During the 2015 season, the blog will feature interviews with our Filene Young Artists. Today, we hear from soprano Talya Lieberman, Susanna in Figaro and a cast member of Steven Blier’s Rodgers Family 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?
Well, this is a funny and complicated story. My parents are musicians and they play in the Chautauqua Symphony, so I grew up spending all my summers in the cultural landscape of Chautauqua Institution (where my parents mandated attendance at all their concerts, 3 times a week). So one could say the journey started at age 6, when I sang in the children’s chorus for La bohème and Carmen with Chautauqua Opera. (In fact I believe my mom still has a clip of a review where the production was panned, except for the littlest member of the cast, who lit up the stage—that was me!) I sang in 8 operas over 6 summers, culminating in the Third Spirit in The Magic Flute when I was 12. So the seed was planted quite early on—I look back on those experiences as some of the highlights of my childhood—but I didn’t come back to it until much later.
It’s a bit hard to explain what happened between age 12 and 25 without getting too personal, but suffice it to say that life took me in different directions. My household was such that one couldn’t avoid absorbing a rich musical education, but, despite their own success, my parents had mixed feelings about music as a career path. It was a confusing mix of being pushed to excel musically, but also being discouraged from trying to become “a musician.”
I hopped around from instrument to instrument so much that I could probably count on one hand the instruments that haven’t touched my hands or lips. I played piano quite seriously and studied with an incredible teacher who had a special way of developing musical sensibilities, and, to the dismay of an entire section of boys, I picked up trumpet in eighth grade band. Because of the way I excelled with the trumpet, I was able to be in my first youth orchestra soon thereafter—and THAT was a thrill. I loved being in orchestras, but trumpet was never really the right fit for me.
My parents sent me to Duke in hopes that I would follow the crowd and become a lawyer, doctor, investment banker, or academic. I went to Duke in hopes of becoming cool. (Still working on that one.) I ended up majoring in linguistics, which was the most interdisciplinary major I could find. I stayed very involved with music, and in my senior year became president of the Duke Symphony Orchestra. But when senior year rolled around and I was trying to figure out my next step, I was totally lost. My cousin, a professional saxophone player, heard me practicing and encouraged me to follow my heart.
I ended up applying to get my master’s degree in trumpet performance without my parents knowing and without really expecting to get in. But I did, with generous scholarship that made it possible to go. It was a sink-or-swim experience; because of my background (and my own stubbornness, never having liked to read music—and transposing? Forget it!), I had a number of holes in my education and had a hard time functioning at the level at which my playing was enabling me to function. In other words, I played well, but lacked the other skills I needed to function in the real world as a trumpeter. So, I graduated with my master’s degree feeling like I needed at least 2 more years of conservatory to get up to speed. But by then, there was a lot of love lost in my relationship with that instrument. The prospect of marriage was gone.
In the meantime, I started dabbling in other genres of music, becoming involved in a love interest’s rock band and eventually starting to write my own singer-songwriter music—which is how I got back into singing. I knew that I wasn’t singing properly, because of how it felt. So that’s what led me to take my first voice lesson at the ripe old age of 25. I took that lesson and never looked back.
I just want to add a note here about my perspective, because it’s been really interesting coming to singing a bit later in my life and to come to it from an instrumentalist’s background. I think it takes tremendous courage to be a singer. As musicians, we are constantly being evaluated, judged, criticized, and corrected—by ourselves and all the teachers, coaches, conductors, and directors we work with—and I’ve come to find great beauty and joy in the fact that a musician’s work is never done. But when you are a singer, the instrument is your body; there is nothing to hide behind. (My dad tells a great joke, looking at his instrument and saying: “I don’t know what’s wrong with it—it plays wrong notes and it can’t count.”) Because of that, the level of vulnerability asked of a singer each and every day is unparalleled. It is you, your body, your voice, and your soul on display for everyone to see. I think the greatest challenge facing young singers is developing and maintaining a sense of self that allows one to stay open to artistic growth. I personally don’t think I was ready for it before age 25, and the process of finding my voice musically coincided—although not coincidentally, I think—with finding my voice, metaphorically, in life.
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?
About a week before I was supposed to have my auditions to go to for voice, I broke my ankle. There was, of course, the complicating factor of having broken my ankle in Latvia, where I was living and studying on a Fulbright. It was a very bad break, and I had surgery the next day…so all of my audition plans got tossed up into the air. I missed a few of them (although I was able to send in a tape), but did make it back in time for 3 auditions.
There is no beating around the bush here—in general it was an extremely difficult time for me. But I can’t even begin to tell you how much I learned the ordeal. And one of the things I learned was a perspective that I always try to stay connected to; my stress and anxiety levels surrounding these auditions were extremely high, which is, unfortunately, par for the course. But it’s also totally unnecessary. By the time I had made it to those auditions, I had been through so much, that the auditions themselves became sources of refuge. They became simply opportunities to sing. Opportunities to do what I love doing most. Opportunities to hand myself over to music. Those 10 minutes on stage became simple, and pure, and full of joy.
If you hadn’t chosen this career, what would you have pursued instead?
A psychotherapist. I also have a dream of doing teacher trainings in yoga, meditation, Feldenkrais, and contact improvisation, and then having this incredible interdisciplinary approach to life, health, wellness, and singing.
What non-operatic music do you enjoy? Do you dabble in performing/playing/singing any other genres?
