Opera Philadelphia ’s current season opened with mezzo-soprano, Daniela Mack, in the World Premiere of Elizabeth Cree. It is now closing its season with Daniela playing Carmen. Two very different but powerful characters brought to life by Daniela’s dynamic abilities.
To bookend their season with such a passionate artistic singer is testament to Daniela’s magnetism and talent. Her coloratura voice moves like warm nectar, fluid and light, yet rich and luscious like amber. While in Philadelphia, Daniela took time out of her busy schedule to talk about Elizabeth, Carmen, her life, her loves, and how her journey took her from birth in Argentina to be one of the most sought after singers in the world.
Alyx Reinhardt: Welcome back to Philadelphia, Daniela. You opened Opera Philadelphia ‘s season with the world premiere of Elizabeth Cree. Which was absolutely amazing. I hadn’t read the book so I wasn’t familiar with the story. The “surprise ending” was truly a surprise. Amazing! Like going to a movie!
DM: Perfect! That is great. Yeah it was a lot of fun. That’s exactly what we wanted.
Mission accomplished for sure! Now you get to close their season with Bizet’s Carmen. I guess I am curious, is there a difference on how you attack a brand new show versus a classic like Carmen?
DM: Yeah, absolutely. The bulk of my repertoire has been more classical, and much older. So the experience of working on Cree and on JFK, which was another premier that I did, was that it was uncharted territory for me. With something that’s brand new, people don’t have a specific expectation of what it’s going to be. And so there’s this sense of freedom in the creative process. You’re the one to set the bar if you’re the first one to do it. So in that sense it’s pretty liberating. I mean, it’s terrifying in it’s own way of course.
But approaching something like Carmen that has been such a huge part of the canon and is in everybody’s ear. Anybody who’s ever heard any of the music has some great singer that they hear in their mind. Myself included. In my studies, I have my favorites. So the challenge in something like this is just getting away from that, and really diving in to make it my own and putting forth my own interpretation, while still honoring what has come before. I think that’s the biggest difference.
You’ve done Carmen multiple times.
DM: Yes, this will be my fourth production of Carmen.
Opera Philadelphia has a reputation of putting a lot of twists into their productions that make them different. Are there any kinds of surprises, without giving anything away, to this particular production?
DM: First of all, I absolutely agree that Opera Philadelphia is at the forefront in presenting things that are different, or classic pieces seen in a different light. I really love that about their mission. They’re not afraid to push the envelope a little bit, to show audiences something fresh, which I really appreciate.
In this case, with the production team, Paul Curran, who is the director, along with Gary McCann, (set and costume design), they’ve come up with this concept and setting it in the 1950’s. It’s not very specific as to whether it’s actually in Spain or sort of a “Havana Nights” type feels that’s left intentionally vague, I think because it doesn’t really matter. But updating it to this time period just makes it a little bit more identifiable and accessible to a modern audience.
But in terms of, you know, big twists or big crazy surprises; honestly, I don’t know that there are any. It’s a pretty straightforward story. Certainly a fresh and interesting take on it for sure. The designs are wonderful and one of the things I love about Paul, as a director is his attention to detail is really unmatched. He’s a director that comes, having done every amount of homework possible. I mean he just knows. He has an answer for everything and that really shows through when a production is actually on its feet and everything been thought through. And so it’s a lot of fun to work with somebody like that.
Have you worked with Paul Curran before?
DM: I did. I worked with him back in 2012. We did Albert Herring together and he and my husband (tenor Alek Shrader) have worked together several times as well. So I know him quite well.
What would you say is the most common misconception about Carmen, the character?
DM: Hmm. I think that she’s just this sort of stereotype of this femme fatale who just is a man-eater and leaves disaster in her wake and really doesn’t care about the havoc that she wreaks. But honestly, I think she’s much more, she can be that, but she’s much more complicated than that.
