To do this, I could think of no better way than to dive into our first opera of next season, Tosca and a chat with Sylvie Valayre who will be making her first appearance with us in January (but not her last -- we'll be welcoming her back in 2010 for Nabucco).
It is always exciting welcoming a new singer to our Company, especially one that we will be developing a relationship with over the years. Nerve wracking too; I have a tendency to ask a lot from our singers when they get here -- artist interviews, television programs, photographs, etc... all crammed around their busy rehearsal schedule -- I sometimes wonder when they find the time to sing.
I was able to catch up with Sylvie via email a few weeks back and had the chance to ask her some questions. It is always nice when I can learn a little bit about a singer before they get here -- I can keep my distance if they seem difficult or pick them up from airport if they sound especially sweet.
So here's a transcript of my Q&A session with Sylvie Valayre.
Needless to say, I'll be picking her up at the airport.
San Diego Opera (SDO): First, welcome to San Diego Opera! We are very excited that you are making your company debut with us in Tosca. Before we begin, is there anything new in your life that you would like to share with us?
Sylvie Valayre: Hi...thanks for welcoming me! nothing new in my life that is worth sharing.
SDO: You have sung TOSCA around the world – at The Met, Paris Opera, etc.. so I am wondering if you can tell us a little bit about this role?
S.V.: Of course, I'd like a lot to talk about Tosca.. .I 've been sharing my life with her since the Paris Conservatory, and I had the big pleasure to study the original play by Sardou with a friend stage director and actor, Philippe Rondest, long time member of the famous Comedie Francaise...We read the original play, and studied it also on the historical point of view (the Royal Family of Bourbon, ruling over Rome in 1800, Bonaparte not yet Emperor Napoleon the 1st), and the French Republican ideas spreading all over Europe—(not the American meaning of Republicans to Democrates, but the European one opposing Republicans to Monarchists), of Spain at the same period (Goya and the painting 3 de Mayo...)
Tosca by Puccini is very often played as a Prima Donna , more on the mature side , high class society, as if she had learned elegance from her early age, almost in her cradle...This is not the case...When the action begins, she is still very young, not even in her early twenties.
We know from Sardou that she used to be a shepherdess running down the hills of Verona, that she learned how to sing in a convent, that a messenger from the Pope heard her there and took her to Rome in order to learn ''educated singing'' with a famous Castrat, and became Queen Marie Caroline of Bourbon’s favourite singer. She sings both sacred music and some opera. She is constantly in contact with the Royal Court of Bourbon, the Pope, the authorities in general because of her social status, BUT she is in love with a nobleman who decided to join the Republican cause and fight the Royal Power and the Church, and above all the Inquisition working hand in hand with the Police. Floria Tosca is a great believer in God ---(her lover says in the original play that he cannot tell her anything about politics because she will tell everything during confession), but she is deeply in love with an atheist, she was born a poor shepherdess but became a Queen of Singing, she wants to respect the laws of the Church, shows a very discreet and modest behaviour in Church but is eaten up by her sensuality; she learned how to behave in society but never learned how to think in case of danger (physical or mental) -- that's why she gets trapped by the Chief of Police Baron Scarpia -- because in spite of all the social behaviour she learned during her few years in Rome, she cannot deal with her feelings and reacts always in the same way; like an wild animal -- a beautiful one, but animal all the same, a panther , i would say. She is no political animal, she never learned how to become one, how to trick, how to lie, how to betray , and in front of physical torture on her lover Mario, she can' t resist and gives her lover 's political ally Angelotti away to Scarpia. (For this kind of behaviour I highly recomand Milos Forman's film : GOYA 'S GHOSTS....it is all there : art , the artists and their political involvement, Monarchy against Republic, Church and Inquisition, Torture, Police and Church etc.... and the historical period is more or less the same).
SDO: Is there a special part of this opera that really speaks to you?
S.V.: Yes, it is the cat and mouse scene between Tosca and Scarpia. She really tries her best to lie about the place where Angelotti is hidden, she tries all her acting tricks; indifference, charm, despise, corruption etc... She just cannot imagine one moment that Scarpia could ask to trade herBody. It simply doesn't cross her mind -- she really is a good, candid person -- she can't believe her ears when Scarpia says that he has been overwhelmed with desire for her when she saw her holding her lover before he was dragged back to the Torture Chamber and she accepts to give herself to Scarpia only when she understands that her lover would be murdered in case she does not agree with Scarpia's deal.
SDO: Our production of Tosca sees you joining up with Marcus Haddock, Greer Grimsley and Reinhard Dorn among others… Have you worked with anyone in the cast before, or is this an entirely new group of people for you?
S.V.: I very happily worked with Marcus Haddock both in 1996 (Warsaw Don Carlo with La Fenice on tour) and in 2007 (Paris Bastille Tosca). Of course I know of my other collegues but never had a chance to work with them. This will be a wonderful occasion.
SDO: I’ve heard that you were preparing a pre-doctorate dissertation on the golden age of American movies before you moved into the world of opera. As someone who grew up in France – a country with a very rich cinematic history - what drew you to American movies as opposed to movies of your home country?
