Rising Stars: An Interview with Laura Claycomb, Part 1

The facilitation of this interview by the Dallas Opera and by the Houston Grand Opera is gratefully acknowledged:

[Below: Coloratura soprano Laura Claycomb, promotional photograph, courtesy of Laura Claycomb.]

Wm: Although born in Corpus Christi, you grew up in Metropolitan Dallas, Texas, where your mother gave music lessons in your home and you sang in your church choir. What are your earliest memories of operatic music, and what types of music interested you in your childhood and early teenage years?

LC: Thank you for mentioning this, as I’d love to set the record straight.  It bugs the hell out of me that they put that I’m “from” Corpus Christi in my biography in programs!  Even when I sang in Dallas they put that in their program.  It’s so annoying! For the record, I AM NOT FROM CORPUS!  I was born there and maybe lived there one year.   We moved to Dallas when I was an infant, so I don’t even remember Corpus Christi.   I am a Dallasite, through and through!  Heck, I even went to college in Dallas!  What more do you want?? 😉  Grrr!

I don’t remember much about opera as a child, although my mom, being a singer herself, was a fan of Callas, Scotto and Moffo.  My first recollection of opera was from a school field trip when I was probably in the 4th grade.  We went to the Dallas Opera to see Rossini’s “Il Barbiere di Siviglia” – in English.  I remember this because my only big recollection from it was that “someone sang that Figaro, Figaro, Figaro aria”; I was supposed to understand it all (because it was in English) but I didn’t.  This was obviously before supertitles.

I was big into whatever was popular music as I grew up.  My parents were a little “square” (sorry, Mom and Dad!) so we didn’t listen to any of the psychedelic stuff or really hard rock, but Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass were a big influence, as well as funk and soul music.  I can sing along with anything Burt Bacharach wrote, I bet. Then came along my obsession with Barbara Streisand, followed by David Bowie, then my sister’s fixation with Wham!, mine with OMD, etc…

[Below: High School student Laura Claycomb (left) with her sister, Lisa; family photograph, courtesy of Laura Claycomb.]

Of course, throughout this, I studied piano and violoncello, and sang in church choir, so Bach and Mozart were always a staple, as well.  I still adore hearing a piano tinkling, as it brings back Mom giving piano lessons at home.  I think it was a nice mix.  I have quite eclectic taste in music.  I’m not a big jazz fan, although I have some good friends who are top jazz musicians.  I love to WATCH jazz and see it develop in person, but I find it unsettling to listen to – it doesn’t relax me at all.  The only rule for music for me is that music is to be actively listened to:  I hate the idea of background music.

Wm: Your biographies mention that you, as a 15 year old, received high praise for a solo in performances on a church choir tour. Yet many successful soloists in church choirs do not become internationally acclaimed opera stars. What was that solo, and what impact did it have on your decision to pursue vocal studies?

LC: There were many things and people that left their indelible imprint on my impressionable brain.  That first solo was called “Galilee Man” and was part of a musical called “A Season to Celebrate” written by our church choir director, Alan Pote.  It started out low and then popped up to about a couple of high notes (probably g’s or so?)   I had incredible choir directors over the years – Austin Lovelace, Judy Greenleaf, Alan Pote, Lloyd Pfautsch, many of whom were also composers.  I feel very lucky to have crossed their paths.  Alan gave me that beautiful solo back when I still thought I was a contralto.  I just thought the high notes were some trick I did.  (Sometimes now I kind of wonder if they really are just that, after all! Ha ha!)

While on tour with our choir, I realized that I could move people with my singing when audience members came up to me in tears after the show.  It was immensely powerful for a rather shy kid who felt ever out of place back at school.  I loved it.  I’d always loved making music with the cello and piano, but practicing was a chore.  But when I practiced singing, it just felt fun.

I listened obsessively to Maria Callas, and scoured Dallas Public Library for arias and songs from her albums, and would sing along with her voice blasting in the background when I got home from high school.  Didn’t everyone do that??   This is actually one reason I took so long between studying Lucia and actually singing it. I wanted to make sure I was singing it with MY voice, and it was hard to stamp out La Callas from my memory and brain.

