Name: Roberta Alexander
Occupation: Opera/Concert Singer
Hometown: Yellow Springs, Ohio
We hear you were born in Lynchburg. Was your family from here?
I was born in Lynchburg, however, my parents moved to Ohio when I was 2 years old. I did visit there as a child but I don’t remember much, except all those hills (seven, if my memory doesn‘t let me down?)! My mom was from Charlottesville, and her mom was from Roanoke. My parents met in Petersburg while attending Virginia State University. They married in 1947 and moved to Lynchburg. I spent many summers in Petersburg, visiting with my grandmother, so I have a strong Virginia connection.
As an acclaimed soprano and singing actress, you have performed in some of the greatest opera houses and performance venues in the world. What has been the highlight of your decades-long career to date?
That has to be one of the toughest questions! There are so many. Number one has to be my Metropolitan Opera (MET) debut. As a young girl, I dreamed of singing there. As an American, aspiring to have a career, the pinnacle is the MET. I have a picture of my first entrance (the only time I ever sang Zerlina in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”) and I am literally grinning from ear-to-ear. It’s a good thing that Zerlina is happy because it’s her wedding day, otherwise I would have looked completely silly.
The other would be singing in Carnegie Hall! My dad always told that old joke, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, baby, practice.” We had a good laugh about that. I was very fortunate to have my parents share those moments with me.
Your list of accomplishments, roles played onstage, and venues performed at are far too long to list. Can you give us some of the highlights?
The Jenufa at the Glyndebourne Festival, was a wonderful production with wonderful colleagues.
Strauss’s “Four Last Songs” in Los Angeles with the LA Philharmonic, conducted by Sir Andre Previn.
Jumping in at the MET to sing Vitellia in Mozart’s “La Clemenza di Tito” with only three days notice! It went really well, but I had never even seen my colleagues before we met up on stage! Fortunately, I had done the role so many times I just had to keep the staging from going wrong.
I loved singing at the Sydney Opera house. Just being in that building was overwhelming.
I sang a program of Mozart arias with the Sydney Symphony. Thank heavens we were in an opera house, because about 15 minutes before I had to start, the zipper in my gown bit the dust! We ran to the costume department where a brilliant lady sewed me into my gown! I’ll never forget that moment!
Recording Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” (Donna Elvira) with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, conducted by Maestro Harnoncourt.
Do you remember when you first discovered you had a talent for music, and specifically, opera?
I have never wanted to do anything else. Both of my parents were musicians. My mother was a soprano, and my father was choral conductor. I was only allowed to go to my mother’s concerts if I promised not so sing along! I knew all her repertoire … Strauss, Wagner, Schubert, Mahler, Verdi, Puccini, etc., at a very early age. I wanted to sound just like my mom. She had a lovely, rich, dark, large, dramatic soprano. (I can only imagine what a 6-year-old must have sounded like trying to sing “Vissi D’arte”?) My own voice is a much lighter, smaller instrument than my mom’s, and it took me a while to accept that. I’m perfectly happy with it now.
My parents encouraged and supported me throughout their lives. There was never any doubt that I would sing, but whether I would be successful at it was an altogether different matter. I was lucky to have them guiding and encouraging me.
What do you love the most about what you do?
Getting to sing all that GORGEOUS music!
Are there any drawbacks to it?
The nomadic lifestyle is grueling and lonely. Also, because your body is your instrument, you have to take extreme care in making sure that you are in tip top shape. A head cold can spell disaster. Parties? All that talking and laughing can leave you voice-less. Airplane travel dries you out completely.
The “don’ts” list is long and borrrrrrrrrring! Being away from home for great swathes of time, coming home, putting down your suitcase, picking up another and whoosh! You’re out the door again.
Where do you call “home” these days?
I live in a small village right outside of Amsterdam in the Netherlands. I’ve lived in the Netherlands for nearly 40 years!
What’s up next for you career-wise?
I am still singing and enjoying making the music. As long as I enjoy it (and my voice does, too), I will continue to make music. I have been teaching more and more, giving master classes at young artists programs, opera studios, universities and conservatories around the world. I feel that it is important to give back to the young artists so that all we have learned and experienced is not lost. There were so many people who were helpful to me, and I’d like to help our artists of the future. This is important!
Roberta will be performing in Charlottesville on September 22 at 8 pm. at The Paramount Theatre on The Downtown Mall, and on September 25 at 3 p.m. at Old Cabell Hall, University of Virginia. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit www.cvillechambermusic.org.
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