Placido Domingo protégée
American soprano ELIZABETH ANDREWS ROBERTS ascent into
the opera world
Elizabeth Roberts and Placido Domingo
In an email interview conducted
by Marlene Hall with American soprano Elizabeth Andrews Roberts,
she discusses how she got her start in opera, her training under
Maestro Placido Domingo in his distinguished Domingo-Cafrtiz Young
Artist Program at the Washington, D.C, Kennedy Center, and her
current exciting plans.
got you into opera singing?
As an adolescent, I think that
kids try lots of things. Some
stick and some don't. For
me, and much to my coach's chagrin (I was tall but hopelessly
uncoordinated) basketball didn't stick. When I joined chorus in
sixth grade, it was because I had a crush on a boy, Paul Haddad.
If Paul (my crush) was in the chorus, then chorus was where
I wanted to be! Opera came
much later. I kept singing
in choruses and in musical theater through high school, but never
took it very seriously. It
wasn't until my third year of college that my voice teacher who,
as luck would have it, ran a small opera company (Opera North),
told me that if I got to work, I might have some success.
So I did!
describe your time at Dartmouth and the University of Cincinnati
College-Conservatory of Music.
What did you learn there?
My time at both institutions
was incredibly formative, but in wildly different ways.
At Dartmouth I learned how to think - how to be analytical
and to live in my mind. I
lived abroad. I studied anatomy, neuroscience, philosophy
In college, I was lucky enough
to have two amazing mentors - Louis Burkot and Professor Bill
Summers. Once I had decided singing was something I wanted
to seriously engage in, Professor Summers suggested a project
called a Senior Fellowship. The
basic tenet of the Senior Fellowship is that in order to be a
truly liberal arts college, Dartmouth has to acknowledge that
some of its students' educations, in order to come to fruition,
need to exist outside the traditional curriculum. It's supposedly the highest honor The College
can bestow on an undergraduate because it's an entire year in
which you don't take formal classes.
Instead, you work on an enormous project.
My project was an opera.
I wanted to combine my burgeoning love of opera with how
Dartmouth taught me to be an academic, so I worked with my mentor,
conductor and teacher Louis Burkot, to produce a historically
informed performance of Handel's "Alcina" on campus
at Dartmouth. "Historically
informed" is a fancy way of saying that we wanted to do it
as much like Handel would have done it as possible.
I did a LOT of research about Baroque style, music, ornaments,
gesture, stage craft ... all of it!
I cast singers and wrote ornaments for the music, hired
an orchestra, cut the four hour opera to a more manageable two
hours (a humbling experience-- *I* was deciding what stays and
goes?!), hired a director ... and sang the title role.
It was an amazing and galvanizing experience.
I was so unbelievably lucky to have such remarkable colleagues
and friends helping make the project possible.
I remember one special moment - we had finished the sitz
probe (where the orchestra and singers meet for the first time
and sing through the opera without the staging) in a building
across campus, and everyone had gone home for the night. We were moving into the theater the next afternoon.
It occurred to me as I was packing up my things to leave
the rehearsal that I hadn't arranged for anyone to move the harpsichord
to the theater ... so at 11pm, in the dead of a New Hampshire
winter, my wonderful friend and stage manager, Jim, and I picked
up the harpsichord, wrapped it in our coats (remember this is
January in NH) and walked it across campus.
Think slush. Think snow.
I fell in love with opera that night - could there be a
more pure combination of the divine and the ridiculous?
someone wants to attend these prestigious schools, what advice
can you give?
I think you have to carve out
what you need from wherever you are.
One of the most important things I think we learn in college
and graduate school is how to be self-sufficient.
I had to help Dartmouth teach me how to be an opera singer,
and the same was true for The University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory
of Music (CCM) I am in
the most highly populated voice category there is - soprano.
I think there were 35 people in my matriculating class
at CCM, and more than 20 of us were sopranos. That's a lot of people clamoring for limited
attention. Getting into a prestigious school isn't where
the work ends, it's where the work begins!
It's an occasion to which you spend years attempting to
led up to you being selected for the Domingo Cafritz Young Artist
After I left CCM, I moved to
New York City to ... well, at the time, I had no idea what I was
doing! I knew that New York City was the center of
the opera world, and that's about where my knowledge of "things
operatic" ended. I
temped and lived in a basement apartment and took voice lessons
when I could afford it and sang at about a million and a half
Singing auditions is a fascinating
learning experience. It
is a subjective process, and almost impossible to evaluate yourself.
You can't control what people think of your voice. You can sing the best that you possibly can,
and that's all. I developed
my own system of deciding whether or not an audition was successful
- if I made them laugh, and could feel confident that they would
remember me, then that (in my mind) was a successful audition.
One of the many auditions I
sang was for the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program.
I remember the audition particularly because I tripped
and fell when I walked into the room for the final round, right
in front of Placido Domingo. There was a collective, horrified gasp. I stood up, brushed off my lovely audition suit,
struck a pose, said "Ta da!
I do slapstick, but not windows!"
Everyone laughed, and the tension in the room broke wide
open. I had made them laugh, and felt confident that
they would remember the woman who fell on her face, so I had done
describe what it was like being in the Domingo Cafritz Young Artist
The Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist
program was an outstanding and unique experience.
It is an indescribable gift to be given two years to work
on your craft. That's why
I was there: to learn and improve and be inspired.
The performance experiences, though, were unheard of, and
set apart the Washington National Opera program from any other.
I got to watch my idols work, and even share the stage
with them! I sang fully-staged, full-length opera roles
onstage at the Kennedy Center.