[Below: Laura Claycomb (left), with her father, mother and sister Lisa; edited image, based on a family photograph, courtesy of Laura Claycomb.]

Early success in singing competitions in high school also had a great impact on my decision to pursue singing.  I was in State choir for three years of high school, I excelled in Solo and Ensemble competitions, and I was queen of N.A.T.S. competitions in my region (Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma.)  I won the high school division my junior year, so they put me in with college freshmen my senior year.  I won every year competing with the division above me until I graduated from college.

This was my solace for not being popular at high school and not being given my due by the choir director in the one forum I craved to shine in – the high school musical.  I never got a part.  So I worked like a dog on my singing.  So I actually should thank that guy for giving me a reason to work so hard!   Once they figured out this was my passion, my parents were immensely supportive.  Mom fought hard behind the scenes to get me in to Mrs. Barbara Hill Moore’s studio at age 15.

Mrs. Moore was the one who got me started in competitions, and really brought together all the elements of my voice, my personality and my style.  Competitions really were the best affirmation of my talent, and I desperately needed that recognition.  My dad got me organized and focused me on finding the best programs to train, etc. and was the official driver to competitions.  Poor thing: he sat through all my competitors before I would come out to compete. My dad can give you his rendition of every female English language aria in the repertoire. And he’s not a singer.  He makes up new text to them, too.  It’s pretty hilarious.  Hint: if he never hears “Monica’s Waltz” ever again in his life, it will be too soon!

The summer before my senior year in high school, I decided to go to Interlochen, Michigan Center for the Arts music camp.  I figured that if I could stand being surrounded by music all day long there, it might be a good thing to pursue in college; I could give up the dream of being a veterinarian.  Good thing that I loved it, as I almost faint at the sight of needles and blood…

[Below: Interlochen (Michigan) Center for the Arts music camp; resized image, based on a photograph from www.interlochen.com.]

While I was there, I attended a life-changing recital of Marvis Martin.  I can’t tell you a thing she sang, but I was blown away.  Afterwards, we were able to have a question and answer session with her (again, I can’t tell you a thing I may have asked or she may have answered…) but after that night, I was resolved to be a singer like THAT.  She was my inspiration!  I should write her and tell her that, I think!

Wm: You went to Southern Methodist University, where you continued your studies under Barbara Hill Moore at SMU’s Meadows School of the Arts. You have credited Mrs Hill Moore with steering you into the high soprano repertory, even though you had thought of yourself as a contralto. What techniques did you and she use to develop your upper register?

LC: I have no idea.  We only started to notice my voice once I’d had extensive orthodontic work done on my teeth in junior high – I had a cross-bite and a very small upper palate, so I had this contraption in which we’d turn a key to expand the two plates of my palate slowly over time.  When the palate expander was done, I could fit a green been between my two front teeth.  (I don’t have many pictures from this period, thankfully, with my Danny Partridge hairdo…)  My big solo came after we’d gotten my teeth in order and the palate was expanded.  I wonder if my voice would have had the same success with my “original” physiology, but I really doubt it.  I’m sure my expanded palate changed the placement of my voice.

Post-solo, I was 15 and in high school when I started working with Mrs. Moore.  I had convinced myself that the voice type of “mezzo soprano” was much more exotic and interesting than soprano, so although I had no real idea what it was, I wanted to be different from everyone else.  (Yes, you can laugh out loud here.)  Mrs. Moore had me go way up into the top of my voice in our exercises, and I thought they were just that: exercises.  I had always sung alto in the choir because I could sight-read so well and sing harmony.  I sometimes helped the sopranos out when they needed some high notes – I really thought it was just some party trick!

