Day 30: Soprano Melinda Whittington in the Artist Spotlight

During the 2015 season, the blog will feature interviews with our Filene Young Artists. Today, we hear from returning artist soprano Melinda Whittington, Marie Antoinette in The Ghosts of Versailles.

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?

I love exploring a character and discovering things collaboratively in the rehearsal process.  I really thrive when there is an exchange of ideas and perspectives between performer and director.  A recent memory of an experience where this was the case is when I was singing Donna Elvira with the director James Darrah.  It was a very minimalist production in an old theater with the orchestra on stage and very much a part of the story, the set consisting mostly of just chairs.  We began staging “Mi tradi,” Donna Elvira’s big aria, which is often 8 minutes of the soprano alone on stage.  As we worked we discovered that each repeat of text was motivated by Elvira remembering a different aspect of Giovanni’s character – some memories made her nostalgic, some angry, some incredibly pained, etc. He first added a diagonal line of chairs across the stage for me to interact with and express these emotions upon… When I mentioned imagining Giovanni in those chairs, he added chorus men with their backs to the audience in each chair. With each section of the aria, I now had a representation of each emotion in the chair in front of me. It made the aria so powerful, having something so tangible to connect to. As I moved down the line, one by one the men would leave (each prompting a different reaction from me, depending on the part of him/our relationship that man represented) and I would knock over the chair, so by the end of the aria I was left alone onstage with a trail of destruction.

If you hadn’t chosen this career, what would you have pursued instead?

Well for many years I made most of my living as a voice teacher, while I was continuing to work on my technique and audition for young artist programs.  I really love teaching, and could have very easily settled into that life.  I was able to use my pedagogical knowledge to apply to teaching contemporary styles of singing as well, and worked with students from age 9 to 79!  But there was always a drive to really commit to my performance career.  Beyond music, I could see myself being very happy running a bed and breakfast! And in fact, this is in my long range plan – a sort of B&B/artist commune/co-op farm – location TBD – where I could grow old with all the people I love, making music and food and beer! And where musicians and artists could always come spend a few days, weeks, or years.  I just love taking care of people, meeting new people, cooking, beautiful old houses full of antiques… :)

 What non-operatic music do you enjoy? Do you dabble in performing/playing/singing any other genres?

I grew up a belter! I had no idea what my head register was until a lot of work with a voice teacher in college.  I wanted to be either the lead singer in a bad ass indie rock band (I also played guitar and drumset) or on Broadway :) Back in high school I went through a punk phase where I had short spikey hair and wore men’s bowling shirts and the whole nine yards.. Seriously.  I love really good music in all genres, and still dig going to a good live rock show (though nowadays, I have to be sure to show my excitement through non-vocal means :). I have a soft spot for Motown and soul music – if I could have any voice in the world it would probably be Aretha Franklin’s… Or Ella Fitzgerald.  Which brings me to my love of jazz! I still often perform jazz standards, and also do a really fun Downton Abbey Cabaret with a ragtime pianist friend of mine… We do popular tunes from the jazz age in London, many of which are from various episodes of the show, and we rewrite the lyrics to poke fun at the characters from the show and the British upper crust.  It’s a blast and a big hit as a patron event at PBS stations around the country!

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?

Well I guess the whole thing about her being dead is a little different from me… :)

I really connect with the idea of Marie Antoinette gaining freedom by accepting the past, for everything it was and everything it wasn’t, and by loving.  She is actually haunted by her life in her death! The whole opera we see her intoxicated by and fighting for this idea that Beaumarchais could change her past, rewrite the story.  She exclaims over and over (and higher and higher!) “I want to live again!” (And by way, I’ve been reading a biography of Marie Antoinette, and she was indeed a lover and enjoyer of life!). Beaumarchais repeats, “history as it SHOULD have been,” and in the end we hear her say to him, “no, it IS as it should have been.” In this accepting, she gains freedom from the power it held over her.  I think this is something we can all relate to!

What’s your favorite part (or parts) of the preparation/rehearsal/performance process(es)?

