The following interview took place in the administrative offices of the Glimmerglass Festival, whose facilitation is deeply appreciated.
[Below: Lyric coloratura Rachele Gilmore; edited image, based on a Dario Acosta photograph, courtesy of Rachele Gilmore.]
Wm: What are your earliest memories of music?
RG: I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t aware of music. My mother said I was singing from the age of two or three, and that she and I would write little songs together. I started piano lessons at age six and continued with them through high school. It took due diligence on my part because my hands were very small.
My elementary school in Atlanta, Georgia was chosen to be part of the children’s chorus of an Atlanta Opera production of Bizet’s Carmen. That was when I fell in love with opera. It’s been in my life ever since.
Wm: What musical experiences did you have as an older child and adolescent?
RG: I began private vocal lessons around the ages of nine or 10, which was probably too young! At school, I played trumpet and clarinet in the band. The choir director at my school noticed that I had a talent for singing when I tried out for the the musical that year, Oliver.
He convinced me to join the school choir, and unfortunately because I could only participate in one, I had to give up the trumpet at that point. As I continued into high school, my choir director, Ira Pittman, was extremely encouraging of my singing and introduced me to many new kinds of music.
Each year there was a choir Christmas concert, where the choir and school orchestra would come together to perform seasonal pieces from works such as Handel’s Messiah Mozart’s Exultate Jubilate. I was extremely fortunate to have a chance to perform these classical works at such a young age, especially in suburban Georgia.
I also took part in the school musicals and sang lead roles in Cole Porter’s Anything Goes and Lerner and Loewe’s Brigadoon. These performances gave me my first taste of performing a complete role on stage as an individual.
Looking back on my early years, It’s hard to believe I was so single-minded about performing music and I never even considered following a different career path! I always had a strong feeling that it was what I was supposed to do with my life, and I was fortunate to have people in my life who encouraged it
[Below: Rachele Gilmore as Zerbinetta with Carlton Ford as Harlequin in the 2014 Glimmerglass Festival production of Richard Strauss’ “Ariadne in Naxos”; edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]
Wm: Did your parents support your musical interests?
RG: They were very supportive. They never doubted my wishes to pursue music as a career, despite neither one of them being a musician.
When it came time to look at colleges, they took me on a tour all over the country, in which we visited the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, Juilliard, Eastman, University of Michigan and Indiana University and I was able to see first hand what school was the best fit for me.
The idea of music conservatory was a bit limiting to me and knew that I still wanted to have the “college experience,” so I chose Indiana University in Bloomington.
Wm: The remark has been made that Indiana University’s music school is so large that many would be opera performers do not get cast in even a small role throughout their entire time at the university. What was your experience?
RG: I did not perform much opera at Indiana University. I had a small part in Die Fledermaus during the summer session and I also sang in a few opera choruses.
[Below: Rachele Gilmore as Cunegonde in the 2012 Portland (Oregon) Opera production of Bernstein’s “Candide”; edited image, based on a production photograph, courtesy of Rachele Gilmore.]
Wm: Do you wish you would chosen a smaller school?
RG: I have no regrets because it forced me to go out and look for other opportunities outside the operas. I gave four recitals, took an art song performance class with the brilliant pianist Leonard Hokanson, and even took a jazz performance class with David Baker.
Although it would have been nice to have more opera experience, I value my education at IU highly, and the foundation in music history and theory I received there was invaluable. I am very proud of my degree from IU.
Wm: After you earned your BA, you entered the Boston University Masters Program. From one of the largest music schools, you moved to a music program whose size is somewhat limited.
RG: I had some valuable experiences there and did study with a wonderful teacher, but I found that most of my course work was centered around music theory and history. Because I had such a strong foundation from IU, it felt a bit superfluous at times, and I knew I needed more performance experience and training.
Wm: You took part in the Aspen (Colorado) Music Festival. Describe that experience.
RG: I was chosen to be a part of the Young Artists program there and it was fantastic to be around such talented musicians, and Aspen itself is quite magical. I sang in the chorus and also took part in daily opera workshop classes. Most importantly however, it was where I got to know Carol Vaness and work with her very closely.
She was the most engaging and knowledgeable person I had met thus far in my training, and she really took me under her wing. She gave me regular voice lessons outside the program, shared real life stories with me about the business of opera, and taught me so many lessons unique to the experience of a career performer.
We became quite close that summer and remain friends to this day. She was one of the first people who really believed in me.
Wm: What was your experience like as a Glimmerglass Festival Young Artist when you were here in 2004 and 2005?