When Mrs. Moore told me to go buy the soprano book of Italian art songs, I just said “OK!”  I thought it was just another way to stretch my voice.  Which of course it was, just with a different target in mind than I realized.  At some point, she assigned me an aria and I commented to her, “But that’s a soprano song!”  She replied, “But, you are a soprano.” And she now tells me I just said, “Oh, OK!”  I was a sponge and luckily she knew enough to throw everything she could at me.  I absorbed it all.

[Below: Laura Claycomb’s teacher, Barbara Hill Moore of Southern Methodist University Meadows School of the Arts; professional photograph from SMU.]

I was hungry to do things, hungry to have recognition, hungry to pour out my soul into this new world I had discovered of song.  My voice teacher always was of the mind that if you lined up the middle of the voice, the top would come.  Luckily she didn’t push me into sheer coloratura things when I was first studying.  We never really worked on my high notes until my junior year when I got into Merola and had to prepare Gilda. I had sung up there, but we didn’t WORK on it.

Mrs. Moore was instrumental in stabilizing the middle of my voice and teaching me how to present myself.  I was shy and hid behind a kind of impassive façade when I sang.  She made me aware of this, and for that reason, I took acting courses all through college.  Everyone now just assumes that I naturally was always well put together.  Mrs. Moore (and my family!) can attest that this was NOT always the case, and that Mrs. Moore was instrumental in making me such a “package!”

When I was learning Gilda, I started working on the role with Tommy Hayward, another teacher on faculty who had sung in Rigoletto and had great tips on how to access the tip top.  I doubt I would’ve been able to sustain high E’s, etc… if I hadn’t worked some with him.  I think it was wise that Mrs. Moore hadn’t pushed me before to squeak out super-high sounds (I now have up to a G and sometimes an A) as that can bend the cartilage in a young person’s throat before it’s hardened.  I worked my whole career to try and stabilize the top, instead of just popping it out in a sort of whistle tone.

I only found out about 10 years ago that it was my jaw placement that was giving me problems in the stability of those notes, so it’s been a long road to have them sound like I want them to sound.  I had to get orthodontics done again to realign my temporomandibular joint (jaw.) The same orthodontics which had brought my voice to the fore had impeded my jaw from opening properly and actually negatively affected my proper placement of high D!

Everyone always comments about how “easy” my voice is, as if it all just came to me so easily.   But it’s all just a façade — I’ve had to work hard to develop and accomplish my technique. I’ve taken lessons with a ton of different teachers: Dickson Titus, Marlena Malas, etc… My subsequent teachers, the late Norma Newton and the very much alive Gerald Martin Moore really have helped me nail down some of my technical faults and smooth out my vocal production in the past ten years.

Wm: In interviews and in your website’s “advice column” for young artists, you have been candid about the advantages and disadvantages of collegiate vocal studies program such as SMU for an aspiring opera singer as opposed to the famous “conservatory” programs. Would you recount your opinions of the strengths and weaknesses of each?

LC: Well, I think the main point is that you need a fantastic teacher who will teach you technique, no matter where you go to school.  You have to see if you work well with the teacher before you commit, since even famous teachers work differently for each student.  Some won’t click with some students, some will.   As long as you have a great teacher and either a great learned or innate musicality, you’re good to go.  If you really need to be taught musicality, that can happen in any great school with great music faculty.  It takes a lot of research and a few trial lessons to know.

That said, some people like me who lacked confidence and just needed nurturing might do well in a smaller, less pressurized environment.  If a student is already quite advanced and already has a strong sense of self and musicianship, a very competitive conservatory may be the perfect place.  It always depends.

Those working singers who are teaching in university (and able to spend enough time with students to make it worthwhile) can bring their experience to the drawing table.  But it is very hard to have a big career and teach. I have one student in Italy, and the poor girl barely gets to see me.  So most of the time, famous working opera singers as teachers usually are just not there enough to really follow their students.

Singers who have quit singing and know how to teach (!) would be a great asset to a university or conservatory.  But beware that just because someone has an excellent technique or had a great career doesn’t mean he knows how to convey that.  Teaching is an art in and of itself and takes time to learn how to reach students and how to develop a young voice.  I find that people that have gone through vocal crisis themselves and have come out the other side singing even better make the best teachers, simply because they had to figure out what their technique was.

