Jennifer Lang: Mezzo Soprano

photo courtesy of Jennifer Lang

Jennifer Lang is a mezzo-soprano currently preparing for the role of Zerlina in an upcoming production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni in Victoria, BC. I was invited to attend a rehearsal at the University of Victoria with the international cast, and what an experience! Sitting just a few feet away from a dozen or so opera singers at full throttle you can not only hear, but feel the power in their voices. No wonder Jennifer compares singing to an Olympic sport!

After the rehearsal, we sat in a garden on the University grounds for a chat about Mozart, the physicality of singing, why you should never whisper, and more. Jennifer is not only very knowledgeable and dedicated, but obviously passionate about singing. It was interesting to learn more about the work and preparation that goes into an opera performance.

When did you start singing?

I could actually sing before I spoke. My mom has a story about me singing back a radio theme song as an 18 month old. I always had an ear for music, but I didn’t start formal lessons until I was 25. I had already done a degree in Art History, medieval studies, and studied languages, I did martial arts, yoga, travelled through Europe and lived in England and Germany, then studied singing. So I had done all the background work.

Was that preparation deliberate?

No, totally unintentional. I was literally pushed into singing. I was doing martial arts, and then I broke a bone in my foot. I thought, ‘what am I going to do? I think I’ll try singing.’ So I took lessons, and within six months I realized ‘yes, this is what I have to do.’

What drew you to opera?

For the first year and a half of my lessons I really didn’t know if I was going to go in a jazz or classical direction. I think because I’ve always had a love for classical music – I played in a youth orchestra, I played flute, piano and the organ growing up – classical music really spoke to me.

I love early music, which is a broad term to cover music that is pre-Baroque. I didn’t get drawn just to opera, but opera is the most widely known. It’s a very complex art form because it incorporates acting and theatre and languages, there’s all kinds of things that come together.

Performing in the McGill Opera Production of the opera Thesée, by Lully. Photo credit: Emily Ding

How much importance is placed on the singing and how much on the performance?

The performance is the end-game – we all love performing, otherwise we wouldn’t be singing! We are there to sing, but singing is only part of the performance. You are telling a story – so being in the ‘present’ with your imagination is very important. Having an understanding of the character is paramount.

With the growth of HD broadcasts of opera, the ‘look’ of opera is also changing. In the past, singers’ gestures were only for the big stage. Now gestures, looks, close-ups etc. are all changing the appearance of opera. If you have supermodel good looks, and you can sing, you’ll get hired over the one who can also sing, but may not have the ‘look.’

What’s required of an opera singer that’s different from other types of music? It’s very physical, isn’t it?

It’s extremely physical. All singing is physical, but opera is the Olympics of singing. Classical singers’ voices are not amplified by microphones in a performance; they sing over the orchestra unaided. That type of physical training and concentration takes years to develop. The Malcolm Gladwell ‘rule’ of 10,000 hours to become an expert at anything is especially true for singing. Just like with any exercise, I can feel when I haven’t practiced enough to maintain a particular sound or endurance in my voice.

The average person doesn’t usually have an understanding of the work that goes into preparing a performance. They pay a lot of money for their ticket, to see you sing and perform for three hours, and don’t realize that there is at least six months of work (or more!) that went into it.”

Do you learn the languages operas are written in, or sing phonetically?

It’s a combination of both. You learn the International Phonetic Alphabet and how it applies to each language. Outside of music, I have studied French, German, Italian, Spanish, and Latin. I have a working knowledge of and have performed in all of those languages, and more! There are four major languages for opera – English, French, German and Italian. Russian and Czech are two other popular languages for opera.

How do you take care of your voice?

It’s different for each singer – some will avoid dairy on the day of a performance, and some will have a milkshake before they perform! For me personally – I will avoid talking a lot on a performance day. I try not to whisper, ever. Whispering is really hard on your voice. If you’re sick and lose your voice, whispering is the worst thing you can do. Coughing is also really hard on your voice. I try to avoid coughing as much as possible. And otherwise I generally drink a lot of water to stay hydrated, and keep fit. I practice yoga, and that is a great fit for me.

