Hello Bay View! — Mezzo-soprano Emily Fons moves home and prepares for her Florentine Opera debut

February 28, 2017

Emily Fons and her dog Lupita, a rescued Australian Kelpie. PHOTO Emily Fons

After living on the East Coast and in Chicago for a number of years, Bay View native and international opera singer Emily Fons moved home in October. She will make her Florentine Opera debut this month in a starring role portraying Donna Elvira in Mozart’s Don Giovanni.

Fons is the daughter of Carolyn and David Fons and sister of Claire Fons and Elisabeth Biggs. She attended Saint Lucas Lutheran Elementary School and Wisconsin Lutheran High School (Class of 2001).

Fons’ dog Lupita travels with the singer, easing the rigors of the peripatetic nature of a professional opera career. Fons adopted Lupita from the Santa Fe Animal Shelter & Humane Society.

Bay View Compass: Did you want to sing opera since you were a child?

Emily Fons: My mother is a voice teacher. She teaches at Wisconsin Lutheran College (in Milwaukee). Music and singing were always kind of around. It was just a part of my life. I never thought that I would be a singer. I never took any voice lessons with my mom. I never did anything like that. I took piano lessons as a kid and then I played clarinet for a while.

I always loved theater. I was in a group in the Avalon Theater (in the early 90s) before it was refurbished called the Milwaukee Youth Theater run by Peter Daniels. They did this really neat thing where everyone learned all of the parts so it was this really team effort. We would go to inner city grade schools in the summer and put on these performances of these little shows and we would all switch parts so nobody was the star.

That was kind of my first case of performing and having a sense of community around performing. I loved it. I just absolutely loved it. Then in high school, I auditioned for plays and musicals and things like that, and it was more just the idea of theater and performance that I fell in love with before I fell in love with singing. I think that makes sense because unlike every other instrument, (the voice) is one that ages and matures with you. So you can’t sing opera when you’re a teenager.  You can sing musical theater when you’re a teenager, sure, but you can’t really sing that seriously until you’re in your mid 20s.

My parents realized that I loved performing, loved acting. My mom knew Helen. She asked me if I wanted to take voice lessons with her.

I started taking voice lessons at 16 with Helen Ceci. Helen was my mother’s first voice teacher. She has a spirit about her, makes it fun. She understands how to teach a high school kid. She gives you appropriate info and, above all, [encourages you] to get out and share it with people. She tells you to get up and sing. I was never nervous, not even once. And I think I owe a lot of that to her because her attitude was just one of excitement and sharing and just a love of what she was doing. I didn’t take it too seriously at that age, which I think, was also really crucial for me.

One of the reasons I’m successful is no one in my life ever pushed me ever to do anything. It was very much a self-guided journey, I guess. I just happened to have really patient and wonderful mentors along the way who let me figure it out on my own and were there when I needed them.

What did you sing when you studied with Helen Ceci? 

A lot of Gershwin, musical theater. She introduced me to foreign languages for the first time, which is probably why I fell in love with opera and classical singing,  these beautiful French art songs. It was age appropriate music; she knew a beautiful tune would go a long way for a young singer.

What do you mean by age appropriate?

Interest to the student and the vocal ability of the student. There’s certain emotions you can’t really access at age 16. And just the style of music, the demands it puts on the voice, the range, how high it sits in the voice. She was very wise in giving me things that were achievable, that made me feel confident, and really made me fall in love with singing.

After a partial first semester at Syracuse University, Fons felt the school wasn’t the best fit for her. She moved back to Milwaukee, finished her first semester at Wisconsin Lutheran College, then following Helen Ceci’s suggestion, enrolled in the music program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She began studying with voice teacher Connie Haas. When Haas took a sabbatical, Fons enrolled in and completed her college education at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa.

Connie Haas been my voice teacher ever since. I’ve gone other places for school but I’ve been studying with her since I was 19. She just kind of changed my world. She’s incredibly patient and she treats singing and a singing career like a marathon, not a sprint. And that’s the kind of person I am too. I like to see the long game and always play the long game. I think everybody has patience for different things. I tried to learn to sew but I couldn’t tolerate a mistake. I didn’t have the patience to rip it out and do it again. But for some reason with singing I have the patience to play the long game. I think Connie taught me that, to have the patience to grow into my voice and to look at technique as an evolution, not a magic trick.

I think a lot of voice teachers teach by the method — here’s my bag of tricks, let’s it solve it for the day and maybe it’s not a permanent solution or permanent understanding. Connie not only worked for technical solutions but a technical understanding. She just really supported me and was very encouraging and held me to a high standard. I studied with her for two years at UW-Milwaukee.

Did you start singing opera at UWM? If so, did it appeal to you then? 

Yes, and it really did. I’m a very active person. I can’t sit still. Opera’s a very full body, full mind experience. You can’t afford to leave anything behind; it’s all gotta come with. I really like that about it.

What style of opera are you attracted to?

