A Conversation with Acclaimed Mezzo-Soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano

Acclaimed mezzo-soprano and St. Louis native Jennifer Johnson Cano has plunged headfirst into a well-decorated career as an opera singer. Cano has given more than 100 performances at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City to date, with various roles such as Bersi in “Andrea Chénier,” Emilia in “Otello,” Nicklausse in “The Tales of Hoffmann” and more. She also splits her time between New York City and Phoenix, where her husband Christopher Cano serves as head of music and director of the Arizona Opera Studio.

Cano will return to St. Louis this summer to perform at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis in the classic love story “Orfeo & Euridice,” featuring a special collaboration with The Big Muddy Dance Company. Audiences will also have the opportunity to meet Cano after each of the six performances between June 9 and June 23 and can purchase tickets at ExperienceOpera.org.

We caught up with Cano to discuss her life in music, humble beginnings and singing at Neil Armstrong’s funeral.

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Photo courtesy of Lisa Mazzucco.

You’re coming back to St. Louis in June for six performances of “Orfeo & Euridice” with Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, in which you’ll play the role of Orfeo, which is traditionally written for a male actor. Is that common of casting in opera? 
Casting in opera is determined by the voice type the composer and librettist believe will best portray a given character. The role of Orfeo is typically played by either a tenor, countertenor or mezzo soprano, and the convention of “trouser-roles” is quite typical in opera. I’ve spent a good deal of my life portraying young men on stage. At the time Gluck wrote this piece, higher voices were commonly cast in young, heroic roles, so the choice to cast a mezzo is following a long tradition in operatic history.

It’s a love story, and Orfeo’s love Euridice actually isn’t present for over half of the opera, because she has died. Orfeo pleads with the Gods to bring her back from the dead, and it’s about how he tries to make that happen.

How did you originally get connected to Opera Theatre of Saint Louis and embark on this career path?
My relationship with Opera Theatre of Saint Louis began in high school. They have a summer vocal camp program for high school singers. It was recommended to me by my high-school music teacher, and I really enjoyed it. I grew up in the small town of Festus, Missouri, about 45 minutes south of St. Louis. My mom would drive me from there to St. Louis every day, and that was where I learned that it’s possible to work as a musician for a living.

I had planned to study political science and law in college, but I discovered that I really had a passion for music. I loved singing, making music and working with people. I changed my major to choral directing, thinking I could teach high-school and college students to love music as much as I did. I entered Webster University to be a choral conductor, and we had to audition as part of the program. The head of the department at the time took me on as her student, and I didn’t realize that she typically didn’t take non-performance majors. She sat me down after my sophomore year and said, “I think you should change your major to be a performer.” So that’s what I did: I changed my major and focused on performance work. I reconnected with Opera Theatre and became part of their Gerdine Young Artist Program, and I also worked there as an usher while I was in school. The house managers knew I was a singer, so they’d let me watch the performances.

After Webster University, I went to Rice University for my Master of Music degree. I then entered the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, which I’d entered before, but this time I won a top spot and joined their Young Artist Development Program. Then I went straight to New York.

That’s quite a journey. Did you have any expectation that it would unfold this way?
No. Definitely not. If you’d told me or my parents when I was younger that this is what I’d be doing in 10, 15 or 20 years, we’d all have thought, “What?” My parents always thought I was a good singer, and they’re the absolute opposite of stage parents. They’re educators and accountants, so I was allowed to just enjoy music, sing and have a good time. It wasn’t until I was about 20 that I even considered doing it as a vocation. So in a way it was for the best, because there was no pressure on me. I was able to develop a very natural love and curiosity about music before I made that choice.

How did you specifically make your way into opera?
It wasn’t really my choice. The example I use to explain it is that voices are very similar to athletic ability. If you’re a runner, you’ll likely be a long distance or short-distance runner, and your body informs where your natural inclination is. It’s the same for voices: they tend to lean towards a genre, whether that’s opera, jazz, pop, musical theatre, etc. Mine lent itself to the classical style. My voice made that decision on its own. I do my best to honor that, because it’s a constant struggle if you’re trying to be a square peg in a round hole. Every singer has a natural inclination, like how some are mezzos or sopranos. That’s not a choice—it’s just what their voice is.

Some audiences see opera and classical music as intimidating. What’s your view about that, and what would you say to someone who’s interested in seeing opera, but may be hesitant?
My view on any kind of art, particularly with opera, is you have to be open to the experience. Intimidation is something really put on ourselves. The first question I always ask someone who tells me they went to an opera and didn’t like it is, “What show did you see?” And oftentimes it was something very complex or very dark. If you like comedy, I’d recommend Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro.” Or for mythology buffs, “Orfeo & Euridice” would be great. Also if you saw an opera one time and liked it, there’s nothing wrong with seeing it again. The more familiar you are with a piece, the more you can enjoy the nuances of the score, the libretto and what the performers are doing. Opera is an art form that deepens with repetitive experience. Also, don’t be shy about asking questions. Everybody who works in opera wants people to love the experience.

What has been one of the greatest challenges of your music career, and how have you overcome them?
The greatest challenge for me—which still is the greatest challenge—is that it requires a lot of traveling and time away from family and friends. That’s not something you can overcome; it’s just the nature of this career. If you want to work as a freelance musician, you have to go where the work is. I’m very fortunate in that I have a wonderful, supportive family. If I perform somewhere like Chicago or Kansas City, my parents often drive to come see me. But there’s still a lot of living out of suitcases and in hotels, and a lot of time alone.

The alone time I don’t mind, but sometimes I do wish I could get on a plane and see my parents. Everyone’s life has its own set of complications and unique circumstances. These just happen to be mine. For some people it’s workable, and for some people it’s not. My husband tells a great story about how he sat next to a heart surgeon after a performance, who told him, “I could never do what you do: getting up and performing in front of people.” And he told her, “I could never do what you do.” We’re all unique, and that’s what makes it possible for all of us to do what we do.

Do you get nervous before performances?
I tend to get very excited. Kind of like a racehorse before they open the gate; it’s a kind of anxiety that’s contained in excitement. The worst thing about a performance is waiting for the show to start. You want to get out there and be focused and fresh. You have to control the pacing of your energy so you can deliver.

I’d be remiss to ask about this: You performed with your husband at Neil Armstrong’s funeral. What was that experience like?
It was surreal. Neil Armstrong’s wife’s cousin, who is a patron of the Metropolitan Opera, heard me sing some Kurt Weill songs at a cocktail party a few weeks before he passed away. His wife wanted “September Song” sung at the funeral, because it was their song. I performed it with my husband, who’s a pianist. It was such an honor to be asked.

Musicians are often called on in times of celebration or grieving. We were there to really do something meaningful for his family, to honor his life and to bring comfort at that time. It was very surreal, and there were many other great astronauts there, like John Glenn and Buzz Aldrin.

They were seated towards the front, and you could see their names on the chairs where they’d be sitting. It was surreal to be in a room full of people who have accomplished all that they have. My sister was actually at Purdue—Armstrong’s alma mater—where she was studying to be an engineer at the time. There were all of this amazing connections. How often do you have two sisters, one a singer and one a rocket scientist, and everything somehow converges that way?

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Cover image courtesy of Lorenzo Spoleti.

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