A Conversation with Aleks Romano

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Mezzo-soprano Aleks Romano began the 2017-18 season at Madison Opera with a critically acclaimed debut in the title role of Carmen. In February she appeared as the Komponist in R. Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos at Austin Opera, and will end the season with Rossini’s Tancredi with Teatro Nuovo at SUNY’s Purchase Performing Arts Center.

Ms. Romano’s first instrument was the violin, which she played for sixteen years before switching to voice. She hasn’t looked back since, performing at Yale and Bard, The Glimmerglass Festival, and regional companies across the country. Along with great reviews, she’s also garnered numerous prizes including first place at the 2016 Gerda Lissner Foundation Competition. She was a 2015 Sullivan Foundation Career Development Award winner and second place winner in the Southeast Region of the 2015-2016 Metropolitan National Council Auditions.

Ms. Romano was introduced to D.C. audiences in 2014 as a member of Washington National Opera’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program, appearing onstage in The Little Prince and Dialogues of the Carmelites.

The Washington Chorus is thrilled to be bringing Ms. Romano back to the Kennedy Center for her first local performance as Carmen on April 21st and we began our conversation by asking her what she enjoyed most about singing the role earlier in the season:

 
 

Aleks Romano: It was my first dive into what I think will be a life-long character. Not because I plan on singing her forever, but because she’s so complex, and so human in a way that a lot of other operatic characters are not. The most fascinating thing for me is where other characters are singing their psychology, or the music indicates their psychology, Carmen is more of a songstress, so her words don’t always mirror her thoughts. It really is the singer’s job to mine that text, or subtext, to illuminate the story they want to create. There’s much more freedom in this role than in other pieces that I do. That’s definitely part of it. And I get to fight with a knife, which is really cool.

TWC: From your own contemporary perspective, how do you view Carmen as a character?

Aleks: As a woman in 2018, I am a feminist, I enjoy being a woman, I enjoy the contributions of other women, and I think Carmen is a complicated character from that standpoint. The world she lives in is so overwrought with toxic masculinity. From the first moment of Micaela’s interaction with the soldiers there’s no question about what this world looks like. Whether that reflects our world or not is up for debate, but the power dynamic is very clear.

I think one of the most interesting things about singing Carmen is that she’s such a powerful figure, but the fact of the matter is she fights tooth and nail for every moment of that power on stage in a way that actually powerful people or characters don’t have to.

What’s so interesting about this production is the idea that someone else is actually telling the story and that we’ll get a completely different perspective. I’ll have to come to the piece differently because we’re talking about from the perspective of the mother. I think that will shift things a little bit for me.

TWC: You’ve also sung Isabella in Rossini’s L’italiana in algeri. Given everything happening right now in the cultural landscape, that’s another opera that raises uncomfortable some questions about gender and racial stereotypes.

Aleks: Carmen and Isabella have similar undertones. The culture clashes can be quite problematic from a casting or cultural sensitivity perspective. Since L’italiana is a comedy sometimes a little bit of leeway has been given historically toward the culture of Algiers. My first L’italiana was at Portland Opera with the director Christian Räth, who brilliantly removed the piece from time and space, so we were on a magic carpet, everything was larger than life, and nothing was realistic. We could explore the pure interactions between the male and female characters outside of the political context.

I did a more traditional production after that and we really had to grapple with questions of what we were representing and how could we do that responsibly in opera. I think it’s a question we are going to have to deal with industry-wide, to ask what is the role of these historic pieces? How can we be sensitive to all of those things while preserving our art form? I don’t have an answer, but I think that the fact we are sensitive to it, and discussing it is important. I think audiences should come with their own opinions, and also be open-minded to seeing a production where Carmen doesn’t die at the end [referring to this recent production].

I’ve had colleagues tell me “I don’t want to do Carmen anymore because I don’t want to watch a woman be gored onstage -- I don’t want to participate in that.” I get that perspective, but I think it’s important to continue to tell the story. We can’t forget where we came from, or erase any of this stuff. There is a culturally sensitive way to tell all of these stories.

