SFOpera - ‘I’m in it to Make Change:’ Singer Nikola Printz Expanding the Boundaries of Classical Music

‘I’m in it to Make Change:’ Singer Nikola Printz Expanding the Boundaries of Classical Music

Nikola Printz

It was time for Nikola Printz’s first voice lesson, and the budding mezzo-soprano had chosen what seemed to be the perfect song: “Stride la Vampa” from Giuseppe Verdi’s Il Trovatore.

Printz had arrived at the Pennsylvania Governor's School for the Arts knowing little classical music. After all, Printz was only 16 at the time.

Born to punk-rock parents in Sonoma County, California, Printz had grown up surrounded by music—jazz, cabaret, you name it—but singing opera was new terrain. Sure, Printz had heard Maria Callas and Luciano Pavarotti. Printz’s father, in fact, had a habit of warbling along to Pavarotti songs while making his homemade spaghetti sauce.

But never had Printz endeavored to sing classical music before. Not in such a formal way, at least. And in aiming to impress their new teacher, Diana Walters, Printz had stumbled across an infamously punishing song.

“Stride la Vampa”—or “The Flames Are Roaring”—is a haunted, jittery aria, composed for a character named Azucena. In its lyrics, she recounts the horrors of being forced to watch her own mother burned alive, condemned as a witch.

Written in the 1850s, the song combines the ornate trills and slides of bel canto music with an erratic, herky-jerky musical line. It was, in short, an aria out of the league of most 16-year-olds—even one as ambitious as Printz.

“That was the first thing I sang for her,” Printz recalls of meeting Walters. “And she's this very knowledgeable voice teacher, hearing a 16-year-old ding-dong singing Azucena.”

But while Walters could discern that Printz wasn’t quite ready for “Stride la Vampa,” she could see that Printz had real talent.

“She really was the first person to tell me, ‘You should be a classical singer,’” Printz remembers. “And after that summer, I was like, ‘Oh, I guess I'm going to be a singer now.’ This is what I do because someone saw it in me.”

Printz has an eclectic resume—they’re a pianist, a motorcycle enthusiast, and an aerial acrobat—but it is as an opera singer that Printz has recently taken the Bay Area by storm.

Printz is currently headlining Opera San José’s latest season. First came a star turn in November’s Baroque masterpiece Dido and Aeneas, which critics hailed as “heartrending,” “musically resplendent,” and “thrillingly fierce.” Then came this February’s portrayal of the title heroine in Carmen, Printz’s signature role.

Now, Printz is on the eve of a new, one-night-only performance with San Francisco’s Schwabacher Recital Series. On March 15, Printz—alongside guitarist Tatiana Senderowicz and pianist Erica Xiaoyan Guo—will unveil a three-part recital that celebrates all forms of gender expression, from femininity to masculinity and “all that glitters in between.”

The evening’s program features some of the usual suspects: classical composers like Benjamin Britten, Gioachino Rossini, and Franz Schubert. But it likewise celebrates musicians not often seen on the classical music stage—innovators like singer-songwriter Prince and ranchera icon Chavela Vargas.

Printz, who identifies in their Twitter bio as a “queer, trans, trapeze-swinging-them-fatale,” recently spoke with San Francisco Opera about why they felt it was important to represent diversity on stage—and how all the facets of their identity come together on the opera stage.

After all, Printz quips, a punk upbringing doesn’t preclude classical chops: “What’s more metal than getting on a stage like Brünnhilde surrounded by fire and just screaming your face off?”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: You've done Carmen quite a bit. Do you have a suspicion of why that might be?

NIKOLA PRINTZ: Several. [Printz laughs.] I have this belief that singers sing their best when they're doing something they have fun doing. So for me, who doesn't want to play Carmen? Everyone wants to play Carmen. She's this iconic titular character that is known outside of the realm of opera.

And there's so much to Carmen. She is way more of a meatier role than just the notes on the page or just the words in the libretto. She has lived the lives of so many women on this earth. And I feel like, as a character, she is really misunderstood.

