An interview with soprano Anna Fredericka Popova, who appears next week with the Dallas Bach Society Wednesday, 9 December at the Meyerson. And don’t miss the 19 December German Baroque Christmas concert, also with soloist Popova!
Thank you for speaking with us!
Can you tell me about your educational and professional background? Who was an important influence in your musical career?
My musical education began in my Mother’s womb. That sounds a bit weird, I know… but there is more and more research proving how much more children develop in the womb than we previously thought and that they gain quite a keen understanding about the world they are about to enter and the life they will lead. My beautiful, Dramatic Soprano Mother and Teacher received rave reviews for her emotional, electrifying and vivid depiction of Mimi in La Boheme that year and I was lucky enough to gain a true insider’s experience. Her performance was so intense and real that after a show on this tour, the conductor BURST into her dressing room with tears streaming down his face yelling “I hate you! NO ONE MAKES ME CRY!!!” At the time it was startling, of course, but what a compliment!! This was the beginning of my love affair with music and my first lesson as her student.. and what a fabulous journey lay ahead!
On my musical path I have had wonderful Teachers and Mentors. Though my early years were in Germany with Mom as she was singing, my formative years were spent in the heart of Southwest Louisiana in Lake Charles and DeRidder. I was surrounded by a rich, artistic culture and sang an immense variety of music like zydeco, blues, jazz, country, opera, lieder, folk, etc etc etc. My Family was definitely an influence, too. One of ten farm kids, my Mother grew up playing sax and singing with her siblings (though she was the only one brave enough to pursue it as a career!). And we still get together at the holidays and rambunctiously sing carols, country songs, hymns and more! Early Teachers like Cora McMillen and Kathy Comish saw my potential right when I moved to the US as an awkward little German girl and urged me to audition for national and local children’s choirs. There I learned the bliss and sensitivity of quality choral singing. Then Pam Gabriel LeBlanc continued that journey in my middle school years as I began doing Solo & Ensemble and learning roles in her musical theater productions – the first of which was a fabulous Spanish character named Senorita Juanita Fandango! Somehow it now makes sense that I sing and love Spanish Baroque music – haha! It was at this point that I also met Betty Ladas, a spunky southern song writer whose new musical “Chokin’ Out The Kudzu” was performed in Nashville last year by our incredible cast. She and Billie Columbaro, former judge and current acting professor in NYC, were not only advocates but practically second mothers to me. Their vigor for life, pursuit of their dreams and downright sassy independence were an inspiration to me as a teenager and young performer. As I moved into a crazy high school career attending three schools in four years, Chris Miller was a huge influence. His choirs earned top scores at every level of competition and our 1st and 2nd chairs at District were nearly always that at All State, too. It was such a blessing to be surrounded by passion, strong work ethic and nerdy, musical fun! And it was in his “Louisiana style” Show Choir (not like ours here in Texas with jazz hands and costumes, but more of a versatile rock n roll band in cool street clothes with six singers from his varsity choir) that I had the opportunity to stretch my wings performing pop, rock, jazz, blues and killer, a cappella BoyzIIMen type arrangements with these talented musicians. I got to Dallas by auditioning for the Arts Magnet on a whim while visiting. It was a long shot but I got in from out of state and Mom and I moved here as fast as we could! My piano teacher, Gabriel Sanchez, saved my sanity that year. His incredible mind and superb teaching kept me focused on my passion for music during a tough transition.
Soon after that I had the privilege of being under the direction of Brian Bentley and Constantina Tsolainou (who I actually met my freshman year in Louisiana All State years before!). Brian and I were at Cathedral Guadalupe for 12 years together and I am eternally grateful for his beautiful heart and consummate musicianship. He shifted my understanding and love of the Catholic Liturgy and elevated the Cathedral Chorale to a place of high prayer and worship that was truly transforming for us and the congregation. His care of the powerful messages we are charged to convey as singers changed my perspective forever and has made me a more attentive and clear performer. My years with Constantina and the Arts District Chorale have been unforgettable and she is likely the most brilliant choral director I have ever had the honor to create with. What she pulls from us with her exuberant and positive spirit and incredible mind is like nothing I’ve ever witnessed or experienced.
My entry into early music came soon after that in my early twenties. I had not sung much of it in the past but the style greatly intrigued me and I’ve been hooked ever since! Grover Wilkins 3d has been an amazing catalyst for growth and new adventure in my career the last several years and was my first experience working with a professional Baroque ensemble. He took a chance and hired me as a fast substitute to sing the role of Diana in a reading of a zarzuela that had not been performed since the 1700’s called “Las Nuevas Armas de Amor.” I had less than 2 weeks with the music(!), had not sung the style or in Castilian Spanish before and was scared out of my mind! But with grit, a few tears and kind help from my lovely Mexican soprano counterparts, I learned it and later made my opera debut as “Jupiter” in the very same zarzuela when Grover’s dream of a fully fledged production came to fruition in 2013. Since then we’ve traveled the world together performing this rarely heard and gorgeous Spanish music. We will put on another such grand production by Nebra called “Iphigenia en Tracia” that opens Valentine’s Day 2016 in which I will portray Iphigenia. Tracye Bingham has been a strong Mentor and the best Sales Director I’ve ever worked with. Over the last 3 years she has helped develop my business mind and given me understanding of strength, stamina and leadership that has taken my corporate and musical careers to new heights. To watch her inspire our Team and lead us with such conviction and positive, passionate care has changed me forever and I’m so grateful for her presence in my life. And lastly, there is Jim Richman. What a mensch! He brought me in to sing Maddalena in a “pre-Messiah” Handel work called “La Resurrezione” and since then his support and genuine kindness have been invaluable to me professionally and personally. It is a joy to work with him and the Dallas Bach Society and I look forward to many more wonderful years performing these great works!
