Interview: Elisa Sutherland

On Wednesday, August 22 and Friday, August 24, Brooklyn Music School will present the performance of “All Wounds Bleed”, a contemporary opera that depicts the myth of Echo and Narcissus. The role of Hera will be played by Elisa Sutherland, a mezzo-soprano who has performed with a variety of companies, including American Bach Soloists, Apollo Chorus of Chicago, and Quicksilver Baroque. In addition to winning the Philadelphia District of the Metropolitan Opera Auditions in 2015, Elisa is the 2014 winner of the Lynne Harvey Cooper Award and was the first-place winner of the inaugural Handel Aria Competition at the Madison Early Music Festival in 2013. I had the chance to interview Elisa about her upcoming performance as Hera in “All Wounds Bleed”, as well as her past role as Queen Dido in “Dido and Aeneas” and her work as an opera singer.

Q: What drew you to opera?

A: I had the most amazing elementary school music teacher - her name is Jayne Perkins, and we're actually still great friends. When I was in second grade, she encouraged me to audition for a small role in a production with Milwaukee's children's theater, and this led to other small roles in community theater productions and in operas at Milwaukee's largest opera company, Florentine Opera. Ms. Perkins would also take me to see operas - I remember sobbing at the end of Madame Butterfly in fourth grade. I owe my love of opera and of classical music to her! 

Q: How do you get into character?

A: I always start with the text. Memorizing text is great because, in order to remember the exact wording, you need to come up with a motivation for the character. Why did the character use this word and not another? Why did she use a contraction there, and not here? I've spent a lot of time thinking about the difference between saying "I will" and "I shall" - and it's in these slight differences that you really get an idea of who a character is. 

Unsurprisingly, I also think the music informs a lot about character, especially in contemporary opera. The composer isn't bound by any stylistic rules (as in Baroque or Classical styles), so the music they compose for each character can be quite individual.

Q: How do you prepare for a show?

A: I always read through the entire score - I like to know the scope of what I need to learn. Even when I'm just memorizing or going over notes, I make sure that I'm always trying out new ways of communicating my character's feelings and intentions - perhaps trying out different dynamics, or opposite word stress, in the hopes of revealing something new about the character. And, of course, I practice a lot. 

Q: What did you like most about working on “All Wounds Bleed?” What do you like most about the character you are playing, Hera?

A: I love playing Hera - she's so fiery and disdainful. She is first and foremost a queen - even when overcome with emotion, she maintains a dignity that is unshakable. And on a sillier note - I love librettos that rhyme. It's so satisfying to deliver a zinger when it rhymes perfectly. 

 Q: What is it like playing a lead role in a baroque opera “Dido and Aeneas” vs. the role in a one-act chamber opera “All Wounds Bleed”? Is the process for getting into character and preparing for the show the same or are there significant differences? 

A: It's much easier to relate to a contemporary character because the text is usually more accessible. The language is more colloquial, and you don't have to deal with many text repetitions, unlike in Baroque opera, where entire sections of text will be repeated. Even in "All wounds bleed," which is written in verse, Hera's sensibility is imperious, biting and sarcastic, which is easier to play than classically grief-stricken, or passionately in love - at least for me! In some contemporary operas, the music is the most difficult part for singers, but Chris Cerrone's score is quite accessible and stark, allowing for a lot of musicality to come from the singers instead of crowding their lines with a lot of activity in the orchestra (or in our case, piano). 

However, I would say the main processes of learning the music and understanding the character is very similar. And the need for working the music into your voice - understanding how you relate to the character, how your interpretation will alter or influence them - this is all the same. 

Q: Are the characters treated or handled differently by a contemporary composer vs. a baroque-era composer? 

A: I think people write lines and write music for characters that they can imagine themselves inhabiting. So, modern composers and librettists will naturally imbue a more modern sensibility into their characters. In the first scene, Hera breaks down in front of Echo - she weeps, and the shock that Echo feels at seeing the Queen of the Gods cry becomes a theme for the rest of the show. In a traditional setting of this myth, Hera wouldn't need to appear so vulnerable or so human, but as modern performers and modern audiences, we want to see people in these kinds of situations! This humanization of Hera is actually the central tenet of the piece - when Echo expresses surprise that the Queen can feel emotions, and cry, Hera responds that "all wounds bleed" - god or mortal, no one escapes the pain of being alive. 

Q:  What do you think makes this show unique or worth seeing? 

A: It is always worth seeing operas written recently, preferably by as wide a range of people as you can. We're in a post-genre era, where composers have complete liberty to put whatever they want on a page. How exciting is it that Chris Cerrone decided to write what he did when he could have done anything? 

But more specifically, I think the libretto for "All Wounds Bleed" is incredibly well-written and entertaining, the music evocative and moving. The myth is itself a mind-twisting examination of jealousy and the horrible things we do for love, and Chris and Tony update the story in a way that makes it incredibly fun for modern audiences, but also maintains the integrity of the original. 

Q: What do you think makes the Summer Vocal Arts program unique or worth participating in?

A: I think SVA is a great place to meet other singers - people come from all over the city, from all sorts of experiences. Lina provides so many opportunities for her students - from great roles in operas, to a cabaret, to an art song recital, to masterclasses! And Marie is entirely committed to producing great theater. I know that just by being around them, I was inspired in my own artistic endeavors.

Q: Is there a message or moral you believe the audience can or should receive from this show?

A: Echo is twice-punished - by herself, and by Hera. Does her crime, having an affair and falling in love with Zeus, justify this? Is Narcissus' fate deserved? By punishing Echo, does Hera find any consolation? I think I won't know this until we've performed the piece a couple of times!

Q: Is there anything else you would like to say about this show or the SVA program?

A: Only that I hope people come out to support contemporary opera in their communities, and that more small companies will take a chance on new music!