Out of Character
When Opera Cues reached soprano Jasmine Habersham one recent day to chat, it was clear the singer was having a moment.
Habersham, who still resides in her hometown of Macon, Georgia and is only a few short years into her career in opera, took our call during a rare break in her schedule at Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, New York. She was preparing to perform in not one, but two world premiere works—as Mimi in a new pastiche opera, Gioachino Rossini and Ken Ludwig’s Tenor Overboard, and as Mary in Damien Geter and Lila Palmer’s Holy Ground.
The 2022-23 season ahead would be packed for her, bringing a mix of solo concerts, world premieres, and classics from the repertoire, including her debut with HGO as Sophie in Werther.
Adding to all the excitement, the evening before our conversation, she had learned that Opera North’s new production of Rigoletto from last season—directed by Femi Elufowoju, Jr., with Habersham as Gilda and Eric Green as Rigoletto—had just won a coveted Sky Arts South Bank Award.
As the Guardian had explained when Habersham was in England for the opera’s run, in a rave review that credited her with “most of the special moments,” the entire reimagined production was a “masterstroke.” “Rigoletto’s otherness is as a Black man with a vulnerable daughter existing on the margins of an entitled bunch of rich white party animals who cannot be trusted around young women,” the paper wrote. “Sound familiar?”
The day we chatted, it seemed so much had happened so quickly, Habersham was still wrapping her mind around it all. When we recounted to her something HGO Artistic and Music Director Patrick Summers had said—that one of the things he’s most excited about in HGO’s entire 2022-23 season is the “ethereal beauty of Jasmine Habersham’s voice”—her smile was immediate. “Oh my God,” she managed, before taking a breath and telling us more.
Opera Cues: You’re one of the fastest-rising singers in opera today. How does it feel?
Jasmine Habersham: You know, I have to say, it feels fast. I’m just trying my best to focus on the music, but I had a moment yesterday! I just did a Rigoletto production at Opera North in the U.K., where I made my international debut. And we just won a Sky Arts South Bank Award for the opera category. And I sat back and thought, I can’t believe I did all of that. And then we won an award? It happened so fast. And sometimes, I forget to just stay in the moment. So that was a reminder last night—Jasmine, enjoy these moments. I’m extremely excited and grateful. It has been a little challenging keeping a work-life balance, but I’m finding different parts of myself along each step of the way.
OC: What drew you to this art form?
JH: I grew up in a very musical family, hearing all kinds of music, but mainly gospel and jazz. I started out with piano, and then I also played clarinet in middle school. And then, in high school, I went to this camp called MidSummer Macon, which was an arts camp, and I saw a program with this woman, Rita Davis, singing classical music. After that, I wondered if I could do it.
I started taking lessons at the college [Weslayan in Macon] with Nadine Whitney, and she said, you should really consider doing this as a career. I ended up going to Shorter University for my undergraduate, and then to University of Cincinnati Conservatory of Music for my master’s and my AD.
Another moment at MidSummer Macon—I got introduced to Audra McDonald, because I was singing in the musical theater show. I saw her singing Ragtime, and wondered what else she had done. I heard her album, Daybreak in Alabama, and the first song was Ricky Ian Gordon’s “Dream Variations.” And I thought, this is something that I really want to do. It just sparked my joy.
OC: How do you prepare for a role debut such as Sophie in Werther?
JH: I have debuted ten roles within the past year and a half, and then, prior to the pandemic, there were a couple roles that I was also preparing. So, I’ve now learned my own system of getting things together now. The first thing that I do, I just read the libretto as it is. I’ll read it like a play. And then, from there, I highlight my score. Then I work solely on languages, perfecting that. And that’s when I go into the music of it with coaches and my voice teacher.
OC: The character of Sophie—how do you connect emotionally with her?
JH: With any character, I always think, okay, Jasmine—what has my character gone through up until that point? In this case, she has lost her mother, but she’s presented as a very sweet, kind, cheerful, and bubbly person. I try to match that with what I can bring to it, in a spiritual sense, of who I am. Also, listening to the music gives you cues about who the person is. And if you listen to Sophie’s music, it’s very bubbly and very spry and joyful. I try to match that quality. You’ll hear the contrast, especially when she’s talking to Werther.
OC: Tell us about Werther from Sophie’s perspective.
JH: He’s in love. It’s difficult because it’s so sad, because he commits suicide, and there could have been so many other ways to not get to that point. Sophie has sympathy for him; she wants the best for everyone. And then, she has a connection to him, too—she sees him somewhat as a brother, as a friend. She cares for him.
OC: Back to performing the role of Gilda at Opera North—can you share more about that?
JH: That was such an incredible experience, because it was such an innovative production, and it was amazing for it to be designed in the likeness of me. And what I mean by that is we had a Nigerian director who was the first Black director in the U.K. to direct an opera, so he centered it around being a Nigerian. Granted,
I’m African American, not Nigerian. But he wanted to put the show in the likeness of having a Black Gilda and a Black father. And that was just so special.
And I think the way that he built the concept—it was like nothing that anyone had seen. I was able to wear braids in the show, and that was a part of the story. Often, because this is a very Eurocentric art form—you know, I don’t get to wear my braids as much. And it was a part of the story, that in Gilda’s likeness was her braids. And when she was with the Duke, he made her put on a wig, because that’s the way he wanted to view her. It was extremely powerful, especially the duet with my father. I’m taking the wig off. I’m telling him what happened. And it was a great experience to tell the story in the likeness of me.
OC: Are you looking forward to working with HGO?
JH: I’m just beyond thrilled to work at one of the best houses in the country—and in the world, frankly. I’m so delighted to be making my debut at the company.
I feel ready to take on the challenge of the role, and to be a part of such a fantastic cast. Sean Michael Plumb and I were young artists at Glimmerglass together. So it’s nice to realize, Oh, we’re grownups now and doing this professionally. (laughs) We actually did Papagena and Papageno together. And to meet Isabel Leonard and Matthew Polenzani—it’s a dream cast. I hope people come out and see this cast and this tragic but amazing story.
As far as Houston, Texas, I’ve heard the food is amazing. I’m looking forward to having barbecue. And I am, of course, a big Beyoncé fan. I’m going to the birthplace of Beyoncé! I’m so excited.