Artist Spotlight: Amanda Forsythe, Soprano

For the second installment of Opera Pulse’s “Artist Spotlight” series, I spoke with soprano Amanda Forsythe, whose “silvery top notes” (Opera News) have helped her to make a name for herself in opera houses across Europe.  Upcoming performances include Nannetta in Falstaff at Opera d’Angers-Nantes and Covent Garden and the title role in Steffani’s Niobe at the Boston Early Music Festival.  To learn more, visit www.amandaforsythe.com.

What is your background with music?  When did you first decide to actively pursue a career in opera and oratorio?

I studied the piano and sang in a chorus as a child and started taking voice lessons in high school.   I went to Vassar for my undergraduate degree and was lucky to find a fabulous teacher there (Mary Ann Hart, who is now the chair of the voice department at Indiana University).  I sang in an a cappella group in college, which was actually great, since it gave me a lot of performing experience in front of an audience.   Even though I originally majored in Biology at Vassar, I think I always knew that I would become a singer rather than a biologist!   After college, I went on to New England Conservatory, where I received my Masters degree in 2001.  I now study with the wonderful Elaine Bonazzi, whenever I can spare the time to get down to New York for a lesson.

You have had a lot of performing opportunities outside of the United States, including roles at Covent Garden, Bayerische Staatsoper, and the Theatre des Champs-Elysee.  How did you break into the international scene?

The first opportunity I had in Europe was as a young artist in the 2007 Accademia Rossiniana in Pesaro, Italy.   Basically, it’s a two week masterclass on Rossini with Alberto Zedda, and, at the end of the two weeks, they cast you (or don’t) in Il Viaggio a Reims, which they present every summer.  It was pretty intense, but Pesaro is a wonderful seaside town, and I got to sing the role of Corinna in the beautiful Teatro Rossini.  An agent who saw me perform arranged an audition for the Grand Théâtre de Genève – it was for a last-minute replacement for Dalinda in Handel’s Ariodante. I won the role and started rehearsals the next month. The amazing Joyce Didonato was making her role debut as Ariodante, and it was an incredible opportunity for me.  Once I had that level of opera house on my resume, my agent was able to put me forth for higher-profile auditions, which thankfully led to other work in Europe.

How would you describe your singing process?  What do you focus on first: technique, expression, emotion?  Is this process different when you sing early music?

I don’t consciously sing early music differently than I sing Rossini or Verdi unless a conductor specifically requests less vibrato, more ornaments, etc.  I think technique is the most important thing – I find it hard to enjoy a performance if it is out of tune or the tone is unfocused, even if the artist is the most communicative, expressive singer in the world.  Of course, there’s always guesswork involved when trying to ascertain what the composer wants, but I try to stay true to the score within the boundaries of the performance practices of the period.

What is your practice regimen?

I always do the same 15-minute warm-up of scales and arpeggios – it really helps me gauge where I am vocally on any given day.  Then I practice for about 45 minutes, starting with the role that is immediately coming up, then looking ahead to future work if I have time.  In the evenings I do some translating and mark up my scores.

What is your process for learning a new role, both in terms of learning music and in terms of developing a character?

I know that listening to recordings is meant to be taboo, but I almost always listen to one, with score in hand, before I start at the piano.  Then I do my translations and highlight and tab the score.  I generally work through the score in order and attempt to accompany myself on the piano.  I wish I could say that I was a good player, but somehow having to repeat and correct my many mistakes helps me with memorization.  Usually after I’ve gone through it 3 or 4 times, I have it memorized and in my voice.  Then I go back to the recording and make sure that I know where my entrances are and that I haven’t made any mistakes with notes or counting.  Sometimes in opera you have to jump right into staging without a music rehearsal, so it’s good to be ready for anything.  Of course, half of the music I do is contemporary or obscure baroque for which there is no recording, and, in those cases, I make my husband (conductor Edward Jones) run through the music with me a thousand times!  In terms of developing a character, it’s good to have some ideas but nothing that you’re terribly attached to, because the director may have something totally different in mind.

Describe a typical day.

I probably travel for half the year, but when I’m at home, I spend most of the day caring for my son Henry, who is 9 months old. My husband looks after him so that I can do some practicing each day.  It’s a big change when you have so little time to yourself, but it’s definitely manageable.

Many female singers are told that it is impossible to have a family and a career, but you’ve managed to do both.  How do you juggle everything?

Well, I have a lot of help from my family, and my husband has an academic schedule, which means that he has summers and holidays free. My parents are retired and travel with me and the baby when my husband isn’t able to, which is an amazing help.  Also, Henry is a very easy and good-natured little boy (and most importantly, a good sleeper!)  I started rehearsals for my Covent Garden début when he was 10 weeks old – it was a small role (Barbarina in Le Nozze di Figaro), and I’d sung it in Paris the year before, which is probably why I felt that it was feasible.  However, if I ever have another baby, I will definitely give myself more time afterwards – even a straight-forward birth is a huge stress on your body, and it takes a while for everything to get back up and running!  At this point, all the jobs that I’ve had are ones that were scheduled before I knew I was pregnant, so I haven’t had to make many decisions about whether or not I should accept an engagement.  Going forward I will definitely have to think about saying “yes” if it means months apart from my husband.  Babies are extremely portable, but the singers I know with school-aged children usually travel alone, which is something I’m not quite ready to think about!

What do you see as the next step in your career?  How do you plan to get there?

I’ve been lucky to have had the opportunity to perform so much wonderful early music, and I’m now adding in more standard repertoire.  I sing Nannetta in Falstaff with Angers Nantes Opéra this spring and with the Royal Opera House in 2012.  I also have more bel canto and Mozart roles in the future, in addition to some exciting baroque repertoire.  While I still do auditions, I also am offered work on the strength of my performances or through word-of-mouth.  I try not to think too much about making my career happen – right now, I’m just enjoying the opportunities that I’ve been given.

People are continuing to question the survival of opera in today’s society.   Do you have similar concerns?  Do you think that opera is still relevant?

It’s been disheartening to see so many regional organizations fold under the financial pressure of the recession, and I can only hope that politicians come to realize that arts funding is an important part of a civilized society.  It is imperative that schools offer exposure to music, or our audiences will disappear.  But there’s at least one young person that loves opera – my baby’s face lights up when I start to sing!

Photo: Amanda Forsythe as Drusilla and Holger Falk as Ottone in L’incoronazione di Poppea with Boston Early Music Festival.  Photograph by Frank Siteman.