San in Anthony Minghella’s famed production of Madama Butterfly at English National Opera, and this season, she has two more opportunities to dig deeper into the role. She is currently in rehearsals with director Matthew Ozawa for Arizona Opera’s upcoming production of Butterfly, January 28th to February 5th; in May, Harms reprises Cio-Cio San once again with Opera Theater of Saint Louis.

We spoke with Harms about growing to love a difficult role like Butterfly, her post-rehearsal craft skills, and realizing that as a professional singer, there’s no real “I made it!” moment.

Why do you sing professionally?

I have always known I wanted to be a performer. My parents have a picture of me at three, swathed in my mom’s silk scarves, putting on a show. I have my older sister sequestered to the background, backing me up on a tiny piano. My love for the stage started early! I did a lot of straight theater growing up, but eventually found my voice when I was cast as Mabel in Pirates of Penzance in 7th grade. I never looked back! I did musical theater until college and then fell in love with opera during my undergrad.

What was your first impression of Cio-Cio San? What have you discovered about her with your first and second productions of Madama Butterfly?

The first time I saw Madama Butterfly I actually found Cio-Cio San to be a hard pill to swallow. She can come across very weak and silly if one is not careful in her portrayal. Without her own drive and motivation she seems doomed from the start and her plight becomes uninteresting. I think it is important to relate to the audience that it is her inner strength that drives her to make life-changing decisions. She turns her back on the traditions of her culture to marry a man she doesn’t know in search of a better life, free of the family shame she can never escape in Japan. That takes guts, especially at 15 years old!

My first production was the iconic Minghella production that ENO and the Met share. It can be hard to do an existing production when you are having your first go at a role, but the revival director at ENO, Sarah Tipple, was amazing and let me discover my own Butterfly within the confines of a pre-existing structure. I discovered a Cio-Cio San who was young and fiery and so full of love and strength!

I am currently doing a production at Arizona Opera and this Butterfly is very different from my first. The director, Matthew Ozawa, has a very different take on the opera which he attributes to his Japanese heritage. I am loving his take on a girl who wants with all of her heart to be a western woman.

I am sure my third production later this season at Opera Theater of St. Louis will also bring new things to light. With such an complex role, I strive to find new things every time I play her, and it’s one of the most thrilling things about getting to repeat a role.

Rena Harms (Cio-Cio San) and David Butt Philip (Pinkerton) in Madame Butterfly at English National Opera, 2016. Photo by Thomas Bowles.

What do you think was Puccini’s opinion of Cio-Cio San, and of Pinkerton?

It’s interesting to think about an Italian composer writing about an American in Japan at a time when cultures were far more isolated. There must have been a lot of guessing involved. Despite this limitation, he created very human and engaging characters. I think Puccini’s choice to create a very strong heroine and a weaker, or less appealing hero was ahead of his time. He shows so much humanity in these characters. They are idealistic and flawed, filled with desire and hope. I think he must have cared for them, seeing their strengths even as he saw their faults.

Rena Harms, soprano. Photo by Fay Fox.

What do you like to do with your free time while you’re away from home on a gig?

Being away from the responsibilities of home I have lots of time to take care of myself. I travel with my yoga mat and either find a studio in whatever city I am in or do home practice everyday. It’s good to keep a limber body and quiet mind for rehearsals, especially with a role like Butterfly. I cook a lot, read and usually have some craft project going. Right now I am making cross stitch yoga cats (yup, cats in yoga poses) for my 3 year old niece who picked out the patterns herself. And I always find time for a little shopping!

What do you wish you knew 10 years ago about the career?

I wish I had known there is not really an “I made it!” moment, something I was really waiting for. Back then I didn’t understand that no matter what level I am singing at it still takes discipline, strength, concentration and courage. I thought there would be a moment when I could relax and stop striving so hard but now I realize that would be a terrible thing. The dedication, the drive, it’s what makes me intense and special as an artist. Ask me again in 10 years and maybe my answer will be completely different!

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