Adventures of a Diva

Classic Arts Features   Adventures of a Diva
Stacey Kors catches up with soprano Jennifer Welch-Babidge, who makes her Houston Grand Opera debut this month as Norina in Donizetti's Don Pasquale.

Recently, newspaper arts pages have been filled with articles about famous sopranos and their size. Back in 2003, a little-known, young soprano named Jennifer Welch-Babidge was the focus of similar attention for her portrayal of an undeniably large Lucia in Lucia di Lammermoor at New York City Opera‹a story that even made the front page of the New York Times. In Welch-Babidge's case, however, the issue was not her weight so much as its cause: the singer was seven months pregnant and had chosen to integrate her pregnancy into the role.

"I'm always looking for something to raise the stakes higher for a character," she explains. "So when I got pregnant I thought, well, that's interesting... and then I called Jim Robinson, the director, and said, 'How about we just kind of incorporate it?'"A dramatic risk-taker with a strong stage presence and a supple, shimmering soprano voice, Welch-Babidge has already garnered critical praise, from New York to San Francisco. This month the up-and-coming singer makes her HGO debut as Norina in Donizetti's comic gem, Don Pasquale.

Playbill: When did you first start singing professionally?

Jennifer Welch-Babidge: I won the Met auditions in 1997, so being in the Young Artists Program was my first professional apprenticeship job. And then I performed for the first time at the Met in 1998, as one of the Flower Girls in Le nozze di Figaro.

Playbill: Did you always want to be an opera singer?

Welch-Babidge: Well, the first time I ever saw an opera, I was 18‹it was Romeo and Juliet. And the first time I really realized that this is what I wanted to do was in 1997, when I got into the young artists program.

Playbill: What were you considering before then? Something more along the Broadway musical line?

Welch-Babidge: For a while, yes. I went to New York from North Carolina in that vein. And things were going really well. I got an agent for film and TV and Broadway. But something didn't feel right to me, so I ended up going back and getting my master's, trying to bide my time. At one point I thought, well, maybe

I'll be a veterinarian or something. And then, when the Met auditions came up in 1997, I figured okay, I'll just give this one more shot and see what happens. When I won that, I realized that I could really support myself doing this. Then one thing just led to another. I was very fortunate to have that career path.

Playbill: What was your first big break after that?

Welch-Babidge: The thing that kind of got me noticed was when I did the Young Girl in Moses und Aron. I know that sounds kind of strange. But James Levine was conducting it, and I really enjoy that type of music, and I think he was happy with the work that I did. Since then I've done several things with him. That was one of the things that piqued people's interest.

Playbill: Another thing was your company debut at New York City Opera in Lucia di Lammermoor, when you were seven months pregnant. Tell us a little about that.

Welch-Babidge: I had done the Lucia a few times before and had this thought in the back of my mind‹obviously not to the point at which you could see a pregnancy, but just in terms of how far Lucia's commitment to Edgardo went‹that she was almost married to him, in her own mind, even though the service hadn't taken place. So I wondered how far they had taken things. I've known Jim Robinson for a while; he and I have always enjoyed working together. We're both kind of dramatic beasts. So I talked to him about it, and he said, "Why not?" And the opera company was really great and seemed willing to go out on a limb. In a lot of ways it was good for them, because it got them a lot of publicity.

Playbill: It got you a lot of publicity, too. You were on the front page of the New York Times. How did you feel about that?

Welch-Babidge: I was very surprised. I think it was originally supposed to be on the front page of the arts section, but I guess not much happened that day. It was really funny, I was actually walking down the street in New York, going to get a paper because I knew I was in it. I saw this woman on the front and I thought, '"Oh, that's me!"

Playbill: Lucia is a very dramatically challenging role, especially the Mad Scene. Even though you were seven months pregnant, you didn't seem scared to move around the stage‹in fact, you even rolled around on the ground. Were you concerned about doing such a strenuous part so late in your pregnancy?

Welch-Babidge: Well, the rolling around on the floor wasn't really a problem. But the sword wielding.... Like I said, I'm really a dramatic beast, and in the final dress rehearsal, I ended up pulling a muscle, and that night I ended up in the hospital with contractions. And so, believe it or not, in the performances, what you saw was me reined in.

Playbill: Have you sung Norina before?

Welch-Babidge: No, this is my first time, and I can't wait. It's such a fun character‹she's a spitfire. And I love doing comedy as well.

Playbill: Are there any roles that you haven't performed yet that you're dying to sing?

Welch-Babidge: That's difficult to answer. There are so many wonderful roles and wonderful pieces out there. I wasn't raised in opera at all and sometimes I only discover roles when I'm learning them. Thankfully, they just keep coming up.

Playbill: What are some of your upcoming roles?

Welch-Babidge: Soon after Norina I'm singing Marzelline in Fidelio at the Met. Later in 2006 I'm doing Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro in Utah and Adele in Die Fledermaus at San Francisco Opera.

Playbill: Are you excited about your Houston Grand Opera debut?

Welch-Babidge: Yes, I'm really looking forward to it‹it's such a great company. And, you know, I've never actually been to Texas!

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