Unreal. The Domingo-Cafritz
Young Artist program put me in touch with the best opera singers
in the world, and I was able to watch them, listen to them, and
learn from them.
was Placido Domingo's role with your development?
Maestro Domingo is an amazing
mentor. He has been the best of the best since before
I was born! His artistic
vision and work ethic are unparalleled.
He led by example and inspired me to work harder than I
have ever worked before.
tidbits about Placido that most people don't know or any special
experiences with him?
He's one of the most generous
people I've ever had the pleasure to know.
There's one story that comes to mind - This
past spring, my colleague, Magda, and I were going to New York
for an audition the day after our final dress of Elektra at
Washington National Opera. Maestro was there for the dress rehearsal and
was flying back to New York City on a private plane that night
because he had his own dress rehearsal at The Met for "The
First Emperor" the next morning.
We were planning to take the bus, but Maestro invited us
to fly with him on his private plane!
dreams are you looking forward to coming true?
Opera is my dream, corny as
that sounds. Opera starts
out on paper, in a score. Opera
needs people to help bring it to life, and I think people need
opera to help bring them to life. Any part I can play in that is a dream come
you a Diva? If so why? If so why not?
(laughter) I hope not! It's true that opera is a field made up of large
personalities, but it is inherently a collaborative process. They say it takes a village to raise a child,
and the same is true for opera.
No one person can do an entire opera.
For me, the best experience is when everybody is relaxed,
well-prepared, and working their hardest toward a common goal:
making the best piece of theater we can.
it help to be a Diva to attract a better following?
My gut tells me no ... I'm attracted
to singers who are down to earth.
Crazy for the sake of crazy doesn't help anybody!
is your favorite opera and role to play?
Right now, Violetta in "La
Traviata." I recently
completed two productions of the opera, and it's an incredible
role to play. Verdi's music gets under your skin - it is haunting
and beautiful and powerful and vulnerable. The opera is heartbreaking, and to be on Violetta's
journey through the opera is an amazing experience.
is your favorite composer and why?
Richard Strauss. His writing for the voice (especially the soprano
voice - he was married to one, after all) is awe-inspiring.
are your opera inspirations?
American sopranos Pat Racette
and Christine Goerke. Both
are amazing women, working at the height of their creative powers,
and at the same time remain completely down to earth, normal,
and fantastic women. It's
women like that who teach you the kind of singer you want to be.
heard you recently got engaged.
How do you all manage to make it work with your gypsy like
Jeff is my partner and my love,
and there's no way I could do this without him.
The gypsy lifestyle is difficult.
We have made our home base in New York City, though, and
we are thankful for Skype!
do you maintain your voice? Do
you like do like Celine Dion and not talk between performances?
The voice is a muscle. You need to work it out every day to make it
stronger and more flexible, and when it's tired, you let it rest. I don't know if I had any really strange pre-show
habits (although I might not be the one to ask...) but I'm a sucker
for a long, steamy shower and apple slices.
contemporary opera singer would you love to perform with?
I just saw German coloratura
soprano Diana Damrau perform Lucia at The Met, and it knocked
me out of my seat. I'd love to be a part of anything she's doing!
Do you plan to put out any
I'd love to! Know anybody who wants to do one??
advice for others aspiring to the opera stage?
Singing can be a big, crazy,
overwhelming profession and, at least for me, it's important to
know the things that keep me grounded -
the small things that make me happy.
I love to cook and bake bread and play the autoharp (I'm
also learning to play the harmonica). Those small things make me happy.
Musically, though, I have had
a lot of amazing mentors, and their wisdom is what I would pass
"When the going gets tough,
the tough sing legato." Maestro
"Be interesting." Eric Weimer
"If I rest, I rust." Placido Domingo
"Never sing the loudest
you possibly can" Barbara
"Don't argue with stupid
people." My Aunt Libby
is the best thing about being in opera? What is the worst thing
about being in opera?
The best thing and worst thing
about being in opera is that your instrument is inside your body
- it *is* your body. You can't put it down. You perform with your very self.
sung in some pretty amazing venues like Opera de Monte Carlo,
Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center.
What so far has been the best venue to sing in?
I think the best thing about
all of the places I've sung is how different they are - performing
in venues from 50-2500 seats is a gift because my job is always
the same - tell the story. Learning how to do that in any venue is important.
is coming up for you career wise?
In 2009, you will be singing in concert performances of
Rigoletto (Gilda) with the Kentucky Symphony Orchestra
in January and make your debut at the Virginia Opera in La
Bohème (Musetta). In the fall of 2010, you will make your
debut at Opera in the Heights to sing Les contes d'Hoffmann
(Antonia, Giulietta, Olympia) and Die Fledermaus (Rosalinde).
There are lots of fantastic
and exciting things coming up - lots of "firsts".
My first Gilda, my first Musetta, my first heroines in
Hoffman, my first Rosalinde. SO
many firsts! It's really exciting. I've recently signed with a wonderful agent,
Robert Mirshak, and we are working together on auditions and new
do you prepare to sing in operas?
People have different methods,
but I like to start with the language.
So much of the drama is built right into the language!
you ever think of starting your own female opera group and call
it Il Diva?
I don't know about that...
you weren't singing what would you be doing?
Learning is my favorite thing. I'd love to do anything that involves learning.
I remember reading that every time a person learns something,
their brain gets a wrinkle. I aspire to having a very wrinkly brain.
do you want your grave stone to say?
I just hope my name is spelled
correctly. Or, perhaps
(laughing), "Here lies a woman with a wrinkly brain".
what operas would you recommend novices see and listen to first?
I think Verdi's "La Traviata"
is a great first opera. The
characters are relatable and you can see a little bit of yourself
in each of them.
Elizabeth Roberts with Placido and Marta Domingo