Q&A with A Woman’s Life’s Jennifer Johnson Cano

Throughout the past decade Jennifer Johnson Cano has emerged as one of the most thrilling and emotive sopranos currently working. She has notched over 100 performances for the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and her repertoire includes both iconic and contemporary works. She returns to DACAMERA to join artistic director Sara Rothenberg for a night of fascinating works that draw upon the lives of two remarkable woman, Clara Schumann and Virginia Woolf.

What draws you to roles like this, performing as Virginia Woolf and, in one way of looking at the Robert Schumann songs, as Clara Schumann?

I don’t know that I look at it as performing as Virginia Woolf—it’s not a play, although it’s her words. Her words speak to a lot of elements of the human experience that are universal, so I think you take the text from the writer or the poet and you personalize it for yourself and you behave as a conduit for those words that continue to speak to us.

It’s my belief that most of these artists and writers and musicians that are long departed would be surprised to find that we find them fascinating and study them and use them as markers of artistic achievement. To me, it’s more about how her words impact us today.

How do you see these pieces fitting together? In what ways do they speak to each other? 

I think they are absolutely tied to one another. They are both focused on the female experience, and although the Schumann text was written by a man, it’s written in such a romantic way, as a love letter to his wife Clara. In the Virginia Woolf piece, Argento, the composer, was originally looking to set some of her poetry to music and ended up being more fascinated by her diary.

The framework is there, of women in different phases in their lives, and because of how the Woolf piece is structured, I don’t know this for a fact but it would be logical to me that he was inspired by the Schumann.

I’ve performed both of these pieces separately, and it’s amazing how taking two great pieces and having them in the same program, hearing them back to back, changes how you hear them. That’s the exciting thing about chamber music. What’s the saying—the whole is the greater than the sum of its parts? In this case, both of the pieces on their own are quite masterful and to have them on the same program, your cup runneth over.

And they are truly connected—this isn’t a stretch, and I think they will complement each other beautifully. You dream of these programs, and now is the time for us to really put it all together and I can’t wait to see how it turns out.

Your turn as Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale this summer was truly a sensation. Are you seeing more interesting roles in these newer works? Opera might be said to have more than its share of fallen women who die beautifully.

I… I’m not sure that I agree with that. Art oftentimes expresses truth of the human experience, and to be fair, the truth is good people, bad people, they get sick and die, or they get killed, or young people fall in love and one of them gets sick and dies, because opera is such an emotive art form it will always lend itself to that extreme.

And, you know, Offred doesn’t die but she certainly suffers plenty, and at the end we don’t really know her fate. If you’re going to have big, exciting, dramatic opera, the plot is also going to be big and dramatic and end in death for someone, or maybe it’s a love story. It’s high emotion, it’s these situations set on a grand stage.

How different is it to perform something slightly newer like Virginia Woolf, or A Handmaid’s Tale, versus a classic work like Carmen?

It’s a roadmap for me, and the destination is different. It’s about finding the most authentic or natural way to express what I interpret as being the writer or composer’s intention. I don’t approach them any differently. It’s like putting on a costume each time—I have to connect the dots.

What’s the benefit of a performance in recital like this versus a fully staged production?

A grand scale opera production is so wonderful because of the grand nature of it, but with a performance like this you’re stripping away a lot of the adornments that you would get in opera, and it’s a much more intimate experience for both the audience and performers. It’s typically in a smaller theater, and in this case only two performers on stage. It’s not a costumed, highly choreographed thing, it’s a real opportunity to focus in a simplistic manner on the music being presented and the text within it.

It’s not a smaller scale, because that downplays the importance of chamber music, it’s the difference between a really grand party with 500 people versus a dinner party with 10 or 12 guests. There are positives to each, it’s just a different experience, and for someone who has mostly been to opera it’s a way to experience singers as musicians in a different way. In our case, it’s two musicians who have rehearsed and made these creative decisions just the two of us, whereas opera is by committee with a director and conductor and a whole cast. It’s artisanal, you might say.

You are known as an incredibly expressive performer and a storyteller. Where does that come from? 

I don’t know! I don’t really have a good answer. I believe sometimes you have to acknowledge that some things are not planned, and when things aren’t within your power. I do everything in terms of preparation to free myself of worry so I can be as in the moment as possible onstage to express all the emotion and all the things we feel as human beings. I work diligently to get to that place of artistic freedom, and that’s all I do.

I’m glad people feel something in the audience, but I couldn’t pinpoint or peg what I do—I just try to find the most honest or freeing form of expression I can find.

You attended Rice University for graduate school—does Houston hold fond memories for you? Any places you are planning to revisit while you are here?

Yes! I was at Rice from 2006 to 2008, and of course I loved my time in Houston. I’m always happy to return, and look forward mostly to seeing people, like my voice teacher while I was at Rice, Kathleen Kaun, and I might make a trip to the [Houston Grand] Opera to see Saul. I loved the community I had at Rice and that’s mostly people rather than places, so I’m hoping to see them. It’s always nice to go to a place where you feel a little bit like you’re at home.

A Woman’s Life: Diary of Virginia Woolf’ features Jennifer Johnson Cano and DACAMERA artistic director Sarah Rothenberg on piano. The performance takes place Saturday, Nov. 9, at Zilkha Hall inside the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets start at $37.50 and are available here.