In the coming months, we will be featuring interviews with musicians of various backgrounds. If you are a musician and would like to be featured in our series, please contact us at thecounterpoints[@]gmail.com. A complete list of our interviews can be found here.
A native of Bolivar, New York, Joélle Harvey was the First Prize winner of the Gerda Lissner International Vocal Competition in 2011. In October 2012, she sang the role of Susanna in the Glyndebourne Festival Tour's production of Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro. San Franciscans may well remember her as Zerlina with the Merola Opera Progam in 2008. Our review in the San Jose Mercury News of her latest California performance can be found here. Below is the transcript of our December 7, 2012 conversation with soprano Joélle Harvey.
EH: Please describe for us your musical background.
Harvey: I think my family has a lot of innate musicality. My sister is actually a singer as well. There was always music playing in the house on the record player, usually oldies or Disney songs (laughs). I started taking voice lessons at the recommendation of an elementary school music teacher, and I was probably around six at the time. I also started playing the piano at seven and the flute in high school. In second-grade, I remember calling my piano teacher to tell her that I was quitting. She later called back and asked if I was sure (laughs). Knowing how to play the piano has been incredibly helpful. I learn music much more quickly and it’s also helped my sight-reading a lot.
I got into classical music at my junior high school. I became very interested in choral music and decided to attend a summer choral school. There, I met my college voice teacher, who teaches at the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music. I think her biggest thing was probably about being true to the text, identifying the simplest, clearest way of communicating with the audience. Of course, we talked about breath and technique, but mostly, it was that. It’s funny to think back just how little I knew about music then. I couldn’t tell a baritone from a tenor when I started college (laughs).
EH: At what age did you begin thinking about the problem of vocal technique ?
Harvey: It probably wasn’t until my sophomore year of college. An older singer had shared with me about another singer who was “falling out of resonance”, and it occurred to me then that that was what we were working towards. Up until that time, I knew how to make different sounds, but there’s a difference there and I didn’t quite know what the real technical goal was.
EH: You were part of a prestigious opera program in 2008. What are your memories and takeaways from being a part of San Francisco’s Merola Opera Program ?
Harvey: I think that year was really amazing. I had never been to San Francisco before that, and it was just an incredible experience as a singer. I remember being in school at the time and I wasn’t able to attend the call-back audition. They had me record three arias and I wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or not. I was so excited when I found out that they wanted me to sing Zerlina, my first Mozart role. It was just wonderful to feel so involved with the opera company – it was the first real opera house that I had seen - and we got to work with so many different people. It felt like they had people flying in to work with us all the time.
EH: What is one thing that you would advise younger voice students – something that isn’t taught in music school – about the career itself ?
Harvey: Well, I would definitely advise on the issue of taxes: talk to someone about it (laughs). Nobody really talks about this in music school but it is a huge part of the career. I’m married to an artist manager and I am very fortunate to see that side of the business. Many singers, even people who’ve been doing this for ten to fifteen years, don’t really know what managers have to do. For people who are at that point of their career, it’s definitely beneficial to learn about it.
Most singers that I run into know how to take care of themselves. But I sometimes wish that the conservatories – they have so many students now – would be more honest with the students. It’s a difficult career and there are so many singers. You definitely have to have the talent, but you also must have an incredible amount of luck. I don’t think it’s said often enough. I’m sure that there are 50 singers who have a better voice than me, but they just haven’t had the same opportunities that I’ve been lucky to have. And that is a huge part.
EH: For many musicians, auditions are done with once a job’s been secured or a competition’s been won; for singers, it’s pretty much a never-ending process. What advice would you give to students on persevering through rejections and not being offered a desired role ?
Harvey: First of all, it happens to everybody. And that’s very important to know, regardless of your achievements. You will not get every job. You have to know and really believe that even on your worst day, you still have a certain amount of talent – without which, you wouldn’t be where you are. It’s such a subjective art form, but you have to be happy with what you are doing.
EH: The great voices of the past: whose recordings do you find yourself constantly returning to for inspiration ?
Harvey: There’s a Youtube video of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson singing As With Rosy Steps… in Theodora, and I’ve probably watched it hundreds of times (laughs). To me, it may not be the most technically perfect, but it’s some of the most honest singing that I’ve ever heard.
EH: Before the New Year, you will have performed Handel’s Messiah several times this month. What are your genuine feelings about the piece today, and how will you approach the performance differently later this month ?
Harvey: My favorite moment in the entire work is probably the play-out of Glory to God that the chorus sings. I just find it so charming and beautiful. I love Handel and I think Messiah is just magnificent. It’s direct and it really speaks to people easily. And I’ve always tried to express that beauty and simplicity. Regardless of what you believe about Jesus and Mary, if you give yourself over to the piece, it can be so powerful. I’m overwhelmed every time I’m on stage with the orchestra and the chorus behind me, and I feel so lucky to be a part of it. Performing it at this time of year also seems to bring in a more receptive audience, and the energy is always a bit different.
EH: What are your thoughts on the future of the operatic art form ? Are people as enamored with the art form as previous generations once were ?
Harvey: I think it’s definitely changed. Fifty to one-hundred years ago, it was about the voice, bel canto singing. Today, it’s about the whole package. I understand completely why you have to get more people into the concert hall – especially the younger people – but there will continue to be sacrifices made. Sometimes, the most beautiful voices do not come in the most beautiful package. There is, of course, the thing about weight. But I think that if people are in good-enough shape to sing beautifully, if they can move across the entire stage, that should be enough. I don’t know how much further it can go on like this, but it’s very interesting to be in the business right now.
After Merola, my first role was in Dallas. Two companies closed while I was there, and I remember thinking to myself, ‘What have I gotten myself into ?’. But I think that companies that are well-managed are fine and will do alright. Can you imagine a generation of children with no arts in the schools ? I think people would see a drastic difference in the quality of life. Art is often taken for granted, but it does affect our lives. Music is an intangible thing but you feel it when it’s right and when it’s off. It’s almost like being in love.
EH: Ms. Harvey, thank you for taking the time today. Best of luck in San Francisco tomorrow.
Harvey: Thank you, it was my pleasure!