Soprano Jessica Rivera’s voice does not just produce the kind of lyricism that trickles through your inner being and leads you to a place of mesmerizing tranquility. It is more. It is thrilling, captivating with a poetic appeal. It is steady, like the flow of rain that dances upon the maple leaves in the forest; smooth and rich like melted chocolate drizzling over a thick cheesecake; and it is calming, like a moment in a garden when you are sitting among the azaleas and there is nothing but you, the flowers and the breeze kissing you softly on the cheek as it brushes by. Still not convinced? Listen to her sing “Lento e largo, tranquillissimo” from Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No. 3, op. 36 “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs.”
And then there is Jessica, the person, the woman who dreamed at the age of 14 of becoming an international opera star. That dream came true with her solo debut in January of 2001 when she was suddenly asked to stand in for the role of Susanna in LA Opera’s production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro.
“I was on my way to a voice lesson before I had to show up at the theater and got a call from the opera to sing,” Jessica explained. “I called the voice teacher to cancel [our lesson] and go on to the show.” Following her debut, she was invited by Tenor Plácido Domingo to work with the LA Opera as a resident artist. A few weeks later, she auditioned for the LA Philharmonic and was invited to sing Joaquín Rodrigo’s Ausencias de Dulcinea (The Absence of Dulcinea).
She spoke with me via telephone in March from her grandparents’ home in Woodland Hills, Calif., where she grew up. She was preparing for a project with the Boston Symphony Chamber Players and was working with her teacher to hone her already incredible vocals before heading to Boston. The beauty of her voice vibrated through her delightful personality.
The opera, in brief, is about a beautiful but poor girl, Kumudha, who discovers she has the power to turn herself into a flowering tree. She and her sister sell the flowers from the tree to provide a means of living to them and their mother. A young prince falls in love with Kumudha, marries her and then demands she transform herself into the flowering tree. His jealous sister observes the ritual and later tricks Kumudha to do the same for her and her wealthy friends. The transformation is incomplete and Kumudha is stuck in the form of half a tree, half a human. Kumudha disappears and the prince becomes distraught when he cannot find her. He leaves the palace and wanders aimlessly through the country. When he returns, he is almost unrecognizable. His sister, now the queen, takes care of him. She hears of a freakish creature with a divine voice and has it brought to her brother in the hopes the singing will return him to life. She has the creature bathed and brought to her brother’s bed. The prince and Kumudha recognize each other and he performs the old ceremony, which returns her to her human form.
Jessica spoke with me about her upcoming Atlanta performance and what it means to her to work with the ASO, as well as how she chooses her various roles.
JML—What do you hope the audience will take away from the performance of A Flowering Tree?
JR—What I would like most for people to take away from the story is redemption and hope. It’s about a young girl who finds herself, who finds love, encounters betrayal and is redeemed by a beautiful love. That’s what I would love for people to take away because something we all can appreciate on a human level is being redeemed.
JML—Tell us about your character, Kumudha. What is she like?
JR—She was young, curious and imaginative and very generous in spirit. This shows in the whole purpose of her trying to turn herself into a flowering tree so she can sell blossoms for a better life for her family—her mother and sister. There is no father in the picture. Out of great compassion for her elderly mother, Kumudha wants to do something to help. I can identify with that in a way. My family is incredibly important to me. I always want to find a way to be an important part of that family and make my family experience as full as possible. This is how Kumudha is able to express her love of family by finding a way to provide for them and make life easier.
JML—What are some of the things you look forward to in working with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra?
JR—“Flowering Tree” has been such an important part of my career and it came in such an unexpected and beautiful way through Peter Sellars and John Adams. When I met John, it was to let him know what my voice could do so he could write a piece for me with my voice in mind. I feel funny saying he wrote for me, but humbled and honored at the same time. It’s a beautiful story with beautiful lyrics. Unlike other things he’s written, this was a real self-discovery on his part and he wrote something fairy-tale-esque than other operas he’s written based on actual historical events, such as Nixon in China. I met him for the first time in a house in Berkley, Calif., and saw him before anyone had. I thought I’d better pinch myself because [meeting him] doesn’t happen everyday. Since then, I’ve been singing and doing premiers all over world—London, Japan, San Francisco, Paris, New York and now Atlanta—and it’s been so special for me.
My career started a year before I was introduced to “Flowering Tree.” I was with Robert Spano and ASO when we recorded [Osvaldo Golijov’s] Ainadamar. I met Robert in 1998 when I apprenticed as an artist with Santa Fe Opera in New Mexico. I was in the chorus and we did The Magic Flute. So I’ve known Robert since and to do a piece with him (Ainadamar) was such a profound gift to me as an artist on both a personal and professional level. So I’m thrilled to be partnering with Robert and the ASO again. The [ASO] has been my home base for symphony performances. I’m from Los Angeles and I enjoy the LA Phil[harmonic] but all the pieces I’ve done with ASO are amazing and it’s special to know I’ve had a rich history with this orchestra in particular and with Robert.
JML—When it comes to choosing a role, whether in a new work or a classic, are there particular standards that factor into your decision?
JR—Yes. First, my voice should lend itself to the piece and the piece lend itself to my voice. I ask, “Can I sing it and will it sound good?” Also, “is it a story that I have some sort of personal connection with?” The difference to performing well is in singing something you can find a connection with. With A Flowering Tree, an ordained moment for me in my life and career is like putting on my favorite pair of comfortable jeans. [The story was] written with my voice in mind, but because I have an affinity for a good story—drama, love’s lost, love redeemed—I identify with a story that is profound and touching and hopefully there are things I enjoy. I enjoy doing operas with characters different from who I am. I also always enjoy songs. When I was probably eight or nine, I told my music teacher I wanted songs that tell a story and I can communicate in that way.
JML—Can you share with us how you began your musical journey and career?
JR—My great aunt is a professional musician, an organist at The Peabody Institute [of the John Hopkins University] in Baltimore. I sang for her when I was two and she told my family I could sing in key and I should get voice lessons. I visited my great-grandmother in Maryland when I was eight and sang for her and her friends. They agreed that I could sing. In fact, one friend of my elementary school teacher said she had a “prima donna” on hand and that I needed lessons. I understood musicals, but I didn’t know about classical music. I had an audition with a voice teacher when I was nine and she introduced me to a wonderful repertoire. At 14, she gave me an opera aria to learn. It was then I knew I wanted to be an international opera singer. I loved a good story, drama and the language. I’m grateful for my family and friends that recognized that and guided and encouraged me in this direction.
June 7 & 9, 2012
A Flowering Tree
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra