Haitianbeatz.com recently featured 31-year-old soprano Jouvanca Jean-Baptiste, who was interviewed after spending five days driving solo from Miami (her home since age 9) to the South Bay for a series of performances with Opera San Jose. Here are excerpts from the article:
Jean-Baptiste, who dubs herself “the Haitian diva,” is endowed with more than a strikingly opulent voice. Irene Dalis, Opera San Jose’s founder and a former diva at the Metropolitan Opera, isn’t exaggerating when she says, “This young lady has something that cannot be taught—stage presence, the ability to get inside a character.”
Yet Jean-Baptiste breaks just about every opera stereotype. The daughter of immigrants from Port-au-Prince, she barely knew the word “aria” until she was 20. [. . . ] She is also “a rock ‘n’ roll, pop-music fanatic,” she says, citing the Who’s “Quadrophenia” and the Clash’s “Sandinista!” as beloved albums, and “Gimme Shelter” as her favorite Rolling Stones tune. (Describing how Keith Richards’ guitar eerily rises out of virtual silence, calling a world into existence at its start, she adds: “It reminds me of the opening to ‘Das Rheingold,’” connecting the Stones to the breath-of-life beginning of the first instalment in Wagner’s “Ring” epic.)
[. . .] Starting next weekend at the California Theatre, Jean-Baptiste will sing the lead role of Mimi in Puccini’s “La Bohème.” A walking encyclopedia of opera who can recite lineages of famous and obscure lirico-spinto sopranos (of which she is one), Jean-Baptiste is consumed with her preparation for the tragic Mimi role. But opera wasn’t her initial career choice. After considering medicine and criminal justice, she began voice lessons a decade ago. But until last September, when she played the title character in Opera San Jose’s production of composer David Carlson’s “Anna Karenina,” she had never sung a leading role in a professional production anywhere. In fact, she had rarely sung stage roles at all.
Rather, she had spent years refining her craft, singing in the Florida Grand Opera Chorus and studying with the Miami-based pedagogue Oscar Diaz Jr. Fortuitously, word of her talents reached Dalis and the Opera San Jose brass, and Jean-Baptiste blew them away in a 2009 audition—so much so that they offered her a job as a resident artist, despite her lack of stage experience. There wasn’t much risk involved, Dalis says. “I believe, genetically and culturally, I was predisposed to go into music,” Jean-Baptiste says. “You can’t fight city hall; you have to go with what’s in you.”
Born in the Bronx to Marie and Charles Jean-Baptiste [. . .] she spent the first part of her childhood in New York City. There was always music in the house: Haitian kompas, Dominican merengue. An uncle, Wes, played classical guitar. And her mother sang her to sleep: One of her “strongest musical memories,” she says, is of a favorite lullaby, “Le petit infant.” Her mother read to Jouvanca and her sister Carly every night. “She didn’t want people to think that, because we were the children of immigrants, we would not be as well-read and well-taught as other children,” Jean-Baptiste says. “When I was 7, I was reading ‘The Count of Monte Cristo.’”
In her Haitian-style upbringing, she says, the groundwork was laid for her acting talents. “My culture is a dramatic culture. We talk with our hands. We’re boisterous! So the expressiveness is already there, and I love to read. I love to imagine characters, even how they might pick … these… glasses up”—she toys, in a way that seems mischievous or even slightly sinister, with the eyeglasses on the table beside her—“and set them right … back … down.”
One can only imagine mischievous Jouvanca playing the piano at 6, the violin at 9. After moving to Florida with her family, she sang in church. She attended a magnet high school, veered toward science, enrolled in pre-med at Loyola University in New Orleans and left after two years. Transferring to Miami Dade College in 1999, she sang her first aria: “O Mio Babbino Caro,” from Puccini’s opera “Gianni Schicchi.” She was hooked: “I said, ‘You know what? I’m going to study singing.’”
In 2001, Jean-Baptiste joined the Florida Grand Opera Chorus, with which she would spend nine seasons learning to move onstage, learning to work with directors and conductors, learning repertory. [. . .] And by 2005, she had found just the right teacher, Diaz. He identified her voice type as lirico-spinto—a lyric voice with a dramatic push behind it—and began pointing her toward appropriate repertory, especially by Puccini and Verdi. [. . .] With Diaz, she began to dream that she would sing the same repertory as the great lirico-spinto soprano Leontyne Price.
In 2007, she stepped onstage, singing the leading role in a young artists’ festival production of Puccini’s “Suor Angelica” in Florida. In 2009, Palo Alto-based West Bay Opera asked her to “cover” the title role of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly.” As the “cover” backup, she only stood in the wings, ready to perform in the event of an emergency. Luckily, bass Carlos Aguilar, an Opera San Jose resident at the time, was in the cast, loved her voice and raved to the Opera San Jose management. “The rest is history,” Jean-Baptiste says.