INTERVIEW WITH COMPANY MEMBER LAURA PINTO
VOX 3 company member Laura Pinto will be busy this season! Upcoming VOX 3 performances include the holiday concert Half-Spent was the Night, a baroque concert as part of our Danish festival in January, and excerpts from Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande for the lecture recital with Richard Stilwell, Shadow Into Light. She’s also planning a recital of early Italian baroque music with longtime friend and Apollo’s Fire cellist/da gamba player David Ellis.
When did you first start singing?
It sounds like a cliché, but I’ve always enjoyed singing. Growing up, my home was saturated with music. On long car rides, my family would sing songs in harmony and cumulative songs like “Ho Ro the Rattlin’ Bog.” I was the biggest ham out of all my siblings, though. I used to put on star-shaped sunglasses and perform for my parents on the “stage” of our hearth.
No one else in my family is a professional musician, but we all share a deep love for music. My dad plays guitar and has a lovely non-classical voice which I still find to be one of the most soothing in the world. My family often provided music together for masses at our church when I was growing up. We always had a piano in our house (my three siblings and I all took lessons), and my parents took us to see musicals, the ballet, and the Cleveland Orchestra at every opportunity.
When did you realize you had a gift for singing opera?
When I was in high school, I attended a summer program where I was lucky enough to start taking lessons with Helen Todd, a fabulous soprano and the general director of Sugar Creek Symphony and Song. The handful of lessons I had taken with other people up until that point hadn’t exposed me to opera, so when Helen threw it at me as a challenge, I absolutely devoured it and I fell in love instantly. Even though I had never focused so much on technique before, in many ways it felt natural, and I could tell that classical singing suited me better than the other styles I knew and loved already.
When I had been taking serious voice lessons for a couple years and it was time to apply to colleges, I decided to apply to music programs with the intention of being a professional singer. It took some encouragement, though– I went to a small private school where there are more doctors from my graduating class than artists. Helen helped me realize that music could be more than just an avocation.
What is your biggest accomplishment to date?
I was thrilled to make my Chicago debut with the Haymarket Opera Company’s acclaimed production of Dido and Aeneas earlier this year. It wasn’t the biggest role I’ve ever had, but it was fun to receive feedback from strangers that my character was a memorable part of the show, and it was particularly exciting to break into the Chicago scene as a professional after having been here as a student just a few years earlier.
What is your favorite opera?
La Traviata will always hold a special place in my heart. Though I’m not a Verdi soprano, I performed in the chorus of a Traviata production when I was in college, and it was during that show that I was first told a family story that would become one of my favorites. My grandma told me that, as a young woman, she saved up her money to see a touring Met production of La Traviata. She was so touched by the live music that she made up English words– describing something she did every day– so that she could always remember it. Over 60 years later, she was able to sing to me, “Shut the light off, shut the light off.” I had the most magical moment when I listened to the entire opera for the first time and recognized that melody as the duet “Parigi, o cara.” I’ve shared that story many times since then, because I think it’s a great reminder of how moving opera can– and should– be.
Is there some venue where you have always wanted to perform?
I’ve always wanted to perform in my grandpa Vito’s hometown of Palermo, Sicily. He loved opera, and I remember hearing him sing Neapolitan songs like “Santa Lucia” when I was a child. He grew up in a time and place where opera and pop culture were not mutually exclusive, and I think we can learn a lot from that.
What types of music do you like to listen to besides opera?
I grew up listening to a lot of 70’s folk music, and I still listen to Joni Mitchell a lot. Some of my other favorites are Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin, Elliott Smith, and Sufjan Stevens. My husband Mike is a jazz guitarist, so I love listening to the music he writes and performs, as well as the musicians he’s introduced me to, like Bill Frisell and Luciana Souza.
What is involved in being a professional opera singer?
I consider myself a professional classical singer. To make a living singing exclusively opera, one generally travels for 80-90% of the year. I do sing in some operas professionally and I love doing so when the right opportunities come my way, but I also do a lot of recital work, oratorio, early music, and other projects which help me maintain a better sense of balance in my life with the same amount of artistic satisfaction.
These days, rehearsals and performances often take the place of conventional practice time, but I do still take lessons occasionally and I seek feedback from a trusted circle of other professionals when I have any technical challenges. The rest of my practice time is spent learning repertoire for upcoming gigs.
Maintaining solid technique and vocal health are extremely important to being a professional singer, whether on the local or international level. Most people are not willing to pay to hear someone whose voice sounds like a work in progress, so having the respect for yourself and your audience to always offer a great product is essential.
You became a mother this year! Congratulations! And we’d all love to know how that affected your singing?
Being pregnant didn’t affect my singing as much as I thought it would, but it did present unique challenges each step of the way. Energy was the challenge during the first and third trimesters in general. For most of the middle of my pregnancy I felt great. It was only towards the very end when the effort required to inflate my lungs against my belly was greater than any beneficial appoggio boost from the extra weight around the waist. Also, a psychological challenge that I– and I think many female singers in my position– experienced was the sense that I would have to prove to people that I still wanted singing gigs. Some of my auditions during that time weren’t as authentic as I would have liked, but performing was great fun.In the postpartum months, I’ve had to regain the strength of my breathing apparatus and also learn to operate on far less sleep. These were pretty significant challenges at first, but it’s amazing how adaptable our bodies are.