TWC: It will be interesting to see how this plays out over the next decade, especially as women continue to assume more prominent roles, whether it’s behind the scenes managing companies, in the pit, or as directors. Let me ask you an easier question -- do you have a dream role?

Aleks: My dream role was Carmen, and then that was achieved, so I had to come up with a new dream, which is Charlotte in Werther. I would die to sing this role. The story is just beyond ridiculous, really, and it’s so melodramatic -- I’ve watched audiences giggle away during all of act three, but the music is so glorious.

TWC: What was the most important thing you learned as a Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist?

Aleks: I learned so much about how to function in the world as an artist. What I think Washington National Opera does so well is develop a community culture. They know how to pick a group of ten to fifteen individuals who really can cohabitate and co-create, which is incredible because that’s a huge number of people with different opinions who have to work and create together. It teaches you how to be a good colleague, a giving colleague, and a prepared colleague. Not to say other programs don’t teach these kind of things, but it was so much a part of the culture at WNO that I sort of took it for granted that it would be that way everywhere, and of course it isn’t. I’m really grateful I had that experience, to be around that kind of music-making, that kind of art-making because it set the bar for where I want to be and the kinds of things I want to do. Typically when you come out of a development program like that you don’t go directly into working in those kinds of houses, so I can cast my mind back to the many, many days of rehearsals, or multiple casts, these kinds of things, and say that’s where I would like to be again at some point. That’s not to discount the beautiful experiences I’ve had at the regional level, which are incredibly intimate, wonderful art-making processes that are totally different from a huge opera house, but there’s no substitute for an A-level opera house with A-level talent. That’s why they’re there.

TWC: American opera really seems to be having a moment, finally establishing a real identity of its own. As an American artist and opera singer, what are your thoughts on the native state of the art form?

Aleks: I think Francesca Zambello [Artistic Director of Washington National Opera, General Director of The Glimmerglass Festival] really anticipated this moment and cultivated it. She and I have had conversations about her vision for both of the companies she runs, that they really be havens for what is, not really a golden age because we’re in it, but a heyday of American opera. We’re learning to tell our own stories, very American stories, in a deeper way than we have before. The naivete of the American Dream, the “Golden West,” that beautiful rose-colored vision of America that lends itself to a lot of amazing art, we’re now looking at that through eyes that are older. We’re a little chipped, maybe, and I think that makes for better art sometimes. We’ve got a little bit of darkness happening -- a little, take that with several grains of salt -- we have some things to face as a country and some things to reconcile, and opera is really taking on some of the responsibility for that.

I’m very happy to have worked at two companies where the celebration of American opera is so strong and I hope to have more opportunities to participate in it. Operas like [David T. Little and Royce Vavrek’s] JFK and [Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek’s] Proving Up are hallmarks of our history, and offer  an important perspective of our history. Missy Mazzoli in particular has the ability to capture the collective emotional zeitgeist.

TWC: It seems to me that American composers are no longer looking to European composers as role models, moving beyond that to create contemporary, indigenous works that deal with specifically American themes and subjects.

Aleks: Agreed. I think they’ve stopped trying to imitate the style of European opera, whether it be musical style or compositional. Even the surrealism that’s built into an opera like Proving Up says “this is who we are.”

TWC: If you could join The Washington Chorus what choral work would you like to sing?

Aleks: Hmm. I still sing the alto parts of the Mozart Requiem at least once a month -- not as a member of the chorus, but it is my favorite alto part to sing. I also call it an exercise in middle A because you sing that note so many times. I think if I could sing any piece as a chorus member it would probably be the Verdi Requiem, or something enormous like that because the real power of the chorus, and what I miss about being a chorister, is that collective art that you don’t get at any other time. When a hundred voices are singing together... it’s overwhelming -- it’s so much bigger than you as as individual in a way that opera isn’t. When everyone is doing the same thing together at the same time, you get a moment of being part of the continuum, which is why I do art in the first place, to put a little piece of myself into the continuum. It would have to be something like that. Or…  if they ever did something by Christopher Tin - he writes fabulous, fabulous music. He has a song cycle for various soloists, chorus, and orchestra called Calling All Dawns which is enormous and wonderful.