RG: The Glimmerglass program really shaped me in a lot of ways. As young artists, we had many responsibilities: covering leading roles, singing in the chorus of several shows, solo art song recitals and other various concerts.
This was really the first place where I learned how much hard work and dedication the career took.
It gave me the drive to push myself and my work ethic and I am thankful for it. We also had access to so many amazing people in the business who came to teach us and give master-classes.
[Below: Rachele Gilmore as Elvira in the 2011 Knoxville Opera production of Bellini’s “I Puitani”; edited image, based on a production photograph, courtesy of Rachele GIlmore.]
Wm: You then continued with Young Artists’ programs.
RG: Following my first summer as a Glimmerglass Young artist and also my first year at Boston University, I received an invitation to participate in the Florida Grand Opera [FGO] Young Artists program for the 2004-5 season. At this point, I decided to leave the program at BU and accept the offer from FGO to become part of their Young Artists program.
I felt that the window of opportunity for a performance career as a coloratura was short, and I had a strong feeling this could get me closer to my goal of getting more performing experience. It was a difficult decision not to complete my masters degree, and possibly would not have been the right decision for everyone, but it worked for me.
Wm: You took some lessons with soprano Virginia Zeani. Where did those take place?
RG: I had known Mrs. Zeani on a personal level from IU, but had not studied voice with her there. However, during my time at FGO, I was given the opportunity to study with her for a bit.
She lived in West Palm Beach and I would drive twice a month from Miami to have lessons with her. Although it was short, I treasure this time I had with her and was able to learn so much about bel canto singing and the Italian style.
Wm: Many singers believe that there should be one teacher that knows their voice and that they should rely upon for advice. Do you have such a teacher?
RG: I believe the answer is different for everyone. In my case, I had many different teachers who contributed to the way I sing today. In my opinion, it is important that young singers be open to advice from various people and not see one teacher as the answer to all.
As you are developing your technique, it is imperative that one is able to develop their own personal musical language and discover what works best for them. Because we are all so different, seeking advice from many different people and learning how to make it your own can sometimes have advantages over limiting yourself to one teacher.
However, I do have one person now that I consult in New York City on a regular basis, Dr Anat Keidar. Now that I travel year-round and am constantly taking on new projects, I find having a “go-to” person that I trust works well for me at this stage in my career. When I am on the road though, I am constantly learning from each new environment and from observing my colleagues.
Wm: Your resume includes winning a prize in the Zarzuela category in Placido Domingo’s 2007 Operalia contest in Paris. What were your preparations for competing in that category?
RG: When I entered that competition I was asked if I wanted to compete in the Zarzuela category in addition to the opera category. I had never heard a note of Zarzuela.
However, I was living in New York City at the time, where I knew whatever the subject, you could find someone who can teach you. I worked with two highly skilled zarzuela experts and I prepared two pieces for the competition.
In the finals concert in Paris, I sang a Zarzuela piece and my operatic aria, “Una voce poco fa” both conducted by Maestro Domingo. Although I was there mainly for the opera competition, I ended up winning the zarzuela prize surprisingly. It was a fantastic experience and a lesson in not limiting myself!
Wm: At this point you had some significant credentials, but you still had some career-building responsibilities. Picking an appropriate agent is one of a young opera singers most daunting tasks.
RG: I am fortunate to have a fantastic team representing me now, although it took me several years to find what worked best for me in this area of my career.
It is one of the most difficult and confusing decisions we make as singers, and one I wish young singers had more information about.
Once I started working professionally, I had two or three years of decent work, and then one very bad year, during the economic downturn, in which every contract that I had for the season was cancelled, as companies like the Connecticut Opera and Orlando Opera went under.
Fortunately, soon after came my “big break” in 2009 when I covered Olympia in Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann, and made an unexpected New York Metropolitan Opera debut. After my debut at the Met, a lot of new opportunities were presented to me.
[Below: Rachele Gilmore as Olumpia in the 2009 New York Metropolitan Opera production of Offenbach’s “Les Contes d’Hoffmann”; edited image of a Ralph Daily photograph, courtesy of Rachele Gilmore.]
Wm: You attracted quite a bit of attention with your Met debut as Olympia. What was its effect on your career?
RG: This really began a new phase in my career where I began working on an international level at major houses. This was such a huge advantage because I was able to gain experience at large companies singing smaller roles such as Olympia, Blondchen in Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio, and The Fire in Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortileges.
At the same, I could also continue work at the smaller American companies, where I could sing big roles for the first time, such as Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, Elvira in Bellini’s I Puritani, and Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto.
