MALINDA HASLETT'S RADIANT BEAUTY is perhaps matched only by the grandeur and elegance of her voice. Audiences and critics alike from Mexico to Brussels have been enthralled by her operatic and concert performances. We caught up with the NYC-based singer by phone in advance of her —and husband Jonathan Boyd’s— upcoming two-night stand with the Savannah Sinfonietta.
I was frankly amazed by the breadth of your resume. It seems that in the past 15 years or so, you’ve been working almost non-stop in both North America and Europe.
Malinda Haslett: Actually, it began in ‘94, when I was at the Music Academy of The West in California. It was Marilyn Horne’s program there that set everything off for me. It was kind of an amazing feeling. I showed up there in the middle of the night. It was dark and the school was on this precipice on a big mountain. I woke up and looked out my French doors and there was a huge valley below filled with horses, and in the distance, the Pacific Ocean. I thought to myself, wow, life has begun! It was a beautiful start.
Is your schedule inordinately taxing, or do you ever find yourself wanting for more engagements?
Malinda Haslett: Oh, we always want for more! But I think that’s in every profession. If you’re someone who wants more in life, you’ll want a better job or something that pays more or is more artistically rewarding. I happen to also be very grateful for what I have. My goal in life is to not be dissatisfied, but always looking for something better as well. It’s a difficult tightrope to walk, but that’s what I’m looking for. To be aware of joy in the moment, yet still have anticipation for the future. I think we forget to have the joy in the moment part when we’re anticipating the future. That’s what I’m going for. I make a conscious decision to not be crabby today about whatever bothers me.
What are some of the unique challenges presented by being a guest vocalist who comes to town specifically for one or two performances and then moves on?
Malinda Haslett: Well, something that is a downside to this incredible profession is when you come into a town for just a few days you don’t get to experience much of the character of each city. I love different cultures and meeting different people. For example, I won’t be able to taste much of the food or sample any of what the city has to offer as far as music goes. You probably have a museum, and I won’t be able to see that. I’ll have to concentrate on what I do to make sure the people who choose to come see my performance will have a great life experience of their own.
Of the pieces you’ll be singing at these shows with our Sinfonietta, are there that are completely new to you?
Malinda Haslett: Yes. I’ve never sung the Sweeny Todd piece I’ll be doing, but I thought it would be good to include it because the movie has come out. I don’t believe this particular tune was included in the movie, but I think people will be able to relate to it outside of the show. Jonathan and I will be singing some together as well.
What will your portions of the show actually entail?
Malinda Haslett: I’ll do some arias —which is merely the Italian word for song— and musical theater numbers, and then duets from operas. We’re doing a very famous one from La Bohème and a few from some musicals as well. We’ve changed some of the program because sometimes orchestral parts are too difficult to find or too pricey to obtain. We come in with our vocal parts already learned, but each local symphony must rent the sheet music books for each and every part. So, a book for the flute, a book for the clarinet, and so on. When you must do that for a 25-piece orchestra it can be very costly.
Which ones do you view as the most demanding to sing - and why?
Malinda Haslett: That’s easy to answer! (Laughs) There’s a piece called “Glitter and Be Gay” from Candide, and it is demonically high and very, very fast. You almost need a supernatural ability to sing it properly. Of course, I practice, but I get by a lot on prayer as far as that one is concerned. (Laughs). I’ve done it several times, but it is very taxing both vocally and stamina-wise. You need a lot of personality when you sing this piece, so you have to keep your technique grounded and remain mentally focused, while trying to make it all look super easy. It’s about as hard as you can believe.
I noticed that you and Jonathan Boyd are a couple in real life. Do you often get to travel and perform together, or is this something of a luxury?
Malinda Haslett: It’s always a luxury to sing together, but we’ve done so quite a bit. Not as much as we would like, though. We’ve sung five or six operas together, and concert performances are something we do as a couple every summer. There is a little orchestra in new Jersey right around the corner that hires us and we take our dog and sing some concerts and hang out at the beach. It’s almost like a normal life!
