SFOpera - Inspired by Figaro, Mezzo-Soprano Laura Krumm Tackles ‘The Barber of Seville’

Inspired by Figaro, Mezzo-Soprano Laura Krumm Tackles ‘The Barber of Seville’

Reading Hamlet is a rite of passage for many American high schoolers, and for Iowa City native Laura Krumm, it was no different. Of course she knew about the skull scene. Of course she knew about the murdered king, the angsty prince, and the scheming uncle.

The arts, after all, had been a part of Krumm's life since she was in preschool. She remembers her mother being a good singer, as was her grandmother. Her grandfather had even performed at Carnegie Hall: The family kept the poster as a keepsake. But in her career as a mezzo-soprano, Krumm has had the opportunity to revisit the art she grew up with through fresh eyes. That was the case last month, when Krumm prepared to film her installment of San Francisco Opera's video concert series The Atrium Sessions.

She had settled on a Hamlet-inspired ballad for her performance: Hector Berlioz's "The Death of Ophelia" or "La Mort d'Ophélie." "I hadn't read Hamlet since high school. So I got to dive into that and read it with my adult eyes, versus my child's perspective," Krumm said in a recent telephone interview.

The world that opened up for her was more nuanced than she remembered. By giving voice to a grieving Queen Gertrude, Krumm discovered a woman who was mourning a loss of innocence that could never be retrieved. "Maybe the only thing the narrator can do is to tell the story," Krumm explained. In a new interview, Krumm looks to her own past to tell the story of how she became an acclaimed opera singer—known for roles here in Rusalka, Rigoletto, Cavalleria Rusticana, Manon, and the world premiere of The Secret Garden. This spring, she reprises her role as the heroine Rosina in director Matthew Ozawa's new production of The Barber of Seville.

Hear how Krumm overcame doubts about pursuing opera as a career—and how the character of Figaro continues to inspire her.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: How did you discover opera, and what was your upbringing like?

LAURA KRUMM: So I discovered opera because my grandparents were very active with the Des Moines Opera. I think they helped start it in a certain way. So they would take our whole extended family to all three shows every summer. Actually I saw my first opera when I was three. It was just a very normal part of my growing up. So from there forward! And they would take me to anything.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Anything? As in, even the operas where people get thrown off the ramparts and stabbed?

KRUMM: The first thing I remember not being allowed to see was Sweeney Todd, but yeah, everything else. And for the longest time I got Sweeney Todd and The Barber of Seville mixed up. I had a book that described the plot of The Barber of Seville, and I was like, "Hm. I don't understand why I'm not allowed to see this." [Krumm laughs.]

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Can I ask you about seeing an opera at three years old? Do you remember much from that?

: What I mainly remember from going to the opera when I was that young was that my grandma would come with a purse full of candy. She would just feed you candy the whole time to keep you quiet. But I really loved it. I mean, there's so many little aspects of it that I loved so much. I loved to listen to the orchestra tune and I loved chorus scenes. Still to this day, chorus scenes are my favorite.

Also my parents and grandparents did a really good job of like getting the kids involved in the story before they went. Like I said, we had books full of opera plots and we would read the synopsis in the car on the way there. Stuff like that. So that helped a lot. That was really all I needed, those little bits of things to grab hold of. It's just all about fantasy.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: As a kid, were there any stories that particularly grabbed you?

Well, it all fit into the same formula as like the cartoons I was watching. So I would definitely try to figure out who the prince and the princess were, and the bad guy and all that stuff.

But the first time I really remember loving a character, though, was Figaro in Nozze [di Figaro, also known as The Marriage of Figaro]. I remember so specifically the garden scene. He was hiding in a tree, and I just remember just loving him so much.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: I got the chance to see you in Rusalka as the kitchen boy. It has that same thread of mischief that you see in Figaro, with him hiding in a tree trying to ensnare Almaviva. Do you see some of yourself back then in the performances you give now?

KRUMM: Oh, a hundred percent. Obviously that's always been my taste. In college I started out as a soprano. And then halfway through, my teacher said, "I think you're a mezzo."

I was, at first, devastated because I thought it meant that he thought I couldn't do it. I was like—[Krumm adopts a teary voice]—"I promise I'll learn how to sing high notes."

And then as soon as I switched, it was just like, "Oh. Yes. These are the characters that I was meant to be playing." This is not only where my voice feels good but where my personality feels good.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: When did the performance bug bite you? It's one thing to be dragged to the opera as a kid, with the temptations of sweets in grandmother's purse, but another to want to be on stage.

KRUMM: Oh, man. I don't ever remember it being separate, wanting to go see stuff versus wanting to participate in it. I always saw myself as being part of that world.

