“A voice so beautiful, it will break your heart.”

In a world filled with strife and struggle, war, and the ever-mounting
difficulty of just trying to get through every day, it has become a common
human response to turn to the arts; not only as a means for coping with such
difficulties, but with the hope of being touched and moved by something that
is perhaps stronger than our own human existence. After the tragic events of
9/11, our world changed forever. We were silenced by the extraordinary
dissonance of that day and in order to heal we have turned to music;
specifically, we have relied on the comfort that is provided by the power of
the human voice. The most delicate of instruments, it pierces our soul and
often carries with it the emotions that we are too afraid to confront
ourselves. Such a voice is not found in every singer, but the few who have
this power to affect us, personally, emotionally, and physically, stand out
among the sea of vocalists who bless our striving world.

In 2002 in Urbania, Italy, I had the distinct pleasure of being blessed
with hearing “a voice so beautiful, it broke my heart.” That
voice belonged to American soprano, Jennifer O’Loughlin. Hers is a
voice that will bring humanity to its knees and teach us to pray for those
things that we cannot control. To hear her, is to gain strength in our
everyday lives, and to see her is to comprehend that one solitary soul can
truly instruct us to “believe.” And so, this young, vibrant woman
of extraordinary talent graciously agreed to share with us some of her
thoughts on the operatic life she pursues, and her notion that the voice is
more powerful than we can even begin to understand.

Born in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, Jennifer began her musical training with
the Clarinet and Piano. She received her Bachelor of Music degree from the
Peabody Conservatory of Music of the John Hopkins University where she
studied voice with Ruth Drucker. She later completed her Master of Music
degree at the Manhattan School of Music, studying with the great pedagogue,
Joan Patenaude-Yarnell. In the 2002- 2003 season, and after receiving a
stipend from the Herbert von Karajan Foundation, Jennifer became a member of
the Z¸rich Opera Studio; during which time she also won the first prize in
the Anneliese Rothenberger Competition, was a finalist in the International
Jeuneusse Musicales in Montreal, and in 2001 was the winner of the Aspen
Concerto Competition. After having performed at the Salzburg festival this
season, she comes to us from the Volksoper, in Vienna Austria, where she is
performing the role of “Susanna” in Mozart’s Le Nozze
di Figaro
. She has been an ensemble member there since the 2003/2004

Mary-Lou: Jennifer, having a career in opera is not the
most ‘typical’ of careers in this day an age; especially in a world plagued
by the affects of war and in a world where arts programmes are continually
being cut. Tell me, what was it that influenced you to become a singer, and
not just any type of singer, but an opera singer?

Jennifer: I began singing as a child. I was chosen to
perform some solos in grade school and was then encouraged to audition and
subsequently join the Children’s Festival Chorus of Pittsburgh. There, I
learned a great deal about music and performing. As a member of the
Children’s Festival Chorus, I was blessed with numerous opportunities for a
young singer, such as performing in the children’s chorus for the Pittsburgh
Opera’s production of La BohËme. As one of the children asked to
remain on stage during “Musetta’s” Act two scenes, I was
mesmerized by her character and the thrill of watching this tremendously sexy
and funny scene transpire before my eyes. I felt privileged to be on stage,
and it was at that moment I knew that I wanted to someday sing the role of
“Musetta,” which I did about 15 years later at the Volksoper, but
in German! After I left the children’s chorus, I began studying voice with a
professor at Carnegie Mellon University. I was about 13 years old, and I
continued with him until my junior year of high-school, at which time I was
applying and preparing for auditions at several conservatories in the United
States. These lessons truly inspired me to become a professional musician. I
also played the piano and clarinet growing up and participated in several
musicals and operettas in my teens. This in addition to singing in the church
choir growing up greatly fueled my desire to have a career in music.

Mary-Lou: When you perform, you exude a very mature
style, and it’s obvious that your voice is an extension of your soul.
Would you agree? Tell me who have some of your musical influences been?