Would it be foolish to assume that when classically-trained vocalists have an argument that the shouting is noticeably more pleasing to the ear than that of the average man and woman?
Malinda Haslett: (Laughs) Well, yes and no. We do try to minimize our shouting. Normally, if we’re arguing, we’ll just walk out of the room and slam the door! If you’re gonna argue with your spouse and you’re both singers, you have to temper that. We try to keep it to a minimum. I remember our first fight, I was so mad at Jonathan, and he took a pillow and threw it at me. It wound up turning into a raging pillow fight! We try and do that instead. It’s a real concern, and when we go to things like baseball or football games or tennis matches, we simply don’t yell like everyone else does.
There was a time when the word Diva, much like the word Hero, was used sparingly and with great reverence, whereas these days, it tends to be thrown around and applied to all sorts of folks. You yourself would seem to represent the true meaning of the word, in that you sing opera, you’re a soprano, and you have received no small amount of acclaim. Are you in any way put off by that description, or are you comfortable being billed as a Diva?
Malinda Haslett: Well, I’m comfortable largely because I try to educate people. When they say diva in some sort of derogatory manner, I let them know that the terms diva and prima donna are respectful names for the character who actually carries the show. That person shoulders a lot of responsibility. If you’re not at the top of your game, the entire show will fall apart. When people tease me, I say, “Thank you, because in most cultures, that’s quite a compliment.”
Do you ever find that people are inherently wary of you - because of your “diva” status and the negative baggage that can sometimes come along with that title?
Malinda Haslett: Absolutely. Absolutely. People are normally wary of sopranos in particular because supposedly —in mythical life— our tempers have the tendency to flair. But I would say that the stress we’re under to always look good contributes to that. For example, in a rehearsal situation, a guy can show up in jeans, but a woman must have her hair and makeup done perfectly.
That seems ludicrous to me in this day and age.
Malinda Haslett: Well, it’s mostly sopranos. It’s a supply and demand thing. There’s a large supply of sopranos! Every little girl wants to grow up and be the leading character in a musical play or performance. Not a lot of guys say to themselves I wanna grow up and run around in tights! Because there are so many more of us, the stakes are higher.
Well, you sopranos need to band together and start a union of some sort and demand that you be allowed to dress down for rehearsals.
Malinda Haslett: Oh, we could wear jeans, but you better know that if you do that and somebody else is wearing a sharp dress, then the choice is yours.
Just like the sexism and focus on glitz and beauty in regards to female news anchors.
Malinda Haslett: Exactly.
What’s the most common misconception folks may have about classical vocalists?
Malinda Haslett: That we’re fat.
Are you serious?
Malinda Haslett: Oh, come on. When most people think about opera, they envision a big fat lady with a breastplate and horns. Those days are over, honey!
If you weren’t a professional singer, what would you most like to do for a living?
Malinda Haslett: That’s a very good question. You know, there are a lot of things where you might say oh gosh that’d be neat to do, but would you actually do it... I started out in college as a Pre-Med major, hoping to be a cardiologist. I love the medical profession. I love blood and guts and checking out people’s insides! A lot of singers are medically inclined, because our instruments are our bodies. We’re always asking each other if we’re coughing or what color our phlegm is! Then again, I might have owned a bakery. I love to bake, although I’m not very good at it. Jonathan and I have this little dream that someday when we’re old and saggy we’ll have a bakery and a little sailboat, and we’ll just spend our days making sweet things for people and taking them on rides.
Malinda Haslett and Jonathan Boyd join the Savannah Sinfonietta for their 2nd Annual Diva/Divo Gala. Performances include 8 pm, Thursday at Trinity United Methodist Church and 8 pm, Friday at The Landings’ Plantation Club. Tickets range from $35 to $25 at the door, onine at www.savannahorchestra.org or by calling (800) 514-3849.