Ismael Jordi en Angela Brower in Roberto Devereux
Photo: Ben van Duin

Mezzo-soprano Angela Brower on her role in Roberto Devereux

18 April 2024

Jetske Mijnssen’s production of Roberto Devereux, the final opera in Donizetti’s Tudor Trilogy, premieres in April. The American mezzo-soprano Angela Brower sings the role of Sara, duchess of Nottingham. We spoke to her on the first day of rehearsals.

You made an incredible impression as Octavian in Strauss’ Rosenkavalier last season, but you are clearly multi-talented as here you are singing in a completely different style! Can you tell us some more about bel canto and what singing in this style is like for you?
(Laughing) “I’m not really a specialist bel canto singer. Perhaps I shouldn’t be admitting this, but most of the roles I have sung were Mozart. I’ve also sung a lot of Rossini because his repertoire is important for mezzo-sopranos. And I did Norma in Hamburg before coming to Amsterdam, and another time six years ago too. So Rossini was my first experience with bel canto, followed by Bellini and now Donizetti.” 

Angela Brower

‘You can only move audiences by showing your vulnerability’

“I really love bel canto singing. It’s a completely different language, another way of expressing yourself. ‘Bel canto’ literally means ‘beautifully sung’, so the expectations are high: it’s got to be amazingly beautiful! But at the same time, it’s a vulnerable style that gives the singers a lot of artistic freedom. In bel canto, you’re supposed to express your character’s emotions by slowing down, for example, or using different timbres. You can do that with Mozart or Strauss too, of course, but in those styles the musical ideas have to stay more within the limits of the structure and tempo. Bel canto gives me a lot of freedom – and that’s precisely the challenge. It’s as if I have a brush, an empty canvas and paints in various colours that I can use to create something.”

Barno Ismatullaeva (Elisabetta) en Angela Brower (Sara) in Roberto Devereux
Barno Ismatullaeva (Elisabetta) and Angela Brower (Sara) in Roberto Devereux | Photo: Ben van Duin

“You can produce something really beautiful, but you have to do it ‘naked’ as it were, without much support from the orchestra – in your own tempo, with your own timbre and dynamics, all on your own. To be able to do that, you have to delve deeper into your character and truly understand what she means. You read not just the text but the subtext too. It is precisely that subtext that makes bel canto so beautiful and moving. But to get that across, you have to expose your vulnerability. I find it quite difficult to be vulnerable — I don’t normally enjoy it at all — but I accept the challenge offered by this music. That helps me grow as a singer. And as performers, we can only really move audiences by showing our vulnerability on stage.”

In Roberto Devereux, you are not only singing in a different style, you are also making your debut in the role of Sara. How do you prepare for a role you have never sung before? Do you listen to recordings?
“Yes, I listen to a couple of different recordings. Some people say you shouldn’t listen to recordings when you prepare for a role, but I think what works depends on the individual. Everyone learns in a different way! My mother played the piano and she taught me music using the Suzuki method. In this method, you always listen to the music first, reading the sheet music in front of you, before you play it. That’s remained my approach to learning something new. I also find it really helps to hear the whole orchestral score already while reading my own part. I like to get a feel for the colours and emotions coming from the orchestra, and which instruments can be heard when.”

“Another reason I like to listen to recordings is because I want to learn from others. Sometimes I feel I’m still a student — I’m always learning. It can be so nice to listen to other singers and get inspiration from how they approach a work. When you’re just embarking on a new role, other people’s interpretations can be a useful starting point from which you can develop your own ideas. The next step for me then is to buckle down with my singing coach to find my own approach and explore what works for my voice.”

Angela Brower

‘Jetske lets Sara struggle in silence’

“Something I also always do is translate the Italian text myself into English — which takes me hours! As I’m translating, I listen to the opera in the background. That helps me to connect the words to the music and truly understand my character. It lets me create an overall picture for myself of who this person is. What does she look like? How does she react to such-and-such a character? When you sing a new role, you are expected to offer your own ideas about who your character is, after which the director fills in the gaps. The input from the director adds a deeper layer to the opera in addition to what’s on paper, a kind of story within a story. It shows you which direction you should be thinking in, because the possibilities for interpretation are endless. On the first day of rehearsals, Jetske (Mijnssen, the director – ed.) said ‘Sara and the Queen are friends’, whereas I had assumed they would hate one another. That immediately inspired me to try out new timbres. And I felt a real energy boost and chemistry on stage. And that was just the first day — wow!”

If you didn’t like Jetske’s ideas about your character, Sara, how would you deal with that?
“You do sometimes get a situation where you feel the director isn’t doing justice to your character. If that happens, you try to get a better understanding of their interpretation, but it can be tricky. In some versions of this opera, Roberto Devereux, directors use the chorus to persuade Sara to reveal her true emotions and divulge her secrets. I would have found that a pity, but fortunately Jetske doesn’t do that; she lets Sara struggle in silence. Sara has a lot of secrets but she behaves as if nothing is up; it all goes on inside her. She has to hide her emotions and her sadness, but it’s clear she is suffering. That is what adds to the drama, because all those emotions are gradually building up. And when she is finally alone, they burst forth in this amazing bel canto!”

Does all that pain and grief make the music very sombre?
“Oh no, not at all. It is simply lovely. Bel canto is a unique style, with its own musical language. If you open up to it as a listener, you’ll understand what it is saying immediately. Once you succumb to the vocal lines as they soar upwards and then plummet down, you feel what they are saying. Any audience can be carried along by the music because the emotions are universal. Donizetti shows us what pain and grief sound like. As a listener, you understand intuitively that it’s a really high note because someone is screaming out. It is an incredible aural experience to discover that language and open up to what the music is telling you. You don’t have to know anything about opera or bel canto to have that feeling and enjoy the experience!”

Text: Sophie Vroegop

Roberto Devereux will be performed from 18 April to 6 May 2024 at Dutch National Opera & Ballet