Meet Rochelle Hart, a self-described “slightly grumpy, bel canto singing Soprano. Yank ex-pat & failed Roman archaeologist who loves wine, food, shoes, dogs, sleeping late, and drinking too much coffee.”
Apart from the fact that I’m not an ex-patriated American nor do I have a doctoral degree in archeology, she and I have tons in common. Okay, I’m not a bel canto singer either, but as far as loving wine, food, shoes, dogs, and drinking too much coffee, I’m there. Rochelle and I could be, well, sisters — separated by a pond.
She would be the talented, overachieving younger sister (while I’m the plain, dull, older sister with far fewer talents.)
One of the wonderful things about Rochelle is that she doesn’t hold my dearth of talents against me personally. In fact, she reached out to me on Twitter because she loves to talk about opera, and I guess I can be pretty noisy at times Tweeting, ReTweeting, etc.
Within a short time, Rochelle became a loyal Tweep though I didn’t know her really well, just well enough to know she was an exceptional person–intelligent, selfless, talented. Have I mentioned we have the same favorite aria? Which aria is that, you ask? Read on . . .
She has a fascinating life story about following her heart back to the world of opera that captured her imagination as a child that she’s sharing with Operatoonity readers. I’m telling you right now, you’ll want to catch every word of this interview that proves you can “go home” again with hard work and focus.
So nice to have you on Operatoonity, Rochelle. Can you tell me a little about your childhood? How did you grow up and how did it affect your decision to sing opera?
I grew up in Portland, Oregon. It was (I’m sure it still is!!) a very creative town with lots of opportunities to get involved in theatre and music of all genres. The Portland Opera is great. My mum used to get matinee and dress rehearsal tickets and take me as a kid. I remember my first opera, Aida. They brought in a live elephant from the Portland zoo for the triumphal scene. The idea of being able to work around a live elephant had me all a flutter. I went home singing the arias from Aida. I was, like, 9!
Personally, I started doing musical theatre quite young. My first role was a singing tree in Snow White when I was 5. I moved on to be an orphan in Annie after that exciting trip to Aida, and it kind if spiraled from there. I did some child opera stuff with the Portland opera groups and sang in loads of choirs. I also took up playing instruments quite young, and by the time I left high school I could play pretty much everything apart from the drums and the piano. I still wish I’d put down the wind instruments and focused a bit of attention on the piano! Alas. During my last two years of high school I sang with some professional chamber choirs and did some symphony work, but I can’t honestly think back to a time when I ‘decided’ to sing opera. My voice coach (thankfully) wouldn’t even let me touch an operatic aria when I was a teenager! It just kind of happened as I progressed through University. Although I spent those years dabbling in Musical Theatre and Jazz as well, opera was where I landed on my feet. It just felt “right.”
You wound up in Manchester, England? Do you like the ex-pat life? What keeps you there?
I love England. I miss various things about the states (Widmer Hefeweizen!!!), but England had always had this draw on me. My first trip to the UK was when I was 15, and I fell in love at first sight. That being said, I never intended to stay here. I took a break from music in 2004 to come over and do a year-long MA programme in Roman Archaeology at the University of Liverpool. I wanted to ‘round out’ my education and do some traveling and experience living abroad. I’d planned to go back to Portland when I was done and decide what to do with myself, but then I met my husband. He’s British. I stuck around and did a Ph.D. in Roman Archaeology while we dated, and then we got married in 2008 and here I am! We lived in London from 2005 until this past June. In 2009 I decided I had to go back to music. I’d put it off long enough, and I’d ‘rounded out’ my education as far as one possibly can! I found myself a voice coach, started going on master classes . . . And that leads me to . . .
What has been the greatest thrill in your career thus far? Greatest challenge?