For example, I first performed the role of Zerbinetta in Richard Strauss’Ariadne auf Naxos, the role I am singing in with the Glimmerglass Festival this summer, with Indianapolis Opera in 2009, which gave me a great opportunity to learn and build this role from a young age.
Wm: How do you characterize the differences between performing a principal role in a regional American opera company with a small role in a first tier international opera company?
RG: A couple of the smaller companies, Indianapolis Opera and Knoxville Opera in particular, gave me the opportunity to grow in the leading roles. This was really the performing experience that I was craving and I had missed out on somewhat in my education.
Working at these companies was, and still is, a real joy. There are so many talented and dedicated people working at these companies, and there is a real sense of community and passion for learning that goes on.
At the larger houses, you get to experience opera on a different level. Obviously, there is a certain way these companies must be managed, in terms of logistics, in order to accommodate for such vast repertoire.
Also, because the roles I was singing were smaller and not as demanding, I was able to remain somewhat in the background, and really sit back and observe and learn. Being in the presence of some of the greatest musicians in the world obviously has its advantages, and it’s a wonderful learning environment.
In addition, singing at European houses really broadened my facility with the languages and styles. Even though I had had language classes in school, it was a huge advantage to be there in person speaking and singing in these languages.
Wm: The first time I reported on one of your performances was when you sang Amina in Bellini’s “La Sonnambula” at the Florida Grand Opera. What was it like being directed by Renata Scotto, who, herself, was one of the great Aminas of the 20th century?
RG: Although I had sung two large bel canto roles previously, Lucia and Elvira in I Puritani, the whole experience was still somewhat intimidating. It would be my first Amina, my first time working with the legendary Renata Scotto, and in a role that she was so accomplished in. I really wanted to do well!
She was so lovely and would demonstrate quite a bit. It was such a joy to be able to witness all her grace and skill in such an intimate environment and have that kind of personal attention from her. As intimidating as it was, who gets that opportunity to work with an artist like Renata Scotto!
It was quite special that I was able to be directed by her, making my debut in a role that had been such an important debut role for her also. I was so thrilled that she was happy with my work in the performances and I will remember the experience fondly for a long time to come!
[Below: Rachele Gilmore as Zerbinetta in the 2011 Indianapolis Opera production of Richard Strauss’ “Ariadne auf Naxos”; edited image, based on a production photograph, courtesy of Rachele Gilmore.]
Wm: This summer, you are working Francesca Zambello, who created the new Glimmerglass production of “Ariadne”. Both Scotto and Zambello descend from Italian roots. How would you compare their directing styles?
RG: Having many Italian family members and also being half-Italian myself, it’s an interesting question! I can certainly see that they both have many characteristics that are advantageous to the way they direct. They are both very straightforward in their approach, and have very passionate opinions about their vision, however their approaches in the rehearsal room are somewhat different.
Renata comes with so many specific ideas about how a piece should be performed because she herself performed so many of those pieces on the biggest opera stages in the world! She loves to demonstrate and has a real talent for helping the artist embody the physicality of a certain character.
For me also, it was wonderful to work on a role such as Amina with her because she is also able to offer suggestions for vocal cadenzas and stylistic phrasing.
In my experience, Francesca also has very clear ideas about what she wants to see in a piece and she is able to see the piece as a whole from the beginning of rehearsals, which is amazing when creating new productions especially.
She likes for you to discover on your own more organically in the rehearsal room how your character should act in a given situation. She then has the ability to take what you give her and really refine it and bring out the best from what you give her.
I found this approach quite eye-opening for me, because it helped me to push myself and constantly be bringing new ideas to the table each day. That is the beauty of this art form in that both are able to get such fantastic results using their own unique approaches.
[Below: Rachele Gilmore as Adina in the 2013 Florida Grand Opera production of Bellini’s “La Sonnambula; edited image, based on a Deborah Gray Mitchell photograph, courtesy of the Florida Grand Opera.]
Wm: I think a person who knows both operas (“Sonnambula” and “Ariadne auf Naxos”) would expect “Sonnambula” to be staged conservatively, especially by Scotto, a famous Amina. Yet, several of Scotto’s were quite radical departures from tradition, not excluding the idea of Amina sleepwalking in the branches of a large tree.
And, even with Zambello transferring the action from a baroque period Viennese mansion to a rural New York barn, the “opera” within the opera was presented more or less as “Ariadne’s” composer and librettist intended.
Ariadne was emotionally changed, first through interactions with Zerbinetta and her troupe, and then Ariadne and Bacchus were to be transformed by their meeting each others emotional needs and and surely got it in Zambello’s staging.
The costumes of the commedia dell’arte troupe were updated, of course.
