“The biggest challenge,” says critically acclaimed soprano Jane Archibald, on the subject of the contemporary female opera singer, “is feeling like you’re not just a soundtrack and a Barbie Doll.”
This is a diva who pulls no punches.
Archibald is smart, articulate, sharply analytical – and disarmingly candid. In conversation recently from her home in Halifax (on what she termed “a bit of a gray day”), Archibald belied the weather with a veritable sunburst of scintillating reflections on her art, her career, the rewards and pitfalls of life on the road, and the trends she sees working themselves out in opera production today. (She also offered some choice remarks on that dicey “diva” word).
Archibald is in mid-career full flight, regularly jetting to points across the globe to headline opera productions and concerts from London to Paris, Zürich to Milan. Closer to home, she has starred with the Canadian Opera Company and the Metropolitan Opera; and this summer will rack up another career highlight with her first professional singing engagements in her nation’s capital – a wide-ranging solo recital on July 7, followed by a turn on July 10 as the featured soprano in Mozart’s Requiem and Exsultate, jubilate, all part of Ottawa’s Music and Beyond Festival 2019.
Celebrated as she is both for coloratura virtuosity and performance fearlessness, it’s hard to imagine Archibald, born and raised in the 1980s in Truro, Nova Scotia, as the audience-shy student she claims to have been during her time at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario.
“I loved singing,” she says, “but it was a very personal experience. Being an ‘entertainer’ was something that didn’t come naturally to me.” That seems to have changed all at once, however, as if by Muses’ fiat, during one university performance.
“I remember being onstage at the Maureen Forrester Recital Hall,” says Archibald, “and letting an invisible curtain fall away between me and the audience. I don’t know what it was. I just felt ready, emotionally and psychologically.”
And with that readiness now ripened into full artistic self-possession, Archibald evinces a profound interest in issues of personal ownership of her performances. “You do what the conductor wants and you do what the director wants,” she says. “Where do you assert your own artistic personality?”
Archibald’s answer – and her unabashed solution to that soundtrack-and-Barbie-Doll trap – turns out to be a subtle (and rather wily) weaponization of the collaborative process.
“I’m always willing to try things,” Archibald says of the rehearsal process. “A high pianissimo even though it’s a weird note? Okay. Singing on my back? I’ll try it. I’m 90 percent collaborative. Then, within a week, I find that both the conductor and the director are giving me all kinds of leeway, because I’ve extended the same courtesy to them.”
In other words, Jane Archibald’s performances are, ultimately, her own. And with that ownership goes a confident intuition about how much time and effort she needs – and doesn’t need – to prepare.
“I don’t like rehearsing for six weeks,” Archibald says. “I don’t find it necessary most of the time. My ideal scenario would be a three-week rehearsal period where the director comes in with a very clear idea of what he wants. I don’t like it when I feel he’s just moving his Barbies or his G.I. Joes around, doing a scene 17 different ways before we settle on one. That happens a lot, and I resent the time away from home.”
Home for Archibald means husband, tenor Kurt Streit, and five-year-old daughter, Audrey, as well as, by extension, 21-year-old stepson Axel, and Archibald’s mother, Carla. “If I were Jonas Kaufmann,” Archibald jokes, “and could say I’m not going to take shows that take me away [for such protracted and unnecessary stretches], I would. But I don’t have that power.”
“People say, ‘Oh, you’re in Paris! How fantastic!’ But I’m in rehearsal six days a week, not going to the Louvre or out for a croissant every morning. I’m always happy when Kurt comes to visit me. Or my mom.”
Archibald is often quoted as attributing her “musical genes” to her late father, Dr. John Archibald – a physician and talented amateur jazz musician. Less often acknowledged, however, is the singer’s entirely different indebtedness to her mother. Archibald is eager to balance the filial credit ledger.
“She’s a creative, think-outside-the-box person,” Archibald says of her mom, “and her way of looking at the world has been a big part of why I’ve survived an opera career. You have to be psychologically and emotionally pretty stable, and I think my personal stability comes from her guidance and her support.”
A case in point was Archibald’s engagement at the Met for its 2013-2014 season Die Fledermaus, directed by Jeremy Sams. Archibald’s daughter was an infant at the time. “My mother was with me,” Archibald recalls, “hoisting Audrey up and down stairs, crossing the mucky streets of Manhattan to bring her to the stage door so I could breastfeed her on my break.”
