Out, Out Dang Spot

North Carolina soprano Jill Gardner’s musical ancestry and training led her to killing the role of Lady Macbeth.

On Friday the 13th, Opera Tampa unloads quite the murderfest with their debut performance of Verdi’s Macbeth. The bloody story of a Scottish nobleman’s immoral rise to power, Macbeth was for Shakespeare, and here, for Verdi, really a story about the greatest force behind the man: his wife, Lady Macbeth. A tough, almost impossible soprano role, Lady Macbeth demands relentless range and dark psychological depth. “There are few singers who can do this role,” says conductor Andrew Basantz. “Jill can.” He means Jill Gardner, a well-loved Southern soprano who is a Puccini girl with a Verdi habit. She performs for her first time with Opera Tampa in this complex powerhouse role.

Here, we talk with her about her upbringing in the tobacco country of North Carolina and how that led to the opera stage and her deep understanding of what it takes to be successful as one of the most loathed characters in the canon.

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CAUGHT IN THE ACT: We’re both North Carolina girls who experienced an agricultural upbringing. I never worked tobacco, but I did pick peas and butterbeans and shuck corn. You grew up around Tobaccoville, NC, having to pick tobacco in the summer. For people who may not have any idea of the hell that is tobacco farming in North Carolina, especially in the North Carolina summer, paint us a picture of what it was like.

JILL GARDNER: I was born in Winston Salem, North Carolina, but we moved into my great-aunt’s house who died in 1977, still using an outhouse and drawing her water from a well. When she died, we moved into her house. My dad put in a bathroom, made plumbing. My parents were educators. My dad went on to build houses, but in the summertime for six summers of my life, we raised tobacco north of Tobaccoville in Surry County.

It was a family affair in the fact that our family grew it. My grandfather at that time was very much the patriarch of the family, shall we say. My grandmother and her sisters were the ones to string [the tobacco]. They would hang it in the tobacco barn, but we, the cousins, all the other parts of the family, came together when it came time to pick it. It’s labor intensive. Now, we have machines and all these kinds of things to do this, but it was labor intensive. Very hot, very sticky, that process.

But for us, the cool thing was that it was about family. It was a family affair, and on both sides of my family. My grandparents. I got to know three of my great-grandparents as well, in that good old Southern tradition. That generation especially were total agricultural people, so I truly have those roots. That’s, I think, why I love to garden when I’m not on the road.

CITA: For those of you who don’t know, back in this day when Jill and I were growing up, the fall in North Carolina was when the tobacco cured.

JG: Correct.

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A tobacco field in Harnett County, N.C. (Photo: bumeister1 / Flickr)

CITA: Curing tobacco is the most nostalgic smell for me. When I’m in North Carolina, if I smell tobacco curing—and it doesn’t smell like smoke; it smells like very thick fragrant plant leaves mellowing out—it is the most beautiful smell.

JG: Yes, and growing up in Winston where the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Industry was downtown, that was the joy of going downtown, because the whole town smelled of curing tobacco. In Tobaccoville now, the hometown where I grew up, the last remaining R. J. Reynolds plant is still there, so at certain times of the day, you will still get that aroma, which is what’s very cool too. But I do know what you mean about nostalgia. Southern tradition.

CITA: Southern tradition, honey. Let’s talk about how do you get from Tobaccoville to Lady Macbeth, and I want to say too that a lot of people don’t associate North Carolina with this rich arts tradition, which is amazing if you’re from North Carolina, because in Winston-Salem, up around where you were, and then down where I was in Wilmington, the arts are huge. We have had so much artistic contribution, so much artistic output come from North Carolina that the arts – singing, dancing, music – is as inbred in us as tobacco was coming up.

JG: Correct. Very well said.

CITA: Talk a little bit about from Tobaccoville to-

JG: Lady Macbeth.

CITA: Verdi’s’ Lady Macbeth at that.

JG: That’s exactly right. I guess, to go back . . . my mother’s side of the family was very musical. My great-grandmother was a pianist, and she had several brothers and sisters—one was a violinist, another one played another instrument … I can’t remember now—it eludes me a little bit, but they were extremely musical. My mom was taking piano lessons when I was born, and she said I came out of the womb and went straight to the piano bench. I actually knocked my front teeth out on my great-grandmother’s piano bench trying to get up on that thing.