RG: Yes, the costumes are quite sassy! Erik Teague did a fantastic job of capturing the raucous spirit of the commedia troupe in a completely modern way.
Wm: Staging the simultaneous transformation of Ariadne, Bacchus, Zerbinetta and the Composer at opera’s end would work whatever the gender of the Composer, but did you find Zambello’s to have a special significance?
RG: I’ve done several productions and I always like when the director ties the relationship of Zerbinetta and the Composer back into the end of the opera. This production is the first one I’ve done to take the physicality of the relationship so far, but I think it really works.
The words exchanged between the two in the Prologue duet are so profound and moving, it makes sense that the audience would see their relationship through.
The rehearsal process here was very conducive to discovering that relationship, and I believe Francesca was able to add a lot of detail because we were all able to see the bigger picture of the production very early on in the process.
Wm: Obviously, both Scotto and Zambello departed from traditional ways of presenting the operas they were directing, but, you could tell both directors were fond of the work they were directing. That’s not always the case. I think you can tell when directors don’t like the operas they’ve been assigned to produce or direct.
RG: I have worked in several European houses that present more modern productions, but so far, I haven’t experienced a production where I felt the director disliked the opera. However, sometimes in newer adaptations, a particular costume or choreography can really present a unique set of challenges. I am always happy to try new things though!
Wm: Over the past few years you have an impressive list of lyric coloratura roles, including Amina in La Sonnambula, Gilda in Rigoletto with Opera Colorado, Cunegonde in Bernstein’s Candide in Portland, Ophelie in Thomas’ “Hamlet” in Brussels, and the title role in Unsuk Chin’s “Alice in Wonderland” in Geneva. Are there new roles you will be adding to your repertory?
RG: My next new role will be Sophie in Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier.
Wm: Which of your roles is your favorite?
RG: Lucia di Lammermoor, which I recently did in Lille, France. I really enjoyed my experience working on this production. It is a special company that does really interesting work.
[Below: Rachele Gilmore as Lucia in the 2013 L’Opéra de Lille production of Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor”; edited image, based on a production photograph, courtesy of Rachele GIlmore.]
Wm: I’m very impressed with what is happening in the smaller French opera houses, particularly in their thoughtful revivals of the late 19th century French works.
RG: I am as well. They are doing wonderful work in France right now and I love that repertory in particular. I so enjoyed singing Ophélie, and would love to do the title roles of Massenet’s “Manon”and of Delibes’ “Lakmé”.
“Lakmé” in particular is one that is not performed often enough, and the costumes alone would be fabulous to wear! In fact, I’m looking forward to wearing a Sari in my own upcoming wedding!
Wm: You’re engaged to tenor Dinyar Vania, who sings Pinkerton in the 2014 Glimmerglass Festival performances of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly”. Where did the two of you meet?
RG: We were singing Lucia and Edgardo in “Lucia di Lammermoor”at Knoxville Opera. We are planning dual wedding ceremonies in September, with both an Indian Zoroastrian wedding, which is based on Dinyar’s religious background and culture, as well as a traditional American wedding, which will incorporate my traditions.
[Below: Rachele Gilmore with her fiancé Dinyar Vania on the grounds of the Philadelphia Museum of Arts; edited image of a personal photograph, courtesy of Rachele Gilmore.]
Wm: It has to be satisfying that both of you are singing at Glimmerglass Festival, even if in different operas.
RG: Yes it wonderful, as it is quite rare we get to work together. I fear our opportunities to sing in the same opera will be disappearing quickly, because of differing repertoire.
Dinyar’s voice is growing quite rapidly and it will be hard to find many operas that are appropriate for both of us. However, we would like to do concerts together and fortunately, we will be appearing together at Opera Omaha (Nebraska) in October in Rigoletto.
Wm: Let’s return to your wish list for future assignments. Besides Lucia, Manon and Lakmé, what other roles would you like.
RG: I’d like to do additional productions of Bellini’s La Sonnambula, of Ophelie in Hamlet and Gilda in Rigoletto. I would also love to Giulietta in Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi. I also have not had the opportunity to sing Marie In La fille du Régiment, which is sort of a dream role for me, and I believe fits my voice and personality quite well!
Because I have a high register, I think I am ultimately destined for the lyric coloratura roles. However, it would be fantastic to sing more Mozart, especially Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro, and I am dying to add more Baroque to my repertoire. I have also performed Cunegonde in Candide previously and am quite interested in American works, possibly even Baby Doe.
Wm: I appreciate the opportunity to talk with you. My congratulations to you and Dinyar for your upcoming wedding.
RG: Thank you so much!