Following her recent international debut in concert at the National Academy of Music in Hanoi, Vietnam, rising star soprano Natalie Polito makes a number of additional exciting debuts during the 2014-2015 season, including her Opera Columbus debut as the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro, debuts with both Opera Saratoga and the Erie Chamber Orchestra as Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute, and with Opera Providence as Violetta in La Traviata. The season also includes her return to Vietnam for a world premiere performance with the Vietnam National Symphony Orchestra of a new song cycle, Songs of Reconciliation, by Boston-based composer Larry Bell, a world premiere performance of Joseph Summers’s chamber opera The Tempest with The Shakespeare Concerts in Boston, and an appearance as the Soprano Soloist in Handel’s Messiah with The Stamford Symphony.
As an alumni of Boston Opera Collaborative, Natalie was kind enough to offer her insights into what it’s like to bridge the gap between being a young singer and an emerging professional artist.
What has been your involvement with BOC (i.e. roles, other performances, work experiences administrative, committee, etc.)?
I have actually been involved with BOC since the very beginning! It’s amazing to see the company entering its 10th season next year, when I can remember back to our very first membership meeting and the work that went into putting up our very first production of Gluck’s Iphigenie en Aulide. It was an incredible honor to be cast as the title role in that very first show, and I went on to sing several other roles while I was a member of the company. A few of my favorites were Donna Anna in Don Giovanni in 2008, Countess in 2010’s Le nozze di Figaro, and I had a blast playing a scary gingerbread kid in the ensemble of Hansel and Gretel in 2007. In the early seasons I worked as the first Fundraising Chair and for the past few seasons I’ve enjoyed representing the company as an alumni artist member of the Board of Directors.
What has it been like to be a member of the board?
I’m so grateful to have had the experience to see the inner workings of the company as a board member, and to have played a role in helping the company grow and change over the last several years. One of the most rewarding experiences I have had as a board member has been serving on search committees for BOC’s Artistic Director and General Director, two positions that are vital to shaping the direction of the company. As a founding member of BOC, I care deeply for the mission and the young singers who benefit from membership in BOC!
How has membership with BOC affected your career? The behind the scenes work and the singing?
I truly would not be where I am today without BOC. Like many young singers, when I graduated with my Masters from Boston Conservatory in 2006, I had only sung one leading opera role, ever. My voice was still developing and growing, and I needed to gain experience in order to be competitive with other singers entering the “next step” of young artist programs. In my years as a singing member of BOC, I added several roles to my resume and had the opportunity to learn from many talented young conductors and directors who have since gone on to great things! I learned how to create a character and make it my own, and gained vocal confidence while singing with full orchestras. The roles I sang with BOC showed larger opera companies that I was ready and able to perform those roles, for example – I sang my first Countess in Le nozze di Figaro with BOC in 2010. Then in 2013 as a member of the Emerging Artist Program at Virginia Opera, I was given the opportunity to cover the Countess, and now in March of 2015, I’m looking forward to singing my first professional Countess in my house debut at Opera Columbus!
The education that BOC members receive in terms of arts administration work is also extremely valuable. The skills I gained while running BOC’s fundraising department allowed me to land a job with the Free for All Concert Fund, an amazing organization committed to providing free classical music to all people in Boston, which was my “day job” up until recently taking the plunge to move to New York and sing full time! I am so grateful to BOC for giving me the skills to work in such a fulfilling job that allowed me to make such an impact on the city of Boston.
What was your favorite role or production with BOC?
It’s hard to pick just one! I loved 2010’s Le nozze di Figaro – we had such a great time as a cast finding the comedy in the score, and there’s nothing quite like singing the Act 2 Finale of Figaro with full orchestra! Plus, our director decided that the Countess would be pregnant, so I had a great time figuring out how to maneuver onstage with a big fake baby bump! I also have fond memories of singing the Fox in The Cunning Little Vixen in 2011. I wasn’t familiar with the opera at all before working on it with BOC, and I completely fell in love with the score – plus it was so fun to play my first pants role and a fox, all at the same time! Costumes really are the best part of opera, don’t you think?!
What’s something that you wish you would’ve known about a singing career when you were leaving graduate school? In other words – what DON’T the conservatories tell you?
