A Girl With A Huge Heart: Soprano Jennifer Zetlan

Soprano Jennifer Zetlan’s eclectic career includes acclaimed performances in venues ranging from The Metropolitan Opera, Broadway, The New York Philharmonic and Carnegie Hall. She portrays the title role in On Site Opera’s upcoming production of John Musto’s Rhoda and the Fossil Hunt. We spoke with Jennifer about her passion for singing and connecting with audiences around the world.

OSO: Rhoda and the Fossil Hunt will take place in the dinosaur hall at the American Museum of Natural History. Could you share a memorable museum experience from your childhood?

JZ: I grew up not too far from Philadelphia, and my favorite museum growing up was the Franklin Institute. I know we went to lots of cool exhibits, but the one that sticks in my mind still today was an exhibit about the body. There was a giant heart you could walk through, chamber to chamber, and it played a heartbeat sound. I remember it really opening my eyes about how the body works.

OSO: Are there any ways in which you’re like the character you play in the show?

JZ: I think there’s always a way to find similarities with a character (because if there weren’t, I couldn’t be genuine onstage). I love Rhoda’s high energy and lively curiosity. I think those things attracted me about Rhoda because I have them in me too.

OSO: What ice cream flavor do you most hope to eat at the ice cream social following the Sept. 23rd performance, and why?

JZ: Ben & Jerry’s Coffee Coffee Buzz Buzz Buzz is my favorite flavor! Somehow I don’t see that one being a