Well the nerd in me reeeeeally likes the first step of having and organizing a new score – highlighting, tabbing, translating… But my favorite part is the collaborative process I mentioned earlier – experimenting and discovering in the rehearsal room with colleagues, taking risks, being a part of and watching this thing form from nothing

What aspect(s) of this career do you find the most challenging? 

It being self-focused – I always try to keep my focus on giving a gift to others.  I see issues I am working on in my vocal or acting technique as barriers to my and the audience’s experience.  I am always striving to be a free and open channel of expression. Being distracted when I’m onstage by something technical interrupts that channel.  Likewise, if the audience is distracted by something my arm is doing or me having trouble negotiating something technically, I’ve interrupted their experience.  Thinking of it this way keeps me sane, but it can be difficult to always live in this approach in a very competitive field. I talk a bit more about this when I answer your question about artistic heroes, talking about Beverly Sills.

Do you have any “hacks” that make your job easier/more enjoyable? 

Something Dean Anthony told us at Brevard Music Center years ago – wherever you go, go. After how long you’re there, make it home.  Unpack your bags, put things in the drawers and on the counters, bring a picture of the people you love… Whatever you need to do to make each place you’re in for a gig your temporary home.

I keep a spreadsheet of companies I’ve sung for, when, if I followed up with an email, what I sang, how it went, what their feedback was if any, etc… It has helped me keep track of auditions, make sure I keep connecting with those directors or companies that expressed interest in me, even if I didn’t get a gig that season, and see patterns in my auditioning, good or bad.

What’s your dream role and why?

So, I have had the privilege of already performing a few of my dream roles, but of course I hope I get to do them many times over – Violetta, Fiordiligi, Mimi, and Marguerite.  This may take you by surprise, but my dream role is actually Salome.  It is many years off, but I hope one day I get a chance to sing it!

Do you have any artistic heroes? People whose careers or artistry you particularly look up to?

Well I wouldn’t say she’s my hero, but one singer comes to mind because she recently performed Marie Antoinette – Patricia Racette.  I’ve always appreciated and admired her commitment to the text and to telling the story, no matter what.  When you watch her perform, you are captivated … Even the way she inhales is part of the vocal line and story line, which seem to be one in the same.. Does that make sense? Anyways, I had the pleasure of going to LA opera in February to see their production of Ghosts, and actually got to have a session with her!! It was incredibly inspiring.

I really admire the career of Beverly Sills – the way she reached out to the community, kept reinventing herself in each stage of her life… She always had such a giving presence.  Her Sesame Street videos… Amazing.  There’s even a video you can find on youtube of her and Carol Burnett doing a hilarious sketch, from a Met gala or something like that.  She crossed genre barriers, and always seemed to be focused outwardly.  That’s what motivates me – giving a gift to the people in the audience.. CONNECTION with others, in the audience and on stage and in the pit with me, facilitating an experience for the audience that transports them beyond reality or helps them see something in their reality in a new way or provides an emotional release… It keeps me sane in a process that can often feel very self-driven – “Keep the middle voice focused, don’t push, what’s my tongue doing?, when am I going to get an agent?, does my headshot say sexy and fierce yet approachable and open?, did they like me?, did I do my Netipot and essential oils and allergy meds and sleep 9 hours?”…. I could go on :) But ultimately, what’s behind all of this is being the best artist I can be, not for me, but so I can give to others without any barriers or distractions to their experience.  (This sort of answers your question about what I find most challenging)

What are you most looking forward to this summer?

It is such a unique and rare experience to get to perform Ghosts. As a person who thrives on this collaboration in the rehearsal room, this opera is at the extreme of collaborative! Much of Marie’s music isn’t structured with the concepts of measures and beats that often tie every component of an opera together… There is a lot of freedom left to the individual performer, many of these decisions have to wait to be made in conjunction with the conductor and director.  I am also excited to be singing an opera in English, by an American composer! And of course, to be back with my Wolf Trap family :)

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