Laura, At Last!
An interview by Suzanne Calvin
Soprano Laura Claycomb’s official biography tells us that “Her delicacy, refinement and theatricality in high-flying repertoire make her one of the foremost lyric coloraturas of her generation.” All of which is perfectly true -- but that just barely scratches the surface. In addition to Miss Claycomb’s phenomenal natural talent and artistry, she’s an extraordinary personality (and a charming writer); as revealed in this Q&A with the Dallas Opera’s Suzanne Calvin.
Calvin: First things first, our audience will want to know why it took this long for a “Texas girl” to make her long-awaited debut with the Dallas Opera.
Claycomb: I have wanted to sing in Dallas since the beginning of my career, and made it a priority of my agent to find me a project to sing at Dallas Opera. Thank goodness it’s finally happening! This is a dream come true!
Calvin: You’ve made Gilda one of your signature roles; what keeps bringing you back to this Verdi heroine?
Claycomb: I identify with her! Who doesn’t remember that amazing rush you got the first time your beloved told you he loves you? Who doesn’t remember the struggles you had with your parents to make your own decisions when you were a teenager? Who hasn’t stubbornly loved someone despite all odds, and despite his unworthiness? So, add to this the fact that I absolutely love the music, and it fits my voice and vocal temperament like a glove.
Calvin: Do you find it tricky to create this self-sacrificing character without crossing the line into saccharine sweetness? What gives Gilda substance and bite?
Claycomb: I don’t think it’s hard. Everyone has always commented that my Gilda is not saccharine sweet or droopy. Yay! I have achieved my goal, then! Droopiness is the tendency you have to fight when creating this character. I find her much more defiant, headstrong and wily with her father and much more resolved to stand by her vow to love the Duke until death. She has a principle and she sticks to it. She does amazing things, especially for a sheltered girl just taken out of the convent, as a result of upholding her vow.
Calvin: What have you heard about the new Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House? It’s a venue with a very intimate feel, despite 2200 seats; will that affect your performance -- musically or dramatically?
Claycomb: I haven’t just heard about it; I came to see Moby-Dick last year! It was fantastic! The thrust of the stage, the acoustics and the house are top-class. It did feel very intimate. I remember coming to performances at Fair Park during college and feeling very distant from the action going on down below. I won’t go into the Music Hall’s faults, because that’s where I first saw opera. In grade school, St. Michael’s took us on a field trip to see Il Barbiere di Siviglia. All I remember is they sang it in English and I didn’t understand a word (sorry, guys!) What can I say? They didn’t yet have super-titles. We were ten and my entire class was obsessed with the rock band Kiss. By high school I had been bitten by the opera bug. So I dragged my entire family to see an opera at Fair Park. It was my dad’s first opera: Siegfried! He was eating candy bars in his seat by the last act to keep awake, and my sister kept nudging me at every interval and saying “Can we LEAVE now?” Luckily, now they enjoy it. At least when I’m singing! (Or so they tell me!) My sister and Mom are in agreement that they like it best when I die at the end! I don’t quite know what to think of that!!
Anyhow, the Winspear has really put Dallas into prominence on the cultural map. Everyone says, “Oh, they have that beautiful new house!” when I mention singing at Dallas Opera now. I see that it’s brought downtown alive at night. It’s so wonderful that Dallas now has a concentrated arts scene. We’ve needed this forever. It’s just one of the beautiful things the Winspear family has done for the community. Mr. and Mrs. Winspear also quietly sponsored many people through university -- a classmate of mine at SMU, for example, who now sings in the Dallas Opera chorus. I’m just sad Bill Winspear wasn’t able to see the opening -- perhaps he was looking down at us from above?!
Calvin: You’ve shown a great passion for rarely performed works, especially those from the bel canto repertoire. What is it about your coloratura and your temperament that make you ideal for such roles?
Claycomb: I think I am someone who has the chops to sing the difficult filigree, but who’s interested in more than just twittering to sound pretty! In high school, I never got even ONE part in the school musicals because my acting wasn’t great. But I’m not complaining now. I thank that for putting the fire under my butt to work hard on my acting skills throughout my lifetime. It gives me great satisfaction when critics go on and on about my acting now -- and it’s one of the things that sets me apart in this repertoire. Much of the most rewarding music for me in bel canto is the slow, heartfelt lament. I think it’s easier to infuse a tormented emotion into singing than joy, for some reason. At least for me. And why rare bel canto? Because I never have liked to go with the crowd. There’s so much beautiful music out there that nobody has ever heard! Why not sing it instead of the same old Traviata? In any case, I think I’ve had such success in bel canto because my musicality and technical prowess is grounded in real feeling. (I guess it doesn’t hurt to have easy high notes, too…)
Calvin: Our people can’t wait to see you singing opposite Paolo Gavanelli in the title role of “Rigoletto” and James Valenti as the Duke. Have you worked with these gents in these roles before, or is this a first?
