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“People with big feelings living brave, adventurous lives”: Speaking with Hannah Penn

An interview with the local singer and educator, performing this weekend with OrpheusPDX.

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Hannah Penn in OrpheusPDX’s “L’Orfeo.” Photo: Owen Carey

Portland is fortunate to have Hannah Penn as one of its own. Penn is a top-tier mezzo-soprano who has sung with Glimmerglass Opera, Florida Grand Opera, Tacoma Opera, and many other companies. She has performed many roles with Portland Opera and has appeared with numerous ensembles, including the Oregon Symphony, Portland Baroque Orchestra, Opera Theatre Oregon, and the Bach Cantata Choir.

In early August, Penn will sing the roles of Messagiera and Speranza in Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo for Portland’s new opera company, OrpheusPDX (read more about that production here, read our interview with founder Christopher Mattaliano here).

Penn also teaches, researches, writes, and raises two young daughters. It is high time that we get to know her a little better. 

A little mugging on the set before the opening of “L’Orfeo.” Photo: Owen Carey

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and flow.

Oregon ArtsWatch: How did you get started singing? Did you grow up in a household where you had to yell past your siblings?

Hannah Penn: No, I was a painfully shy kid at least where singing was concerned. I didn’t want to sing in front of people. I just really loved opera.

OAW: You were introduced to opera by your family?

HP: No, they really don’t care for opera. They have only seen me in opera twice, and I don’t think that they liked it either time. 

Hannah Penn takes a duet with bassoonist Danielle Goldman in OTO's 'This Land Sings.' Photo by Michael Daugherty.
Hannah Penn takes a duet with bassoonist Danielle Goldman in Opera Theatre Oregon’s “This Land Sings.” Photo by Michael Daugherty.

My mom still asks me when I’m going to get a real job, and I tell her that I have five real jobs, actually. (Laughs)

Opera used to be broadcast on PBS, and I just absolutely loved to watch it. When I was seven or eight, I saw all of the Ring Cycle. It was the ‘90s Met Ring. To me it was just a fairy tale with mermaids, magic, and giants! It was great!

HP: I fell in love with opera. It’s a beautiful combination of music, literature, history, acting, and imagery. Opera has everything. I grew up in this conservative Christian stoic farm culture where no one talked about big emotions. So, I was mesmerized by these operatic stories about people with big feelings living brave, adventurous lives. 

I wanted to study voice, but where I lived, I had nobody to teach me opera. So, I took piano lessons instead and actually started college as a pianist/coach. I still wanted to be a singer, and after two years of college I decided to change majors and just go for it. I had some catching up to do, but it helped that I could play piano well.

OAW: Where did you go to college?

HP: I started at Vincennes University where my dad used to teach. It has a history as an open-door college that allowed women and Native Americans to enroll in the 1800s. Because its music program was limited, I transferred to Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music. I received a bachelor’s and master’s degree there in vocal performance. Then I went to the New England Conservatory for my doctorate, and finally finished that a couple of years ago.

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Hannah Penn in Portland Opera’s production of “As One.” Photo by Corey Weaver.

OAW: When you embarked on a career in singing, did anyone tell you how difficult that would be as a profession?

HP: Yes. One of the good things about a conservatory environment is that it is highly competitive. I have strong opinions about how unethical it is for teachers and colleges to mislead young singers about their career potential. Music education can sometimes turn into a terrible pyramid scheme where young singers are given false hopes just to get their money. I’m glad that I knew early that I was going to have to work very hard and that there were a lot of people with more natural talent than me who were also working very hard.

I do think that everybody should study music. Music is wonderful for us, for our emotional and mental health, and for our spiritual growth. We all have the potential to tap into our creativity and bring beauty into the world through music, and we should do that. But to be a full-time professional musician is a very different thing. It takes a lot of sacrifice, and it is not always fun. It has to be focused outward. If it is for you – if you are studying music to salve some deep feeling of inadequacy or to be famous or any other self-gratification thing – you are unlikely to get that from the experience, and also that is not what the audience is paying for. They are paying for you to show up and deliver something that’s for them. Some people study music because they are working through some big emotional things. Music is great for that. That’s a wonderful reason to study music. But if you go from that to thinking “now I will become a professional musician” then you will have a huge leap to make.