Everyone thinks she's this femme fatale. She ruins Don José. And she is conniving and manipulative, right? And she can be very smart and she can be very manipulative and very convincing.

But Carmen, I think, epitomizes defiance against systems bigger than her and more dangerous. She is the epitome of liberating yourself from what anyone else wants or expects of you and only living to be and serve yourself—which, for a woman of her time, is a Herculean task and very admirable.

Carmen was the first opera I ever saw when I'm 16. The Habanera was the first aria I learned before I ever took a voice lesson. It's been a role that's been with me throughout all of these really pivotal stages of my life. So every time I do it, I feel like I add so much of my own life and my own influence to it. I'm playing Carmen on stage, but I'm also very much playing up these parts of myself.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: You mentioned that, before your first voice lesson ever, you learned the Habanera. What attracted you to the song?

PRINTZ: Well, I will preface by saying that, the first time I heard the Habanera, it was actually in English, and it was Dorothy Dandridge in Carmen Jones with Marilyn Horne’s voice. [Horne, a mezzo-soprano, provided dubbed vocals for Dandridge’s singing scenes in the musical film.]

Carmen Jones is an all-Black cast version of Carmen set in a colloquial language, with lyrics by [Oscar] Hammerstein. It’s all the same exact music with some cuts.

So when I first heard the Habanera, I heard, “Love’s a baby that grows up wild. And he won't do what you want him to. Love ain't nobody's angel-child. And he won't pay any mind to you.”

For me as a 16-year-old—figuring my own self and my own sexuality out—that was such a juicy little song to me. It was so flirtatious but very firm. She never lies. She never goes back.

She says this throughout the opera periodically: “Jamais je n’ai menti. I'm not lying. I'm always telling you my truth. And I'm not changing my mind.” And she sticks to that. And when I was 16, that's who I wanted to be when I grew up. So I get to be who I wanted to be when I'm 16.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Do you remember your first time seeing a live opera performance?

PRINTZ: I do. It was Carmen. I saw it at Tri-Cities Opera in Binghamton, New York, in 2007, I think.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: How old were you? What was the situation?

PRINTZ: I was 16 or 17, and I got tickets to the dress rehearsal for free because I was working on this senior thesis project. We were supposed to do this senior thesis in high school where you do a big either paper or presentation—what have you—that culminates your high-school career.

And I'm so glad this does not exist anywhere anymore, but I wrote my own translation and libretto for Carmen. I set it in a high school and it was deeply silly.

And of course I was going to play Carmen as the cool outcast girl in high school who falls in love with the jock. It was so desperately cheesy. [Laughs.] But you have to break some eggs to make an omelet.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: After 2020, there was such a momentum to diversify opera, to making the theater world more inclusive, to making true change. And now that we're two years on, I think some people are looking back and saying, “Well, did we follow through with our ideals?”

Do you see the culture continuing its momentum towards these goals of greater inclusion, greater equity, greater diversity?

PRINTZ: My short answer is yes. My long answer is that—as people evolve—we are always going to find more ways that we can be inclusive that we didn't think of before.

A tenet of white fragility or of white supremacy is the resistance to change and the resistance to grow. When we call into action these changes that need to be made, it shouldn't be an indictment. It should be an opportunity to make better and to make new.

It's like watering and trimming a plant. You need to trim the old. You need to keep it alive. Imagine if you never cut your nails or your hair or your toenails. You can’t just let them grow. You need to make room for new cells to form.

The more we can keep an open mind, regardless of your political ideation, the more we can see it as keeping this beautiful tree of opera alive. We're going to continue to find more pockets with that need for inclusion.

Right now I'm learning ASL [American Sign Language], and I think there is so much room for making opera and theater performance accessible for deaf and hard-of-hearing people. Because the arts, especially classical music, is really inaccessible for a lot of disabled folks. It's my personal goal as an artist to make my art for everyone—everyone—so that no one is left out.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Your Schwabacher recital takes gender as its theme.

You could have done a very traditional recital where you decide to do French repertoire or Czech repertoire and call it a day. Why actively discuss this topic and lay bare your identity in this very public way and foster these kinds of discussions?