Jennifer: At the beginning the greatest influences were
my grade school music teacher and one of my third grade teachers. They saw
that I had a musical and dramatic aptitude and encouraged me to audition for
the Children’s Festival Chorus. I would also say that my parents, although
not musicians, influenced me tremendously. They were always supportive of my
musical endeavors and allowed me to take private clarinet, piano, and voice
lessons. My childhood piano and clarinet teachers greatly influence my
musical development as well as the director of my church choir who asked me
to perform many church solos as well as the lead role in the Pirates of
with his community theater. Interestingly, it was my father
wanted to become a better singer and asked the director of my children’s
chorus to recommend voice teachers in the Pittsburgh area. The teacher he
chose to work with was Thom Douglas who teaches at the Carnegie Mellon
University Music School. After I finished with the children’s chorus, I
accompanied my father about every month or so to have a lesson with Thom. It
would be an afternoon, four hours or so, of music making. We would sit and
listen to each other’s lessons. It was a very special time for my father and
me because we loved the music and we enjoyed working with Thom on both a
musical and personal level. Thom was my first voice teacher, so I will always
be very indebted to him for his guidance and inspiration. He was a wonderful
teacher for a young person. He never pushed me beyond my limitations and yet
challenged me and was extremely positive. I later went on to work with two
wonderful voice teachers during my undergraduate and graduate programs. Ruth
Drucker, was my teacher at the Peabody Conservatory of Music. She encouraged
my love for song and I learned a great deal of the repertoire with her and
acquired a greater knowledge of style and language. She also understood how
to teach the high female voice and gave me a great deal of personal
attention. At the Manhattan School of Music, where I did my Master of Music
degree, I worked with Joan Patenaude-Yarnell. She helped me greatly improve
my technique and taught me the foundations of the Bel Canto style. She also
introduced me to Italy with her program, Centro Studi Italiani in Urbania.
Now, in Vienna, I work with a mezzo named Glenys Linos who was the last
student of Madame DeHildago, the famous voice teacher of Callas. With her, I
have increased the strength of my entire voice but especially my middle
range. I feel like I have the power and control to sing whatever I want
within reason, now. I also believe I’ve become more of a feeling singing
instead of a thinking singer with her, which is a good thing. These two
aspects of singing must stay in balance.

“Singing was a part of who I was
and who I am. I suppose I just knew that singing was something I
really wanted to do with my life, like the way you know when you are
in love.”

Mary-Lou: Music, and especially singing, is such an
emotional art form. Music schools and conservatories churn out hundreds and
thousands of singers, but there are only a few that actually achieve careers.
What is it that made you desire such a career and one of such personal

Jennifer: I desired a career as a classical singer
because I knew at a very young age that I had a special talent for expressing
this music in a personal way. I was also a good clarinet player and could
have perhaps made a career doing that, but somehow singing was different. It
was a part of who I was and who I am. I suppose I just knew that singing was
something I really wanted to do with my life, like the way you know when you
are in love. Everything just connects and I can’t imagine anything else I’d
rather do. It has to be that way in order to devote one’s self to a career in
music. I spent a lot of time thinking about why and if I wanted to attend
music school, because I knew it was a huge commitment and a huge investment.
I came to the conclusion that I had to accept the challenge to develop the
talent God had given me. I never expected it to be easy, and I was right!

Mary-Lou: And did you feel that you were ready to handle
the “personal” nature of a singing career?

Jennifer: I don’t think I’ve ever had problems sharing
myself with an audience. I’ve never found it tremendously difficult to be
vulnerable on stage. But sometimes that translates into every day life and so
I’ve learned how to become tougher as a person without losing my
sensitivities as a singer. I don’t think any singer is truly prepared for the
intense “personal” nature of a singing career until they’ve
experienced it. The personal nature also has to do with dealing with the way
people perceive you and what you do on stage and how that translates into the
way people treat you. That can be a little bit tricky at times.

As “Valencienne” in Die Lustige Witwe
Lustige Witwe026.jpg

Mary-Lou: It is certainly a very trying career, both
professionally and personally. There are many sacrifices that come with a
singing career. Do you feel that the benefits outweigh the sacrifices?

