My first experience seeing Jennifer(Jenna) Black perform was as Elle in Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine. If you are unfamiliar with the work I will tell you that it is 50 straight minutes of just Elle, there is never another character that comes in at any point in time. Jenna handled this massive role with great aplomb and from that point I had a new artist whom I admired deeply. The following summer I worked with her in Don Giovanni. I remembered her artistry, but now I got to see how kind and generous Jenna was as a colleague. Jenna continues to be a kind and generous colleague by granting me this interview. I hope you enjoy.
Me: A lot of great artists have gone through the Merola program in San Francisco, but how you got there is a story I’m quite fond of. Would you mind sharing that?
Jenna: Oh yeah, that one!
When I was looking in the Opera America Guide for a summer program after completing my undergrad, I stumbled upon Merola and saw that it was affiliated with the San Francisco Opera. With both of my parents having grown up out west and having a fondness for the city, I thought “what better place than to spend the summer in San Francisco”!
I knew it was prestigious but, in all honesty, I spent most of my early career completely ignorant of the level of programs and competitions for which I was auditioning. I always got plenty nervous but it was beneficial to me to not realize the full spectrum of what might happen if I totally crashed and burned these auditions.
That was the major selling point, to spend the summer in San Fran with generous side helpings of doing what I love to do, gather irreplaceable knowledge and working with some pretty amazing people.
Turns out I was lucky enough to get to spend TWO summers in San Francisco and also participate in the last WOT tour. Ignorance was bliss!
Me: This brings me to a question that I didn’t actually think I’d ever ask another singer: do you think young singers today have too much information and too many resources so easily available?
Jenna: Too many resources, no. Too much information, perhaps. I think it depends on one’s personality. Some singers, for example, like to see who else is auditioning and what their competition is, some would rather not know.
On that note, when I started out I didn’t really know who the big hitting competitors were, I was just doing my thing.I think it’s important for young singers to have confidence in their skill and what they, as an individual have to offer. Companies want to see you do well, they don’t want a copycat of some famous singer.
Back to resources: The thing to remember about recordings is that in recent years there is so much sound manipulation, it’s almost impossible to know how these singers sound live. Listening to a recording to get a sense of style is great, but they should not be used as the ultimate learning material. Trust your teacher and coaches for that.
Does this answer your question?
Me: I couldn’t have asked for a better answer. You say that we trust our teachers and coaches for all of that and I completely agree. But, as performers we are often away from our teachers and coaches. How significant is your own independence when you’re actually performing?
Jenna: For me, it’s important to do enough prep work before getting on the road. My teacher tailors necessary technical points for each role, which we work out before I leave, but fortunately she is also available via Skype if I find myself in a sticky situation. At this point in my career I am fortunate enough to know my voice and how to handle pacing, fatigue, illness, etc. But for a long while I still had a skype lesson or two if need be while on the road.
This new found independence is quite liberating, I must admit, but it has taken a long while for me to feel this way (I only felt this way consistently for perhaps 1.5 -2 years) Luckily my chosen few “board of directors” (trusted teacher and coaches) understand the way I work and vice versa. Again, it has taken me years to find these wonderful, talented and trustworthy people. I would say that confidence plays a larger role while I’m performing than independence does. If I have the tools I need to perform well in any situation then I have no problem contacting my board of directors should I need help.
Me: You’ve taken on and conquered monumental soprano heroine roles such as Mimi, Violetta, Juliette and Poulenc’s one woman tour de force La Voix Humaine. These roles are challenging for their vocal demands and their historical precedent. How do you personally handle the task of performing them?
Jenna: Mimi is like an old friend, I love having the chance to visit with her every chance I get. Vocally, the role is very comfortable and she’s a character with whom I can identify with on many levels. Obviously I’ve never experienced tuberculosis, but both Mimi’s and Violetta’s sickness are a small part of who they are. They weren’t always sick and I believe it’s important to portray them for the women they are, then layer the addition of their illness and circumstance. If you’ve known and loved anyone that has been struck by a serious illness, you know this to be true. What do they like to do in their spare time? What books would they read? What’s their favorite color, food, flower, etc? What does their laugh sound like? What makes them happy? Mimi and Violetta are selfless and loving women and I just love them.
Elle in La Voix was very challenging for me. It is only you on stage “hearing” your lover on the other end of the phone with the occasional interruption of the operator. Learning this role took A LOT of time and energy, and money! It’s one of those roles where, just when you think you’ve got it down, you slip back and start going in circles! That’s where the staging process came in handy. I thought, “okay, at this section I’m standing by this table…at this section I’m halfway on the floor”, so for me with this piece, even though I could have had more liberty on stage, it was important to have those anchor points.
