Seated before a window, with the morning light filtered through gauzy curtains, Renee Tatum smiled into the camera of her computer when my Skype call came through. She was at her home in Boston, where she is now based and where she relaxes between travels and performances. Just this summer she covered her first Fricka in Wagner’s Das Rheingold with the New York Philharmonic, sang Flosshilde in the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s production of the same work at Tanglewood, and performed two roles in Van Gogh’s Ear with the Ensemble for the Romantic Century in New York City.
After singing the mezzo-soprano solo part with The Cecilia Chorus of New York in Carnegie Hall on December 9, she will perform in Parsifal at the Metropolitan Opera in January and February, followed by roles in both Durufle’s Requiem with Back Bay Chorale and Threepenny Opera with the Boston Lyric Opera in March. Further engagements this season include Penderecki’s Credo with the Indianapolis Symphony in April and Der Ring des Nibelungen at the San Francisco Opera in June and July.
Originally from Southern California, Renee attended New York’s Manhattan School of Music and Juilliard. After spending a summer in The Mereola Opera Program and a year in the Adler Fellowship at The San Francisco Opera, where she sang five roles on the MainStage, she was accepted into the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program. She stayed there for three years, in what she describes as a tough but essential experience. “The Lindemann program was something of a ‘Come to Jesus’ moment for me. I already had the tunnel vision, the athletic focus necessary to pursue a career in opera and classical music, but there I was confronted with the basic questions one has to ask oneself when embarking on a career like this: Why do I love music? What is this I am preparing myself for? Who am I, why am I doing this, and does it make me happy? Am I willing to see myself not just as an artist, but as someone who is going to work in a very hard job?”
She decided she was, and she accepted a dizzying array of roles in opera and concert performances (click here for a complete biography). “They were smaller roles in bigger operas,” said Renee. “I had to bide my time, letting my voice develop. Some voices settle in around age 25 and don’t change much after that. But I am blessed with a voice that keeps growing and changing, so I can sing an ever-wider variety of pieces. I feel that it is now turning the corner into a full, lyric voice capable of larger roles in a wide range of repertoire. And I love exploring new roles and new genres.”
Van Gogh’s Ear was a new genre for Renee. An interdisciplinary play with chamber music produced in an off-Broadway theater by the Ensemble for the Romantic Century, the piece combined music, drama, and the visual arts into a salon-scaled Gesamtkunstwerk where the various art forms are melded together to provide a cohesive unity. Renee performed two roles: that of Gabrielle Berlatier, the young woman in Provence who received van Gogh’s mutilated ear, and Johanna, the wife of Vincent’s brother Theo. The piece required as much acting as singing. “This was a wonderful experience for me. There was no orchestra, no pit, no conductor. We were all on the stage together, directing ourselves, as it were. And I really love acting. Immersed in a character, I don’t monitor myself the way I do while singing. As a singer I am always checking in with myself. As an actor, the main thing is forging a connection between the character and the audience, and we sometimes forget that in the opera, where the audience is holding us to a very different standard. So while I remain passionately committed to opera and classical music, I think acting from time to time will help me be a better performer in any role I sing.” (J.W.)
BIOGRAPHY, RENEE TATUM
Noted for her “commanding and dramatic presence” (Opera News), mezzo-soprano Renee Tatum is rapidly gaining critical acclaim on the most prestigious opera stages in the United States. This season’s engagements include Flosshilde in Das Rheingold with Tanglewood Music Festival; Flosshilde in Das Rheingold and Götterdämmerung and Waltraute in Die Walküre with San Francisco Opera; Jenny in Threepenny Opera with Boston Lyric Opera; Flower Maiden in Parsifal at The Metropolitan Opera; and Ensemble for the Romantic Century’s production of Van Gogh’s Ear at The Pershing Square Signature Center in New York City. She also sang a concert entitled “Opera Italiana Forever Young” as part of the Central Park Summer Concerts series and Das Rheingold in concert with the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center.