But when I went to school, I thought, "Oh, I should try something practical." I thought I was going to be a physical therapist for a minute. It was such a relief always to hear someone say, "I think you could really do this."

But it took me a while to really, fully let myself not feel like an outsider—to let myself feel like the way that I am is the way that a person is supposed to be for this. I didn't need to fool people. I always, even as a little kid, saw so much of myself in stage productions.

I think of this moment in high school when I was in a lot of sports. Every time a track meet would get canceled because of rain or something like that, I was just so relieved because I was so nervous.

But then I thought: If any of my choir concerts were to get canceled, I would've just been devastated. I found that instructive at the time. It was like, "Oh, there are different kinds of nerves and different kinds of places where you might fit better."

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Were you suffering from a kind of an imposter syndrome, where you felt like you didn't fit in?

: Certainly imposter syndrome has definitely been part of it. And it's something that I don't know that I'll ever be totally rid of, just because I think it's part of everyone's life to a certain degree.

When you're in school, people always say, "If you can think of something else to do, you should do it." As a thought experiment, I find that to be not very helpful. Because of course I can think of other things. You're surrounded by examples of people doing other things.

Neither of my parents are professional singers. So I can certainly imagine what a different life looks like. I really hung onto that for a long time, basically as a kind of gatekeeping thing. It was like: "Well, you can think of other things, so you probably shouldn't be here. But just don't tell them. Just wait until people kick you out."

And then it took me a while, but I finally realized that what I really love about all of the artists that I wanted to be like is how individual they are—how not-in-one-mold they are.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Can you name some of those inspirations?

: My favorite singer is Frederica von Stade. She and Beverly Sills are my first two people: When they sing, you just hear a smile. I just was like, "That is what I want to be."

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: How did you make the transition from soprano to mezzo, which has different kinds of stereotypes attached to it? Playing young boys, for example, is a stereotype attached to mezzo-sopranos.

KRUMM: I felt, when I made the switch, that this is where I belong. Just personality-wise. When I go about playing a boy or a man versus a woman, I don't change my personality at all, really.

Playing mezzo roles—at least for me—I feel more grounded in my actual range of emotions, like feeling impulsive or really, really happy or angry or annoyed. All of these things, I was having a harder time finding in the heroine roles, which are often what soprano roles are.

Also I made a switch when I was 20 or something like that. So I probably would have found more nuances as I got older. I guess I don't think of it as being gendered as much as I think of it being the range of emotions that help tell the story, oftentimes archetypally. But I felt more at home sometimes in those male traditional archetypes.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Was it liberating to be able to disappear into these male archetypes?

: Certainly. Impulsiveness or lustfulness or anger—oftentimes those are not things that women are encouraged to express on the day-to-day, just societally.

Of course those are all things that women feel, probably just as often as men do, but it is very fun to think about: "Okay, free that side of you for a second and indulge it in ways that you might not normally do unconsciously."

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Talking about gender specifically and the limitations placed on certain roles, Rosina [in The Barber of Seville] can be seen as this female character who's lusted after by a cast of men who want to either protect her, marry her, or exploit her. How do you get under her skin and make her more than the object of male attention in the opera?

KRUMM: I've always thought of Rosina as having agency from the first moment that you meet her. Because the first thing you really hear from Rosina is "Una Voce Poco Fa." And in it, she says, "Okay, here's my opening. It's what I want and I'm going to go get it."

So yes, all the men in the opera have their own designs on her, but you don't hear about it. It's not something that they propose to her and then convince her of. It's something that she's like, "Aha! An opportunity for me. Perfect. This seems ideal. I'm going to make it happen."

I know that Figaro and the Count probably feel like they are manipulating the situation, but without Rosina contributing to their machinations, it would never happen. So I always have thought of her and her motivations as pretty divorced from what they want. It's just helpful that they all want the same thing.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: What's it like to be singing the role in English as compared to the original Italian?

: It is actually pretty fun because you get to think about the vocal line in different ways because obviously the words are different. You find a different shape to things all the time.

Definitely it's challenging to remember because when you have sung something in a different language for so long, it's really hard to tell yourself, "Say ‘but,' not ‘ma.'"

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Is there one thing that you would tell the audience who might be coming to The Barber of Seville to look out for?

: Bartolo has the hardest arias in the whole thing. I would say that my favorite part of The Barber of Seville is the Act I finale. It's because there are so many different little changes of musical motif, and it builds on itself in a way that is brilliant and extremely fun and extremely Bugs Bunny. You will recognize the drama just in the way that the music has written for that finale. I love it.

Learn more about mezzo-soprano Laura Krumm ahead of her Barber of Seville performance by following her on Twitter and Instagram, or visiting her website. To purchase tickets for this spring’s Barber of Seville performances, please visit sfopera.com/onstage.

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