Claycomb: I have heard great things about James, and everyone I know who has worked with him raves. And he’s TALL! WHOOPEE!! A TALL TENOR! Ok, I’ll calm down now. It’ll just be nice to wear heels. With Paolo, I’ve sung Gilda twice -- in Paris and Bilbao. He is one of my favorite Rigolettos. (I can’t say he IS my favorite or everyone else will be jealous!) He has this Old-World kind of voice that remembers the bel canto background that Verdi came from, yet has the power of the Verdi baritone that this role needs. In addition to being a beautiful musician, he is an intensely committed actor and a joy to play with onstage. He doesn’t just do his schtick; he reacts. A little story: when we were performing Rigoletto in Bilbao, he woke up with a doozy of a cold and a sore throat. I ended up going to the doctor with him for some reason. The doctor took one look at his throat and said, “Señor, your throat is inflamed. You need to cancel tonight’s show.” Since it was already the afternoon by this point, it was going to be impossible for the opera to find a replacement in time. So Paolo agreed to sing anyway, because he did not want to disappoint his public by canceling the show outright. They announced that he was very ill, and that he might mark (not sing out or sing things down an octave.) By the time he got to his big aria (“Cortigiani, vil razza dannata”), he had basically lost his voice. But he kept on singing, some of it down an octave, some of it whispered almost, and put in probably one of the most heartfelt and immensely moving performances I have ever witnessed onstage. I have never been so impressed with a colleague, before or after.
Calvin: This very strong cast also includes Kirsten Chavez in her company debut and Raymond Aceto making a welcome return to the Dallas Opera stage. It must make a tremendous difference to your comfort level to know that you’re surrounded by such estimable talents.
Claycomb: I’ve sung with Ray numerous times and he’s a dear friend, so it’s comforting to know that someone I trust will be slinging me around in a sack onstage! I look forward to working with Kirsten.
Calvin: You received the majority of your schooling at SMU, earning multiple degrees in Music and Foreign Languages. What are you most keen to experience or re-visit when you get back to Dallas?
Claycomb: I can’t wait to actually spend a nice chunk of time in Dallas visiting with old friends instead of just grabbing a few days here and there during holidays or in between shows in Houston! I always feel like I’m swimming when I come to Dallas. There are so many people to see: I never get to spend the kind of time with church, high school and college friends in Dallas because I also want to spend time with my parents! Hopefully between rehearsals and shows, I’ll be able to catch up with some old friends. I have a feeling my time will feel short even then: once the shows open, I’ll be shuttling between Dallas and Houston, where I’ll be rehearsing the part of Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos. I think we’ll have quite a contingency of my “claque” at every show. It’ll keep me on my toes!
Calvin: Assuming you have a great triumph here, what role or roles might lure you back to the Dallas Opera sometime in the not-too-distant future?
Claycomb: I don’t know what they’re planning but there are quite a few roles I still have not done that I’d love to do. Some people keep their roles to a handful and rehash the same stuff all the time; I’m always open to new challenges and horizons! I’m like a kid in a candy shop when it comes to music. It sounds crazy to hear myself say this, but I’ve performed over 50 operatic roles onstage and in concert already. And I still have so many I’d love to do! Amina in Sonnambula is one that I’d love to sing but has never happened, for one reason or another; Fiorilla in Turco in Italia is another, Corinna in Il Viaggio a Rheims; Berg’s Lulu is a biggie and most of all, the part of Clémence in L’Amour de Loin by Kaija Saariaho. It’s a gorgeous opera with beautiful vocal writing and a moving text by Amin Malouf. I was there at its debut with Dawn Upshaw in the role and I made the first English translation of the libretto from the French. (My ex-boyfriend was the dramaturg on the show and didn’t have time to do it.) I still eat my heart out every time I hear they’re doing it someplace! I would love to have a role written for me. That hasn’t happened enough for my taste, but unfortunately not enough contemporary opera is getting done these days. We forget that in Mozart’s time up to even Puccini’s time, singers were singing 80% new music all the time. Audiences expected to hear new things every season, not the same old stuff they already knew.
Lastly, though, I will admit that I’m looking at a role that I promised I would never do: the Queen of the Night. (Never say never, right?) Houston wanted me to do it years ago, but I turned it down for fear that my voice wasn’t steely-sounding enough. My voice has never been aggressive, and I always thought the role needed to be sung that way. My teacher Gerald Moore finally convinced me that I could sing it with my voice -- -- not hammering it out but singing it beautifully. Most people start out with this role and then lose the high notes as their career develops. I am happy to say that my voice, although it’s rounded out and become stronger with over 15 years of a major career, is still stratospheric enough to pick this role up now. How many sopranos can say that about a high F? Hee hee!