Q & A: Soprano Colleen Daly speaks with BCO’s Executive Director, Julia Cooke
Colleen Daly returns to Baltimore Concert Opera to sing the title role in ‘Susannah’ this month. Colleen made her BCO debut as Micaela in ‘Carmen’ in 2013, and returned last year as Fidelia in ‘Edgar.’ She was kind enough to share some thoughts about her career and journey as an opera singer, and in particular, singing the title role in ‘Susannah’ with us.
Q: What drew you to a career as an opera singer?
A: I had always wanted to perform, some how, some way. I started taking voice lessons in high school -- you know, to prepare for my career on Broadway -- and my voice teacher at the time noticed I had a more classically-oriented voice and an ear for languages. She introduced me to opera through a Puccini aria at age 17, and I became intrigued. I decided that this was the way in which I was going to perform, and started researching universities that offered a degree in classical vocal performance. At college (DePaul University), I was lucky to have some excellent instructors, including a voice teacher, Susanne Mentzer, who had had a major career all over the world and had coincidentally grown up in my hometown (Frederick, MD). She taught me not just vocal technique, but how it was possible to have a career in this industry and what that entailed. I had an extraordinary acting director that really showed me how vital human communication was, and how to do that effectively through this art form, and I had music history and theory teachers that opened my mind and heart to the world of classical music and all this powerful art form had to offer. I was hooked. The idea of being able to communicate with people through live musical theater, collaborating with other artists, and to be able to travel and experience new places, people, and projects was intoxicating!
Q: Tell us about singing the role of Susannah in particular. I know you're very invested in this character, and would love for you describe what makes you so interested in her.
A: I first came to Susannah in undergrad. My voice teacher collaborated quite a bit with the composer, Carlisle Floyd, and introduced me to his music. We started with Susannah's second aria, "The Trees On The Mountain." I loved the simple, beautiful melody and the accessibility of the text. Frederick sits amid part of the Appalachian Mountain train, and I grew up with a view of the mountains outside my bedroom window. I used to imagine hiking over the mountains myself to see what was on the other side. I had a great upbringing, but I was restless to see the world as a teenager. To be out in it, to experience things that were beyond my realm. I wanted to live in a big city, to fall in love, to be an artist. These are all things that Susannah wants, and it was the first time in opera I really felt like I understood the interior life of a character so completely. Then there was the contemporary nature of it. I remember once in my voice lesson, we had a question about what the composer intended in the music, and my voice teacher went to her desk and picked up the phone and called Carlisle Floyd on the spot. He gave her the answer to our questions right there! I felt like I was part of something so special, to give life and interpretation to a living art. Can you imagine calling Mozart and asking him what he meant about something?? To have that connection to a living, musical composer is unique, and not all that common in opera. So I guess you can say that performing this role in its entirety has always been on my bucket list. When BCO announced that it would be part of their season, I emailed Julia and asked if they had cast it yet, or if they wanted a cover. I had NEVER done that before with any opera company, and I was afraid I was being presumptuous or too bold, but I was SO excited about this piece. Julia told me that they had not cast it yet, and asked if I would be interested in singing it. I think I told her that I would saw off my left arm to sing it on a highway overpass for a nickel.... Hope they don't think I was desperate or anything...
Q: What is it like to sing a role for the first time? Particularly this one.
A: It's equal parts exciting and terrifying. It's exciting because it feels like the first day of school. Everything is momentous, from purchasing the score and writing your name in it and highlighting your part, to learning all the pitches and rhythms, and understanding the style, the language of the composer, figuring out the interior life of the character. But it's terrifying because there's no prior knowledge to fall back on. And this is (hopefully) the foundation that you're laying for future performances of this character, and you don't want to do it "incorrectly". This piece is particularly challenging because of his writing style. So much of what Susannah sings feels like chatter, or even recitative, and to try to make this sound effortless and natural actually takes a great deal of effort. Understanding this shifting musical landscape, and when it goes someplace unexpected -- how do you get there? How do you make it sound connected to the drama of the scene instead of just notes on the page? And dramatically, how do you keep her an empathetic character, someone who is strong despite being a victim of her circumstances? Especially in this precarious political climate, I find it extraordinarily important that a female heroine who is a product of her environment and circumstances -- poverty, sexual abuse, and religious persecution -- has a voice that is valid and heard with compassion and understanding.
Q: Do you have any thoughts about the concert opera format, how it is helpful/challenging/anything else?
A: I love concert opera. It allows you to focus so much more on the music, to let the drama come through in the expressivity of the singing, with everything else stripped away. I think it's an ideal format for coming to a role for the first time, and particularly the intimate setting offered by BCO provides the performer and the audience with an extraordinary experience of being a part of the same musical journey in a uniquely personal way, something that doesn't always happen in a larger house. It feels sacred somehow.
I want to extend a big THANK YOU to Colleen for taking the time to answer these questions!
She is a brilliant artist and a wonderful colleague. If you don’t have your tickets for SUSANNAH (2/24 and 2/26), we do still have some available. Click here to find out more about Colleen and the rest of the cast, and click here to buy tickets which start at just $27.50.