By Thom Mariner
It’s nearly impossible to include “diva” and Jessica Rivera in the same sentence.
The 42-year-old soprano has established herself as an international opera star. She has worked with the finest conductors and stage directors in the world, receiving rave reviews.
She has premiered several compositions, some written just for her by – as she calls them – “the Mozarts and Puccinis of our time.” She has won a Grammy Award. She will play Musetta in Cincinnati Opera’s upcoming performance of “La Bohème.”
So what is she doing living in Middletown, Ohio? Driving herself to an interview? In a minivan? What kind of opera diva is she? It turns out, she’s actually more of an un-diva.
Rivera makes her third visit to Cincinnati Opera this summer. In 2009, she performed in “Ainadamar,” by Osvaldo Golijov, and returned two years later for “A Flowering Tree,” by John Adams. This year, she treads more traditional ground in Giacomo Puccini’s “La Bohème,” one of the most beloved operas of all time.
And what brought Rivera to live in Middletown?
“Love,” she said.
In 2011, Rivera came to Cincinnati to perform in John Adams’ “A Flowering Tree.” A friend encouraged her to connect with a man the friend knew who had been widowed 18 months earlier. Rivera reached out. They had dinner in Mariemont, which turned into dessert at Graeter’s, then coffee at Starbucks. “We talked for six hours straight. … I did not expect that!” she said.
They “just hung out” for the next week or so, but it became apparent to both that some form of chemical reaction was happening. By the end of that second week, he – his name is Barry Shafer – said, “I know what this is. I had it for 17 years and thought I’d never experience it again.” To which she replied, “Well, I’ve never had it, but I think this is pretty much IT!”
A door had opened. She walked through. They married three months and two days from the day they met.
The challenge was deciding who would move where. She had begun remodeling her grandparents’ house in the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles. Barry had been in Middletown many years, with strong church ties and a home of his own. The thought of trying to maintain both residences, in addition to all her travel “was just too much,” she said. Middletown won out.
The first three years she questioned her move. It was more of an adjustment than she had anticipated.
Being a self-described “Valley Girl,” Rivera’s sense of community had been centered around “the mall.”
“It was where I had my first job,” she said. “It was where my friends gathered. It was where community happened.” In Middletown, no such mall existed. She had to redefine her sense of community.
Eventually, a combination of active church involvement, neighborhood friends and small-town living “locked me in,” as she described it, to Middletown. While it took some time, “it was great to find a place where it felt like home, and that is very alive.”
She has even begun to teach voice lessons within the community.
Rivera began taking voice lessons herself at age 9. At 14, when she saw Jeanette MacDonald portray an opera singer in an old movie, Rivera instantly knew that’s what she wanted to become.
After high school, she attended Pepperdine University on a music scholarship. Rivera captured the attention of arts patron Flora Thornton, who opened a significant career door by funding graduate studies at the University of Southern California.
Soon after USC, while a member of the Los Angeles Opera Chorus, Rivera received her first big break. While she was covering the role of Susanna in Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro,” the lead soprano was called to Spain for her mother’s funeral – during the first dress rehearsal.
Rivera took over, finished that rehearsal, then completed the run of performances. Within a few days, having heard rave reviews, company director Placido Domingo (perhaps you’ve heard of him?) offered her a three-year contract as resident artist. Another door opening …
Coincidentally, her last role there happened to be Musetta in “La Bohème,” her only performance of the part until now.
Soon after her debut with LA Opera, the “new music” door opened, as she became acquainted with Osvaldo Golijov, composer-in-residence with the LA Philharmonic. She performed some of his music and later was invited to Santa Fe Opera in the summer of 2005 to sing in the premiere of the revised version of Golijov’s opera, “Ainadamar” (which brought her to Cincinnati for the first time in 2009). While in Santa Fe, she became close with soprano Dawn Upshaw and stage director Peter Sellars, who later connected her with composer John Adams.
These relationships and the resulting opportunities would shape her career as a performer of new works.
Adams wrote his opera, “A Flowering Tree,” with Rivera in mind. He asked her to perform the role of Kitty Oppenheimer (wife of physicist Robert Oppenheimer) in his “Dr. Atomic” at Chicago’s Lyric Opera, and then to portray Pat Nixon in “Nixon in China” at The BBC Proms. She later sang more music of Golijov, his groundbreaking “St. Mark Passion.” In just the past few weeks, she sang the premiere of Gabriela Frank’s “Conquest Requiem” with the Houston Symphony, as well as John Harbison’s “Requiem” (2002) with the Nashville Symphony. After “Bohème,” she’ll perform as part of Roberto Sierra’s “Missa Latina” (2006) in Chicago.
Contemporary music is her realm.
She feels new music chose her, however; she just “…walked through the open doors.” But working in uncharted waters really helped her grow as an artist. “To not have to worry about the practices and the standards of the past,” she said, “gave me incredible freedom.”
Marcus Küchle, director of artistic operations at Cincinnati Opera, believes Rivera – along with her close friend, mezzo soprano Kelley O’Connor – has led what he calls a “dramatic shift” in the path young singers can take to establish their careers. “They have been the first really visible exponents of careers that were made entirely on new music, by affiliations with composers,” Küchle said. “They did this without going through the usual ‘tour’ of singing smaller roles in bigger companies, to bigger roles in smaller companies, then finally singing larger roles in big companies. (Rivera) totally circumvented all of that because of her huge success (within new music).
“This goes along with the resurgence of this real marketplace for new music in North America,” he said. “And that’s the best sign, to me, that the opera art form is healthy.”
Singers who specialize in contemporary music often are known more for the accuracy of their voices than their beauty. Yet while Rivera is often praised for her “laser-like technical precision” (San Francisco Chronicle), it is the beauty of her voice that is mentioned time and time again by critics: “luminous” (New York Times), “voluptuous” (Financial Times), “gleaming” (Boston Globe), “rapturous” (Los Angeles Times), “radiant” (Fort Worth Star Telegram), “delectable” (New Zealand Herald), just to mention a few.
With two young children (Reade, approaching 3, and Rachel, just 2), Rivera is happy to do more concert work than opera right now, being away for a few days rather than a few weeks.
While we were talking, she proudly greeted a man she introduced as the best friend of the father of one of her students, a 19-year-old tenor. She seems to love being part of this close-knit community and recently joined the board working to restore Middletown’s shuttered Sorg Opera House, hoping to add her professional perspective.
She is happy to come back to “La Bohème” now, 13 years later, more mature as a singer, with more “life experience,” as a mother, and as a fledgling voice teacher. As Musetta, she will play a vain, flirtatious, sometimes bombastic woman who happens to be a singer, but who also possesses a big heart. Only the last two characteristics apply to Rivera, and that’s what most attracts her to this role.
“Musetta is so NOT my personality,” she said, with a laugh. “That’s the fun. People who know me may be very surprised!”
Cincinnati Opera artistic director Evans Mirageas described Rivera as “serene” and “centered.”
“One of the reasons I love engaging Jessica, beyond her artistry,” he added, “is that other singers gravitate to her – almost like a mom. Jessica is still a ‘young singer,’ so to speak, but she exudes a kind of warmth and inclusiveness.”
“I fell in love with ‘Bohème’ thanks to ‘Moonstruck,’ ” Rivera recalled, the 1987 movie during which Nicolas Cage and Cher attend a performance at the Met. “It’s my favorite opera. I’m a sucker for a love story.”