An interview with Jenufa Gleich

Alexandra Lawrence
July 24, 2008

Jenufa Gleich is one to watch. This American opera singer graced the stage at Carnegie Hall before making her move to Florence in pursuit of realizing her dreams in the birthplace of opera. She makes her Italian debut on July 24 the soprano soloist in Carmina Burana, as part of the Opera Festival in the Boboli Gardens. Her enthusiasm for her art is palpable and her passion for her craft inspiring.

 

How did you get started singing opera?

 

I grew up in a Jewish family on Long Island. For as long I can remember, there was music and singing at home. I played all sorts of instruments and I loved singing from an early age, but it wasn't until I was 15 and heard a recording of Maria Callas singing Madame Butterfly that I knew all I wanted to do was sing opera. I completely freaked out and I knew then and there that I had found my calling.

 

How did you begin your studies?

 

After high school, I took the traditional route of music college and went to one of the top conservatories in Manhattan. I started my studies with great enthusiasm, but after six months in the system I realized that that was not my path and that I was actually regressing, so I left. I was miserable and cynical at just 19 years old. A few weeks later I found Maria Caruso Farnworth and began my studies privately with her. I didn't know it at the time, but a journey that would change my life was about to begin. The way I sing and the way I approach most everything began there with Maria. She teaches bel canto, which is the hardest style to master-it takes years of building, strengthening, preparation, understanding the body and finally making it all seem effortless. The road is long and you never stop learning, developing and growing. There is a tendency these days to rush singers to development, but Maria taught me to discipline myself and not be tempted to go into the business until I was ready.

 

How exactly does an opera coach ‘teach' a student?

 

Maria taught me the study of breath, anatomy, speech, diction-in short, how to build an instrument from scratch. Pilates, yoga, languages, acting, dancing, belly dancing: you name it, she made me do it. She believes that every voice is as unique as a fingerprint and that singers have to find their own true voice no matter how long that takes and to develop in their own time, without being rushed. Under these conditions, although difficult, after putting in many years of work, the rewards began to come.

 

What is it really like to be an opera singer?

 

I always say that being an opera singer is a benedizione e maledizione-a blessing and a curse. The art is so huge; therefore the responsibility to the art and your voice has to match that. Singers can't just take out their instrument, play it and then put it back in its case. We can't take a couple of days off, close the office so to speak! Since we carry our instrument everywhere, we always need to take care of it. It is like a child, always needing loving attention, care and discipline. That's the hard part.

 

There is also so much more to it than just getting up and singing. We must perfect the opera languages, in my case Italian, German and French, but there is also a vast repertoire in Czech and Russian. Opera is theatre, so you have to act and move as well.

 

Dealing with nerves is another big one, you have to have nerves of steel, to be tough and have a thick skin, but at the same time you have to be open and vulnerable when you perform. I like to think of us as a sort of Tootsie Pop-hard on the outside but soft and sweet on the inside. This way you can give your soul onstage, but still have the nerves to deal with the pressures.

 

You must need a lot of support to succeed in the world of opera. Who or what sustains you?

 

You're right: succeeding in this business is something that you can't accomplish alone. It takes an army of people to help an opera singer, build a career, overcome the obstacles deal with rejection and achieve their goals- you need an incredible amount of support from teachers, coaches, agents, parents, a spouse or partner, hairdressers, clothing designers, make-up artists, therapists, jewellery makers, sponsors, audiences, conductors, friends...the list goes on and on. My parents have been incredibly nurturing and supportive-I rely on my family a lot. All of these people who give hours of time,  to teach you, to encourage you to pursue your art. It is like permanent, wonderful, opera boot camp!

 

After all of this, it is my job and privilege to be able give back while singing to make people happy, to heal with music, to give someone a new experience or perhaps to touch their deepest emotions-the joy of this type of connection is hard to put into words.

 

Tell us about your Italian debut.

 

I am the soprano soloist for Carl Orff's Carmina Burana with the Opera Festival. I adore the music and to sing in places like Boboli Gardens and San Galgano is truly magical. Luca Canonici is doing amazing things for Florence and Tuscany with this festival. He brings a high standard of professional artists, like the Carmina conducted by Bruno Nicoli.

 

What are your long-term goals? What are you dream roles?

 

My long-term goal is to continue to grow as an artist and have a long-lasting career that is built step by step. I have just moved to Italy, so I am eager to build my career here. I love the tradition that the Italian theatres uphold with their music-I have a great respect for that. My goal is to sing for all these theatres and conductors! 

 

As far as roles go, I am obsessed with the stories of the monarchy and the rule of Henry VIII. The Donizetti queens, like Maria Stuarda, Elisabetta in Roberto Devereux and Anna Bolena are roles that inspire me. I can't wait to sing them! My long-term dream role is Lady Macbeth. That will really be something! I want to sing all of the big dramatic roles that really say something profound. These are jewels in my repertoire, but when it comes down to it, every role has its own beauty and treasures to discover and I love them all.

 

What made you pick up and move to Florence just as your career was taking off?

 

I first came to Florence at 21 to study the language. I cried the first day I saw the city. It was a dream to live in a place that gave me such emotion and such joy. So after living in New York my whole life, I finally took the leap and moved to my dream place.

 

Back in December, I was at a café on the Upper East Side with one of my friends and biggest supporters, Francine, talking about how I dreamed of moving to Florence. She just looked at me and said, ‘Just do it! Go for it! You can succeed!' So I went home that night and talked it over with my husband who is a film producer, writer and director, and he was convinced we should give it a try. So with that we packed up our New York city apartment took the leap of faith, and here we are. Now he is working on new feature film with an Italian company and editing a film he shot in New York and I am living out my dream of living in my favorite city in the world!

 

Every day I have that same feeling of joy when I look outside the window of our apartment. The people here seem to feel it, too. There is a magical energy here. Such a love and respect for artists and such a nourishment of the arts. You don't find that everywhere. There is an openness about the Italian people that make me feel that I am not a foreigner, but that I am at home.

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