Jill loves to garden about as much as she loves the opera. But if you ask me, it is her husband Jake that she loves most.
It is evident as we sit together in a beautiful room at the home offices of The Piedmont Opera. A home that was once in fact an actual home and recently gifted to The Piedmont Opera by a generous supporter when the company found themselves without a place of their own. As I sat there in the Victorian house with two of the three vibrant leads of The Piedmont Opera’s latest production, Tosca (which opens Friday night) I could not help but feel the passion that filled this space and this couple.
As I shared with you last week here, I have no experience with the opera. But I’m curious and invested in learning. Both of these characteristics serve you well when you are with the Gardners, an incredibly dynamic and talented duo who celebrated fourteen years of marriage this year and boast hundreds of professional performances between them. They are candid and charismatic. Thoughtful and direct. They delight in teaching. Jake comes to the conversation with more than forty years as a professional opera singer living and working all over the world. Jill just entered her second decade as a professional and will hit her 50th performance as Floria Tosca this weekend as they perform at the Stevens Center. In 2011 they moved from New York to live in Kernersville to be closer to Jill’s family. Together they found a cherished home base here and shared with me how the personal connection found in a community like this allows art to come alive.
When did the Opera become a part of your lives?
[ Jill ] I grew up in Tobaccoville and my mom said that when I came into the world it was clear that music is what I needed to do. She was extremely instrumental in getting me into music and I learned how to read music before I could read words. I saw my first opera at Reynolds Auditorium when Norman Johnson was running the company. The Opera was Carmen. I didn’t realize at the time that that experience would set me on this path of becoming a professional opera singer.
In high school I received a full scholarship to study piano at Centenary College in Louisiana and decided to minor in voice. That is when I discovered it – my voice. I started entering vocal competitions and would win. Everyone kept saying “why don’t you want to be a singer?” I remember saying, “because I’m here to be a pianist.” It was at the end of that degree that I had this ‘Come to Jesus’ moment and realized it was important for me to follow this path.
[ Jake ] My family wasn’t particularly musical, but during that time in life everyone played some sort of instrument. It’s just what you did and I chose the trumpet. I saw my first opera at my home company, Tri-Cities Opera in Binghamton, New York when I was 18. I think I had some of the normal prejudices about opera at that time – the language barriers and such – but I was in love with a young lady and her mother had bought us tickets to go. It turned out to be this amazing thing for me. It was a flash and it was over before I even realized it. I was so fascinated by so many aspects of the performance. That is why I always encourage everyone to at least try the opera once. It’s not for everybody. You can open the door and some people will go “what?” – and others will go “wow”! That ‘wow’ is what happened for me. Eventually opera focused me in a way that nothing else had done before. I went from a C-student to an A-student. It was a path I stumbled upon and it was an intense falling in love.
You have lived and traveled all over the world. Why do you choose to live in Winston-Salem?
[ Jake ] We first picked Winston-Salem because there is a family connection (Jill’s) but ultimately it was because it is a community with a true identity. There is a “here”, here. Winston-Salem is not trying to be anything but itself. This city has great roots in the arts and continues to foster that. When we perform here we are part of a community where you see your audience at the grocery store. That connection in terms of art is fantastic. Experiencing these masterworks live together – as artists and audience – really elevates the performances and brings the work alive.
[ Jill ] Winston-Salem is special given it was where I was raised and saw my first opera. The Piedmont Opera is now my home company. When I was a young artist at GlimmerGlass in 2005 to 2006, Jaime (Albritten) hired me to sing my first MiMi (from La Boheme by Italian composer, Puccini). It was such a special experience for me and Puccini’s heroines have since become a signature role for me. The quality of productions that this company promotes is incredible and this community is what continues to draw us back home to perform.
You both have performed these roles in Tosca together before. Tell me a bit about this particular production and how you approach your characters in new ways.
[ Jake ] This will be my fourth time as Scarpia. I feel that each production is not like starting over from scratch but a reinvention because the material itself is just so good and dense. That is why Puccini’s work is still here and remains relevant. As I address the material again I am in a different place in my life and relate to things differently. It’s endlessly fascinating.
In my opinion, Scarpia is one of the greatest parts ever written. He is a man of immense power and is an incredibly unreputable character. My challenge as an artist is to find the humanity in this man in order to make him real. He cannot just be a caricature of evil. It is important that the person is alive in that evil in order for it to resonate. I believe Scarpia’s evilness is in his decisions. It’s about what he chooses to do and how he does it. It’s how he manipulates and that is something we still have to look out for in our own lives. When someone reveals themselves to you, believe them – especially by their actions.
[ Jill ] Tosca has become a signature role for me. In this run of production, I will hit my 50th performance as Tosca and I see her very differently now than I did when I started singing her six years ago. Many think of her as a diva but I have come to see her much differently. I’m discovering yet again the moment to moment things that happened to her and how those experiences influence her actions. She was an orphan raised by nuns who discovered that she had this incredible voice. She learned to sing in the church – much like I did – and she went on to become a revered star.
This Opera takes place in Rome on the 17th of June in the year 1800 in a timespan of less than 24 hours. At its core it is about three characters caught in this triangle of political intrigue, romantic passion and absolute power. In a matter of hours my character finds herself pulled between these huge emotions of love and passion and responsibility and position. Scarpia (Jake’s character) is using his political power to possess her and violate her by raping her and killing her true partner in love. I then have no other choice but to murder him. You have to really feel what drives her to this point.
[ Jake ] And all of this is happening alongside the most sumptuous music. Puccini’s gift was that he could write four notes that would conjur up the most intense emotional feelings.
What do you love about opera and why do you believe it is still relevant today?
[ Jake ] It is the most colossal art form there is – marrying so many themes and elements. It is very complicated to produce and unfortunately that can make it expensive. It takes time because you are putting layers on top of layers to create the performance. But when everything comes together just right there is nothing in this world like it. It is so worth the investment.
[ Jill ] And the stories we explore mirror what we are dealing with in our current society. It forces us to address the shadow sides of ourselves. Those sides we often know are there but do not want to look at – or we simply do not care are there. It gives us the opportunity to see these sides of ourselves and face them in the moment.
What keeps you both motivated and passionate about your craft?
[ Jill ] In our society right now – particularly for those forty and under – you are told that in your lifetime you will have many careers. As an artist you have to understand what that means and how you are going to define that. Jake is my husband and I love him in that way but I truly have such tremendous respect for him as an artist. He has been in the business for a little over forty years now and that longevity (in this business) doesn’t happen very often. His favorite thing to say right now is hashtag ‘Maturity Matters’ and there is so much truth to that. To find someone like him who did not just do it right but also did it well is invaluable. As I head into my second decade as a professional singer I realize just how important that is. You have to make wise choices and sometimes you have to say no and you have to know when to do that. You have to know when to take your risks.
[ Jake ] We continue to reinvent within a single discipline and within an established structure. But what continues to invigorate me is the material itself. We are working with material that is coming through some of the greatest channelers in western civilization and we are doing it in this modern cultural way.
[ Jill ] As a spiritual person I think of the theater like a church. When we get to that moment of performing live – when the downbeat happens, the performance is about to start and the audience is in their seats… I get chills just thinking about it…it is something so special. It’s not like going to an athletic event because there is no competition involved. The theater becomes this circle of energy that is addressing itself. It’s cathartic. You want them to experience that mirror and connect. It is like a drug.
~ Andrea Littell
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