The American soprano introduces us to Osvaldo Golijov’s powerful opera ahead of its one-off New Zealand Festival performance.
“The vocal lines took on a hallucinatory power,” the Chicago Tribune rhapsodised “the silvery soprano Jessica Rivera” for one Ainadamar performance. Interviewing Rivera via phone from a Boston hotel, her vocal luminosity is clear. The empathetic opera star gives discerning responses on Lorca, artistic transcendence, and anti-L.A. snobbery. Illustration by by Anna Tokareva.
* * *
ALEXANDER BISLEY: Listening to composer Oscar Golijov’s commentary on Ainadamar’s Atlanta Symphony recording, there’s the idea of the Fountain of Tears being a place for Christians and Muslims and Jews coexisting, which is powerful.
JESSICA RIVERA: Very powerful. Kelly O’Connor, who will sing Lorca in New Zealand, she and I made a pilgrimage to that fountain, la Fuente de lagrimas, a little bit North of Granada. It’s not very easy to find and it takes asking a few people very specific questions about this place. Once you get there you realise that you’re on holy grounds, that people had lost their lives there for the cause of peace, for the perpetuation of peace, which is such an interesting dichotomy.
AB: Lorca was a life-altering inspiration for 15-year-old Leonard Cohen. How has Lorca influenced or inspired you?
JR: I think Lorca has inspired me to think outside of the box. He has a very innocent and childlike quality that sometimes when we grow up we lose because we become very involved in the rudimentary tasks of life. And I think Lorca has inspired me to remember that imagination we possess as children, and the playfulness. I think of a couple of his poems that recall his own childhood attribute certain colours and certain personality to objects that we would never put together in our adult thinking minds. But he has a way of capturing the innocence and the truth and the beauty of life. I think that is something I’ve always been inspired by and interested in. So he helps me remember to not forgo having an imagination and the creativity, to be who you are, and not worry about what other people have to say about that, but truly inhabit your own being.
AB: That’s something you hope people would take away from seeing your performance of Ainadamar?
JR: Absolutely. I would hope so. One of the special things about my own specific journey with Ainadamar is that I started singing in the student role of Nuria, and it came at a point in my life when I had lost my very first voice teacher about a year before we did the production in Santa Fe. I was the student; Dawn Upshaw was playing Margarita. It was a cathartic experience for me because I went through the loss of my mentor on stage. Margarita dies and passes the baton onto Nuria, so it was a very special experience. Then when I assumed the role of Margarita, it was with a special sort of responsibility to then become the artist that the teacher unleashed in me. It is my hope that people encounter this opera experience within the course of the opera, but also within the course of their own selves, and that they’re able to find their own inner artist and explore, no matter what their profession, the human being they were created to be.
AB: Lorca’s poem ‘King of Harlem’ rhapsodises his experience in Harlem: “Oh, Harlem! Oh, Harlem! Oh, Harlem!” New York in 1929 was a wonderful experience for him that changed his idea of poetry, the theatre, and the social role of the artist. Is Lorca’s experience of Harlem explored in Ainadamar?
JR: Not specifically, no. But I think that certainly a lot of his experiences abroad, and definitely in New York, shaped who he was as an artist and a playwright, and certainly informed much of what he did post that time. Mostly the references are to his childhood. Especially the big area that happens in the beginning where he talks about seeing the statue of Margarita Xirgu when he was a small child out from the window, and seeing the moonlight on her and how it inspired him as a young boy. That’s a very poignant moment in the opera because it recalls Lorca’s first meeting with Margarita Xirgu, and she’s very excited about the possibility of doing a politically charged drama about this heroine and Mariana Pineda. And he said, “No, it wasn’t the political things that inspired me. It was the fact that I saw her statue and she called to me and she inspired beauty and love and the things that are most important in life.” So it’s a very powerful moment in the opera between Lorca and Margarita Xirgu.
AB: He first met her in a bar in Madrid and they drank whisky?
JR: Yes, exactly. It’s a very fun scene when they first meet because Margarita is sort of telling the story in flashbacks to her young student Nuria, and she’s able to recall the first meeting and how inspiring that was for her to actually meet this young man who was rather slight and so child-like and yet with an incredible imagination and someone who thought very much outside of the box, which I think was very intriguing to Margarita.
AB: I was talking to a leading Australian soprano about Madame Butterfly and she said—of being a professional opera singer—“It never stops being tough but then the flip side is there are moments of shared joy that you hang out for, it’s like heroin.” You find that it can be a tough job but it’s worth it?
JR: Yes, absolutely. I’ve never done heroin but I definitely understand her reference to the high that you can get to when you’re performing because it is a difficult life. There are a lot of sacrifices made. You spend at least ten months out of the year away from home. For a long time I was single, so that makes it easier, but if you do have a family then that means that you sacrifice time away from them and the people that you love, to go around the world and share with other people the music that is part of who you are. But that is very true what that soprano said. There are moments that you cannot even describe in words. They are so powerful and so transcendent that when you experience them, you think, “the sacrifice is worth it.” Because it’s a very special thing that we are truly honoured to participate in, and that we can do it on such a high level with other artists who are so gifted and inspiring.
AB: Tell me about one of those moments?
JR: One of my favourite pieces is the John Adams oratorio called ‘El Nino’, which is the nativity oratorio about the Christ child. I remember it was a very difficult score to learn, but I live for a moment in that piece where the chorus sings with all their might, “And He will fill this house with glory,” and every time it’s like God enters the room.