S.V.: Well, I have always been in love with American movies. I love French or Italian Classical movies too, but I have always been fascinated by musicals and cartoons, and Capra, the New Deal, the way -- in my young eyes -- the Americans would always fight for the GOOD , win over the baddies. Part of my family survived because the US joined the Second World War in 1941 and arrived in time in North Africa and Italy to prevent more mass murders by the Nazis, the Fascists and the French Police (see CASABLANCA).
I loved the American actors...I loved how Gary Cooper and Jimmy Stewart or Henry Fonda would fight for FD Roosevelt 's New Deal that soon became an ideal of mine. There was a kind of hope in the US movies, carrying the American Dream, that I thought was good for the whole world spirit and could give hope to everybody -- you can make it if you really want it......well, I was like Tosca, very young and very naive!
SDO: You currently live in Paris, a very musical city. It seems like everywhere you turn there is a concert, recital or Opera performance going on. How does this inspire you?
S.V.: To tell the truth, I don't live any place in particular. I have different places that I love. I am a swiss resident in Zurich, and what you say about music is true there but also in Berlin, London, New York. Those are my favourite places. I am often in Turin because my love is there, but I could not stay in any place ''all the time'' apart maybe from a quiet place by the Indian Ocean or a Mediterranean Island. I am not even sure -- I love bookshops and Music stores too much.
SDO: Tell us about your introduction to Opera? When did you first hear it? What made you realize this was the path you wanted to pursue?
S.V.: First of all, I always wanted to be an actress but, born between 2 brothers, I was a real Tomboy and according to my mum, the way I walked was as elegant as a docker. So, I heard one day, on my way to school, " Honey, if you want to be on stage, especially for classical theater, go to the Ballet school first , you will learn at least how to walk and how to stand on a stage!'' I thought I was too old (teenager) too fat (138 pounds) and too short. (5‘4‘‘) so I awfully blackmailed my Mum, forcing her into resuming ballet after 20 years. And you know what? She played the game, she came every week either at morning or at night, according to her job's schedule. I finally learned how to love it and took classes in classical, modern and tap-dancing (not that I was very good , but at least, I don't walk like a docker any more and thanks to that, I have been able to sing in almost every difficult position on stage).
As I told you I always loved musicals, but also all kinds of music, and operetta -- family background: my parents in their 20s were actors , operetta singers, and my mum was also a tap-dancer and a classical ballet dancer -- But the drama was that I adored music too. Dilemma: the best way no to choose is to do everything, don't you think? So following the Valayre Family famous Motto '' If you want you can'' I decided to become an Opera singer = theatre and Music together -- a day-and-nightdream. Also because the Acting teachers thought I was only a Comic temperament when I thought I was better at Tragedy and because they told me that I was too short and too fat for Tragedy (!!!!!!!) so that really made me angry. Why should an actor for Tragedy be extra tall and extra anorexic and why should a comic actor be small and fat? At least, in Opera, my voice would choose the repertoire, not my looks so I went on working on my body and lost a little weight but worked like hell on my voice and finally made it. An America Dream? Maybe.
SDO: Being a professional Opera singer you spend a lot of time traveling, meeting different people, exploring new locales. What do you like best about this aspect of your job?
S.V.: Discovering new music, people, new civilizations, new cultures (even if travelling for work doesn't leave much time for anything but work). Maybe it helps me to keep an open mind, be more tolerant and understand certain behaviours that '' foreigners'' have in our western countries. It is not easy to be a foreigner. As a Foreigner myself , I am always frightened to hurt the country that welcomes me by inapropriate behaviour that is normal for me but strange or even insulting for my hosts. So that forces me to do the same towards ''foreigners '' in Europe.
SDO: What do you like the least?
S.V.: Suitcases, airports, carpets and recycled air in the hotels.
SDO: We (begrudgingly) must admit there is more to life than Opera. So, do you have any hobbies?
S.V.: Films (mostly on DVD) because the sound level in the movie theatres is often too loud for my ears. I like hiking, reading, bookshopping, scoreshopping, antiques shopping, searching for old instruments, JAZZ, stretching, pilates, dining with good friends, laughing...
SDO: Is there a book you are dying to get people to read?
S.V.: Yes. It is the one that 1st came to my mind although I read it some years ago. It is a pocket book, a great story by Fred Uhmann called REUNION published in 1971 but I discovered it not even 10 years ago. I won't reveal the plot, just read it and let me know.
SDO: What is in your cd player/iPod right now that is not Opera related?
S.V.: My i-pod is an ever-present friend. It is obviously half filled with Opera BUT the other half is multi-cultural : audiobooks in English, Italian and French, Lectures on Antiquity and Myths, Jazz : Ella, Sarah Vaughn, Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, The complete Johnny mercer songbook, songs by Arleen, Rodgers and Hart, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Sinatra, Marlene Dietrich, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Judy and Liza, Blossom Dearie, Barbra Streisand, Diana Krall, Jane Monheit, Joni Mitchell, songs from the french 40s and 50s including Piaf, Montand, etc... Fado. Brazilian Jazz, Carribean Music, Placido singing south american songs and tangos, Daniel Barenboim playing Tangos, Stan Getz with the Gilbertos, Jobim, Carlos Gardel, Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon. Symphonic and Chamber music works by Brahms, Mahler, strauss, Mozart, Berlioz, Berg, Schoenberg (the pre-dodecaphony works) and many many more.