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Grace Note: Suzanne Vinnik

Julie DeMarre Photography

Soprano Suzanne Vinnik has an affinity for high notes and high fashion. I met up with the opera singer to discuss life, love and opera after leaving Las Vegas.

Jacob Paul: It seems to me that you really identify with Violetta, both onstage and off.

Suzanne Vinnik: I think she’s one of the best characters in opera because she’s so different in every part of the story. At first she seems to be heartless, but its only because she doesn’t think she deserves love. Alfredo convinces her and she gives up everything, breaking your heart with hers. I think anyone with a soul can identify with her. 

JP: You get the chance to cover the role this season at Pittsburgh Opera. Are you excited?

SV: Oh yeah, I’m really excited about it. I never thought I would be 24 years old singing Violetta! I never really thought I had the talent to sing her. I mean…Violetta has always been one of my dream roles and it’s an honor that I get to try it out something that seems to be getting me a lot of attention.

JP: And audiences seem to agree that you really portray the character well, at least in the bits we’ve been able to see through competitions…

SV: Yeah, I mean I didn’t really bring Violetta into the mix until this past winter when I entered the Liederkranz Competition. I called my coach Ben Malensek an hour before I was supposed to be there for an emergency coaching.  I never coached it or even brought it to a lesson before I sang it that day! I just would sing through it with my friend for fun! I was lucky to get that last minute coaching and sort everything out. I won a prize the first time I ever sang the “E strano….Sempre Libera” in public… with Catherine Malfitano sitting across from me judging!!!!  My risk paid off…

JP: Literally!

SV: Haha Literally!

JP: Well that’s something you don’t hear every day. You brought the piece to the Palm Beach Opera Competition and you obviously won over the audience with your performance, but I’d like to add that you did so wearing a wonderful gown by Betsey Johnson, and I just wanted to applaud you on that choice.


Suzanne wears Betsey Johnson at Palm Beach

photo courtesy of Palm Beach Opera

SV: Thank you. We’ll thank Betsey.

JP: It’s obvious that while you love opera, you also have a passion for fashion.

SV: Yes! 

JP: Besides Betsey Johnson, what do you look for when it comes to unique style options?

SV: Well, I wish my little wallet and Betsey Johnson could always agree, but that isn’t the case! I just like anything that’s bright, kind of loud and announces “Hello, I’m here!” It has to be flattering in the right spots! A little cleavage, but not too much… You know, I’m risk taker. (Suzanne is currently sitting next to me on a park bench wearing bright pink shorts, a black t-shirt and pink animal print sunglasses).

JP: You’re heading to Castleton this summer to sing Musetta under the baton of Lorin Maazel. How did it come to be that Musetta became such a standard part of your repertoire?

SV: Well, I started working on the role when I was in Rome with Renata Scotto in the Opera Studio at Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia. The day before the concert she told me I’d be performing most of the second act! I thought to myself: “I’m just some moron from Las Vegas with some of the best young singers in the world… WHAT AM I DOING HERE!?”

JP: What was that experience like for you- working with Renata Scotto?

SV: It was… great! It was definitely the best thing that had ever happened to me. I mean, she heard me sing and pretty much told me that I was terrible “tu sei orribile”  after I sang the aria from Lucia. I worked very hard while I was there. Her husband Lorenzo really took a strong liking to me. We worked seven days a week for twenty minutes just on technique. Renata really challenged me and made me try so many new things!

JP: Where did she hear you sing?

SV: Well, I heard about her program through a coach who I don’t actually work with. She suggested that I work with her so, although this person didn’t provide a formal introduction or anything, I thought about what she said and realized hey, Renata Scotto was the first opera singer that I started listening to when I was younger. I mean when I was eight years old I would watch this silly old VHS of La Boheme all the time and fast forward to and rewind all the parts with her in it because, as an eight year old girl, all I wanted was to be that crazy girl in the red dress! I wanted to be Renata! So, after the seed was planted in my mind to work with her, I asked everyone I knew about how to get in touch with her. I had this strange… grand notion that I was just going to call her up and say “Hello, I want to work with you” and that would be it. In New York, generally all you have to do is send an e-mail or make a phone call and people will work with you.

JP: Is that how this came to be?

SV: Oh, I sent her one of the craziest e-mails depicting my fan history of her since I was a child. I even referenced a scene of her singing “Sola perduta abbandonata.” She finally responded to me about a month later and I eventually got to sing for her!

JP: That’s amazing! I guess all roads, and phone calls lead to Rome?