One of the major requirements of a successful professional singer is incredible emotional strength. That’s because the day-to-day reality of the career is that we are all working together – the whole creative team – to make a great product. So, everyone is going to criticize you. That’s their job. They don’t hate you, but they are going to give you a lot of uncomfortable feedback. If you are thinking that the conductor, the director, and the audience are going to tell you how marvelous you are, then you will be disappointed. Often you don’t get any comments at all. That means you’re doing great! They are probably focused on someone else! 

Hannah Penn in Portland Opera's production of "La Calisto." Photo by Corey Weaver.
Hannah Penn in Portland Opera’s production of “La Calisto.” Photo: Corey Weaver.

OAW: Some singers decide to go to Europe for their opera careers. Did you do that?

HP: I did not. The advice I got when I was leaving college in the early 2000s was that Europe wasn’t very interested in hiring young, inexperienced American singers anymore. Some of it was politics – the time of George W. Bush and the war in the Middle East. Also, Eastern Europe had just opened up and provided available singers who were a lot less expensive. But also, because opera is well-subsidized in Europe, European houses sometimes don’t want to give those government dollars to foreign singers. They will use home-grown talent for most of the roles, and only bring in artists from wherever for the lead roles. 

I’m really envious of the house system in Europe. I wish we had something similar here! I’ve made a happy career playing moms, friends, aunts, third squirrel from the left – that’s the life of a house singer! (Laughs) I would be so happy just having the security of regular work like that – plus health care.

OAW: When you came to Portland, you were one of the Portland Young Artists with Portland Opera. Did you just get stuck here?

HP: I just ran out of funds. It takes an enormous amount of capital to start a career. Auditions, flights, lessons, coachings, hotels, headshots, dresses–everything costs money. I was very lucky in that I did a lot of training programs, and I learned so much and had a fabulous time – but training programs don’t pay well. After I followed that path, after I did what I thought I was supposed to do, it was impossible for me to afford the next step, which was to go to New York and audition for agents. I don’t mean that to be a big sad sob story, but I do think we should talk about this issue because it happens to so many people. I’m in education, myself. I care about helping young singers develop into the next generation of artists. We need to find some way, in this business, to educate and train young singers without bankrupting them! I counsel my own students to think carefully about the financial impact of their choices. Pay-to-sings are rarely worth it. You don’t need to fly across the country for every audition. Some people don’t find an agent worth the expense. Etc. etc. etc. It’s a business. I wish I had understood that earlier. I felt like I had to say yes to every gig. I still struggle with that feeling, I guess.

There are some real advantages to being a regional singer, though. I’m happy that I have a community, and a home, and kids, and a teaching studio. People who travel more have their own set of challenges. I have some friends who are amazing, excellent moms who have a career and a family and travel all over the world with or without their kids and make it all work. I respect that, I’m in awe of that, actually, but I don’t think that we necessarily need to ask people to make that sacrifice. People make better art when they have community. We should be more open to opera-singing moms traveling with their kids. We should ditch the stigma of “local” equals “lesser.” Let people sing in their own communities. There are lots of small changes we could make that would make this career more family-friendly, more supportive to parents, and better for singers’ emotional and mental health.

OAW: Your voice has a huge range – from soprano down to the tenor range. How the heck do you do that?

HP: I love singing low. I never get tired down there. A lot of the repertoire for operatic mezzo doesn’t go low at all and I’m always trying to sneak in some extra low notes, ha! We used to use the label “contralto” all the time in opera. If you look back fifty or a hundred years ago, a lot of the singers we now think of as mezzos would have described themselves as contraltos. Even into the 1950s, singers like Janet Baker, Marilyn Horne, Agnes Baltsa sometimes referred to themselves contraltos. 

