Interview with Raehann Bryce-Davis
The American mezzo-soprano Raehann Bryce-Davis is an incredibly versatile singer with a wide repertoire that ranges from contemporary music to the great Verdi roles of Azucena, Amneris and Eboli. She has also performed in bel canto roles such as Leonora in La favorite and Sara in Roberto Devereux, as well as many Slavic roles in operas by Janáček and Martinů. In June 2023, she will be adding the role of Ježibaba in Rusalka to her already impressive list of performances.
Text: Bo van der Meulen
How would you describe your career so far?
“Building a successful opera career is difficult. Hard work is no guarantee of success. Singers face various obstacles, including economic ones. Many singers, especially those of colour, often lack the right connections or access to the financial resources needed to launch a career. I was fortunate in that respect, though it didn’t come easily. I had a family that could help me when things started getting tough financially. However, I couldn’t take my career to the level I wanted to in the US, so I moved to Europe. It was only when I began producing my own videos during the pandemic that people in the US saw my potential and started engaging me.”
Regarding her major debuts in modern or contemporary music, the singer states, “The foundation for this was laid during my education in New York, where I studied and performed the most bizarre and challenging roles in student productions. That really stood me good stead. When I sang in a production of Philip Glass’s Satyagraha in Antwerp in 2016, I had to perform without monitors and prompters, so I had to count and pay close attention. Those years of training and preparation came in very handy then. If you don’t have those skills, you miss opportunities like that.”
You sing in so many different languages and styles. Was this something you always wanted to do from a young age?
“No, not at all. That’s just what happened, and I seized every opportunity that came my way. I made my European debut at Opera Vlaanderen in the role of Kristina in Leoš Janáček’s The Makropulos Affair, in Czech. I am fortunate that I can learn and study quickly. This has often come in useful, as I’ve frequently stepped in for colleagues at the last minute. I learned the role of Sara Nottingham in Roberto Devereux in three days and that of Baba the Turk in The Rake’s Progress in five.”
Bryce-Davis also reflects on her early experiences and influences, stating, “The first singing competition I won was the Hilde Zadek competition in Vienna. There, contemporary repertoire made up a significant part of the required repertoire, unlike in competitions such as Operalia or the Belvedere competition, where they mainly look for beautiful, big, fantastic voices in the standard repertoire. You can find those in the Hilde Zadek competition as well, but there were also intellectual singers who sang the craziest, most absurd things. I was somewhere in between. I have that round voice, but I can also sing less conventional roles.”
She credits her parents with helping her develop the skills and resilience needed for a successful career, stating, “Besides my teachers, I owe a great deal to my parents. They originally came from Jamaica in search of a better life. They went to Mexico to study. My father studied medicine in Spanish, a language he didn’t speak at all. He had two textbooks open side by side, one in Spanish and one in English. Eventually, they obtained a residence permit in the US, where my father’s brother already lived. They did whatever was necessary, including working odd jobs as door-to-door salespeople and carpenters. Their experiences cannot be compared to my life. My biggest struggle was learning to cope with rejection at an audition. Their resilience has also made me stronger. In addition, they instilled in me a strong faith, something that is essential for my career.”
You were trained in the US but perform a lot in Europe. What are the main differences?
“In the US, opera is financed very differently than in Europe. A lot of money comes from sponsors and donors, not the government. That’s why they have to keep those funders happy in the US. The donors are often wealthy and older, and thus more traditional in their tastes. As a result, you see fewer modern productions, less contemporary opera, and less experimentation in the US. In Europe, there is government support and theatres are more free to produce what they deem important. There is greater artistic freedom.”
‘I am fortunate that I can learn and study quickly’
Bryce-Davis also reflects on her experiences working with different directors and notes the importance of being trained as an actor as well as a singer. She says, “In Europe, I’ve had the opportunity to work with some extraordinary directors. Fortunately, during my years of study, I had already learned to perform as an actor, not just stand on stage and sing. That’s also an important difference: in the US, the conductor is like a ‘god,’ while in Europe, the director holds a significant role as well. In the US, the emphasis might be more on singing as beautifully as possible. Tastes are also slightly different. In America, they love big, round voices. In Europe, it’s more important to convey meaning with your voice. I love both.”
The singer expresses her appreciation for the different traditions and styles of the US and Europe, saying, “When I returned to America, I was afraid I would get bored, but I also enjoyed the more traditional side of the profession and saw its merits. However, I always look forward to returning to Europe and making my debut in Amsterdam. The opera company produces exciting, challenging and inclusive productions. I am open to many things, as long as the aim is to achieve something special with an opera, not to boost the ego of a director.”
What do you focus on when studying a new role like Ježibaba?
“I know I will be singing this role a lot in the coming years. After Amsterdam, I already have two other productions of Rusalka lined up, so I’m studying the role as ‘cleanly’ as possible. This way, I can easily adapt it to any wishes, such as slower or faster tempi or various interpretative intentions. That is the task of a modern opera singer: to be as flexible as possible. Of course, I also have my own ideas about how my Ježibaba should sound.”
Lastly, Bryce-Davis reflects on the character of Ježibaba and her affinity for playing strong, unconventional women, saying, “What I enjoy about being a mezzo-soprano is that we often portray women who are disobedient, who are outsiders. Ježibaba lives alone and follows her own path. She doesn’t need a prince to lose herself in, but she does seek power – power to lead her life as she wishes.”
- The opera Rusalka will be performed at Dutch National Opera & Ballet from 2 to 25 June.