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Jacquelyn Stucker: my Glyndebourne journey

We catch up with Jacquelyn Stucker who is playing the role of Armida in our Tour production of Handel's Rinaldo.

After winning second place at the Glyndebourne Opera Cup in 2018, soprano Jacquelyn Stucker returns to take on the role of Armida in our Tour production of Handel’s Rinaldo.

Charlotte Alldis,  Glyndebourne’s Senior Marketing Manager, finds out a little bit more about her and the role of Armida.

When did you decide you wanted to become an opera singer and how did you get into the profession?

Honestly, I wasn’t so much interested in opera or classical music as I was in language and literature. I was kind of a loner growing up and I spent a lot of time as a kid reading novels and writing both poetry and short stories for fun, so I think my interest in words and text was how I found my way into singing. I remember reading poems by Marilyn Hacker, John Keats, Anne Sexton, Elizabeth Bishop, Wendell Berry, Sylvia Plath, and Amy Lowell while I was in high school: I used to memorize these poems during class and then rush home, lock the door to my bedroom, and recite them to myself. The world of words was magical and infinite, and I felt connected to something eternal, something vast and mythic when I read poetry.

That said, my career path isn’t a particularly poetic one: I started singing during my senior year of high school because I had heard that music non-majors could audition for scholarship money. I had an academic scholarship that covered tuition, but a little extra financial aid would cover my room and board. So, I took a few voice lessons and auditioned for the music department. One master’s degree, one doctoral degree, and a few young artist programs later, here I am at Glyndebourne.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my experience at the Opera Cup and its massive impact on my career. Neither my approach to performing nor the timbre of my voice are, I think, traditional, and I was never particularly successful when it came to competitions. I just never really fit in anywhere: juries told me I was ‘too intense, too energetic’ on stage, that I should ‘focus less on the text’ and ‘more on the singing.’ Being artistically different was never a good thing until I got to Glyndebourne, and this is the first place, really, where I felt I had the freedom to be myself artistically. Winning second place at the 2018 Opera Cup was life-changing: I met my incredible manager at the competition, it gave me a level of exposure that I’d never experienced before, and — perhaps most importantly — I started feeling more confident about being different.

You are playing Armida in the upcoming production of Rinaldo and this will be your first time performing in an opera on the Glyndebourne stage. How have you found the process so far?

Glyndebourne is one of the best companies for which I’ve ever worked. I’m writing this during our fifth of six weeks of rehearsal, and I can’t ever remember a time where I’ve felt more secure in terms of rehearsal and preparation, where I’ve been given enough time to rest between rehearsals, where every single member of the cast, production team, and music staff show up prepared and ready to rehearse and experiment every single day.

Don’t get me wrong: this rehearsal process has been demanding — but, in a fantastic way. In the way that, when you do something you didn’t know you could do, you feel alive. I am doing things onstage as Armida that I never knew I could do before, and it’s because Glyndebourne’s music and production staffs know how to simultaneously support and challenge their artists. It’s a recipe — the recipe — for greatness — for life-altering art and compelling storytelling in an age where digital wins out over acoustic, where virtual reality is more lived-in than actual reality, where life is curated online all while people isolate themselves more and more from one another.

With a rehearsal period this luxuriously long, there’s time to try new things, to make mistakes, to try out sixty or seventy different ideas. It takes time to do these things properly, however, and it’s so incredibly rare to have this kind of time; however, this is the reason why I’m in opera — to make something new and fresh, to tell a story truthfully and earnestly, to be vulnerable and forge connections with people. Glyndebourne gives artists every single resource they could possibly need to succeed because there’s a high premium here on creating extraordinary, world-class theatre — and, that’s the kind of artistic integrity I can get behind.

How familiar were you with Rinaldo before you auditioned for the role?

Not terribly familiar, if I’m being honest. I was asked to audition for this role two years ago, and I binge-learned the entire role in about a month. I still remember the audition — I sang a truly underwhelming ‘Je suis encor’ in addition to ‘Ah, crudel,’ and that Manon aria was so totally vanilla that I was convinced I had totally blown it. Unrelated: I haven’t sung that aria since.

What do you do prepare for a new role before rehearsals even begin?

I’m going to say something a bit seditious here, but I think there’s far too much emphasis on musical preparation before production. A lot of these decisions are made during the production, and so many of them depend on what the staging is like. Of course, we have to learn the notes and rhythms, look at the harmonic structure and form, think about and write ornaments, and work with a teacher to find a way to sing the role healthily and expressively — however, opera begins and ends with the words, in my opinion.