What do you do to prepare for 3 hour concerts?
Oh, my…. so much! Preparation is constant. Everything from exercising my body to meditating and quieting my mind, from detailed coaching of the music to practicing phrasing on breaks in the storage closet at my corporate Sales job and so, so much more! The stamina is definitely a factor and is necessary to build up. To be “on” constantly but to be sitting for 45 minutes at a time between pieces (like I do in Messiah as the other glorious soloists sing) is a very interesting thing to manage. To keep the body awake and actively ready to sing while being still and poised is nearly a magic trick! haha! But I think the most interesting part of it all is preparing to be vulnerable, let go and just sing! That is the courageous part of performing people may not think about when enjoying a performance. To open up a heart filled to the brim and shower the audience with love and the intense energy of these incredible works is just as exhilarating as it is exhausting. It is something I think about every time I perform. More recent research now shows how much energy we expend as singers and it’s equivalent to what a highly ranked NFL football player uses up. Think about that… a top athlete. Most people likely don’t realize that this is the preparation we do as Artists. And though trying at times, part of what keeps us going, energized and ready to perform is you. You, the audience, bring us such life and joy.. and to share our Art with you is a gift to us as much as it is a gift we offer you.
What about early music appeals to you as a musician?
It is so intricate and delightfully nerdy! I mean that in the most wonderful way and think the excitement of creating ornaments and learning the details of the style are definitely part of what keeps me interested. The beautifully mellowed sound of period instruments and intimacy of a smaller ensemble and venue is also appealing. The most incredible experience I’ve had with early music was in Bolivia as a part of the International Renaissance and Baroque Festival with the Orchestra of New Spain. Grover chose a glorious mass for us to perform – the manuscript of which was actually found in the walls of the mission church we performed it in. So here we are, 300 years later, taking this work back to it’s birthplace. The most amazing part was that the mission churches were entirely made of wood – so the mellowed sounds of our period instruments spiraled and bounced around the warm tones of the dark wood columns and walls. It was pure magic! And the enormity of it all was not lost on us. In joyful tears with a painfully full heart we were rushed like rock stars by the Bolivians who deeply appreciated this great work’s homecoming and our passionate performance honoring that moment.
Have you sung in the Meyerson as a soloist?
Yes. My first time singing in the Meyerson was during my year at the Arts Magnet here in Dallas. I sang “Glitter and Be Gay” and said then and there “I’ll be back, Meyerson… give me some time.” And 2 years ago I got that opportunity when Jim Richman hired me as his Messiah soloist. That performance was actually my first Messiah solo experience and was so unbelievable!! I still think about it. To share the stage with such high caliber musicians and set fire to page after page of such a stunning work was almost too much! And we had a full house that year!! When the audience literally exploded with applause it was as intoxicating as it was humbling. I will admit that I burst into tears of gratitude for having experienced such effusive appreciation and for being given the opportunity to be there. I’m so excited to do it again this year!
What repertoire do you prefer to sing? What is it about it that transfixes you?
Oh, man… I prefer EVERYTHING! If I were to label myself as a singer it would be a “Studier of Styles” with an aching desire to learn them all. Whether it’s the smoky, warm quality of blues or the crystal clear tones of Baroque, I want it… and I want to do it all as if it’s the only thing I sing. What I mean by that is if I’m singing jazz I want to sound and mimic the tones and qualities of a true jazz singer. If I’m singing country or an Irish folk song I want you to believe me to the core! Part of my given gift and something I’ve nurtured deeply is an extreme joy of vocal versatility. I love to see what my instrument can do and more importantly how it can connect with you, our audience. That’s the point, really – finding all the ways to connect. Whether it’s a High Mass at the Cathedral or 90’s R&B at The Library in the Melrose Hotel, I want to communicate with people in a way they understand. It’s on us, the communicators, to be sure we’re understood. And I want to speak as many “vocal languages” before I leave this world as possible!
Any special recordings to enjoy of Handel?
So many good ones out there! But lately I listen over and over to the recording we made last year in New York with the late John Scott, the St.Thomas 5th Ave Men & Boys Choir and the Concert Royale. WHAT an amazing concert!! To hear the young men (especially the boy sopranos!) sing those choruses is just… wow. If you ever get the opportunity to go enjoy a concert there, take it! You won’t regret it.
What should audiences look out for in this production?
Be ready to watch us set FIRE to the stage!!! (figuratively) And for you to leave uplifted and ready for Christmas!! This will be like no other Messiah you’ve experienced! Be ready for a high dose of Artistry from this ensemble. Side effects may include feeling: pure joy, overwhelmingly beautiful sorrow, fiery passion, deep darkness, soaring spirits, triumphant certainty and utter bliss. I hope you enjoy it and can’t wait to see you there!