Day 57: Soprano Alexandra Loutsion in the Artist Spotlight

During the 2015 season, the blog will feature interviews with our Filene Young Artists. Today, as Butterfly rehearsals kick off, we hear from soprano Alexandra Loutsion, Cio-Cio San in Madama Butterfly.

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?

My parents told me that I have been singing since I was born. Apparently I would wander around the house and sing nonsense songs and crack myself up. At four, I joined my father in our Greek Orthodox Church Choir and sang baritone with him for many years, until I realized that maybe I should sing with the girls. I was the youngest member of our church choir, and my mom decided to have me audition for the Children’s Festival Chorus of Pittsburgh (a professional childrens choir that sang with the Pgh Symphony, Opera, and other local and non local performing arts groups) as something to channel all of this musical energy. I was accepted, and basically from there, it was all over.

Though I ended up being too tall to be in the operas at that time, I performed with many of the other professional ensembles and fell in love with the style, languages, and different groupings of instruments we got to sing with. It was a pretty demanding schedule for kids and only increased as I got older, performing with the symphony year after year, among other groups. I felt like I belonged there, and I was devastated when I became too old to continue (13 years old).

In high school, I moved on to the Junior Mendelssohn Choir of Pgh and worked with Dr. Robert Page who was the mentor that truly changed my life. Though I was studying voice privately, and doing all of the musicals and plays I could, I was a great student and had planned to study science in college (too afraid to actually pursue music as I thought it would be a dead end). I even went as far as going on a college tour with my mom to different schools that had science programs. We had to re-audition every year for Juniors, and when I went in for my third year (junior year) audition, Dr. Page watched me very carefully as I sang. At the conclusion, he came up to me (he was very intimidating at the time) and got about an inch from my nose, saying in his gruff way, “Kid, what are you gonna do for the rest of your life?” I was scared, and told him of my plan to study science. He wryly smiled and shook his head and said, “Kid, if you don’t become an opera singer, you’re wasting your life away.” I went to my car and sobbed for about an hour, realizing that he had tapped into the one thing I was afraid to admit. I spoke with my parents about it that evening, and soon after my new choice of career was confirmed with the acceptance to the PA Governors school for the Arts, and leading roles in two musicals at my high school, and finally acceptance into every music school I applied to. My parents were relieved (for now) and I began my journey. I owe my career to many many many people, but definitely to Dr. Page for seeing so clearly into my heart and soul that day.

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?

While I was a young artist at Pittsburgh Opera, I was given the opportunity to do a solo recital. This was really special to me, as normally we did one joint recital per year, and I was really excited to program something that was my complete responsibility. I decided to essentially create a one woman show out of art songs and a cantata, complete with costume changes, some minor scenery, and lots of staging. I created a piece entitled “Living Relics of the Human Experience: Myths, Legends, and Folklore.” It was based on an anecdote that my father had instilled in me, that being “you can’t know where you’re going until you know from where you’ve come”. I used Debussy, Liszt, Handel, Strauss, and Previn in five very distinct scenes following a woman (and man in the Strauss) in a journey of discovery of the human condition through myths, legends, and folklore. I explained that (in my mind anyway) they are the link to our past and subconsciously inform our future, and I wanted them to be different so as to show how our cultural divides are united through similar expressions of our history.

I did a lot of research and wrote draft upon draft of program notes, while teaming up with our amazing resident artist stage director Stephanie Havey and coach James Lesniak to physically create the piece. It was a massive success. The three of us had an amazing time creating it, and the audience didn’t really know what hit them. I still three years later have people talking to me about it that were there. I feel like this was my defining moment as an artist.

My goal is to always make an audience think. I want to communicate to them, and put them in a place where they have no choice but to consider what I’ve put in front of them, whether they like it or hate it. It is so important to me to leave an impression on an audience that will lead them to chat in the car about what they saw and heard on the way home, and the days after. Having so much freedom to create a piece like this was one of the biggest gifts that Pittsburgh Opera gave me during my training, and I feel like it has forever informed and changed how I prepare for full opera roles now. It is my belief that we are in a unique position as artists in such a global art form, and when we have a moment to unite people through art and perhaps teach them something or enlighten them in some way, that it is our responsibility to do it.

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

I alluded to it above, but I actually wanted to work for NASA. (That was WAAAYYYY more of a pipe dream than music! My math scores alone would have never qualified me.)

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

I love rock and alternative music (Aerosmith is my favorite band of all time) as well as jazz. For fun, I like to sing jazz and other standards, and I took some jazz piano briefly in college, though I’m terrible at it. I enjoy belting out karaoke on occasion as well (Melissa Ethridge and Cher being my go-tos) Both of my childhood friends have careers in musical theater, so when we reunite we always sit around the piano, and sing through musical theater numbers. (Sometimes I play-I fake well.:) I love folk music too! I Greek dance so it feels like a part of me.