You tend to be drawn to the type of opera that is appropriate for your voice. Starting with the very origins of opera, baroque opera — and even slightly earlier than that with Monteverdi — I absolutely love that style of music, and for me the reason I love that style is the clarity of the sound. I feel that I can hear — I can almost pull it apart in my mind — all the different instruments, the counterpoint, the way they work together. I love that and the music is very customizable. I think that’s why it’s still performed because it was the tradition to ornament (vocal embellishments and flourishes) the music. The singer would ornament and sometimes the orchestra would respond with its own ornaments. I love that because I’m able to put my own stamp on something that was written 400 or 300 years ago. Baroque and Early Music are some of my favorite things to sing because of that. And also collaboration. The tight collaboration with the orchestra and the conductor. The conductor needs to know what your ornaments are, they need to know when to give you time, how to respond, so I guess I feel very close relationships when I’m working on that type of music.

Do you create your own ornaments?

Sometimes I’ll go to someone I trust, a baroque specialist and have them write ornaments for me because I can sing infinitely better ornaments than I myself can write. I need someone who can write the level of ornaments that I can sing. For instance, I have a person I work with in Chicago. I’ll send him the music, he’ll ornament it for me, write it all down, and send it back to me and say, “What do you think?” I love to sing ornate music. I think someone who specializes can write these ornate stunning ornaments that I myself couldn’t come up with.

If I have the time, if it’s a conductor I know well, I’ll send him the ornaments and say this is what I’m planning on doing, what do you think? I’d rather know if there’s something the conductor doesn’t like or that he’d like me to change and I’ll relearn it, get it in my voice, and hopefully show up to rehearsal and we’ll hopefully be somewhat on the same page when we start off.

How do you decide what operas to audition for?

People who know me well can make assumptions about what would be appropriate for my voice. The number of auditions that I do now [is a lot less] — I guess I sang an audition about 10 months ago — as opposed to when I first got out of the young artist program at Chicago Lyric Opera, when I sang a bazillion auditions all the time. It’s very different now that I’ve been out working and people know me a little now. People think of me as a person who would sing baroque music, Mozart, French opera.

There’s a lot of options, but I probably wouldn’t sing Puccini. I tend to not prefer to sing bel canto, not that I couldn’t but it just doesn’t feel right for me right now. I tend not to sing bel canto, I tend not to sing bigger repertoire like Verdi, Puccini, Wagner…that’s not right for me.

I think Don Giovanni is one of the most perfect operas ever written. I’m more than happy to sing it.

Talk a little bit about learning languages.

It is surprising how many times people ask me if I know what I’m saying. I get that question all the time. Can you imagine if you went to see Lincoln and Daniel Day Lewis had to say all his lines but had no clue what they meant? It wouldn’t really work. I think it’s interesting that people want to know — that they don’t automatically know that I know what I’m saying.

As part of a music degree, I studied French, German, and Italian. The opportunity to be a young artist at Lyric Opera in Chicago and Santa Fe Opera, those were really important experiences because they have high quality coaching staff, pianists who are well versed in those languages and diction coaches around the opera house, task masters who will make sure you have the pronunciation of the languages correct. Not only do we want to have an intimate knowledge of the language so it’s clear that we not only know what we are saying, but so that we can correctly inflect the language. It’s important that we’re pronouncing it as accurately as possible because as an opera singer I work internationally.

To me, probably the most helpful thing is to know the grammar of the language and for me that functions as a memory tool. There’s such a lot to remember, obviously, and I find that the times when I have the most memory problems is when I don’t have a good grammatical understanding of what I’m saying and why.

I find it really challenging but really beautiful to express in another language.

Emily Fons (left) as Cherubino and Susanna Phillips as Countess Almaviva in “The Marriage of Figaro” © Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2013 santafeopera.org

What are some of your favorite operas?

I’m kind of a Handel geek so anything Handel wrote I will feel in love with. Baroque opera can be very long but I love it. Giulio Cesare (Handel), I love that opera so much. It’s definitely one of my top operas. I love Mozart too. I love Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni. They are so special. I love Così fan tutte too, but not as much. I also love Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel. I think it’s orchestrated so beautifully.”

What is it like to sing and play the role of Donna Elvira in Mozart’s Don Giovanni given his reprehensible character?

Elvira and Giovanni have a backstory. Their story happened before the opera even starts. They were, I guess, married, or she thought they were going to be married. It’s a little unclear. Either way, it does seem clear that she either thought they were engaged or even they were married, and then he left.

I really feel like she has a mission. Her motivation and mission are clear from the second she comes on stage. There’s no question. She says, “Where is he? If I find him and he won’t come back to me, I’m going to rip his heart out.” It’s pretty clear what she wants.

But I also sort of think of her as the superhero of the opera because she inserts herself into everybody else’s story. Not even after Leporello says to her, “Honey, you’re not the first, you’re not the last, let it go, it’s not worth your time.” But she decides it is worth her time and then she stops Giovanni from seducing Zerlina.

So she kind of has this mission the whole way along. She wants to make sure he doesn’t seduce or rape anybody else and secondly, and this is what I think is so interesting about her, she wants to change him even though she’s been so badly hurt by him. She doesn’t give up. Her very last entrance, she says, “This is the ultimate proof of my love for you. Change your life, get your act together.”