When I was growing up, she said it was very clear I had this passion for music. Also, in this Southern tradition, we would go down to my great-grandmother’s very often to have family reunions. She had 14 children, two of which died, so she oftentimes talked about the fact that she had her children in quartets. They would go around—they were Pentecostal Holiness people—and they would go around and do quartet singing.

When I would go to my great-grandmother’s, we’d end up in the front living room where the piano was, and there’d be 25 of us in there. On Sunday afternoons after you ate, you’d get up in there, and we’d have “church.” We would sing hymns. I can remember sitting between my Grandmother Teva and my great-aunt Bridget. In the southern tradition, the tenors sang the lead, and the women harmonized with the bass, so I learned how to sing harmony from my grandmother and my great-aunt.

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Jill performing the role of Nedda in I Pagliacci at Mill City Summer Opera in 2012.

To fast forward a little bit, it was very clear that music was going to be my passion. I’d studied the violin for five years. I took dance/ballet for almost four years until my body blossomed. [Laughs] You know, we had to move along on that. By the time I got to high school, I was active in my church singing. I did shows in high school like everyone else, but I really didn’t know that I was going to be an opera singer.

Luckily, to go back to what you were talking about, because of the arts history in North Carolina, the North Carolina Arts Council as well as the local Arts Council of Forsyth County are very huge and very instrumental within our state. At that time, my hometown opera company, Piedmont Opera Company, put on productions twice a year. That’s where I saw my first opera, which was Marriage of Figaro.

In my class at that time, one of my assignments was to write a letter, and I wrote—my mother kept this letter after all these years—about having this experience. The last line of that letter says, “I think opera is going to have a big place in my life.”

CITA: How old were you?

JG: I was about sixth grade.

CITA: Wow. So, you were young, but you had—

JG: I made that connection [with opera], but my passion was the piano. By the time I got to high school, I had a little spinet piano in our little 1200-square-foot house, and I would practice four to six hours a day—to the point that my parents at night would say, “Jill, we have to go to bed.” I had this passion for piano, so upon completion of high school, I got a full scholarship to go and study with this teacher who I’d worked with in my senior year, Constance Carroll.

At that time, she was at a private liberal arts college in Shreveport, Louisiana, called Centenary College of Louisiana, so I got a full scholarship as a piano performance major to go to this school. I decided to take a voice minor and formally study voice. I was very fortunate to have a wonderful teacher who allowed my voice to train naturally through really good fundamental technique but to address my voice through repertoire.

Mid-undergrad work, I started entering competitions and won. People were like, “Why aren’t you going to be a singer?” And I was like, “Because I’m going to be a pianist.”

CITA: So then singing was just-

JG: Well, see. I think a part of it, too, is that it was clear that I was a singer, and, like I said, I always sang in church and school shows, and I had leads and the whole nine yards. Maybe it was because of my background; it was never really a thought like so many people have now, because opera is so prevalent in our national scene, to go and be an opera singer. I also think it was because I felt so passionately about the piano, which I still do.

I’m so thankful for my piano background because musically it has given me an advantage to being a singer and to have all of that stylistic and musical history from studying music as long as I did. I take all of that in—particularly to something like Verdi’s Lady Macbeth. I have such respect for that music, for his lines and his phrasing and his articulation and the way that he conceives of this music because of my background.

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Jill performing in Tosca at Mill City Summer Opera in 2014.

I also, because of that background, can learn so much of my music myself. I can teach myself at the piano, and many, many singers can’t. When I talk to singers about that, some of them are very jealous of because they would love to be able to do teach themselves their music.

It was in my undergraduate degree where the idea even arose, and so at the end of that degree, I’d gotten into a couple of schools for graduate work in piano, but I really sort of, as we say in the South, had a Come to Jesus moment. I realized, “This is pretty cool, but I think I would really love to study voice.” So, from there, from Louisiana, I decided to move home and attend the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, to get my master’s degree.

CITA: The University of North Carolina at Greensboro is a highly respected music school. We have a lot of really exceptionally well-trained, very gifted musicians who go through the UNCG music program because it is so well known.

JG: I went there because I knew it was a good school, and by being a North Carolina resident, the tuition was feasible. I also knew I did not want to have a lot of student loan debt. We all have to make decisions as we go down these paths, and it was a really, really, really good decision for me.

