March 24, 2014

Interview with Kiera Duffy

LF: Kiera Duffy, when did you first fall in love with opera and know this was your passion?

Kiera Duffy; photo copyright CAMI
Kiera Duffy; photo copyright CAMI

KD: Well, my passion has always been for music, in general, but I guess the way in which I have expressed that passion has shifted over the years. The piano was my first love—I studied it for 14 years—and through the piano I was exposed to choral music, which I was convinced was going to be the focus of my life’s work, even into my early college years. It wasn’t really until my junior year in college, when I was cast as Tytania in Benjamin Britten’s opera version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, that I realized a) singing opera was a blast; b) that I was actually a decent singer; c) that I might want to pursue solo singing as a career.

LF: You made your debut with the Metropolitan Opera in 2013 and have played some big houses since. Lyric Fest venues are smaller and more intimate–what kind of transition is it to sing up close and personal compared to the opera equivalent of a “big stadium”?

KD: That’s an interesting question because, for me at least, there is definitely a “transition” between singing in those big barns and the more intimate venues, like the ones Lyric Fest provides. Perhaps because I am a rather petite person with a rather petite voice, as far as classical singing is concerned, performing in the big venues like the Met or the Lyric is all about being “big.” The vocal sound has to be big; the emotional expression has to be big; and the physical gestures have to be big. Even the costumes, wigs and makeup are, well… big! And while I find those gigs incredibly thrilling, I must admit that singing in the smaller, more intimate venues has always, dare I say it, felt a bit more satisfying. Mostly because it feels like there are more opportunities for nuance, both vocally and emotionally. I personally appreciate the direct connection with the audience. Feeling their energy in such an immediate way really affects what I’m doing on the stage. I also think, as a performer, you feel more vulnerable in that context, which of course can be a good and a bad thing. It can be incredibly scary to look out at all those individual faces, but ultimately, I think vulnerability in a performer yields a deeper, more honest experience, and again, what is more satisfying—for performer and audience member—than that!

LF: Your appearance in the documentary The Audition seems like an odd mix of reality TV show celebrity combined with the gravitas competing for The Metropolitan Opera National Council. Care to comment?

KD: Being a part of “The Audition” continues to be a great honor, really. The process of going to the National Council Finals is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and to have it recorded in such an artful and permanent way has been a gift. I continue to be (pleasantly) surprised by just how many people have seen it and how much of an impression it has left. It has been seven years since that film came out, and I cannot tell you how many people have recognized me from it. I had a guy come up to me when I was sweating it out on the treadmill at a gym in New York City, asking if I was that girl in “The Audition”. Then there was the woman in Atlanta who through tears said, “I feel like I KNOW you!” This gave me the tiniest taste of what it must feel like for celebrities—and let me just say, it is surreal!

The fact that the film spoke to so many people is a testament to Susan Froemke, the director. She definitely captures the intensity of those last two weeks of the competition. And she is able to communicate to a broad audience what it is we do, how hard it is, how competitive it is, and how glorious it can be.

LF: Dear March—Come In—American Women Poets in Song is a concert of newly commissioned and published settings. Do you have any favorite poets (male or female)?

KD: I do not consider myself a connoisseur of poetry, but I do particularly enjoy Dickinson, Auden, Keats, Neruda, Rilke, Mary Oliver and Billy Collins, and my cousin, young poet Drew Robison.

LF: You grew up in East Branydwine in Chester County and you’ve had some “love” bestowed on you here including the Marian Anderson Competition and the Philadelphia Orchestra Greenberg Competition. What’s it like coming “home” to perform?

KD: Well, I haven’t performed all that much in Philly, so it is always a pleasure to sing for my hometown crowd. Most of my family is here and they rarely get to see me sing live, as I am usually singing in another time zone. Philly is obviously a great cultural hub, and I’m particularly excited to see its classical music scene enjoying something of a renaissance lately. Opera Philadelphia is commissioning and co-commissioning a number of new works, which is super exciting. Yannick Nézet-Séguin is a genius, really, and to have him in Philly is just thrilling. And then you have these smaller, innovative institutions like Lyric Fest. This all speaks to a progressive, adaptive, and exciting classical music scene.

LF: Tell us a little bit about your work with Sing With Haiti.

KD: I, along with other performing artists like Deborah Voigt, Susan Graham, Yo-Yo Ma, Nicholas Phan and Laquita Mitchell, serve as an ambassador for this wonderful charity, which is seeking to rebuild and provide ongoing resources to the Holy Trinity Music School in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, an invaluable institution that was destroyed in the massive earthquake of 2010. Holy Trinity is the only comprehensive music school of its kind in all of Haiti, providing a first-rate musical education to hundreds, if not thousands, of children every year. Of course, Haiti’s economic/political situation being what it is, the school provides much more than just musical education to these children. For many kids Holy Trinity is a lifeline, of sorts, providing them with a sense of place, as well as discipline, focus and structure, amidst an otherwise chaotic landscape. It is absolutely essential that this school continues to be able to provide such resources to this community, and thanks to documentary filmmaker Owsley Brown, Sing With Haiti was created to do just that.

So far I have sung for a number of fundraisers here in the States, including the official launch of the charity this past fall in San Francisco, which was so exciting, and in the next year or so I am planning to go to Haiti, myself!
Please do visit Sing With Haiti for more information.

LF: You have a pooch named Louis Armstrong. How did he get his name and does he ever bark-scat with you at home?

KD: Believe it or not I did not name him, BUT I knew that if I got a dog I wanted to name him King Louis. Strangely enough, his breeder named his litter “Ginny’s Jazz Quintet” and he and his siblings were named Louis Armstrong, Nina Simone, Count Basic, Al Jolson and Miles Davis. She happened to place me with Louis, so he became King Louis Armstrong. Unlike his mother, Louis is one of the most non-vocal dogs you will ever meet! He almost never barks, and he is the sweetest little pooch you’ll ever meet. He makes me smile every single day.

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