Beyond the Bio: A conversation with Barbara Quintiliani

“Be yourself, everyone else is already taken:” –Oscar Wilde

Barbara Quintiliani lives life out loud. As the prize-winning soprano grows into new dramatic roles, her audience wouldn’t have her any other way. We spoke with her about soul-stirring first experiences with music, our intrinsically musical nature and slaying dragons when necessary.

When did you know you wanted to be an opera singer?
“Not until I was 16. I had never been in a theater, never heard an orchestra before. I went on a school field trip to see Carmen at Virginia Opera. I remember the sound of the orchestra and voices filling my ears. They grabbed me down deep in my soul! I was transported to another, magical world. I said to myself: ‘Whatever that is, you need to go there to that place and make it your life.’ It was like this extremely beautiful, bright, white light was shone into this dark place and in that moment, it lifted me right out of my circumstances.”

Those circumstances included a pretty challenging childhood.
“My mother suffered from addiction and my step-father was criminally abusive. We moved a lot and led an itinerant life. We even lived in a car for the six months before I left for college.”

Despite this you found your way to the Governor’s Magnet School of the Arts in Norfolk, Virginia and graduated with honors.
“I found out about the Magnet School and knew I just had to go. I had to look up what “aria” and “art song” meant in the library so I could do the audition! I found some recordings and taught myself the ‘Habanera’ from Carmen and ‘Batti, Batti’ from Don Giovanni by ear. After pestering the principal, they agreed to hear me sing right away and I was accepted in my junior year. It was a magical place filled with these incredible things called “voice teachers.” They set me on the path to righteousness and I started learning appropriate repertoire and technique. I sometimes miss the wonder and ignorant bliss of not knowing how difficult this thing we do really is. I am only here because of those wonderful teachers from the Govenor’s School. They pooled their resources to purchase a dress and shoes for my college auditions. They even paid for my airline ticket and traveled with me. I am only here because other people loved. They gave me a chance at a life I didn’t know was possible. I feel like the luckiest person in the world!”

You are newly back to the stage after taking some time away from opera. Tell us about that.
“My energies were needed elsewhere. The most difficult decision I have ever made was to step back from the stage in order to work with authorities to bring a dangerous predator – my step-father – to justice. I realized that opera could wait but there might have been a child in danger that could not. I felt a responsibility to ensure that no one else suffer because of him. Knowing that he is finally no longer a threat to anyone else assures me that it was one of the best decisions I have ever made.

When my nephew who had been to a number of my performances asked me about my time off, I told him  ‘Aunty needed to be very, very brave for a little while because she had to see about slaying a very dangerous dragon.’ My goodness! I feel as though I just backed up a dump truck and poured this huge mess into your lap with that news. But, life can be messy at times, right?”

We all know the demands of opera are extraordinary – Olympian, really – and I would never wish to offer my colleagues and my audience anything less than my very best on stage. But carrying that burden for so long was like dragging around a millstone. I couldn’t take what I was dealing with into the theater. I continued to sing orchestral concerts and recitals – my soul needed music more than ever. I never waivered from my intention to return to singing full time and this helped to keep my voice in shape as well.

But it sounds like that break may have been a blessing.
“Yes! Hello silver lining! Not only did I feel this weight lifted off me, but I also felt this weight suddenly thrust upon me! That voice change that all the great teachers and coaches in my life promised me would happen finally did!

I have to thank the wonderful Christine Goerke for being so open about her voice growing up and needing time to learn how to negotiate all the new sensations and emotions that come with it. It is exciting and terrifying at the same time. My voice has added darker hues in the palette to balance the steely brightness of my younger voice. I feel I have also gained a fullness, a richness, and an ability to sing much more expansive and challenging phrases that I didn’t have before. Mother nature provided more tools to fill the tool shed. I feel like I am finally able to fulfill all of those orders people were placing for the dramatic repertory! In addition to the great dramatic Italian repertoire, I’ve even cracked the spines on some of the great dramatic German repertoire-and it feels wonderful! Learning to negotiate this stuff isn’t magic however. It takes time to develop the gravitas, the technical skill, hey, to just have the balls to put yourself out there with the titans who breathed that rarified air. Believe me, they were titans for a reason. Singing opera is like walking the high wire, except naked and in front of 3000 close strangers-without a net! I am ready and excited to take on the challenges.

You seem to see music as the saving grace in your life.
“What do people do who don’t have music? It is the thing that fills in the holes. We all have reasons for making a life in music and mine is because it saves me every single day. I feel like I am never more me than when I am singing.

None of us is entitled to anything though. We have to work hard to be the best artists and technicians that we can and if by some miracle that is appreciated by someone else, and we get to share it with an audience, then we are damn lucky. The theater is a temple for performers and audiences alike, so being a performing artist is a responsibility. People leave their burdens at the coat check and we are there to offer a respite from the troubles of the world through this incredible medium.

Hearing the unamplified human voice over an orchestra is one of the most amazing and truly visceral experiences in this world. The act of producing that sound appears to be so superhuman that people forget we’re human ourselves, but the voice is the sign and instrument of our humanity. We experience all that life throws at us and shouldn’t be afraid to feel and be vulnerable, to be imperfect and to struggle.  How do we play those characters who are fragile, who are flailing about with life, who get sick, who die, if we don’t experience that ourselves, acknowledge those experiences? I feel like if I didn’t know that darkness for real, I wouldn’t be very good at my job. Who I am as a human being makes me who I am as an artist.

We are relevant because we are human and everyone deals with things in their own way. We love to compare singers to one another (the next Nilsson, or Cerquetti, or Fleming or..). Those incredible singers teach us so much and archetypes are important as we develop (and man, is it ever flattering to be compared to one of your heroines). However, as Oscar Wilde once said: “Be yourself, everyone else is taken.” Along with the vocal benefits of growing up has come the benefit of being comfortable in myself. I am proud to be the only Barbara Quintiliani.

Indeed. So what else should we know about the one and only Barbara Quintiliani?
“I’m am an astronomy and astrophysics nerd. Do you know there is music filling this universe as we speak? Scientists know that at the instant the Big Bang occurred a sound wave was produced! As matter coalesced into the first noble gasses of Hydrogen and Helium, the pitch of B-flat began to vibrate. Every atom since then has been resonating with music! Music heals because it is what we are made of.  Music vibrates every molecule in our body.  So the musician – the singer – is a noble creature and our calling is to remind our audience that they also have the nobility of music in them as well.”