The Canadian soprano Layla Claire is fast developing a reputation as a Mozart interpreter. Having played Fiordiligi in the Canadian Opera Company’s Cosi fan tutte this winter, she's now gearing up to sing Pamina in the Minnesota Opera's The Magic Flute; this summer she'll be Donna Anna in Don Giovanni at the Glyndebourne Festival.
But the 31-year-old Claire is also branching out: Next season she's scheduled to perform in Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites at the Washington National Opera and at the Metropolitan Opera in Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress. Her voice has been described as "luminous" by New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini; vocal coach Brian Zeeger – who worked with Claire at both the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Program and Tanglewood – recently told Operavore, “She’s a bright soul, so you feel like you get her. But, there’s still something elusive about her.” Our interest was piqued.
We caught up with Claire to discuss Canada, Mozart and her opinion on live broadcasts. Below are some highlights from our conversation.
I hear you grew up in beautiful part of British Columbia. How do you think where you grew up has influenced you as a singer?
I lived in this beautiful mountainous valley, and I lived up sort of on a hill, and I could see across the valley and across the mountains from our kitchen. There was something about being perched over this valley where it was a big expansive space in front of me, where I could look out and feel out. When I’m onstage I often see that.
Also, I was reading Renee Fleming’s book [The Inner Voice] again, for the 8 millionth time, and she was talking about how she sees a silhouette when singing. That’s exactly how I feel when I’m singing a line: I see the mountain range.
How do you feel about your return to the Met in Stravinsky’s Rake's Progress as Anne Trulove?
I’m thrilled. I’m beyond thrilled. I’ve known for a couple of years now, but I’ve had to keep it under the hat, which is hard when you’re so excited about something. And Paul [Appleby] is in it too, so Paul and I could talk to each other about how excited we were but we couldn’t talk to anyone else. We’re already getting together and practicing the music together – starting to get a feel for it and a feel for singing with each other again. It will be so nice to do it with an old buddy – we’ve been on stage a million times together.
How did it feel to debut at the Canadian Opera Company in Cosi Fan Tutte?
Absolutely amazing. Being a kid in Canada, the COC is our Met; it’s where every kid dreams to perform. Mozart's my jam. All of the stars were lining up beautifully for this debut. I felt like I was ready for it and I had lots of family that came.
You’ve been in a lot of Mozart productions lately. What is your opinion on contemporary versus traditional Mozart productions?
There have been traditional shows that I’ve seen that are fresh and exciting and then there are traditional shows that I’ve seen that have just been stale and boring. And the same thing with new things: some of them are brilliant and executed well and some of them are often half-baked, which I see a lot of. It’s exciting we have these directors coming from theater and film and sometimes it works really well, but sometimes it’s missing the fundamental understanding of what opera is.
What are the particular challenges of singing Mozart?
I’ve realized that I have strong opinions as I delve deeper into the world of Mozart. Tempo is so important to me when singing Mozart and the subtleties of Mozart rubato. I could talk to conductors about this all day long and if we don’t see eye to eye it can be a problem. It can really make or break the singing. There’s a certain tension that’s needed when singing Mozart’s line and if it’s too slow or too fast then you lose that. You can lose the drama, it can get soft and loose or it can get too tight. It’s really such a subtle beautiful balance but when you get it right – it’s golden. But I really feel the difference if a conductor is taking it just a little too slow or a little too fast and I’m getting more opinionated on it as I get older.
How much of that opinion has been shaped by your work with James Levine, whom you’ve worked with at Tanglewood, the Boston Symphony and the Metropolitan Opera. How has the maestro influenced your work?
I’m so fortunate to have worked with him as a young artist at Tanglewood because it was off the radar and we could experiment and try things and take risks. And he would push us to try new things – “hold that note longer” or “sing that phrase a little slower." It was the best education ever.
Also my aesthetic has been affected by him. There’s a certain way of doing Mozart that I learned from him and it’s really hard to not do it that way. I’ve worked with wonderful conductors since, but it’s just never the same and its just never been as perfect as it is with James Levine.
Has there been anyone else that you’ve worked with that you’ve found as inspiring?
Yannick Nézet-Séguin brings knowledge and a certain dramatic understanding to opera in a similar way that James Levine does. I think that he’s really talented, really talented.
I was watching the Rusalka broadcast last weekend and there are some great closeups of Yannick and I thought ‘oh wow.’ What he shares with Levine is that he’s a really good actor. Levine’s always expressing in his face, not only in his body, and in his eyes, his big blue eyes are always giving you the drama and Yannick is the same way. I think that’s important for conductors to be actors, to be in the drama.
How do you think HD broadcasts and online videos have changed the way you perform or the way we see opera?
I don’t like watching myself, but I did catch some of [the Met's] The Enchanted Island and I thought, 'Okay, I would have done that differently now that I've seen it.' I thought, 'Oh I would have been a little bit more animated.' My gestures are for the back balcony and I just think I’m learning, you know.
I’m definitely a better artist because I had access to that stuff. When I was a kid, opera wasn't on YouTube. Now we have everything on YouTube and I think what an amazing resource that is for kids. On the other hand, I think they have too much. Are they going to form their own ideas or are they just going to be copying this from that person and this from that person. It’s a doubled-edged sword. Even I do that. If there’s a note or a phrase I can’t figure out, I’ll go listen to a few of my favorite singers and see how they negotiate through something and it’s like a singing lesson.
Layla Claire performs works by Bizet and Gounod on Saturday, April 26, 7 pm at The Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium inside the The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The concert also features Susan Graham and Evan Hughes as soloists and Brian Zeger as pianist.
Below: Layla Claire sings in the Met's The Enchanted Island: