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First Generation Diva: Jouvanca Jean-Baptiste

J. Jean-Baptiste (© Courtesy of FGO)

She has been preparing for this moment for most her life and finally her hometown is going to let the world know that she is ready and up to the task. “I haven’t followed the route of most American singers and Florida Grand Opera has been thoughtful and daring enough to realize that there are many ways to get here. We singers are not carbon copies.” Soprano Jouvanca Jean-Baptiste was born in the Bronx to Haitian immigrant parents, moving to Miami when she was nine years old. ”My mother got us involved in everything artistic when we were growing up: music, dance, theatre, you name it. She was, and still is, a firm believer that children must have mentally stimulating and active hobbies growing up.” Jouvanca never intended on a music career just thinking of music as a creative outlet. “I played violin from elementary school all the way until the end of high school; and while I was in college studying criminal justice, I began taking voice lessons for fun. Eventually someone found that I actually had a career-worthy voice. After working with teachers like Carole-Ann Steele and Oscar Diaz, Jr., I came to realize that I was a lirico-spinto. My voice felt physically uncomfortable in the lighter Fachs.”

The performance departments of local education establishments did not suit her, and she joined the Florida Grand Opera Chorus in 2001, singing with the ensemble, until she was chosen to perform for Suor Angelica at the Intermezzo Summer Opera Institute, conducted by Elaine Rinaldi. “Singing with the chorus was an invaluable experience that prepared me for mainstage singing and becoming familiar with the standard repertory. Every young singer, if they can, should do it for at least three seasons.” From there she was hired to cover Cio-Cio San for West Bay Opera which led to an audition with Opera San Jose. “They let me sing six roles, major ones, in two years. It helped to increase my performance stamina so that even when I had physical problems and great personal trauma, I pulled it off. Accepting the challenges and not wimping out is what has made me not only a stronger singer but a stronger person. I welcome the obstacles.”

But the experience at Opera San Jose didn’t lead to anything career-wise. “We worked hard, but they don’t invite agents and managers to hear us. I learned so much, but after it was over, I sort of had to start from the beginning.” After San Jose, Jouvanca moved back to Miami to help with her grandmother who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer. After a year out of the opera world, things came full circle when Orchestra Miami offered her the lead in Amahl and the Night Visitors, again conducted by Rinaldi, for the 2012 – 2013 holiday season. “I loved doing the piece but never expected something to come from it. But I got a great review in the Miami Herald and Florida Grand Opera took notice.” Within days they called her to audition. “The first thing I sang was Senta’s ballad from The Flying Dutchman. Then I did “Sola, perduta, abbandonata” from Manon Lescaut. After that, they asked me to do “Sempre libera” from La traviata even though I hadn’t prepared it as part of my audition repertoire. I didn’t even have the music with me!” A month after her audition she received an e-mail saying she had been accepted into Florida Grand Opera’s Young Artist Program. “A few weeks later they offered me three performances as Tosca. Who could imagine a Young Artist being offered a lead at a Level 1 company?”

Florida Grand Opera’s General Manager, Susan Danis, recalled, ”When I was Executive Director at Sarasota Opera, we would get young singers coming over from Miami every year to try out for our Young Artist and Apprenticeship programs. I learned that the caliber of talent was huge here. So I intended to take advantage of it once I arrived. The company should reflect the community. I was grateful but not entirely surprised that Miami had a Jouvanca Jean-Baptiste.” Other singers like this season’s Nabucco, Nelson Martinez, and Mabel Ledo, who played his daughter Fenena, finally got their first chance with their hometown company. “They might be too experienced for the Young Artist program,” Danis said, “but these are first rate artists. Let’s use them. Someone who might not have ever attended opera before has probably said, "My neighbor Nelson is singing the title character, so let me go see what all the commotion is about." And probably nine times out of ten he or she ends up loving it, discovering that opera isn’t something only for snobs.

Though her task is tremendous, Ms. Jean-Baptiste isn’t terribly intimidated. “I am having a blast! I am working with artists who are the best. And many members of the orchestra, all first rate musicians, I have known from my work with Florida Grand Opera’s chorus. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that I am singing with my former chorister colleagues, who are incredibly supportive. Their commitment eliminates a lot of anxiety.”

Before Tosca, Jouvanca made her debut in January with Florida Grand Opera as Anna in Nabucco. “It’s only one line of solo singing and plenty of ensemble singing, but you really get to make an impression with it.” She covered the Abigailles of Maria Guleghina and Susan Neves; and before Nabucco was Lauren Flanigan’s cover as Christine in Mourning Becomes Electra. “I never went to conservatory. So opportunities working with these giants was the substitute; and in addition, I got paid for it. Lauren, Maria, and Susan were incredible. They are nearing the end of their careers. If only I can sing half that well when I get there. And they were so willing to share and offer advice. I had no idea there were such people in this business until I experienced it personally.”

“And now I am going to get to sing at home; friends and family who have never seen me in a role will be there. It’s especially joyful for me to have my parents, who saw two of my San Jose productions, to see this Tosca. I remember when they saw my first one, and my mom, who’s new to opera, said to me ‘Next stop: leading roles at The Met!’ I hope Peter Gelb is listening, because my mom expects it to happen!”

And of her father’s feelings on her performing? “I think the most memorable moment in my career with him was after my opening night performance of La traviata, when my family came backstage afterwards. My dad, who is not the type to get emotional very easily, was clearly moved. It meant far more to me than any good review – that was my definite confirmation that I’m meant to continue.”

And what about Tosca’s famous jump? “When I did it in San Jose I had to wear a brace because I had sprained my ankle practicing the jump; I was such a scared newbie at it. But here in Miami, I’m far more prepared and less nervous. In fact, it is like going on a ride at an amusement park. I look forward to it!”

And where does she go from here? “At this point, I have nothing lined up. Hopefully I will get some representation and major auditions as a result of this; that is the most any up-and-coming singer could want. And if Florida Grand Opera offers me another year as a Young Artist, how could I turn down the chance? Things like this don’t come along often.”

Jouvanca Jean-Baptiste's Website
Florida Grand Opera's Young Artists Program

Jeff Haller



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