“I definitely feel I made lemonade out of lemons.” American soprano Jacquelyn Stucker was just three days away from making her role debut as Pamina at Deutsche Oper when everything shut down because of Covid-19. She also lost her most coveted gig of the year – Poppea at Festival d’Aix – but news that it’s been rescheduled has sugared that particular pill. She locked down with her husband in Boston, the enforced break coming at a good time after a hectic few years. Shortly after her recital with Donald Runnicles at the Grand Teton Music Festival, we caught up via Skype to reflect on her career so far, the role of streaming and the state of the opera industry as it feels its way in the post-pandemic era.

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Jacquelyn Stucker
© Jonathan Nesteruk

Lockdown has involved a lot of learning. “There are things like physics that I never took in high school that I'm really curious about. I've also taken a lot of German classes at the Goethe Institute (I'm hoping to take the C1 exam this fall). And I got a part-time job as an art consultant, so I’ve gotten a behind-the-curtain look at what's going on in arts organisations. It's been a really interesting couple of months seeing not only how artists are reacting, but how entire organisations are reacting.”  

“I needed a bit of a break in terms of just taking some time, taking some voice lessons.” After two years at Covent Garden as a Jette Parker Young Artist, Stucker had gone into a Fest contract in Berlin [a Festspiel contract is a position at a company where you are given a set number of roles/performances in their season]. “Going from the ROH into a Fest was just madness, a big transition!” Stucker made a quick impact in London. I don't think I was a typical JPYA candidate – I was 27, I had a doctoral degree – but one of the best things about that programme is how incredibly diverse it is. I think it’s turning more into a training programme, but I understood it to be more of a final polish: here's your exposure, now go out into the world! What I got out of it was probably confidence. If I can manage myself in a new David Alden production of Semiramide where I'm with Larry Brownlee, Joyce DiDonato and Ildebrando D’Arcangelo, then I can probably find my feet on most stages.

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Jacquelyn Stucker (Azema) and Lawrence Brownlee (Idreno) in Semiramide
© ROH | Bill Cooper

“At one point I was covering Susanna, singing Frasquita, and singing Eurydice, a really intense six week period. It's a lot of exposure all at once. I think you need to come into that programme with really good vocal technique, because you're on stage straight away, so there really isn't time to fix things. You need to know what your weaknesses are. I knew that for me, as an American, languages were my weakness.”

She shared the stage with great singers. “I learned from talking to singers like John Lundgren. We had that little intermezzo together in Queen of Spades and I spent a lot of time talking to him about how he approaches languages, how he warms up his voice.” But Stucker cites two directors from whom she learnt a lot. “I get criticised for being too intense on stage, so take this with a grain of salt, but I learned a lot from working with Stefan Herheim on that Queen of Spades production. I think he was the first director who really gave me permission to lose my mind and then pull it back. A lot happened in the rehearsal room that didn't make it onto the stage because he was the first person who said, ‘I need to see how far you can go so that I know how to calibrate this. We are making this for you to exist in it. And then when we revive it, it'll change for the next singer. So what do you do that's special?’ That was really formative for me.”

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Jacquelyn Stucker in a JPYA recital
© Jacquelyn Stucker

“Working with Barrie Kosky (on Frasquita in Carmen) was a great experience. It was tiring and it was hard, hard, hard work. But I will say that I am better for having done that show. I'd never done Carmen before, I'd never seen Carmen before, it's not really my cup of tea, but to see that music in a different way from whatever the tradition is, I think it was a really nuanced interpretation. I don't know if London was ready for it, but we did it! 

“I learnt how to dance a bit. Barrie was like, ‘I don't care if you can’t dance, you need to convince me that you know what you're doing.’ Acting is not just an emotion that I'm projecting, acting is saying to the audience, ‘I've got this under control. I'm a part of this scene. We're gonna have a good time.’” 

The move to Deutsche Oper was “the most intense work period of my life and I can't say a bad thing about it”. Stucker’s house debut was Gretel. “The little kids were singing along with the Abendsegen! I had never sung the role before. We had maybe ten days to put it together. It was a baptism by fire. Everyone is part of a team. I'm a better person for being in a Fest at Deutsche; a better singer, yes, but a better human being for having had that experience.”

Stucker recorded a recital with Donald Runnicles, Music Director at Deutsche Oper, streamed as part of the Grand Teton Music Festival. What was it like, performing to an empty hall? “Sad. Very sad. We went through the Schumann Frauenliebe und -leben once without stopping, and I just broke down and cried. In recital, I'm trying to have a conversation with people through my interpretation. I love making eye contact with people and to not be able to do that was really hard.” 

