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Guest Blog: Soprano Kiera Duffy On Life After 'The Audition'

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

kiera.jpegAmerican soprano Kiera Duffy is a rising star of the opera and concert stage. Since being a finalist in the 2007 Met National Council Auditions -- and as such was featured in Susan Froemke's documentary about the major opera competition, The Audition -- she has gone on to great things. In 2008, she won a Sullivan Foundation grant and has performed with the New York Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Philharmonic as well as at Tanglewood and Carnegie Hall. Kiera took some time out of her busy schedule to pen her thoughts for VoiceBox about The Audition's impact on her career...

The 2007 Metropolitan National Council Competition was an enchanting, nerve-wracking and surreal experience, to say the least. Never could I have predicted that a little audition I did on the east side of Manhattan (for which I arrived late and completely flustered--thank you, Madison Avenue traffic) would eventually lead me to sing on the Metropolitan Opera stage with the Met Orchestra on one of the most famous sets in operatic history. I think it's safe to say that this experience would be one of the more overwhelming and incredible moments in any aspiring opera singer's life, but to relive that whole experience while watching a 20-foot version of yourself on a jumbo movie screen? Well, that's just weird.

Working in an industry that is mainly focused on live theater, I've been really taken aback by the power of film and its ability to reach such a vast audience. Since the release of the documentary on national PBS stations this past January, I've been overwhelmed by the response to The Audition. I seem to get at least a handful of new Facebook friend requests every day, not to mention the emails and wall postings and messages on my website from people around the country who were impacted by it. To hear what viewers have had to say after they've watched the movie has been fascinating: "I never realized what it took to be an opera singer!" "I never saw an opera before, but now I want to go to one!" "I'm simply blown away by all of the talent!" I have to admit that I've also gotten quite a bit of: "I was sure you were going to win." Or the slightly more authoritative: "You should have won!" Or, ahem, my father's personal favorite: "You got robbed." Of course, I am touched that people enjoyed my performance, and hey, maybe I could have used some of them at the judges' table, but For. The. Record. I'm actually not sure I should have won, and I definitely don't think I got robbed. Dad.

If I may say this without sounding self-congratulatory, I personally think that the 2007 National Council semi-finalists and finalists were particularly extraordinary, and well yeah, it was "just an honor to be nominated..." (Sorry, but it's Hollywood awards season and I just got back from LA.) Moreover, at the risk of sounding trite, I was not so interested in winning the competition. Though it would have been great, I had a bigger battle to fight, aka performance anxiety.

My nerves are my demons. Always have been. Twice I nearly quit because of them. They're irrational, they're intense, and they're very real. So when I found out that I made it to the semi-finals of the National Council Auditions, I knew I had to make a pact with myself: I was going to do whatever it took to find the mental focus necessary to sing on the Met stage fully present and fully engaged. And I am very proud to say that, after two months of some pretty intense soul searching and mental work, I did that, both in the semis and the finals. So, the emotion that you see when I walk off the stage after the finals performance, while naturally fueled by the incredible adrenaline rush that comes with singing on the Met stage for the first time, was in many ways more due to the fact that I had, at least for those two weeks, conquered my demons. Big money or no big money, I had won the prize.

Since then, life has been a wonderful whirlwind. I made my European debut this past fall at the Wexford Opera Festival in Ireland, which was a blast. And since I'm a Duffy, well, you know...Actually, I am hoping to do more opera work in Europe, as the generally smaller-sized opera houses (as compared to the major houses in the States) are better suited to my voice. To that end, I'm planning a pretty extensive European audition tour this spring.

I am also very lucky to enjoy an extremely fulfilling concert career. I made my debut with the New York Philharmonic last September, which was in many ways akin to my Met experience in its surrealness and in its oh-my-god-I-can't-believe-I'm-singing-here-ness. I was singing a piece by Pierre Boulez under the baton of Lorin Maazel. A few months later I debuted with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and just returned there to sing my first ever Pierrot Lunaire--a favorite piece of mine, despite (or maybe because of) its obvious complexities. I am making my debut with the Atlanta Symphony next week singing Mozart with Roberto Abbado and I join the San Francisco Symphony for the first time next fall singing Messiah.

Incidentally, if you're familiar with the repertoire of people like Boulez and Schoenberg, you might have inferred that I have a particular affinity for 20th century music (aka the hard slash weird stuff), which I in fact do, and which leads me to address a sort of interesting post-The Audition issue that's come up. The arias that I sang in the Met Finals ("Caro nome" and "Tornami a vagheggiar"), while I love them both, are not necessarily indicative of the kind of singer I perceive myself to be (or at least am striving to be). What I mean to say is that the fact that I sang two Italian arias in the finals was sort of anomalous when you compare it to the rest of my career. I don't have what is thought of as a particularly "Italianate voice."

German is my thing. The simplest way I know how to explain this is to say that my voice has a sort of silvery, at times steely, quality that is served well by the sort of silvery, steely quality inherent in the German language. These qualities are also really useful in more modern, avant-garde music, as well as repertoire in English (itself being a Teutonic language), which are also a large part of my repertoire. One thing I've run into within 'the biz' is that based on the Met auditions (and kind of perpetuated by the movie), many music professionals' impressions of me were that of a sort of cute, ingénue type, who sings pretty Italian arias. In reality, though, I'm kind of the anti-ingénue (I mean, the name, Kiera, actually means "little dark one" afterall). Don't get me wrong, I love the war-horses, I do...even the Italian ones (wink). But I am also seduced by a sort of edgier, darker, oft-times German, and not traditionally tonal type of music. So in a business that is increasingly about finding one's niche, I've had to do a little bit of damage control to be sure that, based on the Met finals, I'm not perceived as just another sort of generic light soprano.

All this aside, the fact is I know I have a pretty great life right now. Yes, there are challenges; there are sacrifices (hard to have a love life when you travel as much as I do...just sayin'); there's a lot of singing-business-minutia to navigate through. But the thing is, despite all that I love what I do. Perhaps it's a bit grandiose of me, but if there is such a concept as a soul, mine begins and ends with music. And that's a very good thing.

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