A piece of advice that someone told me a few years ago was to go into auditions thinking only of competing with yourself, not the other singers. It can be so easy to compare yourself to the other singers in your fach, especially as a young singer, and I know I struggled with it a lot. The first audition I did with that new mindset was a turning point for me – all that was on the line was doing better than I had the last time, and that thought was so freeing. We all have something unique to offer, whether it’s our look, or the color of our voice, or the way we use our body onstage – and every audition auditor might like something different! Embracing that and knowing that regardless of the panel’s personal tastes, you have something different to offer than everyone else that will walk in that room is very important. And it’s also what makes opera so special – you can hear the same opera sung literally thousands of different ways, because each singer is unique and no two productions will ever be exactly the same
As someone who has sung internationally, what advice would you give to a young singer about to make their foray into the international singing?
Embarking on a professional singing career means commitment to a lifestyle that may not be for everyone. Again, this is something I wish I had known more about as a young singer! A professional singing career is a life on the road, often living out of two suitcases for months at a time, usually in homestays or hotels. For example, I will travel overseas in December for a performance with the Vietnam National Symphony, and then I’m on the road for the next five months in various cities throughout the US. Last year, I spent almost nine months of the year on the road, living out of the same couple of bags! It can be grueling and lonely at times, and often your free time at one gig is spent working on music for the next. You miss weddings and birthdays, and keep up with friends and loved ones via Skype and Facetime. Your setting can be unfamiliar, whether it’s a wacky homestay family or a hotel in the middle of a country whose language you don’t speak. The other months of the year can be spent working a temp job to make ends meet in between gigs, or doing many weeks of auditions in New York for future gigs.
At the same time, I think being on the road is the absolute best part of my job. I do sometimes get lonely and I certainly miss the people I care about (and my kitty cat Adele!) but at the same time, I fall in love with every new city I visit. From Norfolk, Virginia to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam to Waitsfield, Vermont and everywhere in between, I love trying all of the local restaurants, making new opera friends, and calling each new city home.
What’s the most surprising skill that you gained while in BOC?
BOC’s artists are involved in ALL aspects of putting on each production, so I would have to say I never thought I would learn how to properly (and safely!) hang a stage light! Some of my best BOC memories are of the friendships forged behind the scenes while putting up productions, many of whom remain some of my best friends to this day.
What’s your favorite piece of music (opera, song, theater or otherwise) and why?
That’s a tough question! I definitely can’t pick just one favorite opera, so I’ll give my top 3 – Wozzeck, La Traviata, and Cavalleria Rusticana. They’re all very different musical styles, but what I think they have in common is that drama is such a central part of the score. My all-time favorite piece of music though might be the Act 2 Finale of Figaro, which I can’t wait to do again this spring at Opera Columbus!
Do you think the nature of making a career of singing in opera is changing? If so, how do you think the experience of BOC can help a young singer prepare for their next stage?
I think now more than ever it’s important for singers to know their “brand”, and to be savvy and knowledgeable businesspeople in addition to talented performers. BOC is so important because it gives its members skills both on and off the stage, that will continue to serve them in their careers for years to come, whether they choose to be performers, or administrators, or teachers, or something else entirely. Being an artist encompasses so much more than just having a beautiful voice.
How do you think opera is evolving and changing with the times? Or do you think it’s staying the same? Do you prefer opera to be reinvented or remain the same?
There has been a lot of talk lately about how opera is “dying” – companies are closing, audiences are graying, and soon we’ll all be out of a job, they say. But to anyone who says that, I would encourage them to go see the current production of Death of Klinghoffer at the Met. If you’ve been keeping up with the news the opera has been the subject of a lot of debate these last few weeks (who ever said opera was boring!?!). I attended this past Friday, and the audience was rapt – and FULL of young people. The opera was poignant, relevant, immediate. I’ve never heard an audience that large be so still and so quiet – it was truly a magical night of theater that I will never forget. So yes, I think opera is evolving and changing, and it’s certainly not dying!
From all of us at Boston Opera Collaborative, thank you, Natalie! We wish you all the best in your upcoming performances!
Get the latest updates on Natalie Polito from her website at www.nataliepolito.com