It’s so odd that we have so many categories for male voices, and for women we only have soprano and mezzo-soprano listed. I think some of it is an economic problem – it goes back to “you can’t make a career in supporting roles” and contralto parts are often supporting roles, older characters, etc. Some of it is the size of houses; contraltos can have a harder time projecting in big houses because we’re singing at lower frequencies. And some of it, in my opinion, is gendered. People aren’t sure they like the sound of women singing in the bottom of their range. I’m fascinated by this last aspect and it’s something I’m studying on my own at the moment. I love building lecture classes for “civilians” and my current project is a course I’m calling “voicing gender,” which will talk about opera’s long fascination with both very high male voices and very low female voices, and the interesting ways that singers with these voice types often get to defy gender stereotypes onstage. For me, personally, I love playing male-identifying characters and I love singing in my chest voice.

Hannah Penn in Tacoma Opera's production of "Le Nozze di Figaro." Photo courtesy of Tacoma Opera.
Hannah Penn in Tacoma Opera’s production of “Le Nozze di Figaro.” Photo courtesy of Tacoma Opera.

OAW: You have terrific stage presence. Was this something you’ve always had?

HP: Ha, thanks! But no, I had to learn that. I am often very nervous. I always try to do a good job of acting but the number one thing that draws focus on stage is so simple – just to hold your body in a way that invites people to look at you. One of my voice teachers used to say: there are bats and moths in opera. The bats like the dark and the moths fly to the light. Find the light and stand in it. Be a moth! 

Something about your posture should tell the audience that they can relax into your presence. I try to let my body say “I’m going to give you something great. I feel great. You will feel great too” – even if that feels like a total lie to me, in the moment!

OAW: You also wear several hats.

HP: Yes, I have a lot of jobs! I’m teaching at Portland State University and will teach at Willamette University in the fall. I have my private voice studio. I’m a staff singer at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral. I write program notes and give pre-concert talks for Portland Opera, and of course I try to perform as much as I can. It’s so complicated to make all that work. Scheduling can be a nightmare and emailing is sometimes totally overwhelming.

OAW: What is your advanced degree from New England Conservatory?

HP: It’s a DMA – a Doctorate of Musical Arts. I did my coursework a long time ago, then I took off to sing and put the studies on the back burner. They were very patient with me. It took me forever to get back to writing the dissertation and finally finishing it.

OAW: What was your dissertation about?

HP: I rediscovered and recreated the full score for an American opera, Shanewis, that was loosely based on the life of Tsianina Redfeather Blackstone, an unfairly forgotten opera singer who I really admired. Blackstone was one of the first professional Native American opera singers. She was also an activist and just a really cool human being.

Shanewis premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in 1918. At that time in American music history, there was a whole rash of other operas that we call “Indianist” operas. The stories were mostly mythical, pre-contact, “Indian princess” stories that had little or nothing to do with actual Native culture. The music for “Indianist” operas was often loaded up with inaccurate musical signifiers for Native culture. Most of these operas have been forgotten and rightly so. What was so different about Shanewis is that instead of telling a mythical princess story, it described Blackstone’s own real-life struggle to become an opera singer, and doesn’t shy away from discussing the enormous amount of racism she encountered from classical music audiences.

OAW: Did you discover the music?

HP: I rediscovered the orchestra parts. The piano vocal score was still around, but the orchestra parts had been lost, and I found them.

OAW: Where were they?

HP: I flew all over the country looking for them and finally found them, uncatalogued, in some big file boxes of the librettists’ effects in the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. I scanned all the individual parts with my phone, then I entered them into Finale and edited them. So – the score exists again!

OAW: You must have worked yourself to pieces!

HP: I enjoyed it! The hard part was deciphering the composer’s messy handwriting. He was left-handed and as he wrote from left to right, he dragged his hand through his own ink.

OAW: Is there a chance that you will do a recital?

HP: Yes! Recitals are one of my favorite ways to share music. I missed them so much during lockdown that I even gave a few over livestream! Right now I’m working on two great projects – a self-accompanied recital, and a staged recital themed around the lives of female poets. Check my webpage!

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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