Interview with Maria Valdes

Maria Valdes, an accomplished American soprano from Atlanta praised for her “silvery tone, glassily smooth phrasing, and fine-caliber dynamics” (San Francisco Classical Voice), will soon be making her solo debut with Kaleidoscope on the upcoming concert featuring composer Samuel Barber’s piece Knoxville, Summer of 1915. Performing in the role of a soloist is not new to Ms. Valdes, as her resumé includes an extensive list of operatic and symphonic collaborations with the San Francisco Opera, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and the New Century Chamber Orchestra, and Kaleidoscope is thrilled to be working with this award-winning artist. Interested in how she is preparing for this role with the orchestra, she graciously donated her time to allow us to go behind the scenes to find out a little bit more about who she is and what she values.

Carrie Rexroat: How did you get started in music?

MV: I started with piano at the age of seven. I took lessons for the next six to seven years but I just sang for fun. I joined the choir in high school, and my director was an opera singer who told me she thought my voice was very naturally operatic. That was cool for me to discover because I always knew I had a good voice, but I didn’t really fit into the pop music or musical theater genre; when I found opera it just fit. Originally I wanted to be a choir director, as that was my first love and still one of my great passions, but when I went to music school at Georgia State University I decided to pursue a performance degree. My voice teacher, Richard Clement really encouraged me and helped me through all the steps to becoming an opera singer.

CR: Great! What are some of the things that you love most about your profession as a performer?

MV: First and foremost, singing is about communication. I like to tell stories and connect with the audience and my colleagues on stage. I love opera because it’s collaborative. There are so many moving parts, and I get to interact with many people and create something bigger than just one person could do. I also have a great love for recitals and chamber music. It is a simpler and more intimate experience where really special things can happen. The aesthetic of the voice is so beautiful, and it’s a huge honor to have that instrument and share it with people.

CR: It’s definitely an embellished and beautified form of communication. I like that you see it that way as well.

MV: Yes, it’s elevated. There are plenty of ways that singers communicate without words, just as instrumentalists do. We can put our own spin on things too, using things like inflection or vocal color. Interpreting is one of our greatest tasks.

CR: Great! What are some things that you do in preparation for a solo performance?

MV: I always start with the text. With a piece like Knoxville: Summer of 1915, it’s an involved process because the poem is detailed and of great influence on the music. For this piece I researched the historical context of the poem, the piece, and the composer. After that I learned the notes and rhythms, and studied the orchestral parts to see how they interact with mine. I also spent time discovering my character from a dramatic perspective.

CR: So after having done all that preparation work, what are some of your favorite aspects about the piece and text?

MV: Knoxville: Summer of 1915 is a coming of age piece that I started learning when I was 20 years old. It was also one of the first pieces I performed with an orchestra, and for that reason it will forever be special to me. The fact that it’s about Knoxville, TN also resonates with me because I grew up in the south, so when I perform this piece it’s like I’m being taken into my own childhood. More to the piece, even though the story itself takes place in one night, it’s representative of an entire transition from adolescence into adulthood. The character realizes that she loves her family, but she realizes she has to discover her own identity outside of her family’s expectations. I think we all have those formative moments where we look from the outside in and see that our path is ultimately in our own hands.

CR: It sounds like an incredibly relatable piece.

MV: Yeah, for sure. At one point in the text she’s sitting with her family and making small talk, but then the music takes a really dramatic turn and she says:

“here they are, all on this earth; and who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth, lying, on quilts, on the grass, in a summer evening, among the sounds of the night. May God bless my people, my uncle, my aunt, my mother, my good father, oh, remember them kindly in their time of trouble; and in the hour of their taking away.”

In that moment you see the transience of things. It’s the moment where we realize that the comforts of home and our families are so special because we will lose them one day. The text is full of moments like this.

CR: That’s beautiful! Knowing Barber as a composer, I’m sure that the music matches the text really well.

MV: Extremely well! A lot of times the challenge for composers is in trying to set the words to the natural cadence of how a person would speak them. But sometimes the cadence can become obscured for the sake of a musical idea, which makes it harder for people to understand the text and is also counterintuitive for the singer. Barber, however, sets it completely idiomatically; he really makes it effortless.

CR: That’ll be incredible to hear! So have you previously worked with a conductorless orchestra before?

MV: Yes, actually. I performed Donizetti’s Rita with the New Century Chamber Orchestra in San Francisco. It was staged which was an additional challenge, so everyone had to listen to each other very closely. Working with Kaleidoscope will be the biggest conductorless orchestral performance I’ve ever done, though.  

