– Joseph Coffland
Talented singers like mezzo-soprano Betany Coffland frequently come from families that value music in all its forms. “Everyone in my family sings,” Coffland says, “though not professionally. Mom was an amateur opera singer and often sang famous soprano arias around the house.” Betany and her siblings sometimes entertained the family, performing as a quartet.
Born in a small Kansas town, Betany’s family moved to Kansas City, Missouri, when she was four. At fifteen, she auditioned for Brigadoon and got the role of Fiona. “My parents began to participate in shows with me, since I was too young to drive myself to rehearsals.” As a teenager, Coffland also participated in the first year of the Missouri Fine Arts Academy. Each high school could nominate one person, and she was selected from her school. For 100 students, it was three weeks concentrating on song, dance, mask-making and other subjects. “It was the defining moment that convinced me I wanted a career as a singer,” Coffland said. Two summers ago she went back to the Academy, now internationally respected, and lectured on what the students there can expect as they move into their chosen careers.
Coffland’s undergraduate studies were at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, an institution she says is very protective of their singers. She auditioned and was accepted for their Graduate School Opera Workshop Program, where she sang short pieces and learned how to develop her characters. She then completed a Masters Degree at Julliard. “It is a very demanding school,” she says, “I developed a backbone.” In addition to singing and acting classes, her conservatory training involved intensive language study. Singers must take German, Italian and French, and they also take diction classes. After graduation, Betany moved to Italy to perfect her Italian, and she later lived in Prague so she could learn Czech. “At Julliard, we also had to take English diction classes. English is the hardest language to sing in.”
Coffland, who keeps track of opportunities to sing and had seen the Opera San José website, was living with her husband in Boise, Idaho, when she met Jason and Michele Detwiler, former OSJ residents. The company was looking for a mezzo-soprano, and luckily for everyone, the Detwilers convinced her to audition. Now a fourth-year resident with Opera San José, she is a George and Susan Crow Fellow and a John M. Heineke and Catherine R. Montfort Fellow.
Coffland will sing the role of the Woman in OSJ’s upcoming production of La voix humaine. Typically, she likes non-standard musical works the best. Her favorite opera is Little Women by Mark Adamo, and she would love to sing the role of Jo in it. She also likes Pelleas et Melisande by Debussy and The Rake’s Progress by Stravinsky. Her favorite singer is the now deceased recitalist Jan DeGaetani, perhaps because she too likes to do recitals. “I also like to sing chamber music and art songs, and plan to do some of both after OSJ,” she said. “One of my favorite roles was Dorabella, in Così fan tutte. It was all about being in an ensemble, and I like comic roles.” All the roles she has sung for OSJ have been new ones for her.
Coffland believes that authentic, real characters are what make an opera great. When she sees a performance, she searches for honesty and wants to see a person’s soul on stage. She watches to see how the story and the music come together. “A good singer has excellent technique, but that person must also be able to communicate with the audience.” And a good artist is the product of research. He or she must learn about the characters and how they relate and must ask, “Who has done this role before? How can I make it different?” In preparation for her role as Rosina in The Barber of Seville, for example, she read a translation of the play by Pierre Beaumarchais, upon which the opera was based.
She and her husband are considering settling permanently in the Bay Area after her residency, though she will continue auditioning for roles in New York and elsewhere. Her husband supports her career – “He promised to do so in our wedding vows.”
OSJ patron Carolle J. Carter was a professor emerita from Menlo College, and is a retired lecturer in history, San José State University.