Sound Bites spotlights up-and-coming singers and conductors in the world of opera.
Sound Bites: Renée Tatum
Photographed in New York by Dario Acosta
Makeup and hair by Affan Malik / dress by Adrianna Papell
© Dario Acosta 2013
Renée Tatum studied at New York's Manhattan School of Music and Juilliard, but she hasn't lost touch with her Southern California roots. "It never really goes away," she says. "I try to keep that laid-back, positive part of me alive." It shows in her decidedly upbeat worldview. "I hear too much concern and worry about the future of opera," she notes. "I see what's around me, what's happening in my colleagues, and there seems to be a growing love for what we do, and I think that's going to sustain us."
The mezzo, who was adopted as a toddler, credits her maternal grandparents for awakening her love for the arts at an early age. "They said, 'We'll keep her very busy, so she won't get into trouble.' So I did all the dance classes and musical theater growing up. Essentially, I found myself drawn to the music part of my training, and opera encompassed the best of everything — the theater, the dancing, the acting. I realized that I could have everything in my life."
Tatum has all the assets required for modern opera stardom — blonde, bright-eyed good looks and a mega-watt smile; a confident, vivacious presence; lithe body language — yet she seems ambivalent about our era's emphasis on the visual. "Things are going the way of a 'package,'" she sighs. "Opera was the final frontier that resisted that, but it has crossed over, as musical theater has, as straight theater has. People want to believe what they see, and it's our obligation as professional singers to make that part of our job."
Tatum is finishing up a three-year stint in the Met's Lindemann Young Artist program, an experience she feels has given her space to find her comfort zone. "In school, I allowed myself to feel that I needed to be boxed in and be one type of singer — a great Rossini mezzo, or a great pants-role mezzo. The more I accept that I could do a vast variety and amount of repertoire, the more freedom I'm starting to feel about what I have to offer as an artist."
Freedom is a theme that surfaces often in Tatum's conversation. "Stephen Wadsworth, the director, has really worked on trying to help me not to be so concerned with the technical part of singing, but with what am I trying to communicate. I'm a micromanager. And having so much training, so many programs, so much education, you run the risk of being a cerebral performer. You have to let that go and find a way to go back to what you were at the beginning. What did you love about singing, and how do you eliminate the extra information that got in the way of that initial love? That's what I'm trying to do right now."
A case in point was the New York Philharmonic's 2010 Le Grand Macabre, in which she sang Amando. "We put it up in about ten days, which was absolutely terrifying, but there was something about it that allowed us to be free. It was so demanding that you had no time to analyze it. You had to just do it. When it came together the way it did, it was incredibly fulfilling!"
LOUISE T. GUINTHER
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