That episode, along with the ensuing five years during which Archibald managed to have Audrey and her own mother with her most of the time, form a personal epoch on which the singer reflects mistily. Fueled as they were “by adrenaline and caffeine” – and rife with the logistical challenges of coordinating airline flights for herself, her mother and an occasional nanny, plus Kurt, and Axel, when possible (“You should have seen the spreadsheets,” Archibald remarks) – they were also “wonderful years – a lot of work, but, at the end of a rehearsal day, regardless of how it had gone, I had a smiling child to come home to.”
Now, however, Audrey having started school and Archibald’s husband having recently retired from his own sterling singing career and embracing his new role as stay-at-home parent, “I will have to get used to the loneliness of life on the road again.” As well as a schedule that shows no signs of slackening.
With a repertoire embracing Baroque, bel canto and later romantic opera, and a mastery of concert and recording fare from Handel to Haydn to Schubert to Messiaen, one wonders if Archibald privately gravitates toward any particular period or style as a favorite. Apparently not. Rather, she still channels the avid Laurier University student she was, greedily lighting into every musical delectation she can.
“If I’ve been doing a bunch of coquettish, comic roles for a while, then I’m really happy to sink my teeth into a mad scene or a death scene,” Archibald says. “I like it all.” And so, quite evidently, do audiences, critics – and company managers.
Along with talent and versatility, Archibald has long enjoyed a reputation as a quick study, stemming at least from one early and oft-noted career exploit. In 2007, Archibald stepped in, with a scant two weeks’ notice, to the demanding role of Zerbinetta in Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, in Geneva. Rightly famous as it is, however, that feat’s full backstory has rarely if ever been told.
“There’s enough distance now that I can admit it,” Archibald confides. “I was supposed to be covering it, but I was procrastinating!”
Archibald was in Vienna at the time, simultaneously covering for Natalie Dessay’s Marie in the State Opera’s La Fille du Régiment while also engaged to cover Zerbinetta in Ariadne later in the season. That’s when she got a Friday call from Geneva – soprano Marlis Petersen had “outgrown” the role of Zerbinetta and “didn’t feel comfortable” doing it anymore. Could Archibald take over in Geneva’s production as of Monday?
“I should have been prepared,” says Archibald, “but I wasn’t.”
Still, the soprano made tea and gamely hunkered down with the full Edita Gruberova recording – the only one she had on hand (“which was okay,” says Archibald, “because she’s a good singer”) – and convinced herself that she could pull it off.
“I spent the weekend with my headphones in my ears,” says Archibald, “then flew on Sunday.” Her only request of the Geneva company was “not to freak out if I have a memory slip during staging,” as she had “just barely finished learning it” (which, Archibald concedes, “wasn’t even true, because I was still learning it!”).
“And two weeks later,” Archibald concludes, “you know!” Zerbinetta has since become one of her signature roles.
Archibald is animated in discussing the creative tension she sees at play between opera’s two dominant camps today. On the one hand, “there’s this start-up mentality,” says Archibald. “A lot of ‘indie’ opera – people doing opera in a pub, reworking opera, retelling a story. That is just plain cool!” It’s a phenomenon Archibald assimilates to the larger, emergent taste for “fusion” in current mass culture.
“Look at the kind of TV we watch now,” she says. “We have dramedy and docu-fiction. I just watched a Netflix series dubbed a traumedy.” Thus, for Archibald, it is logical to locate opera’s parallel impulse, productions that blur genre boundaries, reorient perspectives, confound expectations.
On the other hand, there are still the traditionalists – “a huge part of the opera-going public” – for whom the cult of the singer remains central, with star performers venerated “as the equivalent of the royal family. Aspirational, glamourous, different, the other.”
Which brings us back to the subject of the diva. Does she still exist? And, if so, is Archibald an exemplar?
“Well, I enjoy knowing that all eyes are on me as I stab myself or pretend to go mad,” Archibald says. “In that sense, I don’t mind being referred to as a diva. But there’s a sign you often see backstage by the stage manager’s booth: ‘all drama must remain onstage.’ I subscribe to that.”
“It’s possible I would have had a different career had I been a diva offstage as well as on,” Archibald speculates. “But I’ve never been able to play the part. I like signing an autograph or two, but I’m never going to wear furs and stiletto heels to walk out the stage door. I like being Jane Archibald in her jeans, walking her kid to school. That keeps me grounded, and gives me a different, deeper kind of joy.”
Jane Archibald’s coming engagements include events at Ottawa’s Music and Beyond Festival on July 7 and 10; and the Elora Festival on July 12, 14 and 25. More information is available at https://janearchibald.com/schedule/ ; https://musicandbeyond.ca/2019-festival/; and https://www.elorafestival.ca/