Kiera Duffy

Everybody, welcome to year two of The Glass!

Remember my post from last April when I suggested we all get a load of Kiera Duffy? I can tell you that I didn’t anticipate back then that I’d be interviewing her! This is a wonderful and very special treat for me! Thanks so much, Kiera!

I must say that when I watch Kiera in The Audition now, there is a part in there where the finalists are getting ready for the performance round of the audition in front of an audience, and Kiera is seen waiting behind the curtain in the dark holding herself and goes into what looks like a silent ballet with mouthed lyrics, but it’s most likely her going over the pieces in her head. In some voyeuristic way it is enlightening and fascinating to see how an artist works it during an intense moment. The film also followed her as she stepped offstage and had a long walk back to the green room in great exhilaration. Clearly it was a moment of a lifetime for her.

Cut to several years later, and Kiera Duffy is working all over the place in various productions nationwide, and lo and behold she’s back at The Met this month performing in the new production The Enchanted Island. She’s also featured on a new CD titled Richard Strauss: The Complete Songs, Vol 5 on Hyperion. Anyway, without further ado…

CM: Can you please talk about your musical upbringing and what your interests were that led you to want to sing opera?

KD: When I was about four years old, my parents, who were not particularly into ‘the arts’, signed me up for gymnastics, ballet and piano lessons. I remember very clearly going to all of these activities, and I also remember even more clearly saying to my mother when I was around 6 or 7 years old that I thought I would like to leave ballet and gymnastics in order to focus more on the piano. I really loved it. In fact I loved all music from a very early age. My mom says that when we would go to church on Sundays, she would get embarrassed because I would be sort of gyrating my whole body during the hymns. She would say in hushed tones, “Kiera, what are you doing?!?!” to which I apparently replied rather headily, “I just LOVE the music, Mommy.” Some things never change. To this day, my friends get embarrassed going to concerts with me (in fact, sometimes I embarrass myself), because I can’t quite seem to keep my body still when I’m listening to music I enjoy. It truly feels like little lightning bolts of electricity are passing through me. Wow, I am weird. Haha!

Anyway, I would continue to study classical piano for the next 14 years, which I loved. Nevertheless, it became fairly clear to me around the age of 14 or so that I was certainly not piano prodigy material. I don’t think I had the natural talent, and I certainly did not have the desire to be in a practice room for 10 hours a day every day. Fortuitously, however, around this time I was introduced to choral music, and I found that I absolutely adored it, though I found myself to be a bit limited vocally. So, I decided to start taking voice lessons with a teacher who worked at my high school. That would prove to be a critical decision, as my teacher was a graduate student at Westminster Choir College, a school I hadn’t ever heard of before meeting her, but a school I would end up attending for both undergraduate and graduate voice studies.

I should say that when I entered Westminster Choir College I had no aspirations of becoming an opera singer. At that point I had still never seen a real opera live. What I really wanted to be was a choral conductor, but one could not major in choral conducting at Westminster as an undergraduate. So, I decided, on my high school teacher’s advice, to audition for the voice performance program, into which I was miraculously accepted. My plan at that time was to learn as much as I could about singing in order to be a good conductor of singers. I had not planned on wanting to become a singer myself, though that was in fact what happened to me around my 3rd year of undergraduate school. It was while singing the role of Tytania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream that I discovered that I, an otherwise fairly ‘plain jane singer’, had high notes (disclaimer: I don’t mean to imply that high notes are the only thing that make a singer interesting. It was just that in my case, they were the ONLY thing that made my voice interesting–haha)! And that they were pretty easy! And it was then that my teacher said to me (for the first time, I might add–she would be the first to admit that up until then she had had no idea that I was professional singer material), “You know, Kiera, I think you could have a shot at this [a professional singing career] if you want.”
Well, you know what they say about the best laid plans…

In the end I decided to go for the singing career because I knew that if it didn’t work out, I could always come back to choral conducting, and let’s face it, singing is a young person’s game, for better or for worse. The decision, thank goodness, turned out to be the right one.

