The Singing Life, Motherhood, and a Trip to Carmen School : An Interview with Sandra Piques Eddy

A day in the life of mezzo soprano Sandra Piques Eddy might find her singing Rosina for Lyric Opera of Kansas City, or the title role in La tragédie de Carmen with Chicago Opera Theater, or La Cenerentola with Austin Lyric Opera—not to mention any number of supporting roles at the Metropolitan Opera, her artistic home for over 10 years. She is currently in rehearsal for Così fan tutte with Boston Lyric Opera, with (Sir) Thomas Allen as both stage director and Don Alfonso. His direction on the recitatives, Eddy says, is just amazing. “Like an acting class with music.”

On the day of our interview, I found her at her home making the most of her time between rehearsals, preparing for a day of hot cocoa with her three-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Beatrice, who was home from preschool due to a snow day. Eddy is a Boston native, but she is keen to point out that her parents are both from São Miguel, Portugal, in the Azores Islands. We begin our interview there.

What influence did your heritage have on your early musical life?

Growing up I was always listening to Fado. It’s heartbreaking and extremely traditional music. Maybe that was part of what made me fall in love with opera later on, because there is such an immediate response when you hear this music. It can be very playful, but a majority of Fado is very mournful and passionate and some of it is a little bit dramatic. Growing up Portuguese, I went to all the Portuguese feasts in Cambridge and dressed up as an angel in May and June—these processions for the saints and the angels—so it’s been such a part of my growing up and part of my background. I’m very proud of who I am.

Not that she’s Portuguese, but I can’t help but think that might come in handy playing Carmen.

Because I’m Portuguese, I could possibly pass for Spanish, and because I have some color in my voice, people have been asking me about Carmen since I started singing professionally. But I kept putting it off. I knew I was going to sing it some day in the right circumstance and I had really smart people surrounding me saying just wait. I was just one of those people who said, “I want to do it in the smartest possible way.”

What ended up happening was [that] I was at BU [Boston University] for my master’s degree and they were doing Tragedy of Carmen and they already had it double cast. But they asked me to learn it, and I was one of the stage managers for the show, so I watched the two Carmens and I watched how everybody got ready for their roles backstage.

Another part of my Carmen development came from singing Mércèdes a million times. I’ve covered it. I’ve sung it at the Met. I was in the Zeffirelli Carmen which was run prior to the Sir Richard Eyre Carmen that’s being run right now. I was the Mércèdes in the Richard Eyre in 2010. I was really lucky because being Mércèdes I got to watch the first cast Carmen, the second cast Carmen, [and] the understudies. I got to see them rehearse, I got to see them in the performance, I got to see many different renditions of Carmen—and for me that was invaluable to be on the sidelines and watching it all the time.

It sounds like you went to Carmen school.

I did! And after that, Chicago Opera Theater called me up and asked me to do Carmen in the Tragedy of Carmen, which was another step in the water, so I took on that role. The Tragedy of Carmen, Peter Brook’s Carmen, is all the music of Bizet but it’s scaled down. It’s about 90 minutes of music—all of her music, all of José’s music, all of the Toreador’s music, all of Micaëla’s music. The main focus is those four characters. So I had a chance to learn the majority, maybe 80 percent of Carmen’s music—all the solo music without ensemble.

That was fantastic because it was a substantial rehearsal period. I got to really delve into the character. It was a smaller orchestra, so the pressure of having to sing over a huge orchestra was lifted. Then a concert version came, and then the first completely staged version came with Lyric Opera of Kansas City with Bernard Uzan as the director. He’s a fabulous director, a French director, and I thought, “For me, what better way to get to know Carmen?” Ward Holmquist was conducting and he’s the one who wanted me for the part. I was really touched that somebody said, “Yes, I think she’s ready.” That’s a wonderful experience, and one that I’m always going to hold onto in my heart.

You said something about your being one of those people who decided early on that you were going to do it the right way, the smart way. Your professional debut was with Boston Baroque, and I wonder if the richness of the Early Music scene in Boston played a part in not only making you interested in Early Music but also in a healthy vocal development for you?

I started off as a chorus member in Boston Baroque. And Marty Pearlman heard me at Boston University’s opera production of La Clemenza di Tito, and that’s how I got the roles of Speranza and the Messenger in Orfeo and Poppea. Early Music really speaks to me. I love listening to Early Music and performing it. Last year I was lucky enough to be part of The Enchanted Island at the Met. I understudied Joyce DiDonato, and that was just heavenly. I said I was going to have withdrawals when I was through with that music.

Many of your roles are very passionate, exuberant characters with a lot of determination. Rosina, Cherubino, Isabella, Dorabella and, of course, Carmen. Then there’s a role like Cenerentola, arguably a softer, more passive character. Which do you identify with more, personally, and how is it you find your way into the other type that simply isn’t like you at all?

My goal always is to serve the music and serve the story—even something like Cenerentola, which is a little more passive than, say, Isabella. She is such an extraordinary character, Cenerentola. Think about how good she is. She is in love with what she thinks is the chauffeur and she stays true to that love. My favorite part is the end when she forgives her sisters and her father. To me that is such an extraordinary character.

It’s a lot of fun to play a character like Dorabella that’s a little skittish and so impressionable. The thing I love about Dorabella is, in the first aria, she’s so influenced by her sister Fiordiligi. Her first aria could almost be a Fiordiligi aria. But by the time act two rolls around and she sings “E amore un ladroncello” it almost sounds like a Despina aria. It’s so clever how her music is written and how you see it runs the gamut. In the beginning she’s so influenced by one person, and by the end she’s completely taken over by Despina’s philosophies.

It sounds like you’re saying she comes out from her big sister’s shadow.

She’s trying to outdo her sister, I think. We’re doing it in English right now in Boston, and when Fiordiligi sings, “I’m fainting,” I have to say it in a higher pitch, “I’m dying,” outdoing her not only in the pitch but in the words. But that’s a lot of fun to play on stage, that skittishness.

Is that how you are in real life?

They used to say I was lethargically challenged. I have a lot of energy, which I think lends well to characters like Cherubino and Hänsel. I love playing Hänsel.

Let’s talk a little bit about your relationship with the Met. You were an educational grant recipient there. What was that like and what has that relationship meant to you?

The Met heard me at Glimmerglass Opera when I was a Young Artist. It was my second year there. It was a panel that seemed like a million people but it was honestly probably about 20 to 30 people—a panel of companies from all over the country, and management. It was our last audition of the season. I remember exactly what I sang. I sang an aria from La finta giardiniera, and I sang The Rape of Lucretia.

After the audition, I didn’t think anything of it and I went on to my Young Artist responsibilities for the day. A couple of days later I received an e-mail from Lenore Rosenberg asking what my availability was for six or seven time periods of that year. At that point, I was on a little laptop, and I looked around to see if this was a joke or something. Of course, what did I write? “I am available any time you need me!”

My first role was the third servant to the Barak’s wife in Die Frau ohne Schatten. That year was spent at the Met singing roles like the Dragonfly in L’enfant et les sortilèges [and] the Countess Ceprano in Rigoletto. It was a fabulous way to be introduced to the company. I’ve been there since 2001 and I have to say, every time I walk into that building I still have this incredible feeling of reverence. I don’t know if that will ever go away, but I hope it doesn’t.

I won the Met competition here in New England. I had bronchitis and I was teaching at the Handel and Haydn Society on that Saturday morning. They used to have a preliminary on Saturday, and then they’d whittle it down on Sunday, and we’d all sing in Jordan Hall. When I won for the New England Region, that was a complete surprise to me. Maybe it wasn’t a surprise to my husband or my teacher, but to me it was a complete surprise, and I was so thankful and giddy.