All the hair on the back of my neck stands up and I just imagine… it gives me a glimpse of what being in the presence of God truly is like. To be able to experience those kinds of moments—we have music, and we can sing and play instruments, and some brilliant composer has come up with this way to write it down and express it—there’s nothing like it in the world. And as wonderful as it is to hear it on recordings, to be able to experience it in a live performance is life-altering. Yeah, it’s life-altering [laughs gently].
AB: Having been privileged to see him in Berlin at the Philharmonie, there is a wonderful emotionally expressive quality to Simon Rattle’s conducting, isn’t there?
JR: Amazing. If I had to make up a top five list of experiences in my life that changed me as an artist, that would be one of them. Performing with him John Adams’s A Flowering Tree was very special.
AB: The acoustics there are incredible.
JR: Yes, they are. I’ve seen a lot of really wonderful places but there’s something quite unique about the acoustical atmosphere of that building.
AB: I saw him conduct a piece of music I wasn’t familiar with, a requiem Berio wrote for his wife. I was in tears.
JR: I believe that. It has that effect on people.
AB: I was at the Met in New York, which is beautiful and beguiling as well, watching The Nose. You’ve performed there too, haven’t you?
JR: I have. Well, I was one of the national semi-finalists in their competition, the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. That was the one performance I’ve actually had on the stage. But I have understudied there a couple of times, first in Doctor Atomic then in Nixon in China. It’s an amazing thing, the industrial operatic complex the Metropolitan Opera is, because to put on the lavish productions that they do within the course of their season, and to do them back-to-back… it’s a pretty impressive undertaking. I’m grateful that people are committed to it the way they are because it’s a phenomenon to witness, and yet I think that people who come for the artistic experience don’t realise all of the nuts and bolts that go in to making it work, but that’s the beauty of the Met.
AB: Do you have a favourite filmic opera moment you enjoy? Say, for example, in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters.
JR: I think one of my favourites is Moonstruck. With Cher and Nicholas Cage, because out of all the opera that I’ve ever experienced, I still cry when I see La Boheme. I don’t know whether that’s the music or the story or the combination of both, but that is the power of the drama of opera. I think that’s probably my favourite reference because you get to experience through these characters what opera is capable of in moving people and inspiring them and touching them. And that’s why I became an international opera singer, so that I could be part of that.
AB: The artistic idea in La Boheme is romantic.
JR: Yes, exactly. There’s a lot of beauty in that. I just adore it [Laughs].
AB: What’s musically special about Ainadamar composer Osvaldo Golijov?
JR: He has a gift for writing modern music that is capable of touching people in that same way that Puccini was able to do through La Boheme. It’s the combination, specifically for Osvaldo, of his Latin upbringing and the fact that he uses those influences of the Latin rhythms and also from his Jewish heritage. There’s a lot of influence there as well upon melody, and the way he’s able to use the combination of the melody, the harmony, and the rhythm to communicate a great depth of the story that he’s trying to tell. That’s a very special gift. He’s a very eclectic composer, musically speaking, and I think it’s amazing that he is able to combine all of the influences that he’s had to draw out something that inspires and touches people.
AB: Los Angeles receives some criticism, but you have a lot of enthusiasm for L.A.?
JR: Oh, absolutely. L.A. gets a bad rap as far as the arts and the classical music scene are concerned because it is obviously very Hollywood and the entertainment industry is the driving force of Los Angeles. However, there are many cultural institutions: the L.A. Philharmonic, of course; the L.A. Opera; there’s beautiful museums in Norton Simon and Pasadena, MOMA, MOCA, all these wonderful museums. The musical scene may not seem as culturally outstanding as other major cities in the world and in the United States, but I think that’s a huge misconception. There is a wonderful music scene in Los Angeles, classical music scene that is. I remember as a teenager when I was in high school, having the opportunity to go down to L.A. Opera and see an opera and that changed my life. There’s an incredibly vibrant scene, it just doesn’t get the attention sometimes that other orchestras and opera companies in other cities do because it’s overshadowed by the Hollywood effect.
AB: And anti-Hollywood snobbery!
JR: Yes, exactly [laughs gently]. You know, I think we can all coexist and appreciate each other’s talents. I don’t think it has to be one or the other. And I think that is one of the unique things about Los Angeles is that you have incredible music forces both from a traditional classical sense and from the Hollywood filmmaking world. I think the people who are savvy about it can actually be involved in both. I’ve certainly seen that.
AB: The L.A. Philharmonic Concert Hall is stunning.
JR: Yes, it’s an architectural marvel and it’s quite beautiful. Of course the summer home of the Philharmonic is also a landmark, the Hollywood Bowl.
AB: A beautiful backdrop behind the venue.
JR: Yeah, it’s gorgeous. I’m sure it’s not so much of a secret. I think it’s unexpected for people who have certain expectations of Los Angeles being all glitz and glamour of Hollywood, and yet you have this jewel of a concert space in this gorgeous outdoor venue. It’s a very special place. I’ve been to a couple of Easter services at the Hollywood Bowl because the church that I attended when I lived there had the opportunity to have their Easter services at the Bowl, which is incredible.
AB: As a performer your faith is important to you?
JR: Absolutely. I grew up in the Protestant Church and it’s been a very important force in my life. It’s given me a lot of grounding in a business that can—I hate to say this because it’s sad—sometimes be superficial. But it’s helped me remember what’s most important—that every individual has been given special gifts and that they have the ability to create and inspire and bless. That has certainly been one of my most important purposes, to be able to share what I have learnt and what I have been given and be able to inspire and bless other people. It might sound kind of simple, but that is my hope. I’m grateful that I have had opportunities though pieces like Ainadamar… to be able to share with audiences around the world the things that speak to me and are important to me on a fundamental level.