The drawbacks of a non-famous school environment may be that you are out of the loop of how to take the next steps in an operatic career or  you may not have the competitive edge you could get with visiting luminaries at a big deal school.  Your teachers may have always been in academia.  But this hopefully means they know how to teach!!  So there’s a tradeoff, and you always have to talk to students to see who has a great reputation, who’s banking on the name of one famous student they taught, who gets all the bad singers and somehow manages to turn them around, etc…

In a smaller, less competitive environment, you might get more chance to shine than you would in a huge conservatory program.  But a huge or famous conservatory carries weight, and you meet a lot of important people and are more likely to be heard by important people in important programs.  Young artist programs after college are a crucial step not only training-wise but to develop a network, so it can help if important people have heard you.   But for choosing a school, it matters what your personality is and what you need.

Some super confident young singers need to realize they aren’t the only one out there and have hammered in their heads that they need to work like a dog as well to do what they envision.  A big or famous school may be just what they need.    Others need the support of being a big deal in a more sheltered place so they can try out their wings before flying away.  This was my case.

In order to make it in this business, though, you have to be an overachiever, no matter where you go.

I have come to believe that the main talents of a great singer are two-fold: to be able to know what advice to take, and to be able to quickly soak up physical directions, apply them to what they’re hearing and feeling – and be able to recreate them.  This sounds like all singers should be able to do this or to learn, but I think this is the one innate talent that many people with “good voices” lack, and I truly think those people will never make careers.

Wm: How did you come to apply for the San Francisco Opera Merola program? You have written that one of the most important things one can learn in such programs as the Merola is how to get along with other artists, and to tame one’s competitive nature, which you believe can be detrimental to young singers. What are some of your memories of the Merola experience?

LC: I don’t remember how I found out about Merola.  I seriously had no idea what a big deal it was. My dad bought me a copy of Musical America, and at his office we’d pore through it to see what programs or competitions would be good for me.  We made list after list of things I might be able to do, and I probably ran it by my teacher. I’ve always been a big brain-stormer.  I’m sure she was the one who told me to go for it.  She came with me to New York to do the audition, and it changed my life.

Merola has been described as “opera boot camp” by Dolora Zajick.  It is very intense, and I made the schedule even more intense by staying upstairs in the ballet studio every night my first summer, trying out different things technically until they’d kick me out of the building.   It was there that I started to really access the tip top of my voice.  I was very inspired by all the “big girls” in Merola who had graduate degrees from famous conservatories and seemed to already know everything.  They had rock-solid high e’s and d’s, and I had never really ventured up there for long. I wasn’t even legal to drink yet, for goodness’ sake!  But I was covering Gilda, so I needed a good high E for the end of the vendetta.  So I practiced at night in the ballet studio.

[Below: Laura Claycomb sings from Mozart’s “Zaide” in the 1989 Merola Opera finale at the War Memorial Opera House; edited image, based on a Lisa Kohler photograph for the San Francisco Opera.]

We “Merolini” were all in it together, so most of us were quite sociable.  Although we were in competition for the year-round fellowships at the opera, much depended on the relationships we developed.  (You figure this out much later when you look back, of course!)  A large portion of the cast would go on tour with the second show (Carmen) with Western Opera Theater (WOT, now defunct), so they had to all get along now, or the next year would be Hell.

I don’t even know where to start about my Merola experience.  I felt like I was a little remedial at first because everyone else was at least 3-5 years older than me, some more…  and most of them seemed to be “in the know” about what programs were the best, who were the hot teachers, the hubbub from New York, etc. They were all very savvy.  Many already lived in New York.

I had just come from my university in my hometown.  My first weekend in San Francisco, there was all this commotion outside the window at my host’s house, and I opened the curtains to see a huge line of floats with flamboyant drag queens on them.  I lived on Dolores Street and it was where they lined up the Gay Day Parade.   So, my Merola experience educated me on many fronts!

