Emily Guendelsberger Emily is senior staff writer at Philadelphia City Paper. She enjoys writing about feminism, opera, television, arts ecosystems, music theory, people with weird jobs and pretty much everything involving money. You can also find her writing at the A.V. Club, the Guardian and other fine publications.
Rachele Gilmore recently posted a picture of herself (above) in her Queen of the Night costume on Twitter with the caption “First attempt at making the mean scary Queen face. I’m not sure it was a total success ;) #magicflute.” Her debut with Opera Philadelphia this week in The Magic Flute, which runs April 19 to 28, is the first time she’s ever sung the famous Queen of the Night arias — the role requires both the rage-face of a Disney villainess and lots of fast, incredibly high notes that only a few singers, called coloratura sopranos, have the physical ability to pull off.
Gilmore’s voice is high even for a coloratura — she astonished Met audiences in 2009 when, as an understudy called up with only a few hours’ notice to step into the whiz-bang role of wind-up doll Olympia in Les contes d’Hoffmann, she whipped off a cadenza ending in a seemingly effortless high A-flat, the highest note ever recorded on that stage. Video of her performance — complete with audible gasps from the audience and a full minute of wild applause — went viral on YouTube. Gilmore, who lives in Cherry Hill when she’s not on the road singing, spoke with City Paper.
City Paper: So what are you doing to conjure up the mean scary Queen face?
Rachele Gilmore: At first I was a little nervous about it, because I never play characters like this. I always play the ingénue or the comedienne — it’s definitely the first time I’ve played, like, a bitch. [Laughs.] But it’s actually coming pretty easily, I find! I just try to connect to what she’s saying in the text — like, in the second aria, the famous one, the vengeance aria, the first line is “Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen,” which means “The vengeance of Hell is boiling in my heart.” [Laughs.] And even though I’m not a mother and my own mother is perfectly wonderful, I see other mother-daughter relationships where there’s this great amount of disappointment and anger — I try to draw from that.
CP: The Queen of the Night famously has to sing high Fs. How high are they, exactly?
RG: A lot of the time when people think of opera, they think of the high notes; and when people think of high notes, they think of a high C as, like, the highest note or whatever. And this is a fourth above a high C. A lot of coloraturas find this high F particularly difficult because of the approach, and because you have to sing four of them right in a row.
CP: What’s the highest note you’ve ever sung in public?
RG: The highest note I sing in public is the A-flat in the Doll [aria from Les contes d’Hoffmann], and I’ve sung that several times. It’s not like it’s a sustained high note, so I don’t get stressed about it — it’s at the top of a scale, so it just sort of comes out. In that aria, I tend to get stressed out about different things.
CP: So at the Met performance where you did the A-flat, you only had to do it for a couple nights. Would you have gone for the super-high note if you’d had to sing that cadenza [a short section within a piece where the composer essentially tells the performer to show off] for the full run of the show?
RG: A lot of people think that note was just something I threw in because it was my Met debut and I wanted to make a good impression or whatever. But those cadenzas in the Doll [aria] are the ones I’ve been doing since I was in my early 20s; those are just the ones that I’m the most comfortable with. When you’re learning a piece that has a lot of coloratura and cadenzas, you have to kind of work those things into your voice; for me to change the cadenza would have been more dangerous than singing the one with the high A-flat. I did all the cover rehearsals with those cadenzas, they were fine with them.
CP: You had to have at least suspected the YouTube potential.
RG: No! Honestly, I was really young, I was really green, I was just super excited to be a cover at the Metropolitan Opera. I never thought I would have to go on — I have a lot of colleagues that covered for years and had never gone on. I was really nervous, just thinking, “I really want to get through this!” A lot of the ovation afterwards, I didn’t really realize what was happening because I was just so relieved that the aria was over. And there’s this thing I call a high-note buzz; when you sing something with so many high notes in it, there’s so much blood that goes to your head that you’re kind of in a daze for a few minutes afterward. But once I came out of that, I could feel the appreciation from the audience, and that was cool. But I had no idea that it had even been videotaped; the YouTube thing was a complete surprise to me.
CP: A singer-friend request: Is there a harder word to hit a high note on than “turtle”?
RG: [Laughs, like, a lot.] Oh my God! Hmm, let’s see ... actually, I would think that something with explosive consonants would be more difficult. “Turtle,” you’ve still got that nice long U vowel, you can kind of hang out there. Man, I can’t even think of one right now!
CP: Well, will you text if you think of one?
RG: I will, I will!
An hour later, a text arrives: “Twelfths.”
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