|Jennifer Johnson Cano stars as Donna Elvira
in the BLO production.
This week, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano sat down with BLO to talk about her first Donna Elvira, her musical background, and being in Boston in springtime.
BLO: In your own words, what’s the story of Don Giovanni?
JJC: I think it’s really about the relationships in the piece and how everyone relates to Don Giovanni himself. Ultimately, I think it’s the story of this wildly charismatic person who doesn’t use people wisely, and how it affects people’s lives, but at the same time, they’re attracted to him.
BLO: Have you sung the role of Elvira before?
JJC: This is the first time! And it’s such a great first time for so many reasons—it’s a new production and we’re constantly talking as a group about the decisions that we’re making. And Emma [Griffin], the director, has such a fantastic point of view in terms of fleshing out the relationships … So there have been a lot of really great, collaborative conversations … Sometimes I say something and then I’m like, that’s a terrible idea! Let’s do something else! [Laughs.]
BLO: What is your process like when you’re preparing a new role?
JJC: For me, it’s always about studying the text. What does the text actually say, what is the story that the libretto is actually telling? And then making sure that I can communicate that through what I’m doing onstage … It’s a constantly layering process. You start off super basic, nuts and bolts, and then you decorate the rest of the time... My husband [Christopher Cano, pianist and vocal coach] likens it to building a house: You gotta lay a concrete foundation, you gotta get the studs in, then you put the walls on and the roof on, and that’s the structure. Then the rest is the interior decorator’s job. Do I want to add a window dressing? Would a rug look good in this room? So it starts off basic, and hopefully as close to the truth as you can get, and then you decorate from there.
BLO: What are some of the things that are challenging in singing Elvira?
JJC: The biggest challenge of any opera, not just Elvira, is finding the highs and low to make the character a fleshed-out person. It’s very easy to take the music at face value and create a stock character, but what you really want to do is create someone who has feelings, and reactions, and emotions, and that it’s very, very honest. And [Elvira’s] music changes a lot. When she first enters on the scene, it’s very angular, very up and down, lots of leaps. And then her next aria is this Baroque piece, and if you heard them separately you might not know it was the same character singing that music. Her final aria in the second act, the “Mi tradì,” again is a totally different style. So [the biggest challenge] is bringing all of these things together to create this one, fluid character.
BLO: Do you have a favorite aria or section of music in Don Giovanni?
JJC: The ensembles are the best parts in the show … Mozart’s arias tend to be one or two points of self-reflection, but in the ensembles, the movement of the story is continuous, and I love playing with my colleagues onstage. We play make believe, all day! …[M]y personal favorites are the quartet in Act I, the trio in Act II, and the final scene between Elvira, Leporello, and Giovanni.
BLO: Tell us a little bit about you, your background and training.
JJC: I grew up in Missouri, a small town about an hour south of St. Louis called Festus, MO. My parents are great music lovers, so I grew up going to a lot of musical theater shows and symphonic performances by St. Louis Symphony. My mom was a church musician. So there was always music around to enjoy, but I didn’t really get serious about studying music until I went to college. I went to school in St. Louis and then in Texas, and then I won the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. And from that was invited to be in the Lindemann [Young Artist Development] Program, where I spent three years as a young artist. It was an extremely formative part of my growing up—although I’m still very much growing up!—I had the luxury of being in this incredible opera house, and not only learning actively from people that I would work with one-on-one, but also learning passively though observing incredible people do what they do. And the orchestra making music was the best thing in the world.
BLO: What do you have coming up after Don Giovanni?
JJC: This summer I am going to Opera Saratoga, and I’m doing my first Dido in Dido and Aeneas by Purcell. They’re working with a dance company so I understand that dance will be interspersed throughout the entire show, which will be a fantastic challenge … And then I’m also tackling my first Carmen in Savannah with the Savannah Voice Festival, delving into that world as well. So my spring and my summer are filled with these incredible characters studies and these remarkable women. Very different, but I’m sure by the end of the summer I will have found all these links between them. So I’m very spoiled.
BLO: How has your time in Boston so far been?
JJC: I’m loving Boston so far! I’ve only ever been here for concerts, which are very intense, quick trips, and this is my first time where I have been able to take an afternoon or a morning and wander and see what’s going on. And it’s the first time that I’ve been here in spring … So it’s really nice to be here and sit in Boston Common, or walk up and down Newbury Street or Commonwealth, and take it all in. The only issue is that I’m in Red Sox territory and I’m from St. Louis…but don’t hold it against me, I just happen to be from Cardinals world. So far, two thumbs up for Boston!