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 could write ten pages in answer to this question, but I will try to be brief. Butterfly was the first role I ever did professionally (as crazy as that is). I had been on a roller coaster of a vocal journey, singing (very literally) every soprano Fach until I was hired as a cover with one performance for Central City Opera’s Butterfly during the last year of my artist diploma. At the time, I was under the impression that I would be ENDING my career with a role like Butterfly. My teacher at the time (the wonderful Elizabeth Hynes) had sung many Butterflies throughout her career, and convinced me that with her help, it would be really good for me. I had no idea at the time how right she was. We chipped away at the role very slowly, and she told me all of her secrets-from musicality to language to stamina. It was one of the best creative experiences of my life. My voice started to open up, and I realized that perhaps spinto repertoire would actually become my home. I have since performed Butterfly once and covered it once, so this summer will be my fourth production.

Cio-Cio San opened a whole new world for me, and really helped me change my mentality about singing. I have always felt passionate and dedicated to my craft, but suddenly moving into repertoire that was so iconic made me feel a sense of responsibility and homage to both the composer and women who came before me that sang this repertoire. I wanted to do it justice. This role demands so much. I remember Elizabeth telling me to be careful, not because of the physical demands of the role, but because “you only have so many Butterflies in your heart and soul”. (She is oh so right.)

Butterfly is such a complex character-at first glance, she is delicate and quiet, but in reality she has more strength than almost any character I have ever played. Channeling the strength in the right way, presenting it through an early 20th century Japanese geisha who happens to be singing very broad and passionate Italian music is a tricky balance. I do feel that we connect on a spiritual level; I feel Butterfly has a Mediterranean soul (thanks Puccini), and I do as well. I relate to her openness and all encompassing love for both Pinkerton and her child, and sheer will to stay dedicated to them, the family she chose over everyone else. Her mantra is hope-hope for a better future by marrying an American man, hope for her child that he will be with his father, hope for herself that she will be loved as she feel she deserves.

It isn’t until that hope disappears that we see her make such an impossible choice that she knew was looming in the background if all else was to fail. Ultimately, she remains completely honest to who she is: she knows she is a Japanese woman and despite all of what these past three years have brought her, she owes it to her son, her culture, and her ancestors to take her own life. In her mind, it is the only choice. Playing this onstage and having it really read, that is one of the ultimate challenges to me. If I set up the pacing of this role correctly, the audience is not only devastated, but realizes that it is the only way the story can end, and not just because Puccini told us so.

This is even more challenging to me because of my stature: I am a 5’8’’ voluptuous American woman and not a teeny little Japanese lady, so I have to really plan how to use my body to portray every single gesture. Any character’s physical language is important, but Butterfly is even more so because of the balance of delicate and strong, and because of what we know a geisha to be. The final challenge of this role is keeping something in reserve and not giving it all 100 percent of the time. I have to remind myself that I can’t keep her to myself and feel everything so deeply that the audience doesn’t get it. I want sing the score honestly and not be indulgent, otherwise, everyone loses. I want to inhabit her, I want to make the audience really believe they are there, and I want them to feel what she is feeling.

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

I love digging. My process has always been translate, learn notes and rhythms, work on the role vocally and simultaneously research. (I like to create role books for each person that I portray filled with background research, pictures, my personal thoughts, etc). A role like Butterfly is SO incredibly rich in that regard; I have a few books that I’m working through right now and comparing my notes from past productions. I love thinking about the character and coming up with her physicalization, color, place in the world.

I definitely have the most “fun” prepping and rehearsing, but performance is something all unto itself in my opinion. That’s when the show doesn’t “belong” to me anymore, and I have to give it away-its kind of the mission statement of this craft. This is going to sound overly dramatic, but the performance itself is to me the best and worst part of my job. I feel very responsible for the piece that I perform and for my influence over an audience, and it is so important to me to be one with them in that moment, and to communicate with them. It requires so much emotional and physical concentration, so much vulnerability, and (particularly in a case like Butterfly) so much pain. I feel honored to be able to do a job like this, and if I do it right, hopefully change someone’s life in a either a minor or major way. I suppose feeling the weight of that responsibility is why performing to me is both the highest and lowest point of the process.

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

Getting out of my own way is the most challenging for me. I do struggle with stage fright, and that has been an ongoing part of my own personal work along with my preparation for gigs and auditions. The extreme highs and lows are very difficult as well-sometimes it feels that it is either “feast” or “famine”. I am currently “feasting” after coming off a slow period so life is good, but it is scary when the security of a job finishes, and you are back to figuring out how to be fulfilled in your finances and your heart. Lastly, being away from loved ones is difficult and missing important life and family events. I try to be there for as many things as I can, but as we all know, its not a guarentee.

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

First of all, I love to cook and I try to travel with the essentials of my kitchen. That makes my off time during a gig so much better because I can throw myself into cooking and not worry about trying to work around not having any supplies. (I do in fact have a little rolling bag that houses all of my spices, oils, vinegars, knives, and other small appliances.) Now of course if I have to fly, I cut down on this, but I try to drive to most gigs so I’ll have freedom in the way I pack. (And have a vehicle!) While on the gig, I usually try to have real days off-if I’m doing other work for something else, I’ll squeeze it in around rehearsals so that I have one full day to myself, whatever that means. It helps me reboot and stay focused for the task at hand. Lastly, I always bring some comforts from home-picture frames, photo albums, a stuffed animal, candles…anything that can make a room feel more like “my” space, and then I get used to it way faster. OH and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention facetime; it is the best invention ever.

