Many opera fans and singers hear about it, few get to experience it: “Mr/Ms. so-and-so is sick this evening, so their cover will perform tonight’s performance.” It makes everyone in the theater nervous – backstage, administration, and audience members. The energy in the air is palpable, no-doubt, creating an unforgettable evening at the opera. Artists like Alissa Anderson shine in moments like these. We had the opportunity to talk about the experience and the preparation that went into creating an unforgettable, unscheduled debut.
Alissa Anderson has been recently recognized as a “powerful mezzo” by Opera News and as possessing “aptly rich tones and an awesome chest voice” by The Dallas Morning News. In 2010, she triumphed in her Santa Fe Opera debut, stepping in as Florence Pike in a performance of Albert Herring under the baton of Sir Andrew Davis with a performance lauded as “splendid in everyway” and “impeccably prepared.”
OP: You made an unscheduled debut with Santa Fe Opera to rave reviews. How far ahead of the performance did you know you were going on? How did you prepare for it mentally?
Alissa: I can honestly say that my cover experience at Santa Fe was the best of all possible scenarios. I was given about 48 hours notice which is a huge luxury. It is really rare to have that much time to mentally “get in the game” and I was very grateful for that. Of course, the pressure of making a major debut like that is stressful enough but knowing that you have one shot, one chance, to put all your hard work on the line certainly adds to it. That being said, this was also a dream come true and because I felt confident that I had done all my prep work and was ready for the challenge my mind just zeroed in on the task and I hit the ground running. I had a mental checklist of what needed to happen in those 48 hours to get me ready to walk on stage and I just focused on that. Looking back it was very meticulous and ordered in my mind, which I think was my brains’ way of not getting overwhelmed with emotion or nerves. Thanks brain!
OP: Looking back, what do you think helped prepare you the most for that high-pressure performance?
Alissa: Santa Fe has one of the best teams of coaches in the business and from day one of the summer you get copious amounts of work time on your roles and covers. Peter Pasztor was the head coach on Albert Herring and I remember thinking after my first coaching “Wow, if I get to go on in this role I’m really glad that I have been working with him!” There was no stone left unturned in those coachings and I’m very thankful for that.
I was also surrounded by an amazing team of people who went above and beyond to make sure I was prepared and comfortable. The stage manager who hauled all the props and set pieces into a rehearsal space at 9 a.m. so I could rehearse with them, the conductor who worked through the whole show with me on his day off, the crew who came in early to set up a raked stage so I could practice one of my entrances that was on an antique bicycle (riding a bicycle on a raked stage = scariest part of the night!), plus the luxury of the most gracious and supportive cast and colleagues – all of these elements helped make that evening a success. Nothing will make you feel as confident as knowing that you’ve done your homework and are fully prepared on your end. I knew I was ready when the call came and thanks to the support of my colleagues I was able to revel in every moment of that incredible experience. It was truly one of the highlights of my life.
OP: What advice do you have for students or emerging artist pursuing their dreams as a successful opera singer?
Alissa: Trust yourself and your instincts. There are many paths through this career and you will get opinions and advice from tons of people, solicited and not. Find your core two or three people you trust and who know your instrument – teacher, mentor, coach, etc and when you need guidance go to them. We work in a business that is so subjective and if you try to manipulate yourself to please everyone who hears you, you will only succeed in disappointing yourself. Know who you are and what you bring to the table as an artist and stand behind it. As hard as it is, do not compare your career to your colleagues. This can be particularly difficult when you’re first starting out. A dramatic tenor is not going to have the same trajectory as a lyric soprano. Patience is really key in this career and sometimes it can be very hard to remember that.
People will inevitably tell you that you “must go to this school/get into this program/study with this teacher” and that is simply not true. This goes back to trusting yourself. You find the teacher that works for you and the school that is the right fit. The hard truth is that no one cares where you went to school if you can’t sing once you leave. I’m not saying that networking isn’t important. Of course it is, but if you leave a school with thousands of dollars in debt and no performing experience you have only done yourself a disservice. School is where you can really find what speaks to you as an artist and is the place to experiment and learn your craft so find a school that is invested in you and a teacher who believes in you.
Lastly and most importantly, be a great colleague. I can’t stress this enough. This is a really small business and if you are unprepared, unreasonable, or difficult it will get around and fast. While auditions are important, I think that most working singers will admit that the majority of their work does not come from cold auditions. There is a lot of word of mouth that goes into hiring and no one wants to work with a jerk. It takes a lot of people to make a production come together and you’re not always the most important piece of the puzzle. It takes a village – so don’t be the village idiot!
OP: What is the most enjoyable part about your career as an opera singer?
Alissa: I love the human element to this business. Being able to walk into a rehearsal and intermingle your ideas about the music on the page with other singers, the conductor, the orchestra, etc. and combining them to create the best possible outcome is an experience that I don’t think many people get to have at their jobs. Making a living out of being creative is such a gift and the element I have really missed in the times I’ve worked outside of the business. Also, to be honest, there is nothing more exciting than singing with an orchestra under you. It’s a rush every single time.
OP: How would you describe your singing process? What do you focus on first: technique, expression, emotion, etc?
Alissa: Since I’m growing into singing more dramatic repertoire right now I’d say technique is always at the forefront of my process these days but what I always try to focus on first is the text. I always do the translations first thing. I find it impossible for me to find the right expression or emotion in a phrase if I don’t know what is happening dramatically. Something I personally struggle with is not letting emotion or the drama hinder the sound production so that is always a balancing act for me.
OP: What do you see as the next step in your career? Are there any roles/operas that you can’t wait to perform?
Alissa: As I mentioned above, I’m currently growing into more dramatic rep, particularly the Wagnerian realm, which is quite a process. I have known for a while that this was the direction my voice was going so it’s exciting to finally be able to explore it. Meanwhile, I’m really carving out a niche for myself with comedic roles and loving it. I recently sang my first Marcellina as well as Lampito in Lysistrata and this season brings Madame de la Haltiere in Cendrillion, Dame Quickly in Falstaff, and Cleo in The Most Happy Fella, which I’m currently rehearsing. I am naturally a complete goof ball and am constantly in pursuit of the next one liner so these roles are a fantastic outlet for me. On a complete opposite note, I really want to sing a Carmen soon! Who wouldn’t?!
OP: Let’s say you come across someone who doesn’t think opera is relevant in today’s society. How do you try to convince them otherwise?
Alissa: The truth is that opera isn’t for everyone. Just like any art form, you’re going to come across many opinions from love to hate to indifference. I think the most important thing to stress is that all art has its place in society because we as a society are so varied. A painting that I may just pass by in a museum may make the person behind me stare in amazement for hours. Should that painting not exist because I myself didn’t have a reaction to it? Of course not. A society filled with art of all forms is wonderful because even if you don’t like it, it makes you think. I also believe that a lot of the public’s feelings towards opera come from a place of ‘fear of the unknown.’ I think it’s our responsibility to remind them that opera has stood the test of time because it was the people’s art form and it still is. Once someone realizes that the basis of opera is great storytelling and not just someone screaming at them in German for three hours they are probably going to have a different reaction. Many opera companies are doing an excellent job reaching out to new audiences. Fort Worth Opera, for example, has done a fabulous job of stirring up interest in new works while consistently delivering fantastic productions of the classics. This is bringing in new audiences while still captivating the existing patrons and is really helping advance and broaden the art form. I think the most important thing we can do as artists is to bring honesty into what we do every time we perform. That is what really captivates the audience and does justice to the art form.
Check out Alissa Anderson’s website to learn more about her upcoming schedule.