During the 2015 season, the blog will feature interviews with our Filene Young Artists. Today, we hear from soprano Kerriann Otaño, Countess Almaviva in Figaro and the High Priestess in Verdi’s Aida in Concert.
Which experience(s) most influenced your decision to become a professional singer? What’s the earliest point in your life that you can identify in pointing you in this direction?
I have always been what people would call a ham. When I was little I would memorize Shirley Temple songs and recreate them for my parents and brothers. If I forgot the words, that wasn’t really a problem – I could make up songs for hours about everything from what I was eating to what the weather was like outside. The fact that my parents didn’t invest in a lifetime supply of ear plugs is a credit to their kindness. Or they didn’t have the foresight to realize it would be a consistent part of my personality for the rest of my life. I started doing musicals in school when I was in the 4th grade, playing the stepmother in Cinderella and performing what I can only imagine was a breathtaking rendition of “When You’re Good to Mamma” from Chicago. Like I said: I was a ham. I loved being on stage. I loved everything about it. I was incredibly fortunate to have parents who encouraged my goofiness and focused my love of performing into violin lessons and joining a bunch of local choirs and community theater productions. When I was in high school my voice teacher took me to a production of Carmen at the Met. It blew my mind. Seeing everything I loved onstage combined in one production: from the music to the acting, the incredible orchestra, the costumes, everything. I knew that I found my dream!
Can you tell us an anecdote or story from your training or career so far that will give us insight into what makes you tick as an artist?
When I was an undergrad I remember getting very frustrated about my voice type. I knew sopranos who could sing higher than me and I felt like maybe I wasn’t progressing enough. I went to my voice teacher and was obviously down on myself and having a Negative Nancy moment. Without missing a beat, my amazing teacher Scharmal Schrock passed me a tissue and said “sweetie, no one wants to hear you sing a high D.” I laughed out loud. It was exactly what I needed to hear. Because really she was making a point that all singers need to realize: someone else’s success is not your success. Someone else’s voice is not your voice. Find your own voice, love it, and be the best singer you can be. (I still do not have a great high D and I’m pretty much okay with that. Thanks, Schrocky.)
If you hadn’t chosen this career, what would you have pursued instead?
One of the ways my haminess materialized as a kid was a love of debating. I am pretty non-confrontational in my personal life, but I love politics, civil rights issues, and people who are passionate about social justice. Living in D.C. for the last year has made that even more apparent. I think if music wasn’t in my life I would have wanted to pursue law or worked for a nonprofit.
What non-operatic music do you enjoy? Do you dabble in performing/playing/singing any other genres?
My boyfriend and I actually met 7 years ago in undergrad when we were both in collegiate acapella groups! I was the music director for my female acapella group for 3 and a half years and I still arrange music for them from time to time. I absolutely love acapella groups like Pentatonix and Rockapella. I also love singer songwriters like Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, and Ed Sheeran and soul singers like Sam Smith. Also Beyoncé. Because everyone loves Beyoncé. Beyoncé for President.
What interesting things have you discovered about yourself or about your character (in this summer’s operas) during your role preparation? What aspects of your character are natural fit with your personality and/or which aspects are a stretch for you?
I am so excited to be singing Countess Almaviva for the first time this summer at Wolf Trap! Through WNO I was able to coach the role a bit with Kathleen Kelly who will be conducting us this summer! She opened my eyes to so many fascinating things about the character of the Countess and how complex she is. I think the thing that’s most exciting for me is that the Countess has this fire in her belly – she’s still the Rosina from Barber of Seville who plotted and tricked her way out from under her guardian’s thumb – but now she’s in an incredibly complicated situation. I hope I get the opportunity to play her not only with dignity and poise, but with that fire that makes her who she is. She’s passionate and full of love but she’s also proud and smart and brave – that complexity is exactly what makes her so fascinating. And what makes opera so awesome.
What’s your favorite part (or parts) of the preparation/rehearsal/performance process(es)?
- Love. A Sitzprobe. It’s absolutely my favorite part of rehearsing. I love hearing the orchestra for the first time. I think it is totally unreal and beautiful. I usually can’t really sleep the night before because I’m so excited! That doesn’t always mean I’m in great voice, but I can’t help it! It’s so fun!
What aspect(s) of this career do you find the most challenging?