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?

The most exciting thing is definitely the birth of so many new works and small innovative opera companies-with struggle, new art is born, and I think the past ten years have shown us that twentyfold. I am so glad that so many people are taking the economic slump as an opportunity to reinvent our industry-I think only good can come of it. The hardest thing is money, from company funding to our own salaries. I wish I could change how the government in our country supports the arts; I desperately wish they took us more seriously, and realized how major our contribution to society is.

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?

When I talk to people about opera, the thing they generally seem to be most excited about is the sheer athleticism of singing for three plus hours unamplified over an orchestra in a 2000 seat house. In our world of youtube, autotune, and microphones they can barely believe that A. it still goes on and B. that it is even possible! What we take for granted as a required part of our job is something that excites people to the core. There is also, of course, the music itself, a different language (and they can following along with supertitles so they won’t get lost!), and some really great stories that are either tragic and moving, or hilariously funny. I always tell people that if they give it a chance, they will be very surprised how much they will actually enjoy it.

What’s your dream role and why?

I have four: :)

  1. Fidelio: (Leonore): I had the opportunity to cover this and do a cover run last year at Santa Fe, and I love every single thing about this role. The character, the music, the German language, the ideals behind the opera…Abscheulicher is one of the most moving arias I have ever sung. The opera is a combination of just the right amount of restraint and passion, with such optimistic ideals. The role also fit me like a glove and I felt like I could sink my teeth into every moment. I love the essence of Leonore: she is strong yet vulnerable and so inherently good, that you can’t help rooting for her every step of the way. There is also the appeal of playing a pants role, which I basically NEVER get to do. J
  1. Macbeth: (Lady Macbeth): Lady M could not be more different from Leonore, and for this reason I adore her equally. She too is strong and vulnerable, but in a complete different way-while Leonore’s strength raises her up, it tears Lady M to pieces. I am enthralled with her ambition-exploring the danger of that is one of the most exciting parts about her. She is so masculine, ruthless, sexy, and so incredibly driven. She’s a woman that we all love to hate, and I do love going to the dark side with her. To me, this opera is Verdi’s masterpiece and I feel like it is note perfect from beginning to end, and I feel like he captured Lady M so completely, and perfectly constructed her demise musically.
  1. The Consul (Magda): I had the opportunity to cover/do a cover run of this last year with Opera Santa Barbara, and it has been a true dream of mine since I was in college to take a stab at this wonderful character. This is one of the ultimate play-set-to-music operas for me. I feel like there is so much freedom in this piece from a vocal standpoint-it’s a completely different range of vocal color. I love love love the music, and I feel so deeply for Magda. Her passion, struggle, dedication to truth and goodness, and radical fire against the status quo inspire me. Even when she knows deep down it is probably over for her, she still fights for everyone in the room. That takes guts.
  1. Salome (Salome): This one’s easy: that music is just SO GOOD!!!!!!! I JUST WANT TO DO IT. (someday many years from now…. :))

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

I want to be Christine Goerke when I grow up. :) In all seriousness, she is an inspiration to me. She seems to have had a similar vocal journey that I have, and she is now singing better than ever. Almost more importantly, she is a stage animal-I will never forget seeing her perform in Frau ohne Schatten at the Met last year opening night-she ate the stage ALIVE. I was with her every minute. It was THRILLING to see someone who sings dramatic repertoire who communicated both vocally AND dramatically. When she came out for her curtain call and burst into tears, I did too. She earned every second of that applause because she went out and did her job in the best possible way. I am so inspired to sing dramatic repertoire someday in the same visceral way that she does, so as to communicate as much as possible to the audience. She is amazing.

My other inspiration is Maria Callas. She was an operatic trail blazer during her time, never settling in anything she did on a stage, fully committed 100 percent of the time to her craft. I admire the fact that she took such risks vocally, dramatically, and even personally-listening to her and watching her is a masterclass to me every single time.

If you could travel back in time to meet any composer/artist from a former time, who would that be and why?

I would want to date Mozart, and be Beethoven’s soul mate. Mozart seems like he would have been so much fun, and the relationship would have been a complete roller coaster. I love his audacity and wit, and Im sure life would not have been dull. Beethoven, despite is arrogance and anger issues, I think was a lover at heart and felt so deeply about music, women, his ideals…I just would have loved to have had a moment to sit down and connect with him. His music speaks to me on a very deep level, and I can only assume that came from a beautiful (albeit tortured) soul.

What are you most looking forward to this summer?

I’m beyond excited to meet and work with everyone. I have been hearing amazing things about Wolf Trap for so many years, and I can’t wait to take part! I am of course, thrilled about having the opportunity to live again in Cio-Cio San, and also do what I’m hoping will be a very interesting Vocal Colors recital…I don’t know, I’m looking forward to everything!!!

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