SV: Literally!

JP: You did Renata’s program in Rome twice.

SV: Yes I did.

JP: It must be expensive as a young singer just to afford the training you need to get yourself to the next point in your career.

SV: Yes, nothing in life is free. Whoever said, “The best things in life are free” lied!

JP: You’ll be representing the USA at the end of the summer at the Queen Sonja International Music Competition in Oslo, Norway. Are you looking forward to the competition?

SV: I’m really looking forward to the experience because I’ve always had this fascination with Norway and the songs of Edvard Grieg. I wrote this crazy paper on him in my undergrad for which I did a lecture/ recital on, so I’m really excited to sing in Norway.

JP: Do you have any idea of what you’ll be offering once you get to Oslo?

SV: Well, I have to offer eight arias and four art songs so, it’s definitely a lot of preparation. I am adding to my list the Bolero from I Vespri Siciliani and like “Sempre Libera”, I figured… why not?

JP: So you’d say that you’re a risk taker in your repertoire selections in addition to your fashion choices?

SV: I’m from Vegas!

JP: So life is a risk for you?

SV: I look at it this way. You have to go big or go home.

JP: Good point, well you are definitely going big.

SV: I hope so.

JP: You were an Encouragement Winner this year at the 40th Annual George London Foundation Awards, walking away with the Leonie Rysanek Award. What those in attendance did not know, was that your dress actually ripped in the back while you were singing Manon’s aria “Adieu notre petite table”. How did you handle that situation so well?

SV: I was just hoping that it wasn’t going to fall off because I didn’t want to be known as the singer who exposed her tatas to an audience that included Patrick Summers, Marcello Giordani and pretty much every important person that could be in the same room. It would have been humiliating!

JP: Do you have any tips for anyone else out there who might have something similar happen during a performance?

SV: Well, you can’t just stop and say “Hang on, I gotta zip my dress up!” With me I just had to focus and manage. I realized that I couldn’t take big breathes, so I had focus on taking dramatic breathes that would get me through, even if it meant that I couldn’t sing with the dynamics I wanted. I didn’t want to expose myself in that way. So, I just did what I always try to do and sing my best, focus on the character and not let me dress fall off!

JP: So every performance is unique…

SV: They all have their variables!

JP: You’ll be leaving New York City in late September to join Pittsburgh Opera’s Resident Artist Program. Are you sad about leaving The City?

SV: I have mixed feelings about it. I mean, I love New York and I love the life I’ve established here. I have my close group of friends, and I’ll definitely miss seeing my coach because I feel, in a way, that he’s the little mastermind of everything that I’ve done thus far. But I am looking forward to paying such a small amount for rent, and actually working!

JP: What are your favorite things about New York?

SV: I just love that I can really do anything here! I mean I can go to the opera, random performances, shop, and go on silly websites to have food delivered to me at all hours of the night. The thing about New York is, while it’s a rough life, it really is rewarding. I love that I can just walk down the street, sit in Riverside Park and study my opera scores, and for what I want to do, New York really is the center of the universe.

JP: We’ve already talked quite a bit about Violetta and Musetta; can you tell me what other roles you’re looking forward to or perhaps would like to sing in the future?

SV: Well I would really like to sing Mimi. I feel like I can identify with her character more, even though the outside world looks at me and is like “Musetta!” I would actually like to die for once in that opera. I’d also like to sing both Massenet and Puccini’s Manon! Like Violetta, she’s another girl who loses it all for love. I guess I’m just a sappy romantic. I’d definitely like to try to sing some of the Donizetti heroines; Lucia, Anna Bolena, Elisabetta from Roberto Devereux, Maria Stuarda; all the three queens really. Someday.

JP: You call yourself a sappy romantic. Is that just within your musical life? 

SV: No. Its everything.  With singing, we always have to be in control of our emotions, making different colors to make the audience feel something, so I feel like my opera side definitely comes out in my real life. Everything has to be great! It can’t be boring. With me, my boyfriend is in Germany… there’s always something difficult about it.

JP: How does a sappy romantic like you who portrays larger than life people on stage who fall in and out of love, who die and live for love, deal with love in the real world along with the distance and the realities that come along with a career that is now in your case taking shape?

SV: It’s definitely hard no matter where you live. With singing, I’m always living out of my suitcase, getting ready for this, doing that. When it comes down to it: sometimes you have to be selfish! It’s up to you to find people who make you feel grounded, who make you feel good and that you want to keep surrounding yourself with because it is such a difficult life.