What I like about her is she’s absolutely a very strong woman, very strong person, who lives life very much by her own rules. She is the type of person that really doesn’t care what other people think about her. Which I admire, I’m very different from her in many ways, but that is one thing that I do admire.
I’ve been thinking a lot about her as seen in a feminist light and she has a lot of qualities that are not incredibly admirable. However, she is a woman out of time and she’s not content to just accept her lot in life. She wants something more and she’s willing to do whatever it takes to get out of her current situation which is great and really fun to play on stage too!
How about Elizabeth Cree, how did you prepare for that role? Mentally, I mean. Read a lot of Jack The Ripper type books?
DM: I kind of have an affinity for that sort of thing, that dark Victorian literature anyway, so that was a plus for me, but in terms of actually portraying a character like that, that was the first time I ever dived so far into the darkness, I guess, if you want to put it that way. But of course I read the novel and loved it and we work shopped Elizabeth Cree for a couple of years before it was premiered. So from a musical standpoint, we had quite a bit of preparation and quite a bit of dialogue with the composer, with Kevin Puts and the librettist Mark Campbell, which is something that’s not usual. Not in my field.
Most of the repertoire that I do, the composer is no longer with us, so I can’t have a conversation about “why this phrase,” and, “what you were going for with this text,” et cetera. So, it was a real luxury to be able to do that in the preparation. Also to have a team that was so flexible and willing to collaborate and really tailored all of those roles to each of each of the singers they were writing for, which was amazing.
Yes, I imagine that’s pretty high up there on your wish list.
DM: Yes, absolutely.
So you’re back in Philly, is there anything you want to do while you’re here that you did before or that you didn’t get a chance to? Or do you have any time to do?
DM: You know what? I don’t have a lot of time, but I think since this is a role that I’ve done before, I might take a little bit more time to explore the city. One of my best friends lives here and so I have no doubt we will explore together and I have my small daughter with me as well. So I have a list of cool kids places to visit with her.
That was going to be one of my questions, if you get to bring your daughter on the road. How old is she?
DM: She’ll be three in June, so she’s still pretty small and she’s traveled with my husband and me pretty much her whole life, so she’s very flexible in that way. She has no qualms about being in a new space, which is great, but you know, it’s a full time job during the day and a full time job when you get home. So it’s a balance for sure.
Did your husband get to come this time?
DM: Usually, we do try to travel together but he’s actually singing Candide in Washington DC right now. So he is not with me, just me and were kind of juggling her back and forth between us so we each get to spend some time with her.
Where do you call home?
DM: We recently, middle of last year, moved to South Bend, Indiana. My husband, when he’s not on the road, he heads up the opera department at Notre Dame. But we haven’t spent too much time there yet because of our schedules. It’s all still new.
I understand that you were born in Argentina and you moved to Houston when you were a kid. What prompted that move?
DM: Yeah, I was six. My father was a physician and his practice was in Texas. So, we moved to Texas. I stayed there through high school. My mother still lives there so I go back and visit. But I no longer call at home.
I hope all was okay with her during Hurricane Maria.
DM: Yes, thankfully. Actually that whole thing was happening while I was rehearsing Cree. So many people lost everything,
I understand your piano teacher brought you to singing. What was it that made you fall in love with opera? Your father’s a physician. What did your mom do?
DM: My mom was a stay at home mom. My father was a great classical music lover. Both of them were really big supporters of the arts. They took me to my first opera when I was seven. They would take us to the symphony and music was always just a very big part of our daily life. I think, seeing that first performance really had a great impact on me. I remember coming home and just pretending to be an opera singer for quite a while. Then as I grew, I did explore other things. I thought maybe for a while I wanted to be a lawyer or something.
But , I just always went back to singing. I took piano pretty much through high school. Then when I actually started taking voice lessons, I was about 15 and at that point I didn’t even know that one could major in music. I had no frame of reference for that. My mom has this story that she tells, that all of a sudden when I was 14, I said I’m going to go on the road! I had absolutely no idea what that meant or how one becomes a musician for real. But, then she said, no, you’re going to college. And I did.
