By Alexander C. Kafka
When you’re teaching a blind soprano, the taboo against physical contact just doesn’t wash.
“What we do,” says Sharon Christman, chair of the voice division at the Catholic University of America, discussing her work with doctoral student Jessica Bachicha, “is douse ourselves with Purell. … I’d have her touch under my tongue. Tongue tension is our worst enemy as a singer.”
“So much for no touching and all that,” Christman says.
Such unorthodoxies have paid off for Bachicha, 29, who will play the Queen of the Night in a Catholic University production of Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute this weekend. “Touch is very important for me,” she says. “I was always really fortunate in that my mom encouraged me to explore things tactilely. I bring that to my musical life.”
She brings it to her Braille reading of music (as well as of English, Italian, French, and Spanish, and, for research, German and Latin, too). And on a larger scale she brings it to her stage preparation for this role.
Christman takes a conspicuously hands-on approach to guiding Bachicha’s gestures (see the rehearsal video to get a better sense of that). And while a production’s blocking is routinely marked by pieces of tape on the stage, for Bachicha, the crew put down thicker tape that she could feel through her shoes. That, she says, has helped her prepare for actual on-stage stairs. And, she says, she has a map of the set in her mind, which is how she orients herself anyway. “Real life on a small scale,” she calls the blocking.
An Albuquerque native, Bachicha has two bachelor’s degrees, one in foreign language, one in music, from the University of New Mexico. She’s done research in Leeds, England, on musical connections with the theology of marriage, and she earned a master’s in performance from the New England Conservatory.
Although she was in a concert version of La Traviata, her Magic Flute part is Bachicha’s first role in a full operatic production, and Christman suggests that’s because Bachicha’s performance talents had been underdeveloped and underappreciated before she came to Catholic in 2008.
When she auditioned for Catholic, Christman said, Bachicha “had a beautiful voice, but her hands were clenched, she didn’t move, and her technique was not what it needed to be. But I could hear the potential.”
“What do you want to do?” she remembers asking Bachicha.
“I want to do everything,” was the reply.
Former teachers and institutions “put limitations on her she would never put on herself,” Christman says. “There’s such a voice here, and we don’t have a right to hold it back.”
They’d be working on, say, jaw posture, and Bachicha would say “I see” a lot, “which I had to get used to,” Christman said. The first year, Bachicha “fought and fought” against old habits, “but nobody could have worked harder. She did everything that I asked her to do. … More and more she just came out of her shell.”
“‘If I say something wrong, there’s no mal-intent,” Christman recalls telling her. “‘Please,’” said Bachicha, “‘I’ve heard it all. Say anything. Ask me anything.’”
“We’ve just been closer and closer,” Christman says. “And her abilities have totally amazed.”
In contrast to the frequent ingénue roles for soprano, Bachicha says, as Queen of the Night, “I get to be a villain—it’s very exciting.” Emerging from a sarcophagus (Christman calls it the True Blood element of the production), the Queen goes from schemer to murderess, “from bad to worse,” says Bachicha. She enjoys the famed part Mozart wrote for his virtuoso sister-in-law, but also the physicality of the acting, down to being coached in detail about when and how to curl her fingers, or face her palms up rather than down, to help convey an emotion. “It’s fun for me playing with how to portray these differences,” Bachicha says, “so audiences can appreciate her as someone who grows—or shrinks, rather—through the opera.”
One role model for the portrayal has been close at hand, Bachicha says, because Christman herself performed the part with the Metropolitan Opera. (Christman has been affiliated with Catholic for 20 years, while performing with the Met, the New York City Opera, and regional companies.) Bachicha also likes Met star Roberta Peters’s interpretation of the role.
With a father in medical sales and a dental-hygienist mother, Bachicha knew little about classical music before taking voice lessons at 12 with “an amazing first teacher” named Nancy Carpenter. Bachicha had been planning to be a judge, she recalls, but Carpenter “really helped me to see myself as a singer.”
Bachicha learned to read and write Braille musical notation and software when she was 16 at a program in Bridgeport, Conn., run by David Goldstein. (You can visit the Web site of the National Resource Center for Blind Musicians here.) “I wished I would have learned it earlier,” she says.
Bachicha also composes. A Gregorian chant-based piece she wrote for cello, viola, violin, percussion, and tenor and soprano vocalists is included in her CD Illuminations. And she’s working with a pianist and her brother Ben, an electric-guitar player, on a November CD release called Christmas Presence, in which traditional carols are intertwined with text drawn from an encyclical on Christian hope by Pope Benedict XVI.
Melding music and story in innovative ways is a deep interest of Bachicha’s. She is trying to start a nonprofit, Harmonia Vitae, or harmony of life, that would combine narrative and music in performances primarily for children, not simply by adding music to story like a soundtrack, Peter and the Wolf style, but by mixing them in more profound ways, with music and narrative commenting on each other. For instance, she says, a work by the Spanish composer Manuel de Falla about a weeping tree might be played along with a tree-climbing portion of Oscar Wilde’s story “The Selfish Giant.” Ideally, the organization would offer solo, group, and even full orchestra performances, says Bachicha, who is seeking grant money for the project.
After her expected graduation in spring 2011, Bachicha will also be on the job market for a university teaching position (she’d like to stay in the Baltimore-Washington area because her boyfriend works for the National Federation of the Blind in Baltimore). She wants to develop interdisciplinary courses for musicians working in a church setting to better understand the history behind the musical forms they are performing. And she’s interested, she says, in exploring philosophy through music and is especially taken with the work of the Catholic philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand. She’d like to sing with more symphonies and to perform in more operas as well.
“It can be an inconvenience,” Bachicha says of her blindness, “but it’s just another characteristic that we deal with, like being tall or short.”
In a rotating cast for the Catholic University of America’s production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, Bachicha will play the Queen of the Night Friday and Sunday. Performances, at the university’s Hartke Theatre, 3801 Harewood Road, N.E., in Washington, will be Thursday, Oct. 28, 7:30 p.m., preview performance; Friday, Oct. 29, and Saturday, Oct. 30, 7:30 p.m.; and Sunday, Oct. 31, 2 p.m. For more information, call (202) 319-5414.
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