JP: It seems sometimes that there is always someone ready to pounce when a vulnerable moment is spotted.

SV: Definitely. Everybody always wants something from an artist! You can’t just sing! After a while you have to tune it all out and concentrate on what makes you happy. Hopefully it’s the music and the people you surround yourself with. 

JP: The 2010/2011 season has provided a lot of new opportunities for you. It definitely seems to be a year of growth for you. Can you tell me what inspired all this?

SV: You picture your life one way, and something happens where it doesn’t quite go as you planned. With me, I got back to New York and thought, “Ok, what am I going to do with my life?” Everything that I had known literally blew up in my face, so I really focused on learning how to sing. I had a great voice teacher, a great coach, I worked with Renata Scotto and her husband who both just helped me so much. When I came back, I started entering competitions, and really decided to do this. I began to really apply myself and believe that it was “MY YEAR” and something great was going to happen. I knew that it was going to erase any and all of the bad that occurred before. Luckily, the first competition I entered (Opera Index Inc.), I won a prize and after that everything started falling into place!

JP: I have to point out that you’re definitely a studious person. You don’t just sit around doing nothing. If you have free time, you’re studying.

SV: Oh always!

JP: You attribute that desire, that need to learn to what?

SV:Well, I figure that there is just all this opera out there being performed that isn’t great, with people who sadly don’t have a lot to say! I feel that I have a unique opportunity because I’m at an age that hopefully I can bring something different to this art form. I just want to bring it back to the old school. There aren’t divas anymore!!! Just pretty people with music videos and there is just so much more than that. Opera is the greatest art form in the world and when you have people like Renata Scotto, Magda Olivero, Virginia Zeani who have come before you, it’s like “That’s what I want to be like!” I want people, long after I’m gone to say “Look what she did”, like Maria Callas. I mean, you pick up a fuzzy recording that you can barely hear the singing in of her, and, its wonderful! I want to touch people with my art, and the only way to do that is to study: to study the languages, the style, to listen to as many different recordings as possible to just try and understand the different styles from different eras. With La Traviata, I started working on the role and then read the book (referencing Alexadre Dumas fils’ La dame aux camelias) and when I finished, for over two hours I couldn’t stop crying. I thought it was even better than the opera! Then I watched the movie and even the silent film. There are so many adaptations of this story I mean, its incredible.

JP: I mention your studious nature not even to shed light on how you deal with the work you’re given, but it seems that you take upon yourself the opportunity to learn roles just because. It may not be a role or an aria that you have to learn for a company or a competition, it’s just because you want to learn. 

SV: I feel like there are roles that I picked up that I definitely couldn’t sing, they were either too high or something just didn’t fit. I will say that by singing and practicing Bellini, I learned how to sing legato, by singing Donizetti, I learned what Verdi learned from him to put in his music. It goes all the way to Puccini. You realize that everything is a stepping stone to the next. With La Traviata, hopefully that’s something I’ll be singing for the rest of my life…so it might as well be perfect.

Julie DeMarre Photography

This season Ms. Vinnik won 1st prize in the Verismo Opera Competition, 2nd Prize from Gerda Lisser Foundation, 3rd Prize at the Opera Index Competition, Audience Favorite and 4th Prize in the Palm Beach Opera Competition, an Encouragement Award from the George London Foundation and grants from The Liederkranz Foundation, The Licia Albanese-Puccini Foundation and The Giulio Gari Foundation. She was a Semi-Finalist in the 2011 Zachary Awards, Dallas Opera Guild Awards and the upcoming San Antonio Opera Competition. She has been selected to represent the USA in the 2011 Queen Sonja Competition in Oslo, Norway. Ms. Vinnik is also a 2011 Deimar Award Winner through The New York Foundation for the Arts. During the summer of 2009 she was a finalist in the Giulio Gari Foundation Competition and semi-finalist representing the USA at the Competizione dell’Opera International Singing Competition in Germany. She is a recipient of a Walsh Performing Arts Grant, the Nevada Arts Council Professional Development Grant, The Tove Allen Opera Legacy Scholarship through the NV Community Foudation/NV Opera Theatre and was awarded a Mannes Merit Scholarship.

Read my Urban Palate interview with photographer Julie DeMarre to discover how the above photograph of Suzanne Vinnik literally launched her own career!


Grace Note: Courtney Mills

As this year’s winners of the annual Gerda Lissner Competition prepare for their May 23rd Zankel Hall performance, I sat down with soprano Courtney Mills to discuss her recent 2nd place win as well as what makes this soprano tick.

Jacob Paul:  You won your award from The Gerda Lissner Foundation singing Dich Teure Halle from Wagner’s Tannhauser; what prompted your repertoire choice?

Courtney Mills: For competitions and auditions, singers offer 4-5 Arias. Dich Teure Halle is one of my main audition arias. I enjoy singing it because it really allows you to open up the voice. This particular aria has a special place in my repertoire because it is one of the aria’s I was able to perform while a young artist with Maestro Levine and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. That was truly one of the most amazing moments I have experienced. Wagner really knows how to write lines that soar and make you feel like you are flying over the orchestra. That is especially true of this piece.

JP: It’s my understanding that you’ll be singing the aria at Zankel Hall.

CM: Yes! I’m looking forward to it.

JP: You, like many young singers with soaring voices, try to steer away from categorizing yourself in a particular fach.

CM: Yes, I do. I think it is dangerous to categorize yourself especially as a young singer, while the voice is still growing. You need to have a focus in what you sing, but you also need to adapt and change with how your voice develops. I began singing in high school with the Queen of the Night, Blondchen, and Cunegonde. These are all roles that are now incredibly inappropriate for my voice. I believe if you feel good singing something and you don’t have to strain yourself to sing it, you should go for it. I personally have a large voice, but it comes from a high soprano placement and it likes to move. A lot of other large voiced young soprani may have started as mezzos therefore what is comfortable for them may not be as comfortable for me and vice versa. Also, some roles such as Butterfly and Tosca, written by the same composer for a similar weight of voice feel completely different. Tosca for me is fun to sing while Butterfly is not. It’s all so personal. I can say that it’s very important to know your own instrument and what you can do comfortably so that you can make intelligent decisions when it comes to rep and casting. The cast of Cosi fan tutte at one house might be light lyric voices and the cast at another might be slightly more weighty. It all has to do with the mix of the voices.  Price has sung Fiordiligi and so have a lot of lighter voices. One isn’t more correct than the other necessarily- it’s all personal preference. Another good example is Boheme. Some people prefer Mimi to have a larger voice than Musetta because she is the main character, others think Musetta should be larger because her personality is written to be more like Mae West.

JP: You made your Metropolitan Opera Debut while a member of the house’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program. Can you tell me what that experience meant to you?

CM: Wow, it was an experience of a lifetime. I mean how often do you get to do anything for thousands of people all at once, let alone something you love? It was also really great to get to have my family there to see me accomplish the goal they had been supporting me with for the previous seven or more years. More than that though, the Metropolitan has a magical presence. The orchestra is the best in the world, the acoustic is the best in the world, and the ghosts that haunt the stage are the best singers in history.  To be able to sing on that stage at all is life changing. When I was being considered for the Young Artist program, we had an audition on the main stage and that moment more than any other singing moment has a special place in my heart and memory. The energy in that space is palpable.

JP: You’ve had a lot of interesting performance experiences since… including singing on a French National radio broadcast live from the Louvre Museum.

CM: Yes, that was another great moment for me. They have a beautiful auditorium and their musical series is really phenomenal. I get updates in my email and I wish it was an easier commute to go see concerts there because the list of artists and events is really quite impressive. I came to sing there because one of the patron’s heard me in Verbier. It was a really awesome surprise when they contacted me for a recital. I was honored to be included in their recital series.

JP: You are covering the title role in Verdi’s Luisa Miller this summer at Chautauqua Opera; how is the preparation going? I mean I’ve even seen you at a local Starbucks with your score in hand!

CM: Haha yes! Well, for me the words are the most important aspect. You have to know what you are saying and why, so that you can understand why the composer wrote the music a certain way. You know, back when Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti and Verdi were composing, the librettist was actually billed first and then the composer, so you would see Luisa Miller listed by Salvadore Cammarano and composed by Giuseppe Verdi- not the other way around. Today we all know the composers and not the librettists, it’s an interesting reversal. I also really like to feel connected to the character and this is the easiest way to get a feel for the character. So I begin by translating (yes I use my Nico Castel books, but I also like to look up words on my own so that I really know the text), then I memorize the text while listening to the music, and finally I learn the notes with piano. Also it helps save a bit of money on coachings which can be really expensive in New York City. So yes, I do a lot of work sans piano at Starbucks.

When not at Starbucks learning her latest operatic role, Miss Mills can be found in NYC’s piano bars  singing her favorite classical musical theatre and jazz standards.


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