Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Rivera is one of the most dynamic personalities in opera and classical music today: her multifaceted career includes not only a busy schedule of international performances, but also blogging, arts advocacy and arts administration. Recently, I got to ask her a few questions in advance of her upcoming performances of Handel’s Messiah with the Houston Symphony this weekend.
Calvin Dotsey: Handel’s Messiah is one of the oldest pieces to have an uninterrupted presence in the standard repertoire—it has been regularly performed since its premiere in Dublin in 1742. Why do you think this piece is so enduring?
Jennifer Rivera: It’s interesting because while Handel’s operas fell out of the repertoire for many years, Messiah has always remained a part of everyone’s holiday presentations. I think the reason Messiah is so enduring is the same reason people are now rediscovering and loving hearing his operas—Handel has a gift for creating drama within melody, which is important even in an oratorio. The Messiah pieces are very emotionally compelling along with being just beautiful and exciting. That combined with the fact that people love to hear something familiar around the holidays makes the piece something we enjoy year after year.
CD: Handel wrote you a great part in Messiah. What do you think your voice brings to this part? Do you have any favorite numbers, and if so, why?
JR: I love “He was despised.” It’s so intense and well crafted—so often oratorio pieces, especially sacred oratorio pieces, don’t feel particularly dramatic. Handel had such a gift for creating dramatically compelling music. I think that each person brings his or her own artistry to these particular pieces, and I think the fact that I have performed a lot of Handel’s operas means I bring a lot of dramatic intention to the dramatic pieces.
CD: When did you first begin singing? What inspired you to pursue a career as an opera singer?
JR: I started taking lessons when I was nine years old because I was performing in local musical theater and didn’t want to ruin my voice by “belting.” I ended up with a legit voice teacher who had sung opera, and she began teaching me true technique at that tender age. It could have gone horribly wrong, but she was a very good, careful teacher, and I liked developing the extremes of my range even as a kid. I didn’t know much about the career part of opera, but I knew that I liked exploring the whole range and dynamic capabilities of the voice, and that’s what lead me to classical singing.
CD: In addition to singing, you are also an active writer and blogger and have frequently contributed to publications like The Huffington Post. What inspires you to write? What do you want people to know about the music you sing?
JR: I started writing mostly as an outlet for communicating with people when I was alone on the road, but it has developed into more arts advocacy as I’ve gotten further along into writing. I started trying to talk to people about opera through my articles in ways that wouldn’t intimidate them and would allow them a window into what we do both through the insider’s perspective but also by highlighting my love for the art form and all I think it has to offer. I hope I can encourage people who might think opera or classical music isn’t for them to give it a chance because I truly believe music can be transformative, and I don’t want anyone to miss out.
CD: If someone who loves Handel’s Messiah wanted to discover more music similar to it, what would you recommend?
JR: As I mentioned above, Handel’s operas have started to come back into the standard repertory, and I’m so glad because they are some of my personal favorite operas. There are so many to choose from, but one of my absolute favorites of his operas is definitely Agrippina, which has such incredible music and is smart and even funny. (And I happen to be on one of the recordings of Agrippina!) Recently I sang in a very underperformed opera called Faramondo from his later catalogue – I wondered since it has been so forgotten whether it would be great – and it was! Some incredibly amazing virtuosic, dramatic music.
CD: What do you like to do when you aren’t practicing, performing, or traveling to your next engagement?
JR: I have a son who turns three this month. That answers all of the above questions. 🙂 Actually, I also have a position at the Center for Contemporary Opera in New York City as Director for Artistic Development, and when I’m not performing, learning music, writing or spending time with my son, I am fundraising and helping to produce contemporary operas because I’m very passionate about contemporary opera as a wonderful way for new audiences to experience opera.
Don’t miss Jennifer Rivera in Handel’s Messiah at the Houston Symphony December 18, 19 & 20, 2015! Get tickets and more info here. Learn more about our performance at Sugar Land Baptist Church on December 17 here.