Not knowing if I would encounter a diva, I was a little nervous on my way to meeting Wallis Giunta (Wally), soloist at Oper Leipzig. I have been to several operas, but I’m still very much a novice. Though I had done some research in advance, I was afraid I would come off a little stupid. We had agreed to meet at Pilot, having already revealed that she’s a vegan and me a vegetarian.
She found me first. From the first hello I was at ease.
With long red locks, her face gently adorned with freckles, wearing blue suede pumps that matched her eyes, she said she was jet lagged. She had just flown in from Texas where she had spent the last month volunteering at a rabbit sanctuary. She showed me a photo of a palm-sized baby rabbit and talked of painstakingly feeding over 100 of them with an eyedropper twice a day. “How did you tell them apart?” I was very curious.
Apparently there were two boxes of baby bunnies: fed and hungry. She really loves animals and isn’t able to have one because of her schedule. When she knows she’s going to be in one place for a while, she goes to the animal shelter and offers to foster. The last time she was home in Canada for 3 months, she had 10 foster rabbits happily hopping around the flat. Don’t panic. It was a mom and 9 babies. Baby rabbits wean in around 8 weeks, but can’t be neutered til they are 4 months old. That’s when they usually go up for adoption.
This was not at all what I expected from a soloist at the Leipzig Opera. Like in any other field, opera singers come in all shapes and sizes.
There’s much more to Wally than being a singer, and she’s very careful to keep in touch with a life lived rather than a life sung.
That’s one of the reasons that, after a string of performances at the Met, she took her earnings, left her tiny flat in Manhattan and set off for Leipzig.
One of the things she loves about living here is being able to ride her bike. While she was studying she worked in a bike shop. She was paid by the tune-up and could do one in under an hour. In Canada she rode her bike throughout the whole winter. I was glad to find out there were snow tires with little metal nubs for bikes.
Wally likes how safe she feels here. In NYC she couldn’t have ridden her bike home from a performance at midnight: “This is something a woman just doesn’t do.”
She also likes that everyone here at least knows what opera is. I was puzzled. She said in Texas, she’d tell people she was an opera singer and they’d send her YouYube videos of people wanting to get on America’s Got Talent and ask if they were any good. What they don’t realise is the years of training it takes and the bigger picture. It’s so much more than just being able to sing one song that you’ve sung over and over again til it sounds like the recording you have.
Wally’s working on her German. Opera singers sing in German, Italian, French and Spanish, but it’s not like actually speaking the languages. You learn how to make the right sounds, focusing on things like the difference between o and ö. What you don’t learn is what you are saying.
When she gets a new part, she goes to the source and reads the story, book or play behind the piece. Like with film, opera is usually an abridged form of the original. This way, she knows the whole story and can prepare her character properly. She also makes sure to have each and every word translated so she knows exactly what she’s singing. Often singers just know the context rather than the individual words.
Opera started 400 years ago in Florence, Italy. Plays were the TV and movies of those days. A collective of wealthy artists, statesmen, writers, and musicians – called the Florentine Camerata – wanted to revive Greek drama and decided to have the characters sing their parts. At the time, professionally played music was only in churches or played by traveling minstrels. They felt there was a need for more non-religious high quality music. They were right and it caught on.
Fast forward to 2016 and naturally there have been various movements. Right now Wally is Cinderella in Rossini’s La Cenerentola. Rossini, the son of a trumpet player and a singer, wrote his first opera at 14 at Bologna’s Philharmonic School (now the G.B. Martini State Conservatory of Music). He was strongly influenced by German and Austrian composers, and his favourites were Haydn and Mozart. Though he was considered a lazy student, he went on to compose more than 40 operas over the next 20 years. I’d say the one most known (and butchered) is The Barber of Seville, which he wrote in 1816.
While Wally is very happy to have a yearly contract rather than having a guest contract with the Opera in Leipzig (not possible anywhere other than Germany, Austria and Switzerland), she is free to do other performances and projects when she is not in a production here. Right now she is in Frankfurt playing Mercedes in Georges Bizet‘s Carmen.
Like Rossini, Bizet came from a musical family, his dad a singing teacher and his mom an accomplished pianist. He began studying at the Conservatoire at 9 and within 6 months had already received his first prize. Though Carmen premiered in 1875, more than 50 years after La Cenerentola, both are opera buffa, where the dark side of life is encased in a light-hearted way.
As an artist, Wally is able to interpret the work of many composers. Her voice is her medium. Like Rossini, she admits to Mozart being her favourite. Before she studied voice, she was studying classical music.
While she is a seasoned professional with a passion for her art, she knows that every experience only enhances life and that enhances her art. She is not opposed to going to karaoke and singing a pop tune. In fact, it’s fun for her to do something very different and push her voice in other directions. Like any good artist, she knows experimentation is the key to discovery.
Last chance to see Wally as Cinderella this season is 19 June. See you there!