CM: So, I guess your story was still unfolding in The Audition, which was the film where I first saw you and many other singers that were after the same dream at the Met‘s National Council Auditions. That was such a great documentary to see on a cold winter afternoon, I might add! As you know I was very vocal about you being one of the singers not to be awarded at the end. Could you talk a bit about that what that was like, and also why you don’t think you were robbed? 🙂

KD: Yes, thank you, Chris, for being such a fan!!! The National Council Auditions were really a highlight of my singing life, despite the fact that they were incredibly nerve-wracking, intense and emotionally exhausting! As I have said in previous interviews, I consider it a blessing that I was already working as a professional singer when I advanced into the semi-final and final rounds of the competition. I know that I could not have handled that pressure had I been 23 or 24. To that end, I really enjoyed the two weeks that I spent at the Met. I loved the musical coachings that I had with Carrie Ann Matheson; I loved my dramatic coachings with Gina Lapinski; I loved my breathing class with Deb Birnbaum; I loved talking with Gayletha [Nichols] about the next steps in the career; and of course, I loved working with Marco Armiliato (who, by the way, insisted that we call him Marco–I could never quite do it!).

Trailer for The Audition (Directed by Susan Froemke)

I haven’t watched The Audition in about 3 years–too hard to relive that emotional rollercoaster–but what I do remember being struck by when watching it was just how good every single singer in that 2007 competition was. I have said this before and I still maintain that any one of us could have been named a winner that day (if I can say that without sounding like a narcissist). I do not for a second regret not winning. I loved being in the final 11, especially THAT final 11.

CM: There’s the part of the film where you are talking about the fact that your lung capacity is limited versus a more boisterous female vocal type, yet it seems that there are roles in the opera that suit you perfectly (I mean, it doesn’t sound like you are limited against things like the Handel or the Verdi arias), so were you just speaking about where the opera presenters wanted to go at the time?

KD: Well, I do not think that it is a coincidence that larger body types traditionally have larger voices. There’s a reason there’s a stereotypical opera ‘look.’ Those bigger bodies have great lung capacity and wonderful resonance capabilities. I am a smaller person and I have a smaller voice. Period. I have worked very hard to maximize my own resonance, so that my voice has the ability to ‘cut.’ But, no, you will never hear me sing Bruennhilde. And I mean, you will LITERALLY never HEAR me! I think in the case of a house the size of the Metropolitan, I just have be shrewd about my choice of roles, which is to say that the higher roles are more appropriate for me in those theaters because my voice has the most color/overtones in the higher tessituras. What I learned in the Met finals, particularly when singing the so called A-prime section of “Tornami a vagheggiar”, which is incredibly middle-voicey, is that the octave from middle C to the next C above is not my most colorful and in a house the size of the Met, not very comfortable for me. But if I get to spend the majority of my time about that up to around high D or E, that feels just fine in a big theater.

CM: You have gone on to do some very interesting productions like Peter Ash‘s The Golden Ticket (which according to the clip on YouTube was a workshop at Lincoln Center), and you played Violet–You looked delightful in the role. Are there any plans for you to continue working with that piece?

KD: I had a wonderful time playing Violet Beauregard! That role really fit my voice perfectly (see above explanation). Atlanta Opera will be doing it this spring, however, I am not available to recreate Violet.

CM: Another fascinating production was the NY premiere in 2010 of Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre–Venus on stilts! Was that the weirdest role you have ever played?

KD: Well, I certainly had never sung while on stilts before. The world really does look different when you’re 7’4″! I have done a lot of “weird” music in my lifetime, and no, Venus did not even touch the top of that category. Interestingly enough, however, I think the weirdest pieces I have ever sung were in fact 2 pieces by Ligeti, called “Aventures” and “Nouvelles Aventures”. It was with those pieces that I made my debut with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and I thought I was going to have myself committed to a mental institution while trying to learn them. They are so hard! In the end, however, they turned out to be some of the most fun, inventive, and yes, weird (in the best sense of the word) music I have ever done. Ligeti actually invented a gibberish ‘language’ for this piece, which was so much fun to do. The percussion section features broken dishware and flapping telephone books. At one point, I and the two other singers are yelling through megaphones at the audience. You want weird? That’s weird.

Excerpt from rehearsal for Le Grand Macabre, 2010

CM: I usually don’t quote other writers, but in this case it’s for a good reason–Tim Ashley of The Guardian says about your performance of the Strauss Brentano Lieder (on your new Hyperion CD Strauss: The Complete Songs, Vol 5) that “no single soprano can ever perform the whole cycle adequately” and goes on to say that “Duffy manages better than most, partly because there is a cutting edge in her tone that just about works in the big songs such as ‘An die Nacht’ and ‘Lied der frauen'”. Personally I hope the people at The Met read that! 😉 What are your thoughts about R. Strauss, and should we just call him Strauss like Tim Ashley does and not worry people would confuse him with Johann Strauss?

