Jouvanca Jean-Baptiste knows that successful opera singers approach their craft with gusto. Self-confidence is a must, particularly if the character one is singing is doomed to die a violent death. “Being stabbed to death on stage was a new way of dying for me,” Jean-Baptiste said, referring to her demise as Nedda in Pagliacci, “because usually in an opera, I die by suicide, or from disease.”
Jean-Baptiste brings enormous energy and spunk to her roles. Born in New York City to parents who had emigrated from Haiti, the family moved to Florida when she was still a child. At a very young age, she began ballet and piano lessons. “Music has always been part of my world, part of my culture,” she says. “Piano gave me a musical foundation, but soon I switched to violin, and played it all through high school, as well as dabbling in tenor saxophone and bass clarinet. I was a total music geek and I loved it. I still am very much that music geek!” she says, laughing.
Growing up, she sang in school and church choirs, but it was not until she was 20 that she decided to take voice lessons to improve her singing. From that point on, she was determined to study music full-time and make a career as an opera singer. Not only did she learn arias and art songs, she also studied language diction. She continues private vocal study with Oscar Diaz, Jr. in Florida. “Oscar is the best teacher I have had thus far. Without him I would not be anywhere near the level that I am at now vocally, and I continue to flourish under his tutelage.”
Jean-Baptiste’s voice is that of a lirico spinto, possessing both a lyric and dramatic quality in her voice. “My voice is ideal for Puccini, Verdi, Mozart, and Strauss, in particular,” she says. In spring of 2009, she was hired to cover the title role in West Bay Opera’s Madama Butterfly. “I met Carlos Aguilar, at the time a resident artist with Opera San José, and he helped me set up an audition.” That audition resulted in an offer for her own residency, an opportunity for which she is undeniably grateful. “A performer is never created in the studio, we’re created in the theater. Opera San José provides a creative environment in which to develop.”
Jean-Baptiste’s favorite role at this point in her career is Anna Karenina, which she sang for Opera San José in 2010. “Many elements in that role were very personal and reflected my own life,” she said. Her favorite singers are Maria Callas, Leontyne Price, and Anna Moffo. “Moffo’s rendition of Violetta is inspiring,” she noted.
To prepare her own interpretation of Violetta, she read La Dame aux Camélias by Alexandre Dumas fils, on which La traviata is based. “It helped me really understand the character, and I like her. Verdi intended La traviata to be told from Alfredo’s point of view, as it was in the book. The opera is a flashback, as we hear with the Prelude. This is repeated in the final act when Violetta is only moments from death. So the entire opera is really Alfredo reminiscing about his time with Violetta. We’re not sure of what happened from Violetta’s side, only what Alfredo tells us. Once we acknowledge this, we understand the opera better.”
To support herself while getting started in her career, along with temporary jobs, Jean-Baptiste sang with the Florida Grand Opera and Palm Beach Opera choruses. “I learned how to sing with conductors, work with directors, and about costumes, makeup, and stagecraft. All young singers should sing with an opera chorus for at least a couple years; it’s an invaluable learning and performing experience.” In her opinion, elements of a great performer include “excellent training, learning the music as written, professionalism in all things, humility, respect, and a positive disposition. And one must grow in every role, even if one has sung it before. These are what create strong professional singers.”
She admits that opera is a difficult profession. “This career is expensive before it is lucrative, if it ever gets to that point. And it can be emotionally trying at times, as well as lonely, because it takes you away from loved ones quite often. It can make it hard to form a lasting romantic relationship as well. So with the relationships you do have, you work even harder than most to keep those connections secure; they are so important to a traveling artist.”
Though one might see opera as being the only music in her life, Jean-Baptiste is quick to point out her love of other genres. The themes in rock and country music have many similarities to opera.”
Jean-Baptiste will be returning to the East Coast after her time with Opera San José, lining up auditions and singing contracts as her career progresses. One day she may decide to study vocal pedagogy, emulating her beloved teacher.
La traviata is sponsored by the Applied Materials Foundation.