I had no idea about repertoire, but musically I was way ahead. We had coachings every day, and pretty soon I realized I was actually quite well prepared.  I was in advanced Italian, which was a piece of cake, since I was getting a foreign language degree at SMU.  We did many of the same types of improvisation exercises in our acting class as I had done in one of my many drama classes at university, and in our daily coachings, all the coaches commented how musical I was.  I just needed to learn to trust my musical instincts and go further with them.

Over the two summers I spent in the Merola program, the three years I spent as an Adler Fellow, and years in this career, I have noticed a pattern:  it’s not up to an amazing voice alone to have a fantastic career.  People can be very talented, but if they don’t have a positive outlook, a good personality, a willingness to try things out and the willingness to work hard, they do not go very far.  The people who get along with everyone, who are willing to experiment, who are industrious, in addition to having musical and vocal talent are the ones to go on to have long careers.

[Below: Adler Fellows basso Steven Condy (left) and soprano Laura Claycomb as Sulpice and Marie in Donizetti’s “La Fille du Regiment”, edited image, courtesy of Laura Claycomb.]

These are the people who have the humility to figure out how to sing throughout their careers and are willing to be vulnerable both onstage and off; these are the people that forge real personal relationships with the people around them (not the fake “business relationships” we’re led to believe will help us.)  These are the people that producers invite back because not only do they like the person’s talent, but they like to be around them.  One of my mottos is: Life is too short to work with jerks [Wm: My bowdlerization of Laura’s even more emphatic term].

I am sure there are quite a few producers who think this way, as well.  There are a lot of singers out there:  people have to want to work with you to hire you, and then to hire you back. Charisma isn’t just something you turn on when you’re onstage, it’s your connection with people.

Wm: In an interview you had with Janos Gereben a decade ago, he recounted his impressions of you, as a Merola artist, singing the Bell Song (L’Air des Clochettes) from Delibes’ “Lakme” and your E above high C. You discussed your efforts to build vocal support for those stratospheric notes. Do you still sing that aria? What roles do you sing that require you (or at least give you the option) of singing the super-high notes?

LC: I haven’t sung that aria in ages and ages!   Since they hardly ever do “Lakmé” (and I’ve never done the whole role), it doesn’t get a lot of air time. I don’t do many gala concerts where it’d be appropriate, and if so, they always want to hear my Caro nome, anyway…

Almost all my repertoire requires high notes, notwithstanding all the Mahler I do in concert work.  I’m able to use the stratospheric notes in all the bel canto music I sing, sometimes even in Handel, and even in some more modern repertoire (Stravinsky’s “Rossignol”, anyone?)  There isn’t a lot in lyric coloratura repertoire that does NOT require these notes, even if that means they’re just expected to be interpolated.

My technical work for the past twenty years has been to back up my high notes with some body underneath them.  My voice has grown in the past few years; I think my personal happiness may have something to do with it, strangely.  I just feel like I’m in such a wonderful place emotionally right now and I am settled in every way.  My voice has grounded as a result, without losing the high notes, thank goodness!

This last year, I sang all the heroines in Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann” (with the coloratura Giulietta version) in concert, and I’m itching to do them again some place on stage.  I also sang the original version of Zerbinetta’s aria in concert.  Someone’s recorded it from the radio broadcast and put it on Youtube, and I must admit, it’s pretty damn good, especially considering I was sick when singing it.  So I still have some stratospheric stuff up my sleeve.

However, I’d like to take advantage of the size and warmth of my middle now that it’s rounded out some, and concentrate on roles that require that as well as agility and high sfumature.  I’ve been looking at French romantic music more and more, which I avoided before because most of the roles are quite lyric except for a coloratura aria.  I think now that quite suits me.   But my fach isn’t changing anytime soon, I don’t think.  I just bring what I’ve learned to the roles left in my fach.  There are a lot!!  I’m flexible musically and linguistically, so I don’t think I’m limited to any type of role.

