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Musical World

Jane Archibald

  • Soprano


Jane Archibald press reviews

Interview Musical Criticism, 18 May 2010

On March 15, 2010, the Metropolitan Opera in New York City premiered a new production of Ambroise Thomas' Hamlet. This much talked about production was keenly anticipated, since it was the first time Thomas' adaptation of Shakespeare's tragedy was given at the Met in well over a century.

The mercurial English baritone Simon Keenlyside sang the title role: he is a singing actor par excellence and had already won plaudits for his portrayal of Hamlet in several venues, including a performance captured on EMI DVD alongside French soprano Natalie Dessay.

In fact, it was Dessay who had been originally announced to sing Ophélie, the opera's 'heroine', at the Met. Regrettably, Dessay withdrew from the production on short notice, and her cover, German soprano Marlis Petersen made headlines by jumping in to save the day. Petersen's feat was indeed newsworthy, as she had only been scheduled to sing two performances at the end of Dessay's run: those on April 5 and 9. Instead, Petersen finished a run of performances in Vienna, a mere three days prior to the premiere of Hamlet, and then quickly jumped into the Met production, scoring a significant personal success.

Ophélie is an extremely challenging role: she is a young woman who is deeply in love with Hamlet, but who ultimately commits suicide after being coldly rejected. Most of her anguish is expressed in flights of intricate coloratura, all of which culminate in the famous 'mad scene', in which Ophélie expresses her sadness in a series of vignettes depicting her devotion to Hamlet and deteriorating mental state. The high tessitura of this scene would be challenging enough, but there is also the requirement that the soprano hold the stage – entirely alone – for more than a quarter hour. With Petersen fulfilling Dessay's originally scheduled performances, the Met found rising young coloratura soprano Jane Archibald to cover Petersen and also sing the final two performances in the run. Archibald – originally from Nova Scotia, Canada – thus made a double debut, singing the role of Ophélie and taking the stage at the Metropolitan Opera, both for the first time.

Just prior to her debut on April 5, I had the chance to chat briefly with Archibald about her sudden engagement with the Met and how she was handling the pressure of preparing a new role and making her debut at one of the world's most prestigious opera houses. Although she has been steadily adding impressive credits to her résumé, her career is still in its early ascendency, so I wondered about her background and performance history. I asked her to share a brief summary of how she got started as a singer. 'Well, I grew up in a very musical town [in Nova Scotia] and in a musical family. My father was a physician who played piano (mostly jazz) all the time at home, and my mother is also very creative and encouraged and supported all my musical endeavours. I had a great school music teacher, and when I was twelve, I began taking private voice lessons with wonderful voice teacher, with whom I worked until I was eighteen. I also played in the school band (trumpet), took cello and piano lessons, sang in an excellent girls' choir (my introduction to Bach… heaven!), and was involved in basically everything related to music I could find. I was pretty mediocre at the instruments and never got past beginner level, but I loved singing!'

'I knew by the time I was in high school that I wanted to study voice, so I started looking for the right teacher and the right university. I found them in Victor Martens at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario. I did a Bachelor of Music in Performance, and as soon as I had finished, I was anxious to get out into public and perform. So I didn't study for a Masters degree or apply to any long-term programs. I just started trying to work. I lived in Toronto and did a lot of local and regional work, especially performing a good deal of contemporary music (which made learning a role like Ophélie seem like a piece of cake!). I did do shorter summer programs (Tanglewood [Massachusetts] and Merola [San Francisco]) and after a few years, I got an agent. My first significant engagement for opera was Lakmé for Opera Ontario [in 2003].'

'In 2004 I moved to San Francisco to be an Adler Fellow at the San Francisco Opera (which resulted from my participation in the Merola summer program). I spent two great years there. While there, I connected with a European agent (via Pamela Rosenberg, a wonderful mentor) and did a European audition tour. I was fortunate to get several contracts, including a two-year fest contract at the Vienna State Opera. Those years in Vienna prepared me to handle ANYTHING! With about 50 different productions each season, rehearsal time is extremely limited in Vienna, so most operas only get a couple of days of rehearsal, without any orchestra, stage/set time, or costumes (and sometimes even without colleagues!). So, my time there prepared me well to take on a challenge such as Ophélie here at the Met, a completely new role with very limited rehearsal and no orchestra rehearsals at all.

