“I was introduced to opera and a very early age,” Opera San José’s new resident Jennifer Forni said. “My parents bought an old house in Puyallup, Washington, where we moved from Seattle when I was three years old. While Dad was remodeling the house, he played opera and always encouraged me to sing along.”
Her voice first came to the attention of her first grade music teacher, Ms. Jones, who told Jennifer’s parents “your child doesn’t sing like the other children. You should encourage her to keep singing!” When she was ten, she heard the American soprano Nancy Gustafson on a Pavarotti and Friends video. Unaware of the difficulty in classical singing, Jennifer commented, “Anyone can do that,” and sang right along with the recording, astonishing her parents. “When I was young, I thought anyone could sing, you just had to ‘pretend’ to be an opera singer.” At the same time, she began taking voice lessons, but not for long. “I loved to sing when I was young, but it was for fun and I wanted to keep it that way. I don’t think it’s very productive to have young kids in voice lessons. Music lessons are fine, but the voice really needs to develop and mature before starting strenuous lessons. Sometimes lessons can do more harm than good,” she said. In addition to singing, she grew up playing French horn and trumpet.
Jennifer, a full lyric soprano, began serious voice lessons when she was fifteen, performed in West Side Story in high school, but at that time did not plan to be an opera singer. Rather, she thought she might go to medical school and become a doctor. But when graduation time came, she only applied to one college, Oberlin Conservatory of Music, in Ohio. “It is a remarkable school,” she said “Undergraduates perform in fully staged productions, in full costumes, with full sets and with a full orchestra, often led by guest conductors. It was fantastic training!”
Upon graduation from Oberlin, Jennifer applied for and was accepted in the masters program at the University of Maryland. “I chose Maryland because their degree program emphasizes performing. Oberlin taught me how to be a professional, to be precise, and to stay on top of things. Maryland taught me how to be an artist. After I went to Maryland I stopped being a student and started being an artist.”
After she earned her Master of Arts degree, Jennifer went to Portland (Oregon) Opera for two years as a resident soprano. She left Portland to join the roster at the New York City Opera, where she understudied the role of Rita Clayton in the world premier of Séance on a Wet Afternoon. She was invited back the following season to understudy Violetta in Verdi’s La traviata. This past January Jennifer took her first bow on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera in Wagner’s Parsifal. “I was so overcome with emotion and excitement that my knees were trembling when I took my bow. I had set a goal to sing at the Met before I was thirty, and I made it!” said Jennifer. Not only did she make her Met debut this year, she performed two concerts this past spring at Carnegie Hall, singing the Faure Requiem, Rutter Requiem, and Vaughan Williams’ A Sea Symphony with the New York Choral Society.
Jennifer participated in Santa Fe Opera’s Apprentice Program in 2008-09. She was asked to step in at the last minute to sing the role of Nannetta in Falstaff there. “Falstaff is the last opera Verdi wrote. It is extremely demanding because it has difficult rhythms, challenging text, and complex harmonies,” she said. The performance was a triumph, and she was asked to finish out the run of the show.
Along with Madama Butterfly, Jennifer considers Eugene Onegin, La bohème, and the Strauss operas to be among her favorites. She especially admires soprano Mirella Freni and the late Maria Callas. She met Freni when she was with the Oberlin in Italy Program as an undergraduate. The now deceased Luciano Pavarotti and Franco Corelli are still at the top of her list of favorite male opera singers.
While she was in New York, Opera San José called Jennifer and ultimately offered her a residency. She will sing a different role in OSJ’s Falstaff than she sang in Santa Fe, the role of Alice Ford. Later in the season she will sing Cio Cio San in Madama Butterfly, and Donna Anna in Don Giovanni. She will depart briefly in October to sing in Die Frau ohne Schatten with the Met.
Jennifer says, “Opera San José provides singers a marvelous opportunity. We can sing in up to four great operas a year without having to travel all over the globe to do so. Opera San José feels like a European fest contract. Also, the company strives to put forth the highest level of artistic quality in their productions, and they have a wonderful theater to do it in, too. The California Theatre has excellent acoustics and is just a down right spectacular venue!”
Jennifer also appreciates the living arrangement OSJ provides for its residents. “Everyone is so congenial, outgoing, friendly, and helpful. Being housed in the same apartment complex almost reminds me of my college days,” she laughs. Already we’ve had many late nights listening to clips on YouTube and old records by opera’s great legends.” She notes, however, that there is lots of sunshine in San Jose, and as a person from the Northwest she misses the occasional rainy day.
Jennifer’s residency is made possible by the Mary and Clinton Gilliland Fellowship.