PRINTZ: I see, more than ever, people coming out as trans and non-binary and finding a true home in their gender identity. And, as hard and challenging as it's been since I came out—I mean, I don't think I ever came out as queer. I think I've just always existed that way and never thought otherwise.

But when I publicly came out as non-binary three years ago, it had been hard. And if I was 21 or 15 and doing this, I'd want it to be a little easier. I'd want the road to be paved better.

So my hope is that—by just literally flinging, thrusting my identity onto people—it’s going to embolden other singers who are queer to do the same and to celebrate themselves. Maybe there's going to be some young person who has been in the closet and who sees this recital and then feels like, “I can do this. I can be in this business and still be myself.”

If it only happens to one person, I've done my job. I'm not in this business for the money or for the ease of life, obviously. I'm in it to make change.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: May I ask you how you decided about your recital program? How did you decide, “Well, I'm going to address the two halves of the gender binary and then this third space—this less-restrictive, less-binary gender identity?”

PRINTZ: I divided the program into three parts because I wanted to treat it like the three acts of an opera. And at the end of each act, at the end of each section of the program, there's one piece that leads us into the next piece, showing us that these are separate things but they all influence each other.

For the first section, I'm ending it with an aria from a David Lang opera, “I Was a Woman.” It’s retelling of Fidelio [Beethoven’s opera about a woman, Leonore, who infiltrates a prison disguised as a male prison guard].

So it's Leonore who is bemoaning the fact that she's been dressed as a man for so long in this prison that she doesn't know how to be a woman anymore. And for her, there’s a pain that she can't remember this identity as a woman—and maybe that identity of in and of itself was also pain-causing. And then we go into this next section where, to me, it’s very masculine.

We've always been straddling this line. Indigenous people have been playing with gender, exploring different gender identities, for thousands and thousands of years. And so my hope is that the audience can see this and connect with certain parts of each section. I want people to find parts of themselves in each section, just as I find parts of myself in all these different aspects.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Can I ask how you discovered artists like Chavela Vargas, for example?

PRINTZ: Oh my gosh, Chavela Vargas. When did I discover Chavela Vargas? I knew that she had been a lover of Frida Kahlo. And I had heard her songs before. “Aquel Amor,” the one I’m singing, is like the first song I heard.

Traditional ranchera music is very male-dominated and it's usually much faster. It’s Mexican folk music.

“Aquel Amor” has been sung by so many people. It's usually very upbeat. But when I heard it slowed down in this husky voice, I was like, “Who is this person?” It completely turned the song on its head. So I did a really big deep dive into her last summer.

I wanted to do something that was interesting and compelling. So that's why I settled on Chavela. She died in 2012 at the age of 93, I think. She lived a long time. And she didn't come out as lesbian publicly until the 2000s, when she wrote an autobiography. But she was someone who was always challenging gender norms. Her existence was such an inspiration.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Another artist that kind of jumps off the page is Prince, right?

PRINTZ: Yeah.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Was it a hard sell to get these artists that are not, quote-unquote, classic repertoire into a recital program?

PRINTZ: I vaguely remember including it in my proposal. And when I was chosen, [San Francisco Opera Center general manager] Markus [Beam] was like, “You're going to do the Prince, right?” I was like, “Oh yeah. I was going to try and sneakily include that. But I'm glad to hear you’re very excited about it.”

Another thing about the classical music world is that there’s this elitism. Or this sense that other music is not deemed worthy of performance because it is not in the classical genre. But I'm a classical singer. So me singing this with my own voice means that this is an art song now.

If you think of Die Schöne Müllerin being like Prince singing love songs at the piano, what is the difference? What is the big difference? It's all music. It’s all lieder. It's all storytelling.

How many songs exist in the classical music repertoire canon about, “I miss you. I think about you every day. There's no one on earth like you”? That's like the premise of every sad German art song ever.

Catch Nikola Printz at the Schwabacher Recital Series on March 15, 2022. Tickets are on sale now. Or follow along on their adventures through social media or their website, nikolaprintz.com.

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