CITA: You knew opera was your vocal path?

JG: I knew opera would be my focus, even though I continued to play piano. I’ve now started to do some teaching. That’s what keeps my piano chops up because I can play so much of the repertoire when I am teaching. So, it ended up working out really well. I oftentimes say to younger singers that I meet who I work with through master classes is as soon as you can immerse yourself in a real strong musical background, the stronger you’re going to be from the standpoint of being a singer.

So much of the singing industry now is about how you look, which is important too. I’m not saying it’s not. I think it is important for us to take the responsibility of being physically healthy and able to do anything on the stage from the standpoint of characterization. But, it’s still about the music for me. I’ll never really get to the place to where opera will be just a spectator sport, like a film experience. It’s still about the music for me.

I think for young singers, that’s one of the things that I impress upon them, is to really respect music and work to gain as much musical prowess as you can because that also influences the voice. For me, having had all that background, I think that’s a part of what really has led to my success.

CITA: So let’s talk about Lady Macbeth. This is a tough role.

JG: Oh, my Lord. It’s not for children.

CITA: It’s a demanding role. Lady Macbeth herself, from Shakespeare’s creation to what we’re going to see in your presentation of Verdi’s adaptation of that work, she is a deep, dark character. This really is her play even though it’s called Macbeth and is . . . sort of about him. Do you see yourself as a Lady Macbeth character or was this a stretch for you? Or was it something that you wanted to do, something that you felt that you could come to naturally?

JG: Yeah, well, I guess what I’d say is I went professional as an opera singer in 2005, so I’ve been doing this now for a little over 13 years. It was very clear that the Italian repertoire was going to be one of the main focuses of my singing career. Not that it’s the only focus; I’ve done French repertoire, German repertoire, Czech repertoire, contemporary operas to last season I did my first Blanche DuBois in Streetcar Named Desire, for instance, which I absolutely love. But, it was very clear that the Italian repertoire was going to be my mainstay, and so much of that has been Puccini.

I’ve sung almost all of Puccini’s heroines. The one on the horizon will be Turandot, which I think I will do in the proper time and place. Because of that, it was very clear. I sang Traviata, which is probably one of Verdi’s most famous operas, and a couple of years ago, I did my first Leonora in Il Trovatore.

As the voice has developed, it was very clear that Lady Macbeth was a natural role for me to take on, and the beauty was a director that I had worked with in several different Puccini productions was Jay Lessinger, who was the artistic director of Chautauqua opera for many, many seasons.

Jay approached me. We were talking about possibly doing Tosca in Chautauqua, but he said, “What do you think about Lady Macbeth?” You know, those synergistic moments in life when serendipity just drops into your life, and you go, “What do I think about Lady Macbeth? I’ve been waiting for somebody to say, ‘what do you think about Lady Macbeth?’” It was also a wonderful place for me to try it out for the first time. It was a great director, really good conductor too. In preparing it, I knew I could really accept the vocal challenge.

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Jill performing in Hawai’i Opera Theatre’s 2017 production of A Streetcar Named Desire.

Coming to Opera Tampa, like you said, which is my debut here, I’m really thankful to have had [other chances to play her]… From Chitauqua, I then went to Michigan Opera Theater where I did the role with Bernard Uzan directing and Stephen Lord conducting, which was another huge impetus for me, not only dramatically but musically in growing this role, so that I do feel that I bring to Tampa a really fleshed-out Lady Macbeth. Every role we have continues to grow, but she’s very much a part of Jill and my psyche and my being.

To talk about the character, that’s why they call it acting. Does Jill Gardner have dark sides to her? Oh, my Lord! We all have a shadow side, and I think what I really respect about Lady Macbeth is that even from the story of Shakespeare, she was a woman who had huge ambitions, but at that point in time on our planet in our historical journey of humanity, women truly were not allowed to have any place other than a lesser station in life—and she was born with huge ambition.

Lady Macbeth is as much a yang, fire, male-dominated character as Macbeth is the yin, contemplative, deeply empathetic and psychically aware character. So the conflicts within us, I think, are very real and can be understood in today’s life, in today’s society, because I think a lot of people feel that way, particularly as we grapple with gender identity now. We’re going to that level within the human experience on the planet, right?