We meet so many amazing people in this career but part of what makes that difficult is that we often work in a place for a brief period of time and then move on to another gig. On the one hand it is amazing to know talented and wonderful people all around the world and social media lets us stay in touch with them which is fantastic. On the other hand sometimes I just want to grab Chipotle and go see a movie with my friends and they are on 3 different continents. #OperaStruggles
Do you have any “hacks” that make your job easier/more enjoyable?
This career can be stressful and isolating from time to time, since we travel so often and can go long stretches of time without seeing our loved ones. I try to talk to my family as often as possible and I like to plan vacations with my boyfriend and friends whenever I can! Learning music on the beach with a mimosa is one of the most enjoyable life hacks I’ve learned!
What’s the most exciting thing you think is happening in the opera industry today? The most discouraging/challenging thing? If you could change one thing about our art form and/or industry, what would it be?
I’m so excited by opera companies with a really active online presence. I particularly like companies that make memes and viral videos promoting their operas. Everything is so fast paced these days that people don’t always take time to appreciate live performances, but I think saturating social media is really the only way to attract a new and young audience. When I worked at Fort Worth Opera they had a marketing department that really excelled at attracting 20-sometimes. We performed at breweries and bars, and we made commercials that played at cool drive in movie theaters. This year in a promotional video they quipped “Don’t Make Opera a One Night Stand” encouraging people to buy tickets to multiple productions during their festival, instead of just one performance. Companies that embrace social media and use it to their advantage will secure opera’s place in American culture for decades to come. We can’t be wall flowers in this profession – not the singers, and certainly not the companies!
If you were talking about opera with someone who has never experienced it, what part(s) of it would you be most excited to explain to them?
I spent some time doing outreach opera for elementary school kids, and the thing that always amazed them was the fact that we sing without amplification. I always loved getting those questions: “how can you sing so loud?” “where are the microphones?” “how did you learn to do that?!” Kids were so blown away by it. It makes you excited to sing when people react like that – particularly when kids look at you like you’re a superhero! They were often sad to hear that I’ve never shattered glass with my voice, though. I was so close to being a superhero. So close!!
What’s your dream role and why?
I swoon for so many of the Puccini heroines! I’ve always wanted to sing Tosca, Butterfly, Mimi… basically all of them. Why is that music so awesome?? How are those stories so timeless?? I am seriously asking because I just can’t get over them!
Do you have any artistic heroes? People whose careers or artistry you particularly look up to?
Ok I’m going to have to fangirl pretty hard on this one so bear with me. I have been fortunate through school and YAPs to work with some amazing people but two of the most incredible woman I’ve ever met – both onstage and in life – are Christine Goerke and Jamie Barton. Apart from just being killer performers and stellar musicians and basically iconic rockstars, they are both strong and amazing women. Jamie is so kind and supportive that everyone instantly falls in love with her. She makes everyone around her passionate about the work they’re doing and happy and grateful to share the stage with her. Goerke is a powerhouse onstage. She is an unreal talent, an incredible actress, and her voice is like a Jacuzzi of amazingness. On top of all that she is a mother of two young girls who are her world. Both these woman are inspirations to me because they are everything I hope to be: hardworking, passionate artists who are also great people with lives full of love!
If you could travel back in time to meet any composer/artist from a former time, who would that be and why?
This one is tricky! Can I time travel and also morph into an animal? Because I think I would most want to be a fly on the wall in the 1960s when Corelli, Domingo, Caballé, Sutherland, and so many others were melting faces, breaking hearts, and showing everyone how it should be done. I would need to be a fly on the wall since I would probably black out and lose my cool if I was ever in their actual presence. I also heard an anecdote that Birgit Nilsson, powerhouse dramatic soprano, was able to sing the Queen of the Night arias from Die Zauberflöte and would perform them as party pieces to entertain her friends. I think the opportunity to enjoy some champagne with possibly the greatest dramatic soprano of all time and then hear her bust out a midnight rendition of “Der Hölle Rache” that would blow my mind would be well worth the time travel trip!
What are you most looking forward to this summer?
Looking at the roster of amazingly talented people I’ll be working with at Wolf Trap, and the gorgeous music that I am so fortunate to get the opportunity to sing, I would say I’m most excited to get started!!