In this series, KMFA Story Seeker Natalie Zeldin explores Austin musicians and groups that are "on the edge" between classical and...something else. This is her fifth article in the series, for more, see her last article on Steve Parker moving the trombone into the spotlight.
Soprano Julie Fiore started One Ounce Opera, an Austin-based ensemble that presents opera in new contexts and with fresh insights. The goal is to bring the power of this art form to people in a direct, accessible, and new light. Here, Julie talks about just why she loves opera so much.
When did you start singing?
I've been singing since way before I can remember. My parents have stories of putting me up on coffee tables and I would sing from Annie with a flashlight as a microphone. I know it sounds cliché, but I think I've been singing my whole life.
How did you first get interested in opera?
It took a while. I listened to classical music as a kid but thought opera was fake, and I didn't connect with it at all. When I was in high school I was lucky enough to be in a fantastic varsity choir in Amarillo and participate in musical theater. But I had a choir director that heard something in my voice and introduced me to a choir director at UNT who really championed me. I went there for school and during my first year discovered opera. I thought “Wow, the sound feels great in my body!” It was just a feeling of power and force that felt easier than it should--to feel my head and chest resonating, and even feel my toes tickling. And exploring the repertoire made my mind hurt--all of the different languages and historical ornamentation in Baroque music--my head was loving it.
What's different about opera than other types of singing?
The foundation of the technique is the same, but the style and the level of the instrument makes it feel like you've gotten into a Ferrari: full throttle and with control. A lot of rock singing and musical theater is full throttle but with less control. The emotion in opera has to be there, but you can't let it overtake the beauty in the voice. Opera is about line and phrase; your voice has to fit in with the rest of the texture.
How do you see opera than other genres of musical expression?
That's an interesting expression because I often try not to see it as different than other types of music. My brain wants to equate it with something that's now. I was always trying to find a reason why I wanted to sing opera: What does it have to do with anything going on now, or any of the other music that I listen to, or concerts that I go to? I've been thinking that way for years but now that I have an ensemble, I have a platform to do it.
So is that why you founded your organization, One Ounce Opera?
Yes, I’ve always found the connection of opera to other music/cultural references interesting. Mostly though, it was because I needed an excuse to sing in Austin. It was job creation. I knew that there were other singers in town that wanted to be singing more, and not necessarily in a chorus. I always felt like I wanted to be on the producing end of things as well. So I went for it, and then things started to roll, and then they didn't roll, and then we said “yes” a lot, and now here we are!
How does the musical climate of Austin help OOO be as successful as it is?
Austin really is a city of weird or different people. People here are open to things being twisted or reimagined. People at their core want to be moved, but not in the traditional ways. Audiences seek out experiences; they want to leave and have a conversation about what just happened. I think there are two sides to a lot of people here: they want to be intellectually stimulated, but they also want to laugh their asses off.
What do you hope to convey with the name “One Ounce Opera”?
That it's not going to be a full production—it's gonna be one ounce of opera. At the beginning, our venues were places that served alcohol, so it also meant an ounce of spirits. Mostly now it means that it's just a little bit of opera and a little bit of everything else, too.
How do you think that your expressive and innovative projects have changed the way that you think about classical music?
I've met more people who are in the classical music world, especially younger people, who also have other musical influences and interests that are wanting to mishmash and create new textures and experiment with voicings, instruments, and sound. And so classical music to me now does not feel nearly as stuffy or snooty. It's incredibly freeing and I’m pretty sure the singers in OOO feel that way. At the core of it, we sing because we like to sing and we sing it because we love the repertoire, not because our teacher told us to do it. So I’m seeing classical music in more of a personal way. I've been listening to more music again.
Who are some of your musical role models?
I always get a little teary when is hear Julie Andrews. Most of the music that she did is a direct tie to my childhood. I also go to a lot of shows in Austin. I played guitar when I was a kid, so I’ve always been connected to people who were involved in a more traditional rock band.
Tell me about your next exciting project.
We put together an open call for composers back a few months ago and I have an amazing stack of 8 hours of art songs and vocal chamber works to whittle down to an 1.5 of music for a concert. It's going to be the first-annual “Fresh Squeezed Ounce of Art Song.” We put out the call for works that needed their world premiere, or maybe had been performed once or twice but never recorded. I was amazed at the quality of the music we received. We want it to feel like a salon, so it won't be at a concert hall, not on a stage. So it will feel more communicative and personal. Art song is about the text so we wanted to be closer to our audience. These art song concerts will premiere in fall 2016; right now, we’re staging the short opera version of the same inaugural “Fresh Squeezed Ounce” series. The five winning composers will be here, and they’re super cool. That’s coming up in April.
What do you like to do for fun?
I've gotten into Premier League soccer. It’s a ritual for me to get up on Saturday or Sunday morning and have coffee and watch the game. And in soccer, they use classical music in all of their promotional material!
Fresh Squeezed Ounce of Opera, will be on April 15-16 at Museum of Human Achievement in East Austin. For more information, click here.