Jennifer: Yes, it is a very trying career and one must be
willing to sacrifice in order to make it work. I’ve never really sat down and
thought to myself, “Why in the world am I putting myself through
this?” It hasn’t gotten to that point yet because I’m so involved with
the process of “making it”. I believe that all things worth doing
require some sacrifice, and part of that sacrifice, for a singer, is the
investment of a lot of time, money, and energy. These elements are crucial to
the perfection of one’s craft. That is also true of a lot a careers.
The main difference is that as a performer and particularly as a singer,
one’s work is really out there in the public light for anyone to scrutinize.
Consequently, one’s persona and personality are infused into the
character being portrayed, thus allowing our “inner selves” to
also be scrutinized. And the scrutiny is often very subjective. There are a
lot of political variables involved in this business which complicate things.
I feel that it is always a great trial and sacrifice to have to deal with
these political issues while I’m trying to be the best performer I can be. It
is easy to allow these issues to become distracting or consuming. That is why
one must truly believe in one’s self and surround themselves with objective,
honest, and highly supportive people. In terms of money, one has to expect
not to make so much of it in the beginning, but you will be expected to do to
do quite a lot of work. It’s the old adage of “paying your dues”. In
terms of family, singers must be very careful with whom they choose to spend
their lives. A good partner must be someone who understands what the
complexities of a singing career and support it wholeheartedly. I think it
takes a lot of patience, faith, and strength of will to wait for that special
person who will be the right one. But as I said, anything worth doing
requires sacrifice. And I believe, at least at this point in my life, that
the benefits outweigh the sacrifice. The greatest benefits are in knowing
that you are doing what you want to do, what you’ve trained to do, and what
you love to do. Plus, you’re getting paid to do it with the possibility of
“promotion” in a very competitive, colorful, and exciting arena. I
think the greatest benefit is simply the act of performing. There is
something beautiful and fulfilling about the whole process of preparing a
role or song and then getting out under the lights with the costume and sets
and presenting your very own interpretation to an audience who is hopefully
eager to hear what you have to present.

“I think the purpose of music and
opera is to open us up as human beings and show us a world that we
may not have known existed, both internally and externally, and to
elevate the human spirit.”

Mary-Lou: You speak of the personal aspect of music and
singing. Opera has always been an art that affects the social aspects of a
community; perhaps one can consider it the artistic instruction of the public
sphere, a sort of what or what not to do in the presence of trying
situations. What purpose do you think music and opera serve today, other than
a device for pure entertainment, and what has opera taught you?

As “Clorinda” in Rossini’s La Cenerentola70CDimo Dimov.jpg

Jennifer: I think that people go to the opera to be
entertained, but more than that, they go because they want something to move
them physically and spiritually. They want to experience something that takes
them beyond the intellectual realm of everyday living. I think the purpose of
music and opera is to open us up as human beings and show us a world that we
may not have known existed, both internally and externally, and to elevate
the human spirit. Music and opera teach us that beauty is not just a thing
that we see but a thing which we can hear and feel as well. Opera and music
have taught me how to express myself and subsequently helped me to acquire a
greater sense of self confidence. By being a performer of music and opera, I
have learned to appreciate the plethora of intricacies that surround this art
form. More than that, I couldn’t answer yet. Maybe in twenty years or so I’ll
understand how music has truly touched me and what I have learned from it.

Mary-Lou: As an opera historian, I always maintain the
notion that specific operas retain their status in the musical canon by
withstanding the test of time. Whether an art form exists or not has much to
do with what you say, the purpose, or what I call the “value” of
a work. What operas do you feel most retain this “value” and do
you feel that they continue to instruct us on social and moral levels?

Jennifer: I believe that all operas written have some
relevance to modern society. There is always some kernel of truth in every
opera regardless of how trivial one might find the libretto. For example,
some artists say that La Traviata is not really viable today because
Violetta would never have given up Alfredo for the sake of morality or
reputation. The concept today is that we do whatever we want and keep
whatever we want regardless of how it affects other people. But I do not
think all “modern” people adhere to this philosophy. I think
there are still people out there who understand what it’s like to do the
right thing for someone or something they love even if means sacrificing a
great deal. How many of us have been afraid at one point or another in our
lives to allow someone into our hearts for fear of being hurt as Violetta
was? How many people know what it feels like not to have had a proper father
and therefore crave that kind of love and attention all their lives as
Violetta did? How many people know what it feels like to have found their
soul- mate and to be madly in love for the first time in their lives as
Alfredo and Violetta were? I think the truth is that many people experience
these emotions associated with a work from the past, even today in their own
“modern” lives.

