A Peek Inside the “Vagabond Life” of Opera Singer Jennifer Black

Jennifer Black has performed in operas all around the world. From The Metropolitan Opera in New York to the stages across Europe and South America, her soprano voice has thrilled and inspired audiences. We talk about what she calls the “vagabond life” of an opera performer and the importance of putting her life and her art into perspective.

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Photography by Christopher Boudewyns

Operatic singing is so specific. When did you realize that your voice lent itself to the style?

As a senior in high school, I started taking lessons from a guy who was in the Houston Grand Opera chorus. He didn’t give me the 24 Italian songs in my lessons, he gave me Puccini and Straus. I really loved La Bohème so he started grooming me for the operatic repertoire. Then, when I’d be in class with my choir, my choir teacher would say, “You’re too loud” in a thick Texas accent. When I told my private lessons teacher that, he’d say, “Good.”

When did you make the decision to train so that this could be your vocation?

I think it was mid-senior year of high school. Everyone else had decided what school they wanted to go to and I’d wanted to be in theatre before that. I went to see a performance of Norma and saw Carol Vaness sing the role and she was incredible. She sang a note that wasn’t too high, probably a G above the staff, but the way it hit me, it surrounded me like surround sound and I knew that’s what I wanted to do.

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Photography by Christopher Boudewyns

What’s the appeal, for you, of performing this specific type of music?

One of the things is it’s a visceral sensation. We don’t use microphones. When I tell people that, they’re surprised. Everything you do in your training goes toward projecting your voice in the correct way; the way that won’t fatigue you. The sensation of creating that sound from your body and being with the orchestra and feeling that sensation as well—there’s just something magical about that. You can’t get that in recording. It’s almost primal to be honest. Sound waves affect us in many ways and I think when you’re a part of something like an opera, it’s really special.

You made it to the Met, the place every opera singer wants to be but let’s go back to the first time you walked onto that stage?

My first intro was when I did the National Council Auditions which is the competition the Met does every year. I was 21 at the time and had no idea what I was doing. I’d never even been to New York before. I’d only seen the Met on videotapes and on PBS. The first time I saw it from across the street, I broke down in tears on the sidewalk. My first contract came in before I was accepted as a Young Artist there. I was pretty nervous and didn’t know what to expect. I knew I was a very small fish in a big pond and I knew it was a massive honor to be employed there. I still feel that way. It’s really kind of cool to have a locker there and to know I belong there. It’s incredible to be able to tell someone that I’m a part of that. I’m honored. I mean, I got to watch Placido Domingo on stage the other night. That beats a day job for sure.

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Photography by Christopher Boudewyns

It sure does. How have you navigating the constant go-go-go of auditions and performing?

When I moved to New York in 2005, I’d been in Connecticut for four years which introduced me to the Northeast but being in the pace of New York is an entirely different beast. If you don’t step it up, you get stepped on. You just don’t make it. Even still, 13 years later, every day I’m hustling. You’ve got to hustle. It doesn’t matter if you have a secure job right now, you still hustle to that next audition and you’ve got to bring your best all the time. You’re only as good as the last note you sang, even as a fully-employed singer. Ultimately, we are independent contractors and there are loads of people out there who are vying for our position. I’d say I never try to let myself get too comfortable and to do the best job I can whether the stage is big or small.

I would imagine the life of an opera singer means going where the work is since it’s such a specific artform.

I was talking with a colleague about this the other day. Being an opera singer isn’t just about being able to sing and act. It’s a temperament you have to adopt; a vagabond lifestyle. If you’re lucky enough to be employed throughout the year, that means you’re more than likely in one city for six weeks, another for four weeks, and another for two months. You have to be comfortable getting adjusted to different cities, possibly different languages, and different rehearsal processes.

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Photography by Christopher Boudewyns

How do you take care of yourself within all of that constant change?

I have been through so many different phases of self-care in my career. For example, when I first started out and I was stressed, I would come home and eat my feelings. Then I was told I needed to lose weight, so I did and I went through a time of thinking I was taking care of myself by only eating 500 calories a day. But my body literally couldn’t support my voice. I wasn’t caring for myself, I was hurting myself, so I had to find a healthy normal. For me, I also know that I need a certain amount of sleep which sometimes means I can’t go socialize late after shows or rehearsals. I’ve got to take care of myself instead and that’s about balance. I also listen to music I don’t hear at work. Pink, Tori Amos, even Irish jig music because there aren’t any vocals and it’s completely unaffiliated with what I do all day.

What are the dreams you’ve yet to check off your list?

I’d really love to sing Norma one day and I feel like that day is coming sooner than it was 15 years ago. By that I mean I feel like I’m finally finding my footing in my industry. My voice has changed as my life has changed and I’m getting into some rep that’s really exciting to me. I’m looking at the characters and I’m excited about it.

What motivates you to get out of bed in the morning?

My daughter. She really puts things into perspective. I enjoy doing even the little things like sitting in bed watching TV with her as I have my coffee. I love watching her develop and play. Then, I get to put my opera hat on and go to this whole other world and it’s such a switch of mental energy. So she gets me out of bed and singing gets me going during the day. Then I get to come back to her at night. Knowing that, I’ve got a pretty blessed life and even if I didn’t, I’d still get up and hustle.

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Photography by Christopher Boudewyns

Interview by Ryan Brinson
Photography by Christopher Boudewyns
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