Fired Up: : Jennifer Rowley

Fired Up: : Jennifer Rowley

Imagine being fired. An unfortunate reality of our fluctuating marketplace is that every year many people endure the hardship of losing a job. Whether due to a round of layoffs, incompatibility, or employers simply moving in a new direction, it never feels good to be let go.

Now imagine losing your job and then reading about it in the London Evening Standard. Jennifer Rowley can relate.

In 2012, Rowley was preparing to make her Royal Opera debut at Covent Garden as Princess Isabelle in Meyerbeer’s Robert le diable. As a young soprano, Rowley’s voice had begun growing into a more dramatic sound, something she and the Royal Opera directors couldn’t help but notice. Given that Isabelle is often cast with light coloratura sopranos, Rowley’s oncoming vocal heft was not what everyone felt was right for the production. Despite positive comments from her castmates during rehearsals, Rowley was dismissed three days before opening night. In an official statement, the Royal Opera acknowledged her maturing, emerging sound and explained, “Voices do develop, and we have to recognize that this role is not ideally suited for her now more dramatic voice.”

Given the same company’s inauspicious removal of Deborah Voigt in 2004 over the “little black dress” incident, the media was quick to pick up the story, writing that Rowley had been “dropped” and “effectively fired” in what were described as “highly unusual” circumstances.

Though discouraged and dejected, Rowley was far from done. The 33-year-old soprano is already a winner of a Richard Tucker Career Grant and is a critically acclaimed international performer, having appeared with the Norwegian National Opera, the Savonlinna Opera Festival in Finland, and on Den Norske Opera’s DVD of La bohème. Rediscovering her confidence and determination, this past March marked her Metropolitan Opera debut which, by all accounts, was a great success. The New York Times noted the achievement saying, “The rich-voiced soprano Jennifer Rowley made a splash in her house debut as Musetta, maneuvering flirtatiously through the crowds and singing with a vibrant, agile voice in ‘Quando me’n vo’.’”

Engagements continue to pour in as Rowley is looking forward to upcoming debuts with Semperoper Dresden, Opéra de Lille, Théâtre de Caen, and West Australian Opera in increasingly dramatic roles, including Leonora in Il trovatore and Tosca. While enthusiastically charging ahead to a bright future, Rowley can now identify the lessons learned from her painful past episode.

In a recent article for the Wall Street Journal, Rowley talked about the incident publicly for the first time. “I really did think that was it for me,” she says. “I really thought, ‘Everyone’s going to think I’m broken.’”

Knowing that her voice is different from those who have recorded and performed the role in the past, she was proud of the work she had done in preparation for the London run and was looking forward to lending her unique sound to Meyerbeer’s character. “I was really excited for people to hear my Isabelle,” she says.

Upon reflection, she recognizes that much of the dilemma was merely a matter of artistic preference. “I understand what they wanted and what I couldn’t give,” she said. “That was a massive lesson to learn from a situation that wasn’t so great to go through. You can’t always give what someone else may want, and in that instance it might be better for someone else to serve the work.”

Throughout the ordeal, she felt the unwavering support of her colleagues. “[Tenor] Bryan Hymel was just a huge cheerleader for me, and for someone of that caliber to be on your team cheering you on the whole time . . . I was so happy with my cast.”

Though implementing her burgeoning sound, Rowley always felt she could sing the role and handle all of its technical demands. “It wasn’t that I wasn’t capable,” she says, “it was just that I sang it with my voice, and my voice is a Verdi voice and that’s not what they wanted. I suppose aesthetically when you think of French grand opera, you probably don’t think of a big, verismo sound. You think of a more luxurious, round, sort of ethereal kind of sound. I guess I have too much oomph for that!”

Originally a replacement herself when Diana Damrau’s pregnancy made her unable to fulfill the contract, the role was eventually given to Italian soprano Patrizia Ciofi on short notice, with Russian soprano Sofia Romina completing the last two performances.

The casting of these women confirms in Rowley’s mind that she was frankly the wrong fit for the way the role was envisioned, noting that her physical and vocal makeup is quite different from the two who would ultimately join the production. “Should the same voice that sings Tosca also sing Isabelle? I don’t know. I think it’s just a matter of I could do it and it was good! It just wasn’t what they wanted,” she says. “That’s hard to swallow, but it was their piece and that’s how they wanted it presented.”

Despite her disappointment, she didn’t have much time to indulge her sorrows. Within two months, she was called into a music rehearsal at the Met as Krassimira Stoyanova’s cover for Desdemona. Still reeling from her Royal Opera nondebut, she felt some trepidation about this next engagement. “I thought to myself, ‘Oh my gosh! My very first day at the Met ever and I’m going to go sing with José Cura and Thomas Hampson!’”