The paucity of rehearsal time in a busy, international opera house like the Met is well known, and often discussed among both singers and opera fans. In fact, these restrictions led directly to the sensational nature of Petersen's last-minute engagement to replace Dessay. Unlike Archibald, however, Petersen at least had the advantage of previous performance experience in the role. Yet, despite the challenges, making a Met debut is a thrilling prospect – especially in a major role like Ophélie. I asked Archibald to describe her feelings about the debut(s) and how exactly the drama unfolded for her. 'Well, I am definitely thrilled! A Met debut is an important milestone in any singer's career, but especially for a North American singer. Long before I was familiar with the important European houses, I knew about the Met!'

'I heard rumblings about the search for an Ophélie for the end of the run and had a few people telling me to toss my hat in the ring. But I was in the middle of opening a new production of Mozart's Lucio Silla in France (in the role of Giunia - an enormous and challenging new role for me) and I didn't know the part of Ophélie at all! So while I asked my agent for 'the scoop', I didn't really think anything would come of it. But just before I went onstage for the second performance of Lucio Silla on March 9, I got a call saying they wanted to offer it to me! It was a total surprise, and a lovely early birthday gift (my birthday is March 10). So my birthday was spent starting the process of learning the role. I bought the DVD of the production from Barcelona [the aforementioned performance with Dessay and Keenlyside] and crammed with the score all day.'

Naturally, learning a score of the magnitude and complexity of Hamlet in a mere three weeks must take intelligence and superior focus. I asked Archibald to elaborate on her various stages of preparation. 'Well, since it was a completely new role, the first steps were purely technical: learn the notes! But even that, I had to do with caution. It is tiring to learn music: I find that the voice tires much more quickly when you're not sure of the notes. And I was performing a demanding role simultaneously [Giunia], so I had to pace myself very carefully. But I worked away at it, marking and singing down the octave. After a few days, I had a session with a French répetiteur to crash through it for the first time and also to get some preliminary notes on my French diction. Luckily for me, the production of Lucio Silla had a six-day break in mid-March in order to move it to another theater, so I could really dive in during that time and give Ophélie all of my attention. Therefore, I got it mostly memorized before turning my focus back to Lucio Silla for the last 3 performances.'

'As soon as I finished with Lucio Silla, I flew to Toronto to pick up my work authorization (I'm Canadian) and then flew to New York on a Tuesday morning and started rehearsals that same afternoon. During the week leading up to the debut, I prepared very intensely with the team at the Met, who were so helpful and welcoming and supportive! I'm finally able to start adding the dramatic elements to the process of learning the role (though, of course, there is always more musical work to be done). By the time of my debut, I would hope I'll be able to give more inspired thoughts on the character, but dramatically, she's still very much a discovery at the moment: a work in progress.'

In the event, Archibald did go on to score a resounding success as Ophélie. So often, it seems that last minute replacements at the Met aren't given further performance opportunities with the company in the near term. At this date, I am unaware as to whether Archibald has been offered any future contracts, but if the audience reaction to her Ophélie was any indication, she should be back on the Met stage very soon. She maintains an informative website ( that indicates an up-coming run of performances as Konstanze in Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, followed by a series of Queen of the Night in the same composer's Magic Flute in Toulouse.

I asked her to share some of her additional future plans for performances and/or recordings. She mentioned several up-coming role debuts, including her very first Lucia di Lammermoor at the Deutsche Oper Berlin as well as Rossini's Rosina in Il barbiere di Siviglia in Geneva. Fans of the bel canto repertoire have another reason to rejoice, as she will also debut her Amina in Bellini's La Sonnambula at St. Gallen. In addition, she will sing Handel's Cleopatra in Giulio Cesare for her debut at the Paris Opera. She will also revisit Strauss' fiendish Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos for both Berlin and her debut with the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto (incidentally also starring Adrianne Pieczonka, recently interviewed by HERE). Archibald's recording career doesn't seem to have taken flight just yet, but surely that will soon change. One step in the right direction will be a disc of Haydn arias under the baton of Thomas Rösner to be recorded soon for the ATMA label. Stay tuned: Archibald is a singer to watch!

David Laviska