I would say that 80% of my preparation is solely text-based. I spend a lot of time working with native speakers, and I find a lot of value in digging into the text as much as possible. I like to have both a literal word-for-word translation and a poetic translation, and I also like to know how the verbs are conjugated. Connotations of words or phrases, idioms, syntax, and rhyme are all important information when it comes to delivering the text, and there’s a high barrier of entry to this information if you aren’t a native speaker. For example, Armida says ‘Splende su quel bel volto un non so che…’ in Act II after she sees Rinaldo for the first time. In coaching this line with a native speaker, I learned that ‘un non so che’ is a phrase in Italian exactly like je ne sais quoi, that the use of volto rather than viso or faccia is interesting, and that the lack of a pronominal particle here also has an effect on inflection. And, that’s just a nine-word clause in a nearly four-hour opera!

Once I understand what the words mean, I speak the text in a variety of different ways, and I always start with the recits: I whisper it, I scream it, I say it with a Boston accent, I say it in a monotone, I say it as quickly as I can, I say the words in backwards order, and I translate it extemporaneously into colloquial, modern English. If it’s a big recit scene, I speak all the parts in funny voices. I realize this all probably sounds insane, but this visceralization of the text gives me tons of ideas about inflection and intention, and it intimately connects my speaking voice to my singing voice early in the learning process — and, I’ve never, ever forgotten the words during a performance when I’ve prepared this way!

Can you tell us a bit about your character Armida?

First of all, here’s what Armida is not: she is not a psychopath, she is not a narcissist, and she is not a femme fatale. However you feel about her latex dress, Armida is not defined by her sexuality, by her appearance, by the male characters in Rinaldo. A story about a physically attractive woman whose beauty is the most interesting thing about her is boring — and besides, even though Armida is the antagonist in this show, she doesn’t know that. She’s just trying to get something done; as far as she’s concerned, she’s the eponymous character of the show.

So, who is Armida, then? I think she’s part Cersei Lannister (particularly seasons 4 and 5 of the HBO show), part Quentin Tarantino during an on-set meltdown, and part Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest. She is always just a little too intense. She is passionate and mercurial and too extreme in every possible way. She is alluring because she is comfortable vying for and being in power — this self-confidence is the source of any sex appeal she may have. She literally has the worst temper ever. Looking at Armida is like looking directly into the sun. Not to undercut myself, but I think she is also deeply wounded, and I think it has got to be exhausting for her to live this way.

But, beneath her impassioned exterior is a wellspring of emotional depth and richness. She expresses self-doubt in ‘Molto voglio,’ and ‘Furie terribili’ is so over the top that you can’t help but wonder what Armida’s compensating for with a gesture this acutely exaggerated. She reaches a devastating emotional nadir when Rinaldo rejects her, and Argante’s betrayal is nearly the coup de grace: her outpouring of grief in ‘Ah, crudel’ is utterly gut-wrenching, and the unadulterated fury of ‘Vo’ far guerra’ comes from near-necrotic psychic pain. Armida has been utterly divested of any power by the end of the opera; however, I’m not sure the obstacles she’s faced has forced her to change for the better, I don’t think she goes through a journey all that much like Rinaldo’s, and she definitely doesn’t redeem herself. But, she does become more vulnerable, more human, and I find that very compelling as an actor.

This production of Rinaldo is a playful reimagining of the original piece. How have you found working with the cast and creative team so far?

It’s been a joy. Francesca Gilpin has given us all the freedom to explore these complicated characters, Sophie Leach and the entire SM team are consummate professionals, Luke and Ben-San and Dai and Tony Legge are legendary, and David Bates is a freaking genius. Having a Handelian expert like Anna Devin in the cast is a total luxury, and Aubrey is the kindest and most gracious colleague anyone could ask for. And, Jake Arditti and I are singing the two leads in L’incoronazione di Poppea together this summer at Festival d’Aix. Building a working relationship now with him is going to pay artistic dividends this July in France. It’s an embarrassment of riches, really.

You will be joining the rest of the company on the road to perform Rinaldo in venues across the country. What are you most looking forward to about touring?

I love touring because I really value the camaraderie that only comes from a tour: the inside jokes, the unexpected ‘hiccups’ onstage, the collaborative energy. We all have to work together when touring a production, and I love that this spirit of cooperation is at the heart of it all.

Rinaldo is on stage at Tour 2019 until 01 NOVEMBER

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Image credits: Rinaldo rehearsals, Tour 2019. Photos by James Bellorini

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