As this year’s winners of the annual Gerda Lissner Competition prepare for their May 23rd Zankel Hall performance, I sat down with soprano Courtney Mills to discuss her recent 2nd place win as well as what makes this soprano tick.
Jacob Paul: You won your award from The Gerda Lissner Foundation singing Dich Teure Halle from Wagner’s Tannhauser; what prompted your repertoire choice?
Courtney Mills: For competitions and auditions, singers offer 4-5 Arias. Dich Teure Halle is one of my main audition arias. I enjoy singing it because it really allows you to open up the voice. This particular aria has a special place in my repertoire because it is one of the aria’s I was able to perform while a young artist with Maestro Levine and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. That was truly one of the most amazing moments I have experienced. Wagner really knows how to write lines that soar and make you feel like you are flying over the orchestra. That is especially true of this piece.
JP: It’s my understanding that you’ll be singing the aria at Zankel Hall.
CM: Yes! I’m looking forward to it.
JP: You, like many young singers with soaring voices, try to steer away from categorizing yourself in a particular fach.
CM: Yes, I do. I think it is dangerous to categorize yourself especially as a young singer, while the voice is still growing. You need to have a focus in what you sing, but you also need to adapt and change with how your voice develops. I began singing in high school with the Queen of the Night, Blondchen, and Cunegonde. These are all roles that are now incredibly inappropriate for my voice. I believe if you feel good singing something and you don’t have to strain yourself to sing it, you should go for it. I personally have a large voice, but it comes from a high soprano placement and it likes to move. A lot of other large voiced young soprani may have started as mezzos therefore what is comfortable for them may not be as comfortable for me and vice versa. Also, some roles such as Butterfly and Tosca, written by the same composer for a similar weight of voice feel completely different. Tosca for me is fun to sing while Butterfly is not. It’s all so personal. I can say that it’s very important to know your own instrument and what you can do comfortably so that you can make intelligent decisions when it comes to rep and casting. The cast of Cosi fan tutte at one house might be light lyric voices and the cast at another might be slightly more weighty. It all has to do with the mix of the voices. Price has sung Fiordiligi and so have a lot of lighter voices. One isn’t more correct than the other necessarily- it’s all personal preference. Another good example is Boheme. Some people prefer Mimi to have a larger voice than Musetta because she is the main character, others think Musetta should be larger because her personality is written to be more like Mae West.
JP: You made your Metropolitan Opera Debut while a member of the house’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program. Can you tell me what that experience meant to you?
CM: Wow, it was an experience of a lifetime. I mean how often do you get to do anything for thousands of people all at once, let alone something you love? It was also really great to get to have my family there to see me accomplish the goal they had been supporting me with for the previous seven or more years. More than that though, the Metropolitan has a magical presence. The orchestra is the best in the world, the acoustic is the best in the world, and the ghosts that haunt the stage are the best singers in history. To be able to sing on that stage at all is life changing. When I was being considered for the Young Artist program, we had an audition on the main stage and that moment more than any other singing moment has a special place in my heart and memory. The energy in that space is palpable.
JP: You’ve had a lot of interesting performance experiences since… including singing on a French National radio broadcast live from the Louvre Museum.
CM: Yes, that was another great moment for me. They have a beautiful auditorium and their musical series is really phenomenal. I get updates in my email and I wish it was an easier commute to go see concerts there because the list of artists and events is really quite impressive. I came to sing there because one of the patron’s heard me in Verbier. It was a really awesome surprise when they contacted me for a recital. I was honored to be included in their recital series.
CM: Haha yes! Well, for me the words are the most important aspect. You have to know what you are saying and why, so that you can understand why the composer wrote the music a certain way. You know, back when Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti and Verdi were composing, the librettist was actually billed first and then the composer, so you would see Luisa Miller listed by Salvadore Cammarano and composed by Giuseppe Verdi– not the other way around. Today we all know the composers and not the librettists, it’s an interesting reversal. I also really like to feel connected to the character and this is the easiest way to get a feel for the character. So I begin by translating (yes I use my Nico Castel books, but I also like to look up words on my own so that I really know the text), then I memorize the text while listening to the music, and finally I learn the notes with piano. Also it helps save a bit of money on coachings which can be really expensive in New York City. So yes, I do a lot of work sans piano at Starbucks.
When not at Starbucks learning her latest operatic role, Miss Mills can be found in NYC’s piano bars singing her favorite classical musical theatre and jazz standards.