Mary-Lou: Your response is intriguing and tells us a lot
about who you are, not just as a singer but as a person. And with that being
said, let me ask what singers you consider to be the “staples” of
operatic art, or those whom you consider idols?

Jennifer: I can tell you who I listened to growing up. I
don’t really have one singer who I idolize but several for whom I have a
great deal of respect. As far as sopranos are concerned, I grew up listening
to and enjoying recordings of: Sutherland, Callas, Tebaldi, Price, Freni,
Moffo, Caballe, Te Kanawa, de Los Angeles, Ponselle, Flagstad, Auger, Upshaw,
and Flemming. Tenors that I like are Pavarotti, Bjˆrling, Kraus, Vicars, and
Wunderlich. I also really appreciate Bryn Terfel and Kurt Moll.

Mary-Lou: What is it about them that you admire?

Jennifer: Well I will be quite general because there are
many specific reasons I like each artist. To me all of these singers have
tremendous technical, musical, and interpretive skills. But as I look at the
list, there are two main things which bind these artists together. One is
that each possessed or possesses a voice of great beauty and power. The
second is that each of these singers is highly unique and had or has
something very personal and special to offer.

“I think there are still people
out there who understand what it’s like to do the right thing for
someone or something they love even if means sacrificing a great

Mary-Lou: Although you studied primarily in the United
States, you have been in Europe for several years now. This might be a bit of
a controversial question, but do you feel that there is a distinct difference
in the way in which European and North American singers are trained?

Jennifer: I wouldn’t know that for sure because I never
attended a university or conservatory in Europe. It is my impression,
however, after having talked to several colleagues who were at one time
students studying in Europe, that the music schools in America generally
educate their students more thoroughly and demand more of them. My agent has
said to me more than once, “I hate to admit it, but you have that
American professionalism.” We are trained in music school to be very
professional. My conservatory productions were more professionally run than
some of the professional productions in which I’ve been involved. In fact,
sometimes American singers are accused of being too precise, demonstrative,
and “over competent”.

As “Pamina” in the Volksoper’s Die ZauberflˆtteDSC_0087.jpg

Mary-Lou: That’s very interesting, so let me ask
you a question that would pertain to an American singer. Musicians have often
tried to find special meaning for what they do; of course to have personal
communication with one’s audience and to entertain as well as instruct, but
after 9/11 music kind of stopped, almost as if silenced by the dissonance of
sound that took place on that day. Do you think that attitudes toward music
and the importance of art have changed since then?

Jennifer: I think for some who don’t understand the real
value of art and music, its importance has decreased and become eclipsed by
the many problems we face in this world. For others who do appreciate the
real value of art and music, its importance has increased because art and
music serve as a vehicle to show us how beautiful life can be even amidst the
ugly trials and tribulations from which this world suffers.

Mary-Lou: What works are you performing at present and
what are your upcoming engagements?

Jennifer: I am performing the role of
“Susanna” in the Volksoper’s production of the Le Nozze di
and singing four Tschaikovsky songs with the Staatsoper Ballet in
a production called Tschaikovsky Impressions. I play the long time sponsor of
Tschaikovsky, Madame von Meck. Also, I’ll be performing the role of
“Fiametta” in Franz von SuppÈ’s Boccaccio in October. I
am preparing the role of “Tytania” in Benjamin Britten’s A
Midsummer Night’s Dream
which will be revived in November at the
Volksoper and sung in the original language, English. In the spring
I’ll perform the title role in Die Kluge by Carl Orff. This
will be a new production at the Volksoper and I will sing the opening night,
which is a great honor for me. In 2007, I will sing “Pamina” in a
new production of Die Zauberflˆtte at the Grand Theatre de

Mary-Lou: Pamina is an interesting character, but some
singers have found her to run out of possibilities. What do you think are the
secrets to keeping the freshness and vitality in a character throughout an
operatic run?

