Jennifer Rowley is the very definition of a star on the rise. But, in an age when people become famous merely for being famous, this is the rarest of stars in an even more rarefied arena: a true operatic diva. @LaRowley1 (that’s her Twitter handle) is busily ensconced in preparation for her lead role debut at the Metropolitan Opera as Roxane in Franco Alfano’s Cyrano de Bergerac. The achievement of prima donna status at the Met is a feat for which Rowley is splendidly prepared.
Rowley made a splash as Musetta in a production of La Bohème in Oslo, which led to her debut in the same role at the Met. She has performed Musetta to strong reviews at Covent Garden, as well as other quintessential spinto dramatic soprano roles: Tosca with New Orleans Opera, and Leonora in Verdi’s Il Trovatore in Luxembourg and Opéra de Lille. Recently, she took on the titular role in Barber’s neglected Vanessa at Toledo Opera in her native Ohio.
Jennifer Rowley’s voice is stunning — it contains an orchestrator’s palette of timbres, which she employs with astounding control, always in service to her character’s situation. Creamy plushness with a bell-like gilded shimmer. Brassy in the fortissimos, reedy in the pianissimos. Agile, articulate, and possessing an exquisite “legato line.” Much of the reward from hearing Ms. Rowley sing is to relish in the sheer beauty of her instrument. But what makes her exceptionally right for today’s operatic zeitgeist is that she can really act. Her performances are infused with specificity and emotional investment.
Jennifer attended Baldwin-Wallace Conservatory, a nurturing, but worldly liberal arts university near Cleveland (it was one of the first schools to admit students regardless of race or gender in the 19th century), where the curriculum for a young singer emphasized story-telling and acting, largely thanks to Victoria Bussert, who has led BW’s nationally respected music theatre program for several years.
It was there that Rowley learned Ute Hagen’s nine questions (from Respect for Acting) that an actor should ask as they prepare for a role. “I use them when I learn any new piece, as a bigger picture illustration of how the character will develop over the course of an opera, but also scene by scene, and aria by aria. It’s really important to know WHY a character is singing what she is singing, and what she hopes to gain from it. These questions have stuck with me since freshman year workshop class with her [Bussert].”
Stuart Raleigh, then director of choruses and the opera conductor at Baldwin-Wallace, remembers how she stood out. “She could sing anything—she sang Queen of the Night [in The Magic Flute at BW]!” He also still laughs at a memory of Rowley telling a ribald joke in choir rehearsal. And she remains a delight, brimming with energy and positivity.
But coloratura was to be a temporary phase. At age 30, her voice “opened up” and she began exploring the dramatic, spinto, repertoire. She notes that her voice teacher at BW, Keith Brautigam, “heard what I was going to grow into from an early age. When I was a senior, he had me look at “Vissi d’arte” from Tosca as an exercise—to see how a Puccini line was going to fit in my voice—and I think he knew where my path was going to lead me. That aria is one of my favorites now.”
She credits Indiana University, where she continued her studies, with having a world-class faculty, and the resources to impart a vast amount of knowledge, such as historical periods, musical styles, and performance practice.
She certainly does her homework. Waxing excitedly about her favorite role, Floria Tosca, she speaks of the insight gained from reading the source play, La Tosca by Sardu, which she read to “get a real idea of who Tosca is. I am so glad that I did—it completely fuels my interpretation of her. She is young—she is probably 18 when we meet her in the opera, and the love between her and Mario is fresh and young, too. And she was raised in a convent. So she has no perspective on what she is feeling. Imagine being in high school and having a boyfriend at 18 and how jealous and crazy love made you. That is where her jealousy comes from — it comes from a real place and it’s funny; she’s not this crazy, over the top, diva. She’s young, and green, and naive, and learning about life and love as she goes.”
Rowley speaks Italian, which she learned at an immersive young artist program in Bologna. “I even had staging rehearsals for La Rondine completely in Italian after only one month in the program. At that point, you really have to learn!” But Cyrano is in French, which Rowley finds more challenging. She credits Denise Massé, her French coach at the Met with being immensely helpful with the language.
I asked what it was like rehearsing opposite Roberto Alagna, who is a native French speaker. She gushed, “Alagna has been a real cheerleader throughout the whole process, and I am so grateful for that. He also has been very helpful in the use of the French language as well, his use of the text is brilliant. On the first day of rehearsal he gave me a wonderful piece of advice: he told me to ‘use the commas.’ He said that because the opera is written so close to the play, that the language can often be mixed. Meaning that a sentence can be started, then there will be a comma, then another thought, then a comma, and then the end of the sentence that was started before. So he said to use those commas throughout the opera and it will help us to understand the language more cleanly, and it will have more dramatic meaning.”
Cyrano de Bergerac, a rarely heard opera, is considered to be in the verismo style, but later than Puccini, and Rowley hears the influence of Debussy. She also finds the piece rhythmically trickier than Puccini. “I’m constantly counting.” The role of Roxane “is a really interesting character because she has a lot of qualities that are very different than the normal woman of the time. A 17th century woman was obedient, poised, polished, and basically lived to serve her husband. Roxane lives for something different…love! She isn’t so obedient; she’s intelligent, she’s beautiful, and she uses these traits to get what she wants in many situations.
“She is described in Rostand’s play as a ‘precieuse.’ A precieuse was a well-educated woman in the 17th century who was infatuated by words and language, and how one can use writing to express love. She was studying the tendres, which are basically writings on the paths men should take to woo a woman. One of those paths is by writing love letters and expressing deep emotion and feeling, which is why she is so moved by the letters written to her by Christian, Cyrano, through out their courtship. She is also young and intriguing and it says in the play that all of the men are in love with her. To me that means there is something very interesting about her that makes her stand out among the other women, and it’s not just her beauty. She has something special, and it has been very fun to figure out what that is.”
So, how does an acting singer, especially while her career is blossoming, manage the tension between taking care of her instrument, giving enough over to the roles and the music unreservedly? “Health and cardiovascular health is immensely important as a singer. Not only does it help you technically to improve breath capacity, but it will also help you with stamina and with the ability to do things on stage that you never thought you would be asked to do. I have definitely had to run up three flights of stairs, and then sing—it’s difficult if you aren’t in shape! It also comes in very handy when you are doing long roles that require you to be active on stage for hours. You need that cardiovascular health to help your stamina for the evening—it’s very important.”
Another facet of a modern diva’s career is social media, and Rowley is no slouch in this area. “I love it because it allows me to connect directly with my audiences and fans. I try my best to post once a day, and usually with a photo, link, or video of some kind so that there is always something to look at. I try to keep things very professional, but I also think it’s fun for people who want to connect with me to know about fun things in my life, like getting married in a few weeks—I’m sure there will be a lot of photos to see!”
And I’m sure there will be more to see from Jennifer Rowley, as her career continues to present new opportunities. Stay tuned.