Thank you mom!
DM: Yes. The dreams of a 14 year old. I just always came back to it. And the first voice teacher that I had really was instrumental in guiding me to get a degree in voice and I’ve just never looked back. I mean, it’s always been what I’ve gotten the most joy from professionally speaking.
So wonderful when you can do what you love.
DM: Yes. And I am fully aware that most people don’t get to do that, and I’m very thankful that I do.
Who do you admire musically?
DM: Well I have a lot of singers that I listened to, but specifically mezzo’s. I love Tatiana Troyanos. I love Teresa Berganza, and Frederica von Stade. Those are my top, I think. These are people that sing my rep, or sang my rep quite a bit, so I have a lot to emulate in that respect. When I was just starting out, I listened to Cecilia Bartoli a lot! Because I also love Rossini and I love the fast moving coloratura stuff. It’s what always came easiest to me. The rest of it has taken a lot more work than that until, you know, listening to her was instrumental more ways than one.
Cecilia Bartoli’s a vocal acrobat!
DM: Yes, a force of nature.
Did you ever get to meet her or work with her?
DM: No never. I wish! I almost went to see a recital that she did in San Francisco when I was in Adler Fellow several years ago and I think I got sick or something and I just couldn’t go. I kick myself to this day because I would have loved to have seen her live.
She doesn’t like to fly so…
DM: No, she doesn’t, so I’m going to have to go over there. Just going to have to do it.
How old were you when you first auditioned professionally?
DM: Let’s see. I was in college and auditioned for a few young artists programs when I was in Grad school. I think I did my first one when I finished Grad school. Then I didn’t have anything on the docket after my Masters so I went to New York. I did the whole, “stay on somebody’s couch” thing and had something like 14 auditions scheduled. I did a number of them and then out of that I got one job, which was THE job to get, because it literally changed my life!
I got into the young artist program at Merola Opera in San Francisco and that fed into their Adler Fellow Program and there I got connected with my teacher. A lot of people go through those programs and hear young singers and the opportunity that you get in a place like that and in an opera house like San Francisco Opera, which is just of the highest caliber. It’s invaluable. So that’s really, I owe a lot to them accepting me into that program.
Perfect place at the right time.
What was your first lead role?
DM: My first lead role outside of college, professionally speaking, I did a very, very small production in New Jersey. I sang Rosina. That was the first time that I had the leading role in anything and you know, that was right up my alley. It’s rep that I had studied a lot in college and again, the coloratura. So that was the first, the first thing for me. And then when I was in Adler Fellow, I did several small roles in, in some of the productions at San Francisco. But I also took a job in Cleveland, which was also a Rosina. I really started with Rossini.
What is your Dream Role? What is the role that you are dying to do but haven’t had the opportunity or maybe it’s just not done very often?
DM: I assistant directed in college a production of Werther and I didn’t know the piece before doing that, but I knew one of the arias and what mezzo doesn’t want to sing Charlotte? I don’t know. I think probably all of us! Charlotte is definitely on the top of that list. But I do love Handel’s music so much. He’s perhaps my favorite composer and there’s an enormous amount of repertoire for my voice that he wrote. So there are many, many Handel roles that I would gladly tackle. So the list is kind of long, but I think right now I have Charlotte in my eye.
Next season Opera Philadelphia’s O18, is going to do a premiere of Glass Handel. Handel & Philip Glass’s music. That sounds very interesting.
DM: Yes, with Anthony Roth Costanzo. I am sorry that I won’t be in town because I’m sure that that will be a hugely interesting and successful project. Again, you know, a testament that they do interesting, things here and important work.
How do you stay healthy while you travel so much?
