Diva Ruth Ann Swenson talks about Singing and Teaching at the Astoria Music Festival
Ruth Ann Swenson, one of America’s greatest opera sopranos, will be singing and teaching at the Astoria Music Festival, which opens this coming Friday. Acclaimed for her coloratura roles, Swenson has sung at all of the world’s greatest stages, including the Metropolitan Opera. To help kick off the festival, Swenson will sing Mozart’s Exultate Jubilate plus Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 with the Festival Orchestra under the direction of Keith Clark on Sunday, June 19th at 4 pm at the Liberty Theatre.
On the teaching side of the ledger, Swenson and her husband, opera coach David Burnakus, will help twelve young artists from music conservatories prepare Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. Swenson and Burnakus will lead the students in a master class that will be open to the public on Wednesday, June 22nd at 7:30 pm at the Clatsop Community College Performing Arts Center. Also a showing of the Academy Ward winning Film In the Shadow of the Stars will be shown. This movie is a documentary that features Swenson, Burnakus, and the San Francisco Opera Chorus.
I chatted with Swenson about her upcoming work in Astoria over the phone last week. Here’s our conversation:
Mozart and you go back a long way.
Swenson: I’ve always enjoyed singing Mozart. His music has been part of my vocal repertoire from the beginning with my teacher back on Long Island. I made my operatic debut in the role of Despina in Cosi fan tutte at San Francisco Opera. Mozart’s music requires a solid technique: clean attacks, smooth legato, accurate pitch, clear diction. You’ve got to be expressive and musical.
How many operatic roles have you sung?
Swenson: I think that it’s around 45 or 50.
Which role was the one you sang the most?
Swenson: Probably Gilda in Rigoletto. I died many deaths in many sacks.
Which composers did you sing the most?
Swenson: Verdi and Handel. Mostly I sang the music of bel canto composers like Verdi, Donizetti, and Bellini. I loved doing Ariodante and Julius Caesar.
How do you pace yourself to sustain a long career?
Swenson: It’s always important for young singers to make the right choices. The most important thing for me was to find a teacher and learn solid technique. You have to know the possibilities of your voice as well as its limitations. But besides solid technique, you have to have great preparation, plus an excellent teacher, and the right opportunities. You also have to have a thick skin for this business. Everyone is going to have an opinion. Everyone is nattering at you, and you can go out of your mind if you don’t have your feet on the ground. And you have to have luck. It’s part of the package, and if it happens, it’s glorious. If not, then music is always a part of your life.
In Astoria, one of the things you’ll be doing is teaching master classes.
Swenson: Yes, I’m looking forward to working with young singers in Astoria. I’ll help them with the Marriage of Figaro, which I’ve done a lot. I’ve sung the roles of Susannah and the Countess. I know it all forwards and backwards. It’s wonderful to work with kids who are at the beginning of their careers. At the Astoria Festival, I’ll get to work with them for more than twenty minutes. So it’s better than the typical master class situation. I’ll have several hours to work with the students in Astoria.
My husband, David Burnakus, will be coming up to Astoria. We are a team that can pass on a lot of knowledge about the business. We have two days of work-study with the kids and a public master class on Wednesday, June the 22nd. We will work with them on the arias, duets, and ensembles.
I’ll be stressing technique. I’ll be working on the vocal apparatus and how you get through a three or four-hour opera without feeling tired, and so that the students can learn to sing beautifully and times that young singers don’t know what they are doing. You can see it when they are singing from their neck up.
You have successfully survived cancer and restarted your career. That’s amazing.
Swenson: Having cancer sucks. There’s a lot of difficult things to go through, including the treatments and living with the fear of coming back. It’s horrible. I’m fine now, but I don’t like to talk about it too much. I hope that it never happens to anybody ever, let alone in this business, because it’s really hard.
In Astoria, you will also be doing Mahler’s Fourth Symphony.
Swenson: I’m looking forward to singing Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, because I’ve never done it before. The text is a simple, childlike poem that is very beautiful.
I’ll also be singing Mozart’s Exultate, jubilate. I’ve done it only a few times in my career: a long time ago with my church job back in Philadelphia and at Alice Tully Hall with the Mostly Mozart Festival. But with so much opera work over the years, I haven’t had the chance to do it often. I’m really thrilled to do again.
I started with my teacher Dixon Titus in 1984 and worked with him for almost twenty years until he died. Even though I’ve had a career, I’ve never stopped studying. I studied when I was at home or on the road. Some singers make the mistake of thinking that after they have their first professional job that they don’t have to study anymore. It’s a big mistake. You also have to be careful not to choose repertoire that is beyond your capability. A tenor who has a gorgeous lyric voice for Mozart or a bel canto opera should think twice wanting to sing Aida.
Have you been to Portland or Astoria before?
Swenson: I’ve sung with Portland Opera before. Let’s see; I did Romeo and Juliet and Marthathere. I had just finished the young artist program in San Francisco when Portland Opera contacted me to do Martha. It was a last minute thing, because they lost the person they had originally hired for the part. So I learned it in a week. It went really well! Me and my beagles. I had sixteen beagles, because I was on the hunt. I came out with these dogs, and they were howling during the music. It was hysterical. Every time anyone it a high note, they would howl back.
by James Bash on June 13, 2011
James Bash writes articles for a variety of publications, including magazines such as Opera America, Open Spaces, Opera, MUSO, International Arts Manager, American Record Guide, Symphony, Opera Canada, and PSU Magazine. The newspapers include Crosscut, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Oregonian, The Columbian, The Portland Tribune, The Register-Guard, and Willamette Week. James has also written a number of articles for the Oregon Arts Commission and contributed articles to the 2nd edition of the Grove Dictionary of American Music.James was a fellow to the 2008 NEA Journalism Institute for Classical Music and Opera. He is a member of the Music Critics Association of North America (mcana.org) and lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife, Kathy.
Original Article can be found at: http://oregonmusicnews.com/2011/06/13/diva-ruth-ann-swenson-talks-about-singing-and-teaching-at-the-astoria-music-festival/