CITA: Right.

JG: She was a woman who I think was caught in a body and a societal situation which would not allow her to seek the full fulfillment of her desires and ambitions. Her only object, or her only way to achieve [what she wanted] was through marriage—but not just any marriage; she married this man who was a warrior, a soldier, and, to a certain extent, with aspirations of his own. But given the kind of soul that he was, he just did not have that ambizione, which is the very first word I sing. He just doesn’t have it.

CITA: Which means what?

JG: “Ambitious.” To have this ambitious nature. And so she lives her experience through him. If she could do this herself, she would, but she can’t, so she has to live this [ambition] through him. And the interesting thing about their relationship, I think, is that it is extremely intense. I think it is extremely sexual and therefore power-dominated. Although she’s the more aggressive one in the relationship, it’s not that he doesn’t have these desires, too; he’s just the one to question. He’s the one that has much more of an empathetic sense about ‘what are my choices and what are the ramifications of these choices,’ whereas she doesn’t think about that. She just sees the goal and goes for it.

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Jill and Mark Rucker in rehearsal for Opera Tampa’s upcoming production of Macbeth.

With the presence of the witches and that culture also within the story, for me, I think she’s very much aligned with the witches. I think that she herself is a witch and has spent time within that community of women because that was the only place where they could really revel in and express their power. It’s black magic, or it’s the darker elements, but still they were the feminine elements at that time that could not be expressed or understood. So, she lives there with them, and that’s why I think she has the need and the desire to control and gain what she wants.

CITA: Through the means that she has available to her.

JG: Correct.

CITA: You know, it has always bothered me in the plot trajectory that she goes mad at the end, and people say, “She goes crazy because of guilt.” I’m like, “But there’s been no indication that her character would feel guilty.” In your understanding of her in the context of the play, it’s better for me to understand it as she is mad with frustration, not guilt. That everything that she would have done, or could have done if she had been able to . . . things go so sideways for her and her plans because Macbeth is not her, but he is the only tool that she has.

Now, thanks to you, when I see the play again, I will have a different understanding of what might be driving her psychological madness, which is not guilt or feelings of conscience but a sense of “What could have been if had really been able to control this the way that I had wanted to.”

JG: Well, and also, again, the beauty of this from the standpoint of the operatic tradition is Verdi chose to include the understanding that this woman, because she was unfulfilled, like you say. For me, the reason that she goes mad is because her desires for power and ambition lead her to this psychological breakdown, and it’s not lost on me that the key of D flat, which is the key of her very first aria of ambition—the Vieni t’affretta.

Basically, she’s trying to express her desire for Macbeth to rise to the challenge of power and stance, and to burn within his heart these feelings. Then the key of the mad scene, the sleepwalking scene (and I’d like to say something about that) is also in the key of D flat. So therefore, by the time I arrive at that, I musically, psychically and emotionally understand that I go mad from the ambitions of which I am driven.

Verdi chose that same key to link those emotional responses. I think that the point is, in the somnambulant scene, it’s not that she’s mad; she’s sleepwalking. So these people, when they’re in this state, are awake, and they’re awake in a way, in this kind of dream state, that they never achieved in real life, and so that level of awareness and consciousness is there to help her see what she did.

CITA:. Now, for those of you unfamiliar with the plot of Macbeth, there is a chain of events set up by witches’ prophecy that arcs toward this sleepwalking scene that Jill is talking about right now where Lady Macbeth is sleepwalking in the most challenging aria of the opera. Verdi set it up this way.

JG: Thank you.

CITA: When he was writing Macbeth he felt so passionately about Shakespeare, so passionately about this story that he wanted a soprano who was able to sing and pull off a vulgar, brutish tone which was unheard of at this time. So we’re talking about a very historically important aria.

JG: What was very unique about this particular character when he wrote her—and if you talk to Italians or if you work with Italians on Macbeth—many of them believe that there is no redeeming quality about Lady Macbeth at all, and if you’re trying to find it, you’re wrong. I love that. I completely understand that because he wanted to be able to have that mirror between the character and the voice. I think that’s also one of the wonderful things about opera, is that we’re not just dramatically portraying the story on the stage; we’re taking it to a new level by adding the music and the voice, right?