Her fears were quickly allayed when Cura, with whom she had previously worked, welcomed her with literal open arms. “I walked in the room and he opened his arms up huge with this big goofy smile and [said], ‘Oh, my baby, come here! Give me a hug! Come sit by me!’”

When the rehearsal began and she and Cura had finished their first duet, the reaction of those in the room confirmed that the troubles of London had not followed her back to the States. “Everyone in the room just stopped and looked at me and was like, ‘Wow, she’s got it!’ The conductor, Alain Altinoglu, was so wonderful. He looked at me and said, ‘You don’t have to be afraid of anything. This is yours.’ And from that moment I was like, ‘Yeah, I got this. I can do this.’”

Now on the other side of this particular trial, Rowley takes the opportunity to encourage others not to let a similar disappointment derail their own career aspirations. “A lot of young singers wrote me and asked me what I did, like how I got through it, and if they could have advice. I really was super happy to help them because it is something I don’t want anyone to have to go through.”

While these young singers are likely not watching their struggles played out in the British press, she recognizes that the pain is no less real. “There are a lot of kids in colleges and master’s programs and Young Artist Programs who are going through a mini version of that same thing and they feel like it is the end of the world.”

She appreciates the opportunity to help members of the up-and-coming crowd through their own battles by likening the experience to other relatable setbacks. “It’s like a breakup,” she says. “It’s gonna hurt for like three days and then you’re gonna crawl out of bed and throw out the Chinese food containers and you’re gonna be OK.”

Filing it under “things they don’t teach you in school,” Rowley believes that the difficult lessons learned as young singers can provide the most valuable education upon reaching the professional world. “What I have taken away from that experience I am now able to pass on to the next generation of singers,” she says, “and for me that makes the experience, as awful as it was, completely worth it.”

Distance has also allowed her to take a light-hearted view of the situation. During the media onslaught following her dismissal, Rowley remembers the surreal moment of opening up a London newspaper and seeing her headshot among the top newsmakers of the day, exactly opposite a photo of the Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton. Though cringing initially, a friend later jokingly pointed out that even if she had sung the role as a reincarnated version of Maria Callas, that still wouldn’t have been enough to earn a half page picture in the London newspaper.

Finally able to laugh about the situation, she knows that she carries a certain notoriety that not all opera singers enjoy. “When I go back there,” she says, “everybody knows my name, everybody knows my face, but they don’t exactly remember why. I’m really excited to let them know why they should know my name!”

Rowley will get that chance in 2015 as she makes her scheduled Royal Opera debut as Musetta in a La bohème production that includes Anna Netrebko and Joseph Calleja. Rather than burn a bridge and refuse the contract, she is looking forward to the run. “I’m not nervous,” she says. “I don’t feel anything like that because the people that I worked with on a daily basis, they were on my side . . . there was so much support inside the house, outside the house, for me and for me moving forward that I feel like when I go back I’m going to be in a place with a lot of friends.”

Besides the show of support from her colleagues, she received even more encouragement through social media. “I had chorus members from the Royal Opera writing me on Twitter, writing me on Facebook, saying, ‘We loved you! We loved working with you! We had such a great time with you! You’re wonderful!’ that I feel like I can walk in fresh and just start new,” she says.

She also saw demonstrations of optimism and advocacy on her behalf from operagoers who are eagerly anticipating her return. “Social media—thank goodness for it,” she says. “It helps you really connect with the actual fans. The people on Twitter who go to the Royal Opera—I mean daily—they’re huge fans.” Feeling the swell of grassroots support, she received messages and tweets saying, “We can’t wait to have you back!” and “We all want to hear you sing!”

Despite the rocky beginning, Rowley is looking forward to a continued relationship with the company long after her eventual debut. “I know that they like me and I know that they care what happens to me,” she says. “And because I know that, I feel like I can go in and really just kill it and have fun!”

Rowley hopes that her debut will finally put the issue of her previous dismissal in the permanent past. “I didn’t talk about it for a long time,” she says, “because I felt like it was very taboo and one of those touchy subjects that you just don’t want to stick around. . . . I feel like now I can sort of say, ‘OK, it happened and now I move forward.’

“Everyone has a moment when their star doesn’t shine the brightest, I guess. That was mine—and I hope that’s my only one!”

Brian Manternach

Brian Manternach, DM (he/him), is an associate professor at the University of Utah Department of Theatre and a research associate at the Utah Center for Vocology, where he is on the faculty of the Summer Vocology Institute. He is an associate editor of the Journal of Singing, and his research, reviews, articles, and essays have appeared in numerous voice-related publications. /