I have a thing for bossa nova, and love jazz in general. I’m a big Ella Fitzgerald fan, and part of my decision to play trumpet was inspired by the incomparable Louis Armstrong. 6 or 7 years ago (a previous lifetime at this point) I was quite serious about being a singer-songwriter, and one of my songs was picked up by the Freakonomics blog of the New York Times and a Wall Street Journal article. (It was a song about the recession called “Fannie Mae eat Freddie Mac and Cheese.”) That’s my claim to fame. I am starting to get more into musical theater now; when I used to play in the pit for shows I would long to be onstage but never dared to try. My mother—a cellist—played the entire original Broadway run of Les Mis, so I grew up with an awareness of that musical theater soundscape, as well.
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?
Susanna is an incredible role with so much possibility for a nuanced interpretation. I think with characters like Susanna—characters who aren’t ingenues, who are cunning and take part in deceit—it is easy to fall into a shallow reading that doesn’t take into account the complexity of human nature (a complexity captured by the libretto itself). I think it’s also important to remember that, in their day, the play and the opera were daring commentaries on classicism; Susanna and Figaro’s plight is subversive for an important and just cause.
I admire Susanna, and I think for the drama to work, the audience must as well. She is smart, witty, charming, has the ability to read a room and think on her feet. She’s got fire, she’s got kishkes. And she stands for something transcends class.
Working on this role has me thinking a lot about the phenomenon of lying, because I think the difficulty in playing Susanna is that she must be a good enough liar to extract herself from very thorny situations, but not such a good liar that it becomes a characteristic that defines her. I am a terrible liar…but hopefully a good enough actress to pull off this role!
What’s your favorite part (or parts) of the preparation/rehearsal/performance process(es)?
Oh I love so much about the process, it’s hard to say what’s my favorite. I think that getting to know a piece of music is like getting to know a person, and I love that part of the process where I start to really crack open the personality of a piece, even though the amount of things to know and understand are truly limitless. It can feel like a journey through an enchanted forest, where there is a discovery to be made at each turn. I love taking that journey with the amazing coaches I work with. I love collaborating with pianists in general; when the chemistry is right there is an intimacy to it that is so nourishing. I love great ensemble work for the same reason; in the right environment, the melding of voices can feel like the melding of souls. I love singers; they are crazy, and so am I. I love getting to work with incredible people who are incredible musicians. And of course I love performing; performing on the other instruments I played used to be more pain than pleasure, and it took a major journey for me to get to the point where I am today. It takes an enormous amount of focus to perform with abandon, but there is no greater thrill.
What aspect(s) of this career do you find the most challenging?
There are a lot of challenges, but I remind myself over and over that every career has its challenges; the career that is right for you is one whose benefits outweigh those challenges. One thing that is hard for me is related to my answer to the last question; we live in a fast-paced world, and often rehearsal time is tight. It is one thing to know notes and rhythms, but knowing notes and rhythms is like knowing somebody’s name, phone number, and email address. It’s like saying you know somebody after having gone out on a few dates with them. I like to move in with my music before I perform it, and that’s not always possible. I also get very frustrated when egos get in the way of music making.
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 will be totally frank and say I think the opera world is struggling right now because it is doing a lot of things wrong. In my view, priorities are in the wrong places. But there is a great silver lining in that, because it’s not like the opera world is doing everything right and struggling—which means there is much reason to hope. There are things that can be changed, and the setting is ripe for it.
The issues are incredibly layered and complex, but if I were to pinpoint a few things, I would say that I think extravagance is often mistaken for quality. Investment needs to be made in quality, and I think quality comes from beautiful, healthy singing, sublime musicianship, honest drama, and chemistry between cast and crew alike. Singers should be cast because of what they have to offer, not because of who they know. Innovation comes from seeing something new in a piece rather than having a concept and trying to stuff the piece inside of it. The first thing that must be in place in order to attract an audience is a product that is worth their time.
How can opera compete with Netflix and YouTube? It can’t. But I don’t think it’s supposed to. Opera values delayed gratification in an instant-gratification world, and it could be that very aspect that will render it increasingly relevant. The costs of being plugged-in all the time are mounting, and I wonder whether we are far off from a time where people increasingly value being unplugged. So I think opera needs to embrace what it is and not try to be anything else.
I’m really excited about the many great minds that are thinking about these issues and about the smaller companies that are starting to pop up in the wake of many collapsing companies. There are so many things that opera can do in a small-scale that get lost in a big-scale production.
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 think opera, at its best, is an art that encompasses all arts. It is music, it is drama, it is language, it is visual art, it is movement. That’s what excites me about it. That, and the unique way that a human voice can pierce the soul.
What’s your dream role and why?
Carmen. WHY COULDN’T I BE A MEZZO???!!!!???!!!
Do you have any artistic heroes? People whose careers or artistry you particularly look up to?
I seem to have a thing for mezzos; I’m a Janet Baker and Christa Ludwig kind of gal. Joyce DiDonato is a role model for many reasons. And Elina Garanca’s performance of Carmen is what eventually led me to Latvia on a Fulbright. Then there are the singers that go without saying, like Callas, Sutherland, Fischer-Dieskau.
What are you most looking forward to this summer?
Everyone who has been to Wolf Trap has nothing but good things to say. I’m just really looking forward to learning everything there is to learn from Mozart and from all my colleagues. I’m looking forward to being in a supportive environment that fosters growth. It is a recipe for an unforgettable production and an unforgettable, formative summer.