So, I went to New York, though I didn’t make it to that next round. I snuck out onto the stage after it was all over, after I knew I wasn’t going on to the final round, and I knelt down. I kissed my hand and I touched the stage and said thank you. This is a true story. I know it sounds hokey, but I was so thankful for that moment. If someone had told me that a year later I would be singing roles there—talk about a Cinderella story . . . for me, that was a Cinderella story.

I’m happy to come back to the Met next year for Two Boys [singing Fiona]. That’s a very provocative opera, and I think it’s going to be a big success. I’m very excited to be part of that collaboration and I’m very thankful for my relationship with the Met and the people who believe in me there.

[At this point in the interview, three-and-a-half-year-old Beatrice comes into the room and there is some discussion, now that Angelina Ballerina is over, about which Tinker Bell video to watch. This leads us to the topic of family.]

What does your support team look like these days, and how are you finding balancing such a lively career and family life?

I used to teach before I went back for my master’s. I was a music ed undergrad major at Boston Conservatory. I was a teacher for three years in the Needham public schools. I feel like teaching and parenthood have taught me to really think on my feet. I have to have a plan B, C, D.

I’m learning to just take things and roll with it. My support team is my family. My husband has been wonderful, my brothers, their girlfriends have been wonderful. They help out with babysitting every once in a while, [as does] my mother. My sister-in-law has traveled to Kansas City with my daughter when I was singing Rosina there last year and she helped me while she was on school break. She’s a third grade teacher.

I’ve been really lucky that people believe in me enough and want to help me. We do have to ask for help in order to do this efficiently and to do it as best we can. We can’t be afraid to ask for help.

I think that might be a very useful thing for singers to hear.

When my singer friends are pregnant I get e-mails and messages on Facebook asking me all kinds of questions. “What was it like singing when you were pregnant?” “When did you stop singing when you were pregnant?” “When did you start singing again after she was born?” “How did you handle breast feeding?” “What’s the best stroller?” I’m flattered that people trust me with their secret, because sometimes they’re not telling people.

I didn’t have the easiest time with parenthood. I had two miscarriages and I had problems with fertility, and I don’t mind talking about it because I think many women go through this. People don’t talk about it because it’s a time when women and couples hurt. If you’re singing, so much of what we do has to do with if we’re feeling confident and happy and can communicate better, and there was a time when I was just putting on a brave face, and maybe that is what helped me get through those times. But I hope that anybody reading this who is going through a tough time knows to just keep your hope up, keep fighting that good fight, try to stay strong.

A lot of people go through it. Not everybody has an easy pregnancy or an easy time having a baby. When I found out with the third pregnancy that everything was fine, I had an audition the afternoon that I got the test results. I was so happy—that audition was the best audition I ever had. My manager said, “Wow, you sound like a star!” and it was just because everything was working out in my life. That’s part of the reason we named her Beatrice, because the name means “messenger of happiness.”

What do you like most about your life and career as an opera singer?

To be able to serve the music, serve the story, to lose yourself in the character and get energy from your cast members, and every time you’re up there it’s a different experience—that to me is the most exciting thing. I love to challenge myself to get to go those places that I never thought I’d get to dramatically or vocally—doing it or nailing it and feeling like I’m really serving that music. I love traveling. I love meeting new people. I love delving into roles.

What’s one thing about your life as an opera singer that you would like to change, or perhaps that you see changing for yourself in a positive way, as your career goes on?

One thing I’m starting to understand is [that] all I can do is my very best. I can’t second guess myself and worry about things I can’t control. As long as I’m true to my instincts and do my homework, I’m golden. And that goes for anybody. If you do your homework and trust your gut, you’re going to be OK. Everything’s going to be wonderful.

Lisa Houston

Lisa Houston is a writer and dramatic soprano who divides her time between Berlin and Berkeley. She recently performed Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder with the Kensington Symphony Orchestra and the title role in The Last Diva on Broadway with the Leipzig Kammeroper. She can be reached at Lisahouston360@gmail.com.