American Soprano Jennifer Zetlan has forged a singular singing path with twists and turns from The Metropolitan Opera to Broadway, The Hall of Dinosaurs in New York City’s Museum of Natural History, Carnegie Hall, Santa Fe Opera and many other esteemed stages across the country. She is known for her musical sensitivity and fearless stage presence. In the summer of 2019, she portrayed the title character in the world premiere of Ricky Ian Gordon and Frank Bidart’s opera Ellen West, in a performance that The Wall Street Journal called a tour de force. Zetlan recently shared her thoughts regarding her artistic process, her advice for aspiring singers, and her philosophy for maintaining peace in a topsy turvy business.
You’re known as a fiercely committed performer onstage, but this year much of your output has been on recording: Jane Eyre, Falla and Your Clear Eye. Is your approach to recording different than live portrayals of characters onstage? How would you describe the unique experience of creating music in a studio?
Luckily, all the studio recording I’ve done in the past year was preceded by performances of those pieces. I feel like I’m at my best when I am giving a total performance, so I strive to give a complete dramatic performance even for the microphone. For me, there’s sort of a forgetting of the close-up mic that needs to happen; instead I think about communicating thoughts and emotions the same way I would in a live performance. For Your Clear Eye, I was lucky enough to be able to record in a beautiful concert hall (Kean University’s Enlow Hall) with amazing acoustics. It was so nice to feel like Ricky and I were giving another recital performance. The same happened with Jane Eyre; after having done a staged production with the Center for Contemporary Opera in New York, our recording was made up at SUNY Purchase, where they have a mid-sized concert hall that was a total pleasure- and luxury!- to sing in. Even the Falla, which has a more chamber music-y feel was recorded in a church with a pretty nice, performance-like setup. I see my job in the recording process as nearly identical to live performance, since that’s what it ought to sound like in the final product. The only difference is you know going into each recording day that everything will have to be recorded twice (or more!) and there is a certain amount of pacing yourself or planning ahead for stamina (i.e. “hey, any chance we could record the high Q first instead of waiting until the end of the day?”).
What do you think is the greatest lesson that singing artists should learn in the twenty-first century?
What an interesting time to be a singing artist. Opera company bottom lines have taken an economic hit while at the same time more and more singers are graduating from institutions and hoping to find their way into the business. The business itself is changing in ways that I think are truly wonderful- diversity has started to become a priority, racial and gender diversity. It’s a natural reflection of the world around us, and ought to be celebrated. We owe it to the art form to embrace the changes as they come and roll with it. I’m also a firm believer in creating your own opportunities. Staying open to everything around you and seeing what you have to contribute is an important way to stay hooked in to an evolving art form, and to hopefully contribute meaningfully to its evolution.
In the past year you’ve portrayed two different real life characters: Ellen West and Ruth Bader Ginsberg. What are the unique challenges and rewards of telling a true story through music?
How lucky I feel to have had these two women in my life for the past year. It’s really an honor to be able to tell both of their (very different!) stories. Portraying Ellen has been a real life lesson for me in terms of my own relationship to my body and sense of “enough-ness.” While the story is about this one woman, the libretto dives right into the universality of Ellen’s situation. So much so that in many moments I was not exactly sure where Ellen ended and Jen began, or vice versa. Portraying Justice Ginsburg in this comedic romp with a rather touching ending has been so meaningful to me! Obviously, at this time in our political climate an homage to the bipartisan friendship she shared with Justice Scalia is so meaningful. The challenge in that piece is that while it is pretty funny, I would never want to be maudlin or too broad with a portrayal of this woman whom I respect so deeply. Capturing her spirit and sense of humor but also a bit of her thoughtful, earnestness has been such fun.
What is your favorite way to find peace in the midst of a career that can sometimes feel chaotic?
Indeed the opera biz doesn’t always feel like a business that loves you back, but things have a way of working out exactly as they are supposed to. I’ve been given lots of great advice along the way- the most important of which is probably “to compare is to despair.” Without worrying what others are achieving, I know I need to work on me; do the work and develop the best possible product. Over time I’ve found some things that are non-negotiables for my own process and calm:
- Practice– lots. I need to be super prepared otherwise I don’t sing as well.
- Exercise at least 6 days a week (for health AND sanity)
- Keep yoga and meditation in my life
- Take regular breaks from social media
- Dedicate myself to things outside my career as well; I have a beautiful daughter and a husband and a wonderful social network of friends both singers and non. My daughter is especially helpful in rooting me to life outside of singing.
- In downtime between gigs, find and develop projects that engage my creative brain: I am learning to play the guitar, and I’m also working to bring to fruition a project I’ve been thinking over for a while.
What is the food you recommend for a pre-performance snack? What about your favorite food or drink when you’re trying to kick a cold?
Everyone has their own food preferences, but I’m almost never without an “emergency banana” backstage. Bananas are easy to digest, bring lots of energy, and don’t get dry pieces stuck in the throat!
Kicking a cold: I am a huge fan of ginger tea. Any time I feel even a little tickle, I go buy ginger root and boil it up to make a super strong tea. Served with lots of fresh lemon juice and maybe some honey too. Delish and packed with vitamin c.
This season, you can hear Jennifer Zetlan on her numerous new recordings, in Carnegie Hall, in Toledo and beyond. Go to jenniferzetlan.com for more information.