KD: Singing Strauss is somewhat of a guilty pleasure for me. I’ve often been told that my voice is silvery or shimmery, and I must say, those are two words I think of when I think of Strauss’ song repertoire, so as you can imagine, I love singing it! That was a very nice mention by Tim Ashley in The Guardian. I’m glad he thinks I manage ‘Lied der Frauen,’ because I adore that piece and I adore singing it even more. I will say, as I have in past interviews, that I do feel I am doing my best Kirsten Flagstad impression when I sing ‘Frauen,’ as it is a massive piece and is definitely most ideally served with a larger voice. Indeed, I would feel more trepidatious about singing it with an orchestra, as it really does mirror a scene from Salome. And a Salome I most definitely am not. Having said that, I am so glad that Roger Vignoles, who invited me to be a part of this wonderful Hyperion project, gave me a shot at singing it, along with all of the Brentano Lieder. They are such terrific songs and they are not done enough.

PS, I think the whole Richard vs. Johann Strauss thing often depends on context, if you’re just using the surname.

CM: I guess it might also be a good thing to ask you about The Enchanted Island since that’s the work that you are currently performing at The Met for the next month or so. What has it been like doing this interesting opera that actually features arias from previous operas?

KD: I was lucky enough to have been asked to workshop The Enchanted Island at the Met in early 2010, and I knew then that this was going to be a special piece. The music is astonishingly beautiful, as Jeremy Sams has basically compiled all of the best arias, ensembles and instrumental music of the 17th and 18th centuries into one delicious aural feast. The production is astonishing really. Julian Crouch and Phelim McDermott, who were the creative team behind the Met’s production of Philip Glass’ Satyagraha have not disappointed. It is whimsical, it is high-tech (with Avatar-like projections throughout the show) and it’s original. And of course, the cast is phenomenal. Being in the rehearsal room to watch pros like Joyce DiDonato, David Daniels, and Danielle DeNiese work has been a real privilege for me. I have learned so much from observing them–there is a reason they are “the pros”!

We just had our opening on New Year’s Eve and the audience went, well, bonkers over it (phew!), so I think we have a hit on our hands. It’s also since received a glowing review in the New York Times, so the word is out. This is definitely a production you won’t want to miss!

CM: Del Tredici’s Syzygy also looks like it went well! Is there anything you’d like to share about that piece?

KD: I had such a wonderful time performing Syzygy in Miami with the New World Symphony last month, and I can’t wait to do it 3 more times with the San Francisco Symphony in March. This is a fiendishly difficult piece–David del Tredici, in fact, told me he didn’t know what he was thinking when he wrote it (always good to hear that from the composer–haha!)! But it is a wonderful piece and a deeply satisfying one to perform. I have to be in tip top vocal shape to perform this piece, as the range is huge. I have to be able to sing low Es (below middle C), which most days I am somewhat able to grumble out, as well as leggiero high Ds, which is quite demanding. It is also very musically complex. The tonal language is quite chromatic and often times the vocal line is in a completely different harmonic world from that of the orchestra. As you can imagine, I spent a good month or more preparing for this piece. Thankfully, it was worth it–as I said, I had a wonderful time with the NWS and with Michael Tilson Thomas, who masterful in the way he ‘makes sense’ of this sort of complex music.

CM: Any future projects you are looking at you could share with us?

KD: I am singing the small, but beautiful solo at the end of Mahler 8 with Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic in February and then travel to Caracas, Venezuela to sing it with Dudamel and the famed Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra. I then go on to sing/speak Pierrot Lunaire with Pierre Boulez and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (which I am very excited about). I will be recording Carmina Burana with Kristan Jarvi on Sony Classics next fall.

CM: Time for a fluff question: Favorite TV shows? Favorite music (classical or non)? Favorite foods?

KD: This is always changing, but right now:
TV shows are Downton Abbey, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, BBC The Office, Absolutely Fabulous, Prime Suspect
Classical (a sampling): Bach, Britten, Schubert, Schumann, Berg, Schoenberg, Brahms, Mozart, Handel, Adams, Turnage, Mahler, Strauss (R.)
Non-Classical: Radiohead, Bjork, Bon Iver, Arcade Fire, Sigur Ros, Jonsi, Broken Social Scene, Michael Jackson, The Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, George Michael, Imogen Heap
Food: Too many to say.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Such wonderful taste!

Esa Pekka Salonen: Five Images After Sappho (2nd mvt; w/Metropolis Ensemble; 4/10/08, NY)

Kiera’s official website


2 thoughts on “Kiera Duffy

  1. What a wonderful fairy-tale story. Kiera Duffy is effervescent, and kudos to you for an interview that makes that so palpable on the page. How very happy I am that my birthday present this year is tickets to The Enchanted Island. Looking forward to that even more now!

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