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Opera’s straight-talking soprano

Muddy caught up with the Welsh National Opera’s soprano siren, Julia Mintzer, on drinking, costume malfunctions and the art form’s new foxiness.

Julia Mintzer in Carmen

When it comes to powerhouse performers, Julia Mintzer is your gal. An alumni of The Juilliard School and the Boston University Opera Institute, she’s since whizzed around America and Europe smashing mezzo-soprano roles left, right and centre, as well as writing and directing her own critically acclaimed theatrical pieces that have debuted Venice Biennale and NRW-Forum Düsseldorf.  Phew! 

Have you always wanted to be an opera singer?

Yes, since I was 17. I was always musical – my mother was a ballerina, so I was involved in dance from a young age, and I played cello quite seriously and was always involved in musical theatre. From that point I found opera, and I would just binge on it in any way that I could. I was always looking up every possible CD and book. I begged my parents for voice lessons, and luckily in Philadelphia there were people who could teach me.

Were your family supportive?

My parents didn’t know opera well, so they couldn’t tell if I was any good at it! So my deal with them was that I had to double major, and if I got into Juilliard then I could major in Music. So I did! It was their confirmation from an outside, unbiased source that I actually might stand a chance of being employed one day.

Pretty good confirmation! What you have done for a job otherwise?

Well I’m already doing it! I’m a stage director as well as a performer, and I split them about 50/50. I’ve written and directed my own work since I was a teenager – I just always had more to say than I was able to say with only one character! If for some reason my larynx fell out of my face tomorrow, I would go fully into that.

Favourite opera to perform?  

Carmen is about as good as it gets, I’ve gotta say! Dramatically, I love singing this role. Vocally, I think my very favourite role is Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana, just because it’s so ‘balls to the wall’, but dramatically, this Carmen is up there.

Opera’s been sexing up over the last 15 years, hasn’t it? Has it all gone a bit busty?  

Oh, it’s about fucking time, it’s all about sex anyway! Especially this opera.

If you’ve never been to an opera, would this be the one to go to?  

It’s a great one to start with! It has sex and violence, and all the tropes and stereotypes that you see in an opera – a bit of madness, a bit of exoticism, and all wrapped up with catchy tunes that you’ll recognise.

What’s surprising about working with WNO for you?  

Everyone is so careful with your feelings! I was born in the States, but I’ve lived and worked in Germany for the last seven years, and there your comfort is not the priority. It’s about making a good show, and if something’s wrong, they tell you, ‘That’s wrong, fix it. Do it better.’ That’s shaped how I am a performer and colleague, but it’s been a culture shock because everyone at Welsh is so incredibly friendly, fun and caring, so I’m not used to it! I’m saying, ‘Why are you handling me?’ and they’re saying, ‘We’re not handling you, we’re just being nice!’ That’s just who they are.

What about this show in particular?  

I think people would be surprised by how technical it is, particularly the fight choreography. We have an amazing choreographer, and the big fight scenes are surprisingly realistic and incredibly brutal. My parents and my husband found them completely traumatising to watch! It looks totally wild and out of control, but every single millisecond, every tiny moment is choreographed exactly.

Do you get on with the rest of the cast?  

Oh, we have a really good time. It’s part of the lifestyle, when you’re always on the road and meeting new people – the quickest way to get to know each other is to go out for a drink and a good time. You’ll finish a show at 10pm, and that’s the start of your evening, so opera singers generally know how to have fun. Sometimes you have to be a bit precious about your voice – I can have a wine the night before, but I can’t have a whisky the night before – but as long as I get good sleep, I have Teflon chords.

What are you up to, after Carmen? 

I have a bunch of interesting stuff coming up. In June I’m directing a production of Bluebeard’s Castle for a company called Gothic Opera, who are really cool and do edgy takes on stories from that era. It’s a little scary, a little sexy, and we’re having an 11pm performance so it’s going to feel a bit Rocky Horror’s midnight showing. This version is in collaboration with Ravensbourne University who train animators for video games, so they’re using cutting-edge tech to create an hour’s worth of 3D-mapped projections to interact with our performers. After that, I’m directing The Marriage of Figaro for Hampstead Garden Opera.

Are opera singers divas?  

Some of them are! In any office, someone’s always an arsehole – in opera, they’re just louder! But I think there’s less and less space in the industry for that behaviour, because there are so many good singers, so why work with someone like that?

What do you need in your dressing room? 

Snacks. I love the squidgy malt loaves you get here with raisins, but I wear a short shirt in the show so I can’t have them in my dressing room! I always have peanut butter though.

Most embarrassing on-stage story?  

I had my boobs fall out of my costume! Fortunately it was in a dress rehearsal, but it was enough to make the tenor want to die! I was doing a Carmen and I was hanging upside down over a hay bale, and my wrists were tied so I couldn’t even stop them. So I was flailing about upside down trying to cover my breasts, and the tenor didn’t come in on his line he was so embarrassed. For the rest of that run, we duct taped them in.

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