The greatest challenge of my career, by far, has been returning to a career in opera. One doesn’t usually just take 5 years off and think they’ll even have a career in opera. Especially since I’d only done a handful of professional operatic things in the US before I stopped singing. In fact, when I first started back to singing in late-2009, I spent a good 16 months trying to do musical theatre instead of going back to opera. I thought that I’d been out of the game way too long to be able to catch up and be competitive in the industry at all. Especially when, added to my lengthy absence, I also had to deal with a totally different voice. In the US, I sang mezzo-soprano. I’m not sure what happened between 2004 and 2009, but I came back and was categorically not a mezzo anymore – which meant re-training, learning completely new repertoire and trying to identify with myself on an entirely different plane artistically. I think it’s why I initially tried musical theatre instead of going straight back to classical and operatic music. I was scared. Heck, I still am scared. It wasn’t until I auditioned for Cameron Macintosh and was told, “You need to be singing opera, not musical theatre. You’re wasting your time here with a voice like that!” that I went, “Okay . . . ,” and came back to opera.
I picked up mezzo rep initially and was told off left and right by everyone I encountered. So I started singing the soprano rep. I wasn’t entirely sure where to start, and started out a bit bigger than I should have at that point (Aida…!), but after a year of playing around with the difference between what I could sing and what I should sing for where I am at this stage of my development, I finally landed on my feet. That was only recently, though. The beginning of 2011! I’m still working on developing the soprano inside me. It’s still a challenge and every day I have to fight with myself not to go back to my old mezzo ways, but I am loving the rep I’m singing now. I’ve found a kind of vocal peace in singing Bel Canto rep. It fits like a glove right now, and it’s helping me continue to settle into my new abilities.
I actually think that this next year is going to be the most thrilling part of my career. It hasn’t happened yet, but I have to remove myself from who I was prior to 2004 and who I am now. As my therapist says, there is no point in looking backwards. Singing my first professional gig (Carmen) was brilliant, but it’s not who I am anymore. I haven’t done much over the last few years as I’ve been focusing on finding my new voice and getting “back on the horse”, as it were – but I don’t do things by half! My debut role as a soprano is Anna Bolena – no small task. It let’s me dip into that mezzo richness I still can bring out and play with, but also lets me expose my newfound coloratura and my developing high notes. I’m also a bit of a Tudor history obsessive, which makes it all the more fun! The company I’m doing it with is performing all of the three Queen operas in upcoming seasons (Roberto Devereux and Maria Stuarda are concert-style, though), and I’m singing the range of them. I think that is the most exciting thing in my career thus far – getting to sing Bolena, Elisabetta and Maria! It’s a lot of extremely hard work, and some nights I go to bed wondering what I’m doing and have nightmares about falling off the stage, but I wake up every morning knowing I’m on the right path finally, and I’m totally excited about it!
“Rochelle Hart’s voice soars and depreciates delicately but powerfully, making the most of the high ceilinged acoustics in St. John’s Minster. It’s a mesmerising performance that will leave opera fans and sceptics alike spellbound.”
— Katie Siobhán Mercer for The Two Hats
Do you have any favorites? Composer? Opera? Role? Venue?
I love Puccini and Donizetti. Honestly, if I never sang anything else ever again apart from Puccini and Donizetti, I could probably die happy. My favourite role has got to be Lucia (Lucia di Lammermoor). I’m working on it between other things and it’s such a thrilling part to sing, and to listen to. Stunning music. My all-time favourite opera has to be Tosca. It combines my love of Rome and my love of opera into one dramatic, climactic piece. “Vissi d’Arte” is kind of my go-to aria, and is just a piece of musical perfection. Every time I hear it I want to cry!
Do you enjoy performing in the UK? How do UK audiences compare to US audiences? US opera houses compare to UK houses?
Performing in the UK is interesting. Audiences seem to come in two varieties – the ones that are totally receptive to everything, and are encouraging and generally lovely, and the ones that have to sit and tear performers apart. It’s hard being a singer, knowing that there are those people sat somewhere in the audience that will pick up on every single flaw of everything you do, and will talk to each other about your said flaws, especially when music is such a personal thing and we’re bearing our souls to perform these roles. Then one little old lady will come up with tears in her eyes and tell you how much you moved her, and it will make it all better. I’m not singing for the critics, I’m singing for the soul of the character, and for the general audience to appreciate the music the composers put on the paper. No human is perfect, but we are all human.
I’ve not yet sung in a house as a soloist on either shore – only with companies who perform in different theatres or churches depending on space or the production. Generally, though, I think US audiences, in my experience, seem to be more ‘roll with the punches’ and don’t expect the same level of superhuman perfectionism that European audiences do.
Have you picked up a British accent?
