Talking with singers: Sara DuchovnayInterview
Soprano Sara Duchovnay is making waves in the opera world. She’s gearing up to sing Lauretta in Opera Delaware’s double-bill of Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi and Buoso’s Ghost (by composer and Schmopera contributor, Michael Ching), and she’s a co-owner of Shoperatic.com, the ingenious peer-to-peer platform for #divaswhohustle.
We spoke with Duchovnay about lovely Lauretta, and what it’s like to be a trailblazer in the 21st-century opera community.
Why do you sing professionally?
Opera combines so many things that I love. Obviously, I love the music, the fashion and the costumes, the travel, the community, the camaraderie, the feeling of being on stage…I can’t imagine a better way to live. On a deeper level, I love what opera teaches us about being human. I love diving into the psyche of different characters and helping the audience learn about themselves through the stories we tell. That sounds super cheesy, but I think it’s very important. There are so few opportunities for adults to really feel and express their emotions in today’s world. If people come to a performance and are able to laugh, and cry, and find some kind of emotional release, I feel like I’ve given them something really valuable. If I weren’t a performer, I would probably be a therapist.
What kind of woman is Lauretta? What can you tell us about what happens to her in Buoso’s Ghost?
For me in this production, Lauretta is a pretty cunning character. Our director [A. Scott Parry] encouraged me to have lots of fun with her from day one. Lauretta was raised by Gianni Schicchi, so it makes sense that she would be a very charming, smart, and manipulative young woman. I think she fits in perfectly with the Donati family and will definitely be able to hold her own with them. She’s calculating and she knows how to get what she wants from people…especially her dad.
She loves Rinuccio to death. He’s is trusting and pure, (which is a wonder, given his family), and he probably needs someone like her to make sure he doesn’t get walked over by the rest of the Donatis. In Buoso’s Ghost we get a little bit of a peek into what Rinuccio’s future holds. The opera starts with a really sweet-sounding duet between the lovers and already poor Rinuccio is getting little signs that he may have bitten off a little more than he can chew. Lauretta is a lot to handle.
How much does your work onstage connect with your work on Shoperatic.com? How do your various pursuits complement each other?
Hands down, running a business has made me better at my job as an opera singer. It’s made me a lot more confident and decisive. A large part of what I do daily is customer service-, tech support-, and conflict resolution- related, so I’ve gotten really good at solving problems, (my own problems and other people’s problems). Very few things truly fluster me anymore, I feel like I can talk to anyone about anything, and I trust my instincts on stage because I’ve learned to trust my instincts in business.
Shoperatic has also made my world smaller in a wonderful way. There is so much overlap between my Shoperatic life and my performer life. When I show up to a gig, there’s a pretty high chance that I’ve already had some interaction with most of my female colleagues through Shoperatic even if we’re meeting in person for the first time. People will come up to me at auditions and performances and introduce themselves all the time. I love it. Our industry can be lonely and I feel like Shoperatic has given us all a place to convene and just hang out together. In the Facebook group, we do talk a lot about fashion, but we also have some really important talks about sexual harassment, body-shaming, motherhood, self-love, and other very sensitive topics.
When Suzanne [Vinnik] and I met and decided to join forces to turn the Facebook group into a business, I was in the midst of a divorce and a really major life transition. I was open and honest about that within the Shoperatic community, (then known as Opera Diva Dress Collection), and since then, many colleagues and Shoperatic members have privately sought my support during similar times of personal transition. I love my life so much right now and I really want to be able to give back and pay it forward.
In addition to emotional support, I want to be able to provide members of my community with opportunities for financial stability so they can get out of unhealthy situations, whether they be unhealthy relationships, less-than-ideal living situations, or jobs that don’t enhance their careers.
Since Suzanne and I launched the site in September of 2016, Shoperatic.com has done over $200,000 in transactions! That means that in less than a year, we’ve put over $180,000 into the pockets of our colleagues. The income that singers have made on our site is helping them pay for their lessons and coachings, and giving them that financial buffer between gigs. There are some sellers who have done $20,000-$30,000 in individual annual sales! We’re both really proud of that and want to continue to make things better for even more of our colleagues.
On the operatic audition circuit, what sort of feedback or response have you seen to your #freetheknee movement?
Over the past year or so I have definitely seen people up their audition fashion game! I’ve seen far fewer Jewel Tone Jersey Wrap Dresses ™ and many more unique outfits that really show personal style. I think more and more people are having fun with their clothing choices! What we were really trying to say with #freetheknee is that personal style should be about dressing in a way that works for you, your body, and your aesthetic. Clothes should be flattering, well tailored, and well cared for, but we shouldn’t be made to feel like we need to wear a uniform! We are artists, (and also grown ups), and shouldn’t feel stifled by arbitrary rules when we dress ourselves.
While the response has been vastly positive, I have talked to some educators of young singers who have some apprehension about #freetheknee and I understand where they are coming from too. If you’re dealing with young adults who may not yet have cultivated a personal style and may not have any experience with dressing for a professional setting, having more conservative guidelines may be a safe starting place…guidelines though, not rules.
Our Facebook group has a lot of undergraduate and graduate age singers, and through Shoperatic, our younger singers get the opportunity to see how more established singers are dressing for work. They can get inspiration to create their own personal styles that are professional, but also fun and artistically gratifying.
What advice do you have to young opera singers about being a self-promoter and maintaining public visibility?
Have something unique to say that goes beyond just the music. A story about how my fiancé and I live in an RV full-time and drag our home around the country singing opera and selling dresses is a lot more interesting than a story about how my voice has grown considerably over the past year and I’ve made the transition out of high coloraturasoubrette rep into fuller repertoire like Violetta, Lucia, and Manon. (Both statements are true, BTW…you see what I did there?)
Personally, I feel like finding out something interesting about a singer’s life makes me want to learn more about them as a singer. Aside from that, keep your social media presence positive and professional. Being Facebook friends with your parents, grandparents, and in-laws is a good way to make sure you keep it that way.
Opera Delaware’s Gianni Schicchi/Buoso’s Ghost runs April 29 and May 5. For details and tickets, click here.