Wm: As an Adler fellow you performed smaller roles in the 1990 through 1993 seasons and were performed in operas starring such operatic luminaries as Leonie Rysanek, Wieslaw Ochman, Leona Mitchell, Jerry Hadley, Elena Obratsova and Vladimir Atlantov. Were there artists of that era at San Francisco Opera that particularly inspired you and that you learned from?

LC: Wow!  I sang with Wieslaw Ochman?  I was too young and naïve to know who was a big deal and who wasn’t.   I learned an incredible amount from Ruth Ann Swenson, Flicka (Frederica von Stade), Jerry Hadley and countless other artists who came through San Francisco Opera’s doors.

[Below: Mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade (Flicka) in a 2005 portrait by Robert Miller.]

I invited a lot of the big deal singers I was working with out for coffee just so I could pick their brains about their career paths, etc… This was before the internet, so there wasn’t so much readily available information out there.

Ruth Ann really knew how to make the top of her voice ping!  And I always enjoyed the warmth she gave both vocally and dramatically onstage.  She’s a rather no-nonsense sort of singer, so it was always so funny to see her and Jerry Hadley’s different ways of staging things in the operas we did together (Flute and Elisir). She’d just say, “Tell me where I go” and then map out the way she’d make it come alive, and Jerry would have these long, intricate discussions about his motivation, his concept of the character, the way he felt this line should go, etc…  And yet they both got equally engaging and wonderful performances out of such different processes.  I can’t believe Jerry’s gone, and it still pains me to know how he went and that nobody was able to help him.

Flicka has been an idol since the very beginning.  Her sheer humanity comes through in her singing; she taught by her own beautiful, considerate example.  There are things to learn which are not musical from her, as well; these are actually some of the dearest memories I have of this great artist.  I always wanted to emulate her ability to be totally truthful and honest, yet never catty or mean.  It really is a hard line to toe, and I still fail at it often.  In order to be truly critical of people, we can fall so easily into talking badly about them, especially when we’re trying to be clever with our other colleagues.

She manages to be positive at all times.  She probably doesn’t remember this, but I asked her once how she did it; she told me that she just tried to avoid saying anything about anyone that she would not mind them overhearing.  Some people (who will stay unmentioned, in light of my trying to achieve some Flicka good karma) were actually great examples of how NOT to sing, how NOT to act onstage, how NOT to treat your colleagues, etc…  This was an amazing part of my education, as well.  These people go on the “Life is too short to work with jerks” list and I don’t work with them if the opportunity comes up.  There are too many wonderful people in this business: why waste my time with the few bad apples?

Other people I met and worked with because of my work at the San Francisco Opera had profound effects on my technique and my interpretation.  I worked quite a lot with Regine Crespin over the years.  She taught me so much about style, but also about the style of teaching.  Just her laying a hand on my side and saying, “Breeeeave, Dahling…” brought me back into concentrating on the main pillar of singing – breathing.  Ethel Evans, who was on staff there, was my hero.  Everyone thought she was mad, but I asked to work with her intensively.  I give her credit for my acting skills to this day – nobody teaches true acting technique like that any more – where to put your hand, your eyes, your body, to convey something; the anatomy of a gesture…  I can still hear her getting on my case about looking down while onstage:  “What’s so interesting on the floor?”

I was also able to get to know and work with Regina Resnik.  She worked with me on something Hans Hotter had tried to get me to do years before, but I either wasn’t ready or he didn’t know how to tell me how to do it: get a body of sound up in the tip top of my voice, instead of just flipping it into some kind of super-head-voice thingy. It was only after this that I was able to crescendo on super high notes.

For the continuation of this interview, see: Rising Stars: An Interview with Laura Claycomb Part 2.

In Part 2 of this Interview, Laura Claycomb discusses how she got her break in opera’s “big time”, what persons most influenced her career, and what she thinks of that tenor aria with its nine high C’s.