With all the streaming, how well are companies responding to the digital challenge the pandemic has posed? “If we look back, the arts existed because of patronage, because private folks paid for them. That is going to be a hard business model to sustain in the coming decades with advances in technology and the need to not just have a live “in house” strategy, but also an enduring digital strategy. It's not either‑or, it's both and it requires a lot of resources.

“Digital equalises a lot of these things in terms of competing for our attention. Millennials don't want things because they're millennials, we want things that motivate us. I think the sooner that companies really invest in digital strategy and make things that are relevant and interesting to the people, the better. 

“I think people look to arts organisations to answer questions. How are we supposed to see humanity? How are we supposed to find solutions to these problems? How are we supposed to escape from this horrible reality for a few hours, and then come back to it refreshed and ready to problem solve? I'm sure that some singers love just being on stage. I don't enjoy it. I prefer telling a story or hiding behind something else, a message. Not even hiding. It's much easier for me as a performer to connect to something when I feel an attachment or connection to what the messaging is, what the values are.

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Jacquelyn Stucker (Alessandro) in Berenice
© ROH | Clive Barda

“There's a huge debate on social media right now about whether or not works like Madama Butterfly should remain in the canon. Whether or not they do is not up to me as a performer. I will never have to deal with the issue of having to turn down a Cio-Cio-san or not. However, this is a chance for us to talk about ethics. And if we're not having that conversation, if we're just getting angry about it, what's the point? How are we going to make society better? This is what people look to the arts for. This is where the arts can have authority and I'm not sure every organisation is capitalising on that.” 

I wonder how the new “post-Covid” world will impact on opera companies. Could it mean a reduction in international travel and might that actually be a good thing for singers’ voices? Stucker is unsure. “This is my unpopular opinion, but I think that we're all very precious about our voices. Look, as long as you're not cheerleading or directing plane traffic, I think you'll probably be okay. What does take a toll is when your body's tired. I'm boring. I don't drink, I don't go out partying, I don't do any of that stuff. A lot of the hobbies that I have, like knitting or reading are very solitary and quiet.” Will there be a reduction in the amount of travel singers undertake? “So much depends on the house. It would be cool if the Royal Opera rebuilt its ensemble, but personally, I don't want to go to the ROH to hear an ensemble – I went to hear Anna Netrebko!” 

Looking ahead though, how is the immediate future looking? “I have concert engagements, I have a manager that I trust, I'll be fine as a performer. I'm a case of someone who is building some momentum. Covid-19 interrupted that but there's enough on my schedule for me to continue moving forward. I do think that the tragedy here is what happens with people just leaving conservatory, no matter how talented they are. I'm thinking, what if I donate one fee from each production I work on to the young artist programme? No one gets into music for the money. It's hard to make it work. It's hard to save for retirement, it's hard to pay off your student loans.”

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Jacquelyn Stucker (Armida) in Glyndebourne Touring Opera's Rinaldo
© Bill Cooper

Stucker has an upcoming project, filming a Handel cantata with director Ted Huffman, David Bates and La Nuova Musica. Performing for the camera poses its own challenges. “Being telegenic is a huge thing that people need to learn. It's a very different thing from what we do in the opera house, because there's so much distance. Learning that subtlety and that nuance you can show on camera is a challenge I'm really excited about. But I think the move into this kind of acting is going to change the way we make music, it's going to change the way that we experience music.”

But while the opera world takes tentative steps back onto the stage, streaming will be with us for some time. “I think I've consumed probably more video recordings of classical music now than I ever have. What I appreciate about digital content is that it's allowing art to become more of a part of my daily life rather than this ceremonial, transcendent thing because I did not go to nearly as many performances as I should have.” 

But surely nothing beats live? “I remember the absolute ecstasy of seeing Barrie Kosky’s Semele at Komische Oper – an amazing experience. It doesn't get better than Handel for me and I loved that evening. It's a different payoff. But I think people want both now. Live in HD broadcasts are great. When I was a college student, it was all I could afford. But how can it be both things? How can one product work for both? I saw the William Kentridge Lulu both in the house and on HD, I actually preferred it on HD. 

“We are so used to film and being told where to look. I hate being recorded. I just can't stand it. I feel very self-conscious but it's the way it's going. People bristle about TikTok or Instagram, but this is the world we're living in, where everything you do is on the internet, and so you’d better make the most of it because it's not going anywhere. Especially not now.”