Meet Jennifer Rowley
Soprano Jennifer Rowley will sing Tosca at the Met next January, but you can catch her here in Nashville first! Here she opens up about the role and more.
How would you describe the character of Tosca?
Tosca is very close to my heart because she reminds me of myself in a lot of ways! She is young and vibrant and full of love and passion. Sardou’s play La Tosca, on which the libretto is based, very clearly outlines her character as a young opera star. Her background and childhood were quite a bit different than mine, but I relate to her as a young and up-and-coming diva! The play has her making her debut at La Scala when she is 16, and where we meet her in Act I is several years later, so I would place her in her early 20’s. The fame she is experiencing is relatively new to her, and her experience in relationships is nil up to this point. When I look at Tosca’s jealousy over another woman in Act I, I really relate it back to my first real boyfriend in high school and how jealous I was as a young person newly in love! I would never describe her as a crazy jealous diva as people tend to do. The love and passion she feels for Mario are new and exciting for her. I think she is funny in her jealousy, and I really like to keep that youthfulness in her, always.
What is the most exciting and the most challenging part of this role?
Tosca really takes a journey over the course of three acts. The character changes and develops, as does the music! The real genius of Puccini is how he writes for Tosca over the course of the opera. In Act I we meet a young person, newly in love and passionate about so many things—religion, music, and her lover Mario. Puccini’s music is light and almost coquettish in his themes for Act I. There is even a bit of a nod to Musetta’s theme in La Bohème in the first scene of Act I, so we know that Puccini meant for her to start out young, fresh, and vibrant—probably all the reasons that Mario loves her! As the opera progresses and Tosca experiences immense tragedy and torture at the hands of Scarpia, her music and the orchestration get bigger, more intense, and more difficult. It is an amazing journey to take, because the music really fills the character and her actions. It is almost as if Puccini were choreographing for Tosca in his orchestral writing, especially in Act II. So much is in the music that fuels the character and the change she experiences. This journey is the most exciting part of singing Tosca, as the music gets more and more difficult and the orchestration heavier as the drama escalates. This is the most challenging part of the role.
Since this is a role you perform often, how do you keep it fresh and exciting?
I find something new in the character and in the music every time I sing Tosca, and it astonishes me that I can add a layer to her each and every time. The last time I sang it, I actually heard something in the music that I had never heard before. I was in a staging rehearsal for the death of Scarpia—Spoiler Alert—and as we were doing the first stab, I heard a small theme in the piano right before I say “Questo è il baccio di Tosca!” (This is Tosca’s kiss.) I stopped cold and asked the director if we could listen to something again, and I asked the rehearsal pianist to please play those few measures again. And there it was, a small two-note theme that fully suggests that Tosca twists the knife after she has stabbed Scarpia! I had never even noticed it before, and I am so happy that I did! It is a small thing, but honestly it tells me so much about her mindset in this moment. I love this part of singing roles many times; there is always something to learn, some way to grow.
What would you tell audiences to look for or listen for in this opera?
Tosca is really one of the best operas for opera newbies and opera veterans alike, which is why I think it is done so frequently throughout the world. It really has everything: passion, a love triangle, torture, heartbreak, murder, death. It’s basically the Game of Thrones of opera! Sit back and enjoy the storytelling with this one, honestly. Even if you don’t speak Italian and don’t look at one word of the English translation, you will still know what is happening in the story. The orchestra is such a huge character in the piece and helps drive the drama.
What was your first introduction to opera?
I got into opera very late in my development. I always did a lot of musical theatre, and when I went to college, I had never even seen an opera live! My very first live opera was when I was 20 years old. I was asked to be an exchange student for a summer with the Instituto Superior del Arte of the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires, Argentina. On my second night there, my host took me to see La Traviata. The theater was so large that there were camera men on stage capturing the drama close up and projecting it onto two huge jumbotron screens on either side of the stage! I was completely enthralled. When we arrived at Act III, I don’t think I left the edge of my seat. I was speechless with what I had just seen, and the very next day I went to the library at the Colon and took out the score for La Traviata. I was hooked, and I never looked back.
This is your first time to Nashville! What's on your must-see, must-do list?
I know this is going to sound silly, but I am a huge foodie and can’t wait to eat everything in Nashville! Of course, I can’t wait to visit the Grand Ole Opry and see all the live music, but my heart is drawn to the food. Richard Blaze and Andrew Little’s places are definitely on my list, but I also am just looking forward to some barbecue and hot chicken! I am taking recommendations, and if someone can find me gluten-free hot chicken, I am in!
Who is your opera idol and why?
Maria Callas will forever be my opera idol. She is the epitome of how to balance incredible vocalism and emotionally connected acting. However, there are some ladies out there right now who are doing incredible things: Sondra Radvanovsky is just hands down incredible, and Anna Netrebko is a true star diva! I really admire and hold both ladies in incredibly high esteem. I have to tell you, getting to sing Roxane in Cyrano de Bergerac at the Met, a role Sondra premiered there, in her costumes, was just a thrill for me. It was an honor to get to walk in her footsteps. Singing with Anna at Covent Garden in the final performances of John Copley’s production of La Bohème was a highlight of my career. She was an absolute gem to work with, an incredible colleague and an amazing artist. I learned a lot from her, namely that she is always herself and genuine in every situation.
What music do you like to listen to?
I am a pop music junkie! I love everything that’s on the radio right now, and I am sorry, but “Despacito” is my jam and makes me want to get up and dance every time it comes on. Bruno Mars, Lady Gaga, Sara Bareilles, Sia, P!nk, Ke$ha: I love it all! I also have a deep love of country music, and I am really looking forward to seeing some live bands play while I am down in Nashville. I am really bummed to miss Alison Krauss while I am there. (I will be in rehearsal.) I absolutely love her voice and her storytelling.
Why is opera relevant today?
Opera is something to be experienced. It really is the only medium of its kind. The power of the unamplified human voice soaring over an orchestra is a scientific phenomenon that needs to be experienced and felt. Opera has the power to move you like nothing else does; not only is it about the storytelling, but it is about the power of the music and raw human emotion to get inside of you and move you. It creates a feeling that I can’t equate to anything else in life, and we all need this. We all need to experience this, to escape our lives for a few hours and allow music to move us.