Oh heavens, no! I have picked up a bit of a British “twang.” You can tell I’m American, but I sound like an American that has lived in the UK for a while. I get odd looks in the States when I’m visiting, and often get asked if I’m Irish when I’m in the US (which I don’t understand at all!), but to the Brits I’m most definitely American. Mostly what I’ve picked up is pronunciation. You say toh-may-toh, I say toh-maaaaah-toh….
Where would you like to be in five years? In ten years?
I’m realistic. I took 5 years off, and spent the first two years back in serious singing having a crisis of identity. If you asked me 5 years ago where I saw myself in 5 years, I would not have said “singing Anna Bolena in June!” I’ve changed fachs completely since my original training, and I have a lot of new repertoire to learn to get back up to speed. My voice still hasn’t completely settled into its new identity, and I have a lot of work to do to catch up with other people my age that I’m competing against in the industry. Some of them have been singing roles for years that I’m only just now starting to look at. I know that I’m not at the level I should be for a 32-year old professional soprano, but despite the odds I’m persevering and I’m getting opportunities to get out there and improve myself and my art form. I’m feeling much more at ease in my own vocal skin, and I’m forging my own path. Everyone I meet seems to have a differing opinion as to what my soprano-fach should be, so I’m just moving forward and singing what’s comfortable and it’ll all fall into place eventually – whether that be 5 years or ten. That doesn’t mean I don’t think about where I’d like to be, though!
In the next 5 years, I’d love to be singing at the smaller houses and with the touring companies in England (ETO, Glyndebourne, Opera North), and possibly in Germany and parts of the US. I’d love to sing Butterfly at the Portland Opera someday. For now, I want to be cementing the roles I’m singing with small companies now and really burning them into my soul. I believe that less is more, and I’d rather sing 8 or 10 roles really well, and have them be part of my soul, than sing 40 roles but never real feel like any of them are one with me. Not to say I wouldn’t take something outside of my standard repertoire, or that it won’t change completely when I’m in my 50s or whatever, but I don’t want to learn something now just to never sing it again! Been there, done that….
In 10 years, I’d like to have made my debut at Covent Garden and the English National Opera, and possibly Vienna, even if only in smaller roles. I don’t expect that as the outsider who took time off that I’ll ever get to sing a lead role at a major international house, but a girl can dream! Hey, stranger things have happened . . .
What is something most people don’t know about you, something not on your professional bio?
I have a diagnosed anxiety disorder. My friends and some of my closer colleagues know this, but it’s not something I go shouting to the rooftops. It’s difficult, and I don’t want people to pre-judge me based on it. I’ve lightly blogged about it, but I try not to bring it up too much.
Basically, my brain overreacts about everything (far more than the average person). I worry myself into state of pure panic quite frequently over even the smallest things and find it very hard to snap myself out of the ‘downward spiral of doom’ as I like to call it. We’re talking can’t breath, think the walls are closing in on you, I think I’m having a heart attack type panic. I have to fight every day to ensure I keep my mood on the positive side of the tracks, so I don’t end up sabotaging myself. Honestly, it nearly kept me from coming back to music. I could have taken the easy route and gone about working in academia and archaeology, but I knew that deep down, even though I loved archaeology, I wasn’t happy. I had to have a serious period of self reflection to work up the courage to return to singing, and to this day I still struggle massively with that decision. I can still manage to convince myself that nothing I do is ever going to succeed, and I have nightmares about it quite frequently. My brain latches onto the fact that I look, on paper, to be so far behind my competition because of the time off and the fach change, and in my head I am sure that people think I’m a fraud. I know deep down that it’s not really the case, but anxiety disorder takes your internal niggles and exacerbates them to the point that some days I have a hard time even getting out of bed.
The funny thing is that when I’m on stage, and I’m lost in being someone else and interacting with my colleagues in their characters, those are the times I’m free from the clutches of the anxiety. But other times, like auditions and job interviews and even meeting a new person for the first time – I have to really work on not totally falling apart. I know I don’t audition well because of it, and I don’t give off a good first impression because of it. But it’s something I work on every day.
Also, singing a mad scene or two when I’m having a ‘bad’ day usually helps.
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You can find out where Rochelle is performing through 2013 at her website. Or you can follow her on Twitter @raketje.