Photo courtesy of Steven Harris
Lisette Oropesa is one of the best soprano’s in the world and is currently in her Royal Opera House debut as Lucia in the first revival of Katie Mitchell’s production of Lucia di Lammermoor. Lisette and her husband Steven very kindly agreed to meet me to discuss her career, past, present and future and to celebrate (or commiserate as she’s leaving!) her final week in Covent Garden as Lucia I am posting this interview with Lisette over the next few days. Oropesa is the very definition of the anti-diva, I found both her and her husband to be exceptionally generous, charming and engaging people, with great coffee suggestions!
When we met, Lisette had just finished mentoring someone, and her enthusiasm over her mentee was palpable. “When someone asks me to work with them I always say yes, I’ve never turned anyone down. I remember what it was like at a young age to have a lot of questions and not a safe person to ask them to without feeling too vulnerable. So I think it’s important to be an open space for people to experiment or ask questions, the difficult questions, sometimes they’ll bounce feedback off of me so they’ll say, oh they’re telling me this, telling me that, what do you think? And because I’m a practicing performer in the business, in its current state, I can say these things are valid, these things are not… if I can help people great. I love doing it. My mum was a teacher so I kind of have the teaching gene I guess.”
Lisette has been upfront for a while about the benefits that she gets from both a vegan lifestyle and from running regularly, contributing her thoughts to a book on the subject even. “I think the whole idea of healthy lifestyle is very personal to every person, every singer, we’re all unique. I do [running and a vegan lifestyle] for me. It just happens to contribute positively to my voice and career. Whatever you do positively or negatively to your body, you do to your voice. If you’re stressed out, if you’re emotionally in a bad place, all of those things affect your voice, even if you’re a size zero. Whereas if you’re eating healthy, if you’re exercising, hydrating, if you’re happy, all of those affect your voice too, at any size. So as long as you practice good vocal habits then your health will kind of check in and it will all line up and ideally you’ll be able to sing more days out of the year.”
As to whether the running and vegan lifestyle have helped her voice a lot: “Tremendously. Considering where I first came from, that’s over ten years ago now that I started.I started when I was 21, now I’m 34, 13 years now! Wow. I’ve been practicing it over a third of my life now. It’s who I am now. There was a time when I was very standard American diet, obese, sedentary, I was very much that person and it takes a long time to become the polar opposite. It took me many different adjustments, every few months I’d make another adjustment. The thing is, it is a lifestyle change, not a diet, not like I go to the gym for six months before I have to take my shirt off on stage. I go to the gym all year round, whether I have to take my shirt off on stage or not, that’s the difference.
Because I practice that I’m happier, I have more energy, I sing much more consistently. I get sick far less often, I recover much faster, I sleep better, I have a better outlook on life, I’m more confident, I feel like my looks are the best that they’re going to be whereas back then when I was heavier I never felt my looks were right. When you don’t feel confident about how you look and you’re on stage and people are looking at you, you have this barrier, this wall, it’s very deep-seated and psychological and you start to hate your own presence and you can’t sing well if you feel like that.”
Lisette in her career thus far has played a number of exciting roles including Gilda, Nannetta, Violetta, Susanna and now Lucia but what hasn’t she done yet that she’s dying to? With this sort of question you usually expect a bit of time for thinking it through but Lisette was instantaneous: “Juliette, from Romeo et Juliette. I’d love to have an opportunity to sing that. There’s a few other bel canto I’d really like to do. I Capuleti e i Montecchi, La sonnambula, I puritani- all the Bellini! There’s a couple of Mozart roles that I’d love to sing, one of them is Ilia in Idomeneo, I’ve studied it but never had the opportunity to sing it and then there are other roles that I think I will grow in to like Manon, but for now the roles that I want to sing are roles like Juliette and the Bellini so I’m hoping one day we might start seeing them popping up on the calendar.”
The role that Lisette has repeated most in her career so far is Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto, a role she is reprising again next May for the LA Opera so I was curious about the repeating of a role and how that approach may change to a character the more you do it. “Vocally, every time you repeat a role, your voice is always a little bit different, because you’re a bit older, so some things will work better, others will have to adjust because they don’t work so well anymore. That aside, every production is different, there are some directors that want a very innocent, young almost child-like character and there are other directors that want a much more aggressive, fighting her dad, more strong character and that affects the way you play it and sing it.
Every time you go in to a production, even if you’ve sung the role a hundred thousand times, you have to have a clean slate. I mean your experience, vocally, is your business and you can make the choices based on what the director is asking, and sometimes the conductor will ask you to do things you’ve never done before and I’ve had that happen. The last time I sang it [Gilda] he asked me to do some different things and it was wonderful and it was like ‘how have I not been doing this for ten years? It’s so much easier, so much better, so there were some adjustments that I may take in my tool box for the next time that I play Gilda, I may use those things if they suit the production and the character. My voice and how I sing it, is my business, I’m in charge of it, it’s all I can bring to the table, because I can have my opinion about Gilda and the father-daughter relationship all I want but if i show up to a production and the director says we’re going in this direction, unless he or she is open to saying ‘what do you think?’, ‘do you agree with this?’, I have to basically do as they say.”
Which leads to why Lisette is here in London: Donizetti’s fantastic Lucia di Lammermoor and Katie Mitchell’s production of it, for which Lisette is leading the first revival and Katie Mitchell is back directing it, making some adjustments from the first time it was performed. Referring to the last question about the directors vision Lisette mentions that “Katie Mitchell’s production has a very strong point of view of Lucia, and my point of view doesn’t matter, that’s not my job, if there were no director and they said Lisette do what you want then it would be a different show perhaps, according to whoever sings it. That’s the kind of thing we have to learn as singers; some singers will fight directors tooth and nail for everything and that’s fine and valid but I’m not in a point in my career where I feel validated to do that. And there are very rarely things that I feel so strongly about that I absolutely refuse to go through with the director on. I always try to meet half way. There have been very few instances, I can count on one hand, where I’ve said I won’t do that, it doesn’t work and I don’t agree with that and almost always the director ends up having to compromise somehow if my point of view is fair. But how you sing it is your business.” Luckily for audiences who have seen Lucia, Lisette is phenomenal at her business.
Part 2! More Lucia!