Sappho Sings

Out mezzo Jennifer Roderer takes on a lesbian icon in City Opera’s “Lysistrata”

Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Roderer, mainstay of the New York City Opera, is readying the part of Sappho in the first New York production of Mark Adamo’s “Lysistrata”—premiered in Houston last year—and enjoying the process.

“It’s a fun show, very funny in places. It’s not overtly anti-war but it certainly gives you something to think about,” said Roderer.

She enjoys rehearsing with the large, talented cast, including spitfire soprano Emily Pulley, with whom she’s happily worked before. Pulley’s titular heroine, an Athenian woman, gets the idea of withholding marital sex to stop a drawn-out war with Sparta. Sappho, Roderer reveals, is one of the few participants not too disturbed by this ban.

“Though she starts out with a husband, like the historical Sappho also had, she does just fine. She says she’s getting a lot of poetry written, and she gets a thing going for Dica, one of the Spartan women.”

Roderer appeared as Cecilia March in Adamo’s highly popular previous opera, “Little Women,” when NYCO toured it to Japan last year.

Tall and engaging, Roderer was born in Illinois, but from the age of eight grew up in Southern California—in the Valley, no less; she moved to New York eight years ago. While still retains a touch of the Midwest in her clear speech, she feels herself “an L.A. girl” through her love of the mountains and ocean. Though not from a musical background, her family was very supportive when her vocal talent became clear, and she’s proud that one of her brothers will catch a glamorous “hometown girl makes good” gig she has next year, Beethoven’s "Ninth Symphony” at the Hollywood Bowl.

Recalling her path to classical singing, she laughed, “I was a big metalhead, into Ozzie. I still listen to Ozzie, at least the old stuff. But I don’t think my voice was geared toward heavy metal. After piano lessons I knew I had a musical ear, and I would sing in school plays but not really with my whole voice. When I was 16 I had a solo in ‘Godspell’ I didn’t know how to handle, so I went to a voice teacher. She had me imitate her singing, ‘How are things in Glocca Morra?’ and in that instant I just knew, I can sing, I can act, I can dress up. This is what I want to do!”

High school found her doing “Evita” and Miss Mazeppa from “Gypsy” before heading for USC.

Roderer’s longtime partner is one of opera’s superwomen, Cori Ellison—City Opera dramaturg, occasional Met broadcast quiz host, Met extra chorister, and one of America’s leading surtitle specialists. They were introduced by mutual friend Robin Guarino, who directed Roderer as Amneris in “Aida” at Opera Illinois. When she returned to New York, a blind date dinner was arranged. “And the rest is history,” Roderer smiled. So the mezzo is part of the City Opera family in more ways than one, and, though she travels extensively to do guest appearances, calls the company her home base.

“It’s totally comfortable for me here, a safe and supportive environment. When at the first rehearsal for ‘Lysistrata’ we stood up and said what part we were playing, everyone cracked up and applauded when I said I was Sappho!”

She debuted at NYCO in 1999 as the Third Lady in “The Magic Flute.”

Among other notable City Opera appearances have been Juno in Jean-Philippe Rameau’s “Platée,” which gave her a welcome chance to work with director Mark Morris; and Jade Boucher, one of the angry mothers in Jake Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking.”

It is illuminating to learn that one of her idols—though they never met—is City Opera’s longtime star mezzo Frances Bible, who for three decades from the late 1940s sang an incredibly broad range of parts, from pre-baroque opera through contemporary works. (Bible’s major studio recordings are Claudio Monteverdi’s 1642 “L’incoronazione di Poppea” and Douglas Moore’s 1956 “The Ballad of Baby Doe.”) Reportedly, Bible’s openness about her lesbianism was one reason for her never having appeared at the Metropolitan, though she was a frequent guest at San Francisco Opera.

Roderer has encountered no such problems—but she was once warned before doing a “Messiah” in a Southern venue that it was a very closety place. She reports she can be fully out “about 95 percent of the time” in her profession. She credits the several lesbian opera stars who have come out publicly in print in recent years, including sopranos Patricia Racette and Christine Brandes and mezzo Jill Grove.

“It’s even harder for sopranos, since we mezzos are often playing gypsies and goddesses and weird marginal characters. Pat and Chris, both totally out offstage, play romantic leads and they’re both such great actresses that no one gives it a second thought. That pressure seems to be harder for the guys—except of course for countertenors!”

Roderer has sung many of the standard dramatic mezzo roles. She thinks she does a fine Amneris and enjoyed covering Eboli in “Don Carlo” in San Francisco. Nevertheless it is precisely the dramatic character roles that attract her, many of them from the German repertory. Other idols include past Wagnerian greats Margarete Klose and Blanche Thebom. One of her highest profile international appearances came last year in “Die Walküre” at the famed Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires; she loved both city and theater, and the British magazine Opera singled her Fricka out as “authoritative” and “the best of the cast.”

In Stephen Wadsworth’s acclaimed Seattle “Ring” cycle, Roderer has sung the smaller part of Waltraute in “Walküre” and covered both Fricka and the more substantial appearance of Waltraute in “Götterdämmerung.” One dream role is the wonderfully evil Ortrud in “Lohengrin;” another is the show-stealing Klytemnestra in Richard Strauss’ “Elektra.” But she also stresses deliberately keeping a lot of comic “kooky parts” in her repertory, since she enjoys the variety and release that affords.

“I think I’m good at doing those crazy women and I think I need it.” Last year she took part in Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Patience” at City Opera. She’s looking forward to doing the meaty comic part of the Witch in “Hansel and Gretel” there next season, in James Robinson’s brilliant, Central Park-set production, using Cori Ellison’s titles.

Unlike many divas, Roderer also particularly enjoys singing English-language opera and contemporary music. Mrs. Grose in Benjamin Britten’s taut “Turn of the Screw” has been something of a calling card, and she’s also appeared in his “Paul Bunyan.” She’s greatly enjoyed collaborating with the noted American composer John Eaton, who wrote many leading parts for his mezzo wife, Nelda Nelson, now retired from singing. Furthermore, as a shameless horror movie fan, she’s hoping someone will write her a rich part like Dracula’s daughter. Meanwhile, she proudly looks forward to introducing a new take on Sappho to the New York public.

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