For me, as an American and an American woman, there’s a part of me that wants to find – not that I’m trying to necessarily portray this obviously on the stage – but needs to understand the redemptive quality of why she goes here [to the psychological state of the sleepwalking scene].

CITA: Absolutely. And I think it’s an authentic understanding of the human psyche, not just lady Macbeth as a flat character, that she’s a bad seed who wants too much and ends up creating a body count. She was very frustrated by her circumstance because she didn’t have anything the Thane of Cawdor didn’t have or Macbeth himself didn’t have or Duncan didn’t have.

JG: Because women were nothing then.

CITA: She had no way to be her true self, to act on her ambition as a human being. All she could be was background to Macbeth’s life.

JG: Correct, and like on our planet right now, I can look at that power dynamic and understand and have a sense through the present day of what women in her time period felt—the lack of achievement or position or ascension within the culture, or not even those things, just lack of recognition. So, for Jill at this juncture in looking at this character and also that opera is relevant to our current life experiences, this girl [Lady Macbeth] I can really understand in a personal way what led her to her choices. I’ve thought about killing people, I’ll readily admit it to you! [laughs] Never done it, but I’m telling you, I’ve thought about killing people.

Yet, she not only thought about it; she knew she had to do it to get what she wanted. For example, a modern-day revelation of this kind of character, within our TV series world, for me, is Robin Wright on House of Cards. Not that she doesn’t have power or she’s not a modern-day woman, but it’s very clear, given her position even in that situation, she’s still Mrs. Frank Underwood, and she has to work behind the scenes to get her agenda done. That is similar to Lady Macbeth.

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I also think it’s okay that Verdi thought of this character one-dimensionally because there are a lot of people, and there are characters within the operatic canon too, that are just downright evil. I mean, they are the personification of evil, and that’s okay.

CITA: Evil people make great stories.

JG: But see, evil people are often extremely complex, and some of the most evil men have been the most sexually provocative, hot, wonderful men, so you can understand why women were crazy for them. Now, as women evolve and get more of their equality, their equal station in life, they go,”I don’t need that.” Or “That’s not as interesting to me.” But that’s a part of evolution. That’s a part of awareness.

CITA: Exactly. Exactly.

JG: Anyway, I think that for myself, even though there’s a big part of Lady Macbeth that is evil and one-dimensional, I really try to find the humanity in her mad death.

CITA: The villainy has a complexity to it. The intricacy is in there, which I think would be such a gift to a performer because you really can take the role into any little nuances you want. Or not.

JG: The truth is, you realize that she, in her sleepwalking nature, she’s asleep but very aware and conscious to the psychological decisions and choices that she made. That’s what she talks about throughout that entire aria. It’s the “Out, out, damned spot.” It’s the “Una macchia.” It’s seeing Macbeth. It’s seeing the children that they killed. I think if you make opera cathartic, what we as singing actors or actresses are trying to portray on the stage to the audiences that come and see it, for me, I’m wanting them to see at the time what it’s like for somebody to really have a reckoning with what they did with their life.

CITA: I believe, Jill, that when our audiences are at the end of your sleepwalking scene, they will be at that reckoning. There’s no doubt in my mind that you’re going to be able to take them there. We are beyond thrilled.

JG: Well, it’s a terrific cast. I really want to speak to that, too. Mark Rucker returns to Opera Tampa. Mark is a well-loved, well-respected baritone within the opera industry, and this is my first time meeting him and working with him. In addition to being such a terrific singer, he is such sweet and kind man, so we’re having a lot of fun together within the rehearsal process.

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Jill and Mark Rucker in rehearsal for Opera Tampa’s Macbeth.

Our conductor, Andrew Basantz, who I’ve also worked with, is a terrific musician, so I think the Tampa audiences are going to be very happy about that. It’s a very modern presentation. We will be very much in traditional costumes, but it’s a very contemporary, modern set with projections in the back, so I think that audiences who have not seen Macbeth will enjoy that.

It’s Verdi opera at its best. Big choruses. It’s a huge monumental work that’s not often done because of that. So, good on Opera Tampa for bringing it here for the audiences here. That in and of itself is exciting. I hope everyone will look forward to it.

Want to see Opera Tampa’s Macbeth? Get your tickets here.