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Extreme upper register: A conversation with Holly Flack

The Portland-born coloratura soprano returns to Oregon for two very different roles in OrpheusPDX’s inaugural season.

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Holly Flack as Olympia in Offenbach's Les contes d'Hoffmann" for the International Young Artists Festival 2020 in Suzhou. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Holly Flack as Olympia in Offenbach’s “Les contes d’Hoffmann” for the International Young Artists Festival 2020 in Suzhou. Photo courtesy of the artist.

August has proved to be a big homecoming for Holly Flack. The native Portlander is singing in two productions with city’s newest opera company, OrpheusPDX. The 35-year-old soprano sparkled in the company’s inaugural production of Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo as the ill-fated Euridice whose husband (Orfeo) fails to lead her out of the Underworld. Next, Flack will endeavor to create a haunting Madeline in Philip Glass’s The Fall of the House of Usher (August 25-28).

In the following conversation (edited for conciseness), we discover more about this homegrown talent, including the extremely high notes that she can sing.

Oregon ArtsWatch: What part of Portland did you grow up in?

Holly Flack: I am from the Raleigh Hills area. I went to Oregon Episcopal School where my mom was a librarian. My dad is a hospital pharmacist.

OAW: When did you start singing?

HL: I always loved singing. I’ve been told that in kindergarten I would stand in the tower of a big play structure at school and sing. I also had to be told not to sing while in class. I was always in choir. My mom arranged for me to have voice lessons at OES when I was in first grade. I even did a voice recital with that teacher’s high school students that same year.

When I was four years old, I saw the Phantom of the Opera at the Civic Auditorium (before it became the Keller). I played the cassette tape over and over and probably wore it out while singing along to it.

OAW: Did you come from a musical family?

HF: My parents are not musicians, but they have always supported my artistic interests. I am the youngest of five siblings, and some of them studied music. I played violin from age four onwards. I also took ballet, tap, jazz, and competitive Scottish Highland dancing. 

I sang in the Pacific Youth Choir under Mia Hall (Savage) for many years. While in high school, I took lessons from Dr. Scott Tuomi who taught at Pacific University. He recommended attending St. Olaf College, so I auditioned and was accepted. They are famous for their choirs, but I wasn’t a very good “blender.”

I’ve always loved opera. I have a more classical sounding voice. I can do older musicals, but I don’t really have the pop sound that is needed for something more modern. I made the decision to follow my passion while in high school. I wanted to go to school for voice and to study opera.

My voice teacher at St. Olaf, Mark Calkins, recommended that I not go into the St. Olaf Choir, because it wouldn’t be fun for me as a louder singer. The college started the opera program while I was there, and we did Mozart’s Cosi fan tutti and La finta giardiniera, and Christopher Columbus by Jacques Offenbach.

I studied with Cynthia Lawrence at University of Kentucky for graduate school. She had just gotten the job there and reached out to me through her husband Mark Calkins. It was the only school that I applied to. So, I have a Bachelors in Vocal Performance from St. Olaf and a Masters in Vocal Performance from the University of Kentucky. 

OAW: After getting your masters what did you do next?

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Bag & Baggage Danny and the Deep Blue Sea The Vault Theatre Hillsboro Oregon

HL: I started doing auditions. It’s a learn as you go sort of thing, and it is very subjective. Sometimes they hate an aria that you’ve prepared to sing, or they don’t like they way you look. You have to roll with the punches. I’ve done numerous auditions. They say in this business that rejection is your middle name. 

I always try to have something ready to show off my specialty which is my upper register.

OAW: How high can you sing?

HL: I have performed a B above high C in public.

OAW: Holy smokes!

HL: I did that at David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center. I know that Audrey Luna has sung an A above high C at the Met. This year I workshopped a new show with the Met, and the role they had me working on made pretty extensive use of the extreme upper register. It was great fun!

The Met leadership was really enthusiastic and I got to meet and sing for Peter Gelb. I’m really hoping they will ask me back soon.

OAW: That must make you a natural for The Queen of the Night.

HL: I love that role! I even add some higher ornamentation to her second aria!