In costume for the opera Thesée. Photo credit: Emily Ding

Do you have a favourite role?

I loved the role of Dorabella I just performed in Portland, in Cosi Fan Tutte. It’s a fun role that really suits my voice. Mozart writes so much characterization into the music of each of his roles – it’s very easy to just look at the score and build your character around what’s in the music.

What is your favourite opera?

Carmen by Georges Bizet. Beautiful melodies, strong female lead who knows who she is. She knows her fate and walks right into it. Giulio Cesare by Handel is also a favourite.

Who is your favourite composer?

Mozart. Even as a child Mozart was my favourite. His music is difficult, technical. It’s usually very exposed singing – if the technique isn’t there, it shows in the voice.

What is something the average person might not know about opera singers?

That we’re normal! People think of opera singers as being up on a pedestal. We don’t all wear high heels and fur coats, we’re not all divas/divos. Most singers who are on the road a lot are just looking forward to being home and seeing family/spouse/friends. In nearly any production I’ve been a part of there is a lot of camaraderie, with all the hours and hours of rehearsing together, and we have a lot of fun. Opera singers are always working at it and always learning. There will never be a time when I will say ‘ok I don’t need to take lessons anymore’.

Another thing would be that the average person doesn’t usually have an understanding of is the work that goes into preparing a performance. They pay a lot of money for their ticket, to see you sing and perform for three hours on stage, and don’t realize that there is at least six months of work (or more!) that went into it.

What kind of music do you listen to?

Other than whatever opera I’m currently rehearsing, I listen to all types of music, really, except country. I like early music (pre-Baroque), Classical ‘Fusion’ (Hughes de Courson), The Cure, Coldplay, electronic music, etc.

What are your goals?

To get paid to sing! But to do that, I have to do the following (among many other things):

Short term – to revise my audition package. That would consist of three to five arias that I know cold, that I could wake up and sing. I also want to commit to singing at least one hour a day. There is so much external ‘noise’ in every-day life – it’s very easy for a whole day to go by without practicing, so making time to practice is very important. It’s my job!

Longer term – to live in Europe. Germany or Austria, in particular. Although with the European economy it’s tougher to get work as a singer these days, I have a very supportive spouse and we’re both up for adventure.

Concert Production of Don Giovanni by Mozart

July 31 through August 2, 2012 at the University of Victoria, MacLaurin Building (MAC) Music Wing Room B037.
With subtitles. Tickets $10 at the door.

(note: the show has a different cast each evening – Jennifer Lang performs on closing night)

Connect with Jennifer Lang at her website or on Twitter.

I was fascinated to learn a little more about the lives of opera singers. Thanks, Jen!


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7 Responses to “Jennifer Lang: Mezzo Soprano”

  1. Sue Knutsen
    July 31, 2012 at 8:39 am #

    Great article Kate!

    • Kate
      July 31, 2012 at 11:25 am #

      Thanks Sue, I’m glad you enjoyed it!

  2. Tracy
    July 31, 2012 at 8:40 pm #

    Jennifer’s professionalism is amazing – it takes tremendous discipline and organization to be able to perform at the level she achieves, while still maintaining a work/life balance outside of performance.
    I know her well, and I am always impressed with how she manages this.

    Plus, let it not go unsaid that I truly love her voice!

    • Kate
      July 31, 2012 at 8:52 pm #

      What great insight, Tracy, thank you for adding your comment!

  3. August 4, 2012 at 11:20 am #

    Visiting from Sits and love the insightful inspirational article.

  4. August 4, 2012 at 11:21 am #

    Not Sure if my last comment posted, my computer is being funky lately. Visiting from SITS and enjoyed this article. Thanks for sharing something different
    Natural Fit and Frugal recently posted..DIY Natural Product FridayMy Profile

    • Kate
      August 4, 2012 at 11:37 am #

      Your comments worked! :) Thanks so much for visiting, I’m glad you enjoyed it!

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