Role Play
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Role Play

Rising soprano Kiera Duffy looks at life through the prism of art.
By Louise T. Guinther
Photographs by Dario Acosta

Role Play Duffy hdl 1117
Photographs by Dario Acosta
Hair and makeup by Affan Graber Malik for Tom Ford Beauty
Gown by Dress the Population and earrings by Alexis Bittar
© Dario Acosta
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In New York, 2017. Gown by Nha Khanh and earrings by Alexis Bittar
© Dario Acosta

IN A FIELD TRADITIONALLY DOMINATED by striking, outsized voices—with egos to match—Kiera Duffy readily admits that the usual qualifications were never hers. “I was not blessed with a golden throat,” says the Philadelphia-born soprano by Skype from her teaching studio at the University of Notre Dame. “My voice revealed itself via a really strong technique.”

A choral-music geek in high school, she planned to study choral conducting at the Westminster Choir School. “You couldn’t major in choral conducting as an undergraduate,” says Duffy. “So my teacher said, ‘Why don’t you try for the voice-performance program and do graduate work as a choral conductor?’ That was part of the grand plan—not because she thought I had any potential as a solo singer, that’s for sure!”

As a junior at Westminster, Duffy landed the role of Tytania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “This was the first time that I started living up in the higher tessitura, and my voice just bloomed there. And of course, the more I did it, I’d caught the bug. I loved the stage work, I loved the theatrical component, I loved the process of discovering how to sing.”

Duffy was determined to find the thing that would set her apart. “I did the Met audition five times. The first four times, I had your generic light-soprano list. I sang them well, but there were probably twenty other girls who sang them more beautifully. Then I stumbled upon Lulu’s aria. When I was introduced to the Second Viennese School, I really connected with that kind of music—maybe that exposes me for the weirdo that I am, but I loved the hyper-expressivity, and I loved the fact that it was difficult, because that was something I could do. And that set the trajectory for my career.”

Duffy’s most cherished professional experience to date—Missy Mazzoli’s Breaking the Waves, based on the Lars von Trier film, in which Duffy created the central role of Bess—epitomizes the soprano’s unique artistic bent. “In that workshop the atmosphere was electric,” she says. “Missy’s musical language just hit me in a very primal place.” The project’s timing was singular: Duffy was ten weeks pregnant when the first workshop began, and by the third, she had given birth to her son. “It was such a bizarre, dark piece at this very bright moment in my personal life,” she says. “It’s an emotionally fraught role, and it pushed me to the very extremes. You do take it home. It’s impossible to be in six hours of rehearsal and not feel really drained when you go home. But then your toddler’s there, and you have to give him tummy time and read him stories and change some diapers, and that would snap me out of it. In retrospect, I see what a blessing it was that I had that distraction. Because I think I could have been completely immersed in it.”

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As Bess in Breaking the Waves at Opera Philadelphia, 2016
© Dominic M. Mercier for Opera Philadelphia

GIVEN HER AIR of poised self-sufficiency, it’s a surprise to learn that Duffy suffers from stage fright. “Debilitating!” she says. “I have done some recitals where I have almost not walked onto the stage. It’s much less of a factor in opera. I cannot be thinking about my own neuroses and honestly play somebody else’s. There just isn’t the time or space to be thinking about ‘Oh, that note isn’t working, and my voice doesn’t feel good.’”

Asked about the challenges of raising a family while maintaining a full-time career, Duffy, whose son turns two in August, quips, “I’ll get back to you on that,” then turns serious. “I will say this and own it—it’s much harder for women than for men. I was breast-feeding when I did Breaking the Waves. Can you imagine? Breast-feeding and doing a naked role is not something I recommend.”

Last January, Duffy took the unusual step of accepting a full-time teaching position at the University of Notre Dame. “It’s a delicate balance,” she says. “Psychologically I don’t have the fortitude to do ten months a year with my family in tow from gig to gig. I always needed a home base. I had a lot of people saying, ‘You’re crazy for doing that now!’ But I don’t want to be away from my kid seven months out of the year. So for me, this is a grand experiment—it’s how I’m trying to strike that balance.”

Duffy has a very undiva-ish sense of her place in the world. “Singing can be such a self-absorbed field,” she says. “If you’re not careful, your whole sense of self-worth and value is wrapped around your voice and your career. But we all know that this career is finite. I’m beginning to look at this art form through a wider lens. We’ve become culturally fixated on the pragmatic side of things. But art is so important to our sense of fulfillment as human beings. You’ll hear people say, ‘It’s about bringing beauty.’ Well, yes—sometimes. But it’s also about providing this lens that sometimes reflects our experience, sometimes refracts our experience. It articulates our emotional experience when we don’t have words.” spacer 

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