OAW: In The Fall of the House of Usher do you get to sing some super high notes?

HL: Yes, in my very last phrase I sing an A above high C. It’s not written in the score that way. I asked the conductor, Michelle Rofrano, if I could take it up an octave from the high A in the score. So I did it, and she liked it!

Our director Kevin Newbury has set the opera in the 1960s. We are going for a Hollywood actor in Palm Springs vibe. He has just been outed by rumor, and he’s struggling. His film career is on hold. He asks his friend William, who is from San Francisco and already out, for some guidance. Usher’s sister Madeline could be real in this production or she could be more of a representation of his inner shame about his own femininity. 

The score is very melodic for Glass. There is repetition of certain musical phrases. But we sing melodic phrases in harmony. 

OrpheusPDX's 2022 production of "Fall of the House of Usher." Photo by Owen Carey.
OrpheusPDX’s 2022 production of “Fall of the House of Usher.” Photo by Owen Carey.

OAW: How did Christopher Mattaliano find you?

HL: I’ve auditioned for Portland Opera several times in the past. Although I didn’t get the job, he knows me and my voice and of course knows my agent Robert Gilder and the invitation came about that way.

OAW: How long does it take you to learn a new role?

HL: I try to give myself a month to learn a new role. Usually, you get a month or more. I like to find a good recording. I learn best by listening. If I hear something, I can usually remember it. I often memorize the music before I learn the text.

I have several wonderful coaches in New York. Two or three times a week I can take the train or drive into the city to take lessons. I use different coaches depending on the piece and the language.

OAW: You had two roles to learn with L’Orfeo and Usher. How did that happen?

HL: About two weeks into L’Orfeo rehearsals the original soprano for Usher withdrew, and Mattaliano asked me if I could sing Madeline. I said, “Sure!”

I have never learned a show while rehearsing for another show. L’Orfeo and Usher couldn’t be more different. There is a recording available by Glimmerglass and that helped. For Usher, I don’t sing any words. I sing on an “Ah” vowel the whole time. I had to come up with a way to memorize. So, I have written down on index cards all of the note lengths and rests that I need to count before, during, and after I sing.

OrpheusPDX's production of "L'Orfeo" in Lincoln Hall. Photo by Owen Carey.
Holly Flack (center) as Euridice in OrpheusPDX’s production of “L’Orfeo” in Lincoln Hall. Photo by Owen Carey.

OAW: I have seen that you have done a number of operas for St. Petersburg Opera in Florida. Are you based there?

HL: No, I live in Montclair, New Jersey, which is conveniently close to Manhattan.

OAW: You also have sung in China. When was the last time you were there?

HL: The fall of 2021. We also went during the pandemic. In 2020, I spent three months there. We were some of the few foreigners granted visas. Unfortunately we cannot go this year. 

OAW: Is this through a special program?

HL: It’s a wonderful organization called the iSing! Festival. It was founded by Hao Jiang Tian, who is the most famous Chinese bass to sing at the Met. He wanted to create a connection between East and West. Artists from the U.S. and Europe go to China and sing Western opera as well as songs in Mandarin that have been arranged for orchestra. 

I have had a lot of training and coaching to sing Mandarin. Singing Mandarin is much easier than speaking it!

Holly Flack with Hao Jiang Tian in San Francisco for iSing! 2018. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Holly Flack with Hao Jiang Tian in San Francisco for iSing! 2018. Photo courtesy of the artist.

OAW: What do you have scheduled for the future?

HL: In October, I will do the North American premiere of a Chinese opera called Painted Skin by Hao Weiya in New York. I also have a several concerts with the iSing! Festival in January. After that I sing the role of Elvira in L’Italiana in Algeri with St. Petersburg Opera in June.

James Bash enjoys writing for The Oregonian, The Columbian, Classical Voice North America, Opera, and many other publications. He has also written articles for the Oregon Arts Commission and the Grove Dictionary of American Music, 2nd edition. He received a fellowship to the 2008 NEA Journalism Institute for Classical Music and Opera, and is a member of the Music Critics Association of North America.
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