So her storyline is kind of this double-edged thing of wanting to prevent any further disaster for anybody else but also to change him and have him come back to her. So she’s very…I think, it’s interesting that she just doesn’t give up until the very end when he’s dragged down into hell.

What makes the role difficult is her emotion and that her music can be very intense. It’s a long opera and you have to pace yourself. You have to leave room for character development even though, like every step of the way, it seems too easy to be intense. I think finding the moments of vulnerability for her and finding when you can take it down a notch are really important to balancing out the character so it’s not just this kind of firestorm the whole way through.

How do you personally react to that aspect of her character? Do you feel sympathy toward her or do you feel her mission reflects a tragic flaw?

I definitely feel sympathy towards her. I don’t want to say anything too stereotypical or sexist but I kind of think it’s part of being a woman is, I don’t know, the struggle of following the facts versus letting your emotions get involved. I think it’s just part of her struggle as a woman, especially a woman of that time, suffering a betrayal but wanting him, wanting to fix him to make it the thing that makes [her betrayal and suffering] okay as opposed to her just moving on, distancing herself from him. I think that’s really interesting as a woman of the time and class that she would take the initiative to go out and find this man who wronged her and try to make it right. So I think she’s very strong but she’s interesting because she evaluates her own emotions, has conflict, she wants so badly for Giovanni to be the man she thinks he could be. I hate to say she takes on a project, but he’s a project. I definitely feel connection and sympathy for her.

Fons’ dog Lupita travels with the singer, easing the rigors of the peripatetic nature of a professional opera career. Fons adopted Lupita from the Santa Fe Animal Shelter & Humane Society.  PHOTO Emily Fons

How do you prepare to step into the heart and soul and mind of a character?

I usually start with the text. I read the libretto, translate it, get a sense of how the character speaks, what their vocabulary is. In the first recitative that Elvira has, she goes on for two pages, ripping Giovanni a new one. Leporello says it sounds like she’s reciting this out of a book. So you pick up cues from what the other characters say about you.

Of course with such a great composer like Mozart, then I listen to the music he gave her and how he sets that text, it informs a lot of things about the emotion behind the text. I want to know the story as a whole, know all the characters and see how my role fits in with that. I think it happens often in our industry that you have to learn something quickly and perform it but the kind of ideal situation is to have time to get to know it and to spend some time with the character, spend some time with the music, and listen to different recordings of how different people do it, that’s always a good resource. And then I take it to coaches that I trust and try things out and play around with the colors I want to use, the speed of delivering recitative, even something as simple as where do I want to breathe and how does that affect what I’m trying to say.

What don’t people know about prepping for a role?

In terms of preparing the role, I don’t know if people know how much I rely on other people. Maybe they think, “Don’t you just sit down and learn it?”

But, no, I have books by Nico Costel where the libretto is written out with the translation and written out in the international pronunciation alphabet. I’ll get my score, highlight all my music and lines, write in the translation, write in the international alphabet. So before I even sing it, I’ve done all that. I start learning it. I’m fortunate that I play the piano so I can do some of that on my own. And I meet with coaches who play the piano — the vocal reduction of the score, while I sing. They correct my diction, they correct any other errors. (I think people don’t know about) the painstaking process of correctly learning the notes, rhythms, pronunciations. That all comes before. Of course, I’m already imbuing it with some emotion then but those are really the first building blocks before I even start digging into how I really want to present it and what the top-of-the pyramid points of refinement are. Then making sure it’s memorized. I think people maybe don’t realize that we have to show up to the first day of rehearsal with the score completely memorized. I think people don’t realize those kinds of steps all go into it. And that we pay for everything, all the coaches.

I like to have a few months to prepare a role, ideally at least eight months since I’m usually learning a few things at once, or learning one role while in rehearsal for another.

What do you love about Bay View?

I love the proximity to the lake and that everything I need is nearby.  I’m also thrilled to see new businesses/restaurants/coffee shops popping up all the time.  I love that Bay View is dog-friendly and I can get out and exercise my pup easily every day. It’s also great to have grown up in this neighborhood and to see it changing in such positive ways all the time.

It’s great to visit with family and friends who are still in the area.  I also get a lot of work done since my voice teacher is in town and the pianists that I study roles with are down in Chicago.  I enjoy doing yoga and cooking in my own kitchen.

What does it mean to you to be singing at the Florentine in your hometown?

I am really excited to come home at this point in my career and sing a role that I enjoy so much.  I’m so touched by the support of friends and family. I really feel that the arts can bring such peace, joy, self-awareness, and community to a city and I’m thrilled to be doing that in Milwaukee. I hope that I have the chance to inspire young people to get involved in the arts and to go out and bring more beauty to Milwaukee and the world.

Emily Fons will be starring in the role of Donna Elvira in the Florentine Opera’s upcoming production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni March 17 & 19 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts. Info + Tickets: florentineopera.org
Also, emilyfons.com

Katherine Keller interviewed Emily Fons February 21, 2017.

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