Jennifer: I don’t agree that Pamina runs out of
possibilities. Some even think she’s boring. But the fact is, that Pamina is
the only character that Mozart and Schikenaeder created from scratch. She did
not come from any of the stories or manuscripts they used to compile The
Magic Flute
libretto. I had the experience of doing a run in Ludwigsburg
when I was singing Susanna in Figaro. I really had to fight the
feeling of dÈja-vous from evening to evening. I think the only way to do that
is to not think about what you did yesterday but to stay in the moment.
Sometimes that means avoiding trying to do something better than the night

As “Susanna” in Mozart’s Le Nozze di FigaroJennifer in Figaro.jpg

Mary-Lou: What do you think is the most affective manner
of communicating with your audience? Singers, communicate with their voice,
which again is the most personal of instruments, so how do you retain that
intimacy with your viewers?

Jennifer: Well, that’s a tricky because one must give the
impression of intimacy on a big stage. One must project intimacy which seems
like a contradiction in terms. I’ve had issues with this on stage. Of course
intimacy does not automatically imply softness or whispering. For me, it has
a lot to do with the prayer I say each time before I perform: “God,
please help me to touch my audience, to sing beautifully, to be filled with
the energy of this character, and be with me guiding me always,” or
something to that effect. To me, that is intimacy: when you are trying to
always give the best of yourself to the audience.

Mary-Lou: Which conductors do you most enjoy working

Jennifer: I like the ones who let me do whatever the hell
I want to do!!! Just kidding! (The Diva comes out!) No, seriously, I enjoy
working with conductors who breathe with me and make me feel like they are on
my side and yet demand a lot from me as well. I loved working with
Harnoncourt in Salzburg.

Mary-Lou: If you could sing anywhere in the world,
tomorrow, where would it be and why?

Jennifer: I would want to sing at the Pittsburgh Opera. I
would want my family to be there and to know that I had taken my craft

Mary-Lou: Tell me more about why it would mean so much
for you to sing at the Pittsburgh Opera?

Jennifer: Because I began there. It is my home and it is
also a lovely house. I’ve sung at the Benedum Center. I participated in an
internship there, where I observed rehearsals for CosÏ fan Tutte. I
sang for a high school musical competition on that stage. I sang as a child
on that stage in La BohËme. After spending many years studying and
living in Pittsburgh, and I think it would be neat for my family to see me
perform there. My great aunt always asks me when I’m going to perform with
the Pittsburgh Opera!

Mary-Lou: Do you have regulated routines to keep your
voice from becoming tired and what tips would you give to young and aspiring
opera singers?

Jennifer: I would advise young singers to avoid
practicing for over two hours at a time and to sometimes practice without
singing. I consider listening to a mini disk of a lesson or coaching
practice, too, because the brain is absorbing information and storing it for
later use. It’s also good to just softly speak through the text or even go
through the piece softly with acting and gestures to work on the total
performance. I would also recommend learning how to warm one’s self up very
thoroughly without the help of a teacher and also keeping the body fit as
well. Physical fitness plays a tremendous role in ones ability to sing well
and sing for a long time. I also believe it increases the longevity of a
career. It’s very important to know how to warm the voice down after
difficult passages too. Just doing a little bit of soft humming in the middle
register can help to relax the voice after a very high or difficult

As “Martha” in Flotow’s Martha127CDimo Dimov.jpg

Mary-Lou: Are you planning to return to the United

Jennifer: I would love to come back and sing in the
States. Not exclusively, but definitely a lot. There are so many good houses
in the States, but it is absolutely necessary to be well developed before
tackling them because they are much larger than most European houses.

Mary-Lou: Do you have any final words you would like to
send to family and friends back home?

Jennifer: Thank you for everything.

In the Fall of 2007, Jennifer is scheduled to make her debut at the Grande
ThÈatre de Geneve as “Pamina” in a production of Mozart’s
Die Zauberflˆtte. Other future engagements include
“Tytania” in the revival of Britten’s A Midsummer
Night’s Dream
and “Die Kluge” in the new production of
Carl Orff’s Die Kluge at the Vienna Volksoper, 2006/07. Her
website will be available in mid-October.

Mary-Lou Vetere-Borghoff, PhD (ABD), M.A., Mus.B.
Faculty of Music
Wilfrid Laurier University
Waterloo, Ontario, Canada

image_description=Jennifer O’Laughlin