CR: What are some of your expectations when you begin working with Kaleidoscope? What are you excited or nervous about?

MV: I’m really excited to work with Kaleidoscope because I think my values are really in line with theirs. They are all about bringing music to people, reaching out to the community and making it accessible, and that’s what I want to do, too. I’m excited about being a part of that, and I’m excited to get more time with Kaleidoscope than I usually have with an orchestra. We’ll have a chance to really make something refined and tailored. Having a longer rehearsal period means we can all make decisions about tempi, dynamics, what things we want to bring out, etc. Most of the time soloists don’t have much say in those decisions, so that will be a real treat for me.

CR: For sure. So I want to ask you about the specific values you have that are aligned with this orchestra. Kaleidoscope is really invested in the Los Angeles community, putting on performances in different kinds of venues, providing free concerts, and this year they’re implementing a “Pay What You Can” model and eliminating ticket sales. This is because a core value of the ensemble is that music can and should be provided to all people regardless of social and economic status. What what ways do you try and engage with the community as a musician, and why is that important to you?

MV: Well, community engagement is extremely important because people crave music. Music has long been cathartic for people and I think that because we’re in an age where most of our interactions are virtual, live music gives us an opportunity to connect in person. Classical music is still relevant, and what we sing and play about still moves people. It still carries messages that people want to hear and need to hear. I’ve not taken a friend to something where they didn’t leave feeling happy, refreshed or touched, but it can be a challenge to motivate people to come to performances. I will say that if I’d never been exposed to classical music and a ticket to something was $100, I might not go because I wouldn’t know if it was worth it. If prices are more reasonable I think first timers are much more likely to attend. Another aspect is like Kaleidoscope, I too am interested in performing music of living composers. We need to preserve our art form, and the only way we’re going to do that is by making it more accessible, and to go out into communities and connect to people that normally wouldn’t attend a show at bigger, more intimidating venues. Cities with really good arts organizations have closer communities, because they give people something to come together and do. Lastly, I think it’s important to bring classical music to young people. I was able to do outreach with San Francisco Opera, and the response we got from the kids was huge. They loved it! It makes you wonder how much it could affect our culture if children were more exposed to classical music.

CR: Absolutely. Going off what you said in that “a community with art infused into it is a stronger community”, do you think KCO has been successful in strengthening the city of LA?

MV: From what I’ve heard, yes, and I’m really just so excited to be a part of it!

CR: We’re really excited to have you, too. So, more to you as a person, what are some of your hobbies?

MV: I love the outdoors, hiking, and backpacking. My favorite place in the world is the West, it’s just so beautiful. And I’ll pretty much go anywhere to see a waterfall. Funnily enough, I actually like learning roles and music on camping trips; I can’t tell you how many roles I’ve learned doing that. I take my scores and put each sheet in plastic sleeves to protect them from the elements. I’ll just sit by a river, studying and humming.  Sometimes if no one’s there I’ll just belt it out *laughter*. Going outdoors is not an escape for me. It makes me more awake and connected to the present. It’s so easy to go around buried in my phone, thinking about myself and worrying about what I need to do. I can go a whole day and not look up at the sky sometimes, you know? So going on a hike or a walk, even if it’s just a day trip, can really reset my perspective. I think we all need that.

CR: Absolutely! Do you have a favorite quote or mantra that you live by?

MV: Yes, "This very moment is the perfect teacher." -Pema Chödrön

CR: That’s a great quote! Do you have any causes or charities that you’re passionate about and want to raise awareness to?

MV: Yes. I’m interested in raising awareness about homelessness, which is why I’m excited to do the dress rehearsal for this concert in a shelter. It’s a problem that is all too often brushed off because it’s so painful to witness. I lived in San Francisco for two years and was exposed to it on a whole new level. I want to help in any way that I can.

CR: Definitely. Is there anything that you want to say as a final remark to the audience and the readers?

MV: Yes. Kaleidoscope is doing a very generous program, and anyone that comes to see it will really love it. The music is American and in English so it will be a great first concert if you’ve never been to one!

CR: Great! Well thank you so much for speaking with me!

MV: Thank you! It was my pleasure.

Carrie Rexroat is a freelancer writer for the Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra’s blog, and is also the Founder of the storytelling blog, A’tudes & Brews.


Saturday, November 5, 2016 @ 8 pm
Glendale City Church
610 East California Ave., Glendale, CA 91206

Sunday, November 6, 2016 @ 3 pm
First Presbyterian Church
1220 2nd St, Santa Monica, CA 90401

Carrie Rexroat