DM: Oh, goodness. If only there were a really great answer! Let’s see. I try to get as much rest as possible. Try to stay hydrated and wash your hands like a crazy person. I do travel with a mask. On occasion I will sit down in an airplane and everybody around me, it seems like, is coughing and I’ll put it on without shame. It took me a long time to get there.
Usually I would just try to wrap my scarf around my face, kind of not make too much of a racket, but these days there’s too much at stake to get sick. But there’s no formula and everybody’s constitution is different and you do what you can and sometimes you get sick and then you get better. So it’s just part of the deal.
I see you have to have short little videos that you like to do on your social media, tips for singers. Do you have an affinity for teaching?
DM: Yeah, I did a little bit of teaching when I was in a Grad school actually. But to very young kids so it wasn’t serious. I didn’t have a studio or anything and I don’t have a studio now, but I have started to do some master classes and it’s foreign territory for me because I’m very comfortable singing in front of many thousands of people but speaking to a crowd is not what comes easiest to me. But I do really, really enjoy the act of working one on one with students and I’m certainly not, you know, an experienced teacher by any means, but whatever, whatever tips and help that I can offer, I’m happy to share it. And so I’m getting into that more and more.
I know you probably don’t have a lot of free time. You have a baby, and you have a career, and your husband has a career, and you both travel a lot, but is there anything you guys like to do when you’ve got a nice home alone? Binge watch TV?
DM: Yes! That.
What do you watch?
DM: Well all kinds of things really. My husband is really the movie buff. He can quote anything from anything! I think we are currently in the middle of Handmaid’s Tale. I also like a little bit of Sci-Fi, and Battlestar Galactica, you know, is near the top of my list. And I’m making my way through West Wing currently because I had never seen it before. Yeah, we definitely like to do that and you know, if we get the night off, we’ve been fortunate to travel quite a bit with my in laws as well and so if we have a night we will definitely go to the movies, but as you said, having a small child and a career, but that’s pretty much what takes up the bulk of my free time these days.
What do you have coming up next?
DM: I have a little bit of a break before the summer and I start in Santa Fe in June with the Santa Fe Opera. I’m doing The Italian Girl in Algiers and I’ll be singing the “Italian Girl.” In the fall I have a couple of Barber of Seville’s. I’m excited about doing my first, a Così fan Tutti since college. I haven’t done Dorabella since Grad school actually, but I haven’t touched it since. I’m happy to go back to it because I love Mozart.
You move your voice just so beautifully and agilely. I practice vocal exercises all the time just to give mine some movement. But sometimes it’s like trying to move a truck up a hill!
DM: Yes, sometimes it absolutely feels like that for me too. That’s the crazy thing about the voice, right? You know, any changes in the weather changes everything.
I just have one more question. If you could talk to anyone in the past or the present, who would it be, and what would you say?
DM: Oh my gosh. Wow. Nobody’s ever asked me that question before. Anyone in the past or present? God, that’s a hard question. There are so many people to talk to!
You can pick a couple if you like. I don’t want to limit your dream.
DM: Well, from just a selfish perspective, I really would love to speak to my great grandmother actually because I know that she was a remarkable woman, and I only knew her a little bit when I was young. She lived to be a 104 and was a strong Italian woman in so many ways. My Grandmother was fully present and fully aware, and just remarkable until basically the year before she passed away. She saw everything happen from the last century. I would really love to have an adult conversation with her and to get more perspective on my own family. I think that would be, that would be a really special, special conversation.
That’s really sweet. She sounds amazing. Did you get to spend time with her before she passed?
DM: Yes, I did, but I was so young. I had an emotional attachment, but it’s not, you know, let me talk to you as an adult and get your perspective.
Well Daniela, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me today.
DM: Sure. Yeah. My pleasure. I hope you enjoy Carmen.
I’m certain I will. I’m certain we ALL will! Have a wonderful time and thank you.
Opera Philadelphia’s production of Carmen will be at the Academy of Music through May 6th. Tickets are online.