I draw a lot on personal experience and I’d like to think of myself as a very empathetic person. This helps me identify with the characters I portray even if it’s a situation which I’ve never experienced. There are always elements to every story one can identify with.
Vocally I’ve learned how to pace myself with certain roles. Mimi and Elle in La Voix are very comfortable. With Verdi I need to be more rested to retain the agility for the coloratura sections. As we have a baby on the way and I’m singing more Verdi these days, I welcome the challenge of being able to sing through this style on less rest. Thank goodness for technique!
Me: In recent seasons you’ve also starting taking on roles that are seldom performed like Bea in Heggie’s Three Decembers or Lida in Verdi’s La Battalia di Legnano, which prior to your performance had only been presented 4 times in the United States. Is there a great pressure in these roles or is there less pressure in these roles due to the relative anonymity?
Jenna: Less pressure, actually. I only had the original recording of Three Decembers and a few recordings of Battalia. For 3D I listened to the recordings for entrances, tricky bits, you know, and the original cast was AMAZING, of course. I had a great time creating my Bea with the other two members of the cast and our extremely talented creative team, I couldn’t have asked for a better experience. You discover so many layers to each character in that piece, I came home from rehearsal both exhausted and fulfilled.
As I’m just getting my feet wet with early Verdi, it was quite liberating to sing a role rarely performed. There isn’t an expectation of “well, Callas did this and Scotto did that”, so I felt freedom and had only my voice in my ear while performing. Which, in turn, taught me A LOT as far as building confidence, as we discussed before. All of our voices are unique and our strengths and weaknesses are different, why not embrace that and see just how far we can go as artists?
Me: I’ve asked a lot of questions about pressure and I’m going to wrap it up by asking how do you handle the pressure of singing at major houses like the Metropolitan Opera?
Jenna: Having done the competition at 21 and starting the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program at 26, I essentially grew up at the Met, which is a double edged sword. On one side, I know what is expected of me, I know my way around the building and personalities, what the acoustics are like, what to expect while on stage. I have had the chance to work with some amazing singers, conductors, directors and the highest quality of costumes, hair and make up artists and backstage staff. On the other side, it’s very difficult to break out of the stigma of young artist there, even though it’s been 8 years since I completed the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program.
When I walk into the building I still struggle with the feelings and insecurities of having been a young artist there. But when I can get myself out of that mindset and tell myself, “hey, they keep hiring me back, I must be doing something right, I must belong here in some capacity”, that gives me a reality check. I envy people with big egos and massive amounts of self confidence. I’ve always fought myself for those things. Within the last 3 years or so there have been many things I’ve dealt with in my personal life, both positive and negative, which have made me realize that pressure and nerves are useless, except when the adrenaline they produce can get you THROUGH a difficult performance rather than hinder it. I have never felt competitive with others, only myself. Therefore my goal is to always do better than I’ve done in the past and keep moving forward, never get complacent and always be the best version of myself.
Me: Your vocal maturation seems to have opened up your repertoire considerably. Do you have any roles that you now excitedly look at and say “thank god, I’m finally ready for this”?
Jenna: Yes! The lyric side of Strauss: Arabella, the Marschallin, Daphne to name a few. I recently performed Strauss’ Four Last Songs with orchestra which was liberating, exciting and in a place where i felt completely at home vocally. I’m looking at more early Verdi and exploring which gals are right for me right now. In a few short years I look forward to some meatier Puccini roles like Tosca and Butterfly. I’m VERY excited about all of this new, beautiful rep.
Me: I’m going to finish this interview by asking if you had one piece of advice for young artists what would it be?
Jenna: Be yourself, be confident, find a handful of people you can trust and keep them close, be honest with yourself and your expectations, always give your all and open your mouth and sing!
Me: I actually have one more question. As a fellow southerner I have to ask Texas, Memphis or KC BBQ?
Jenna: Oooooh, BBQ…that’s a hard one. I’m going to go with Texas 😉
Jenna’s artistry speaks for itself to people who have never met her. You could go visit her website and listen to her Mimi or Desdemona and say to yourself “wow, she really knows what she’s doing”. But, she is 8 months pregnant at the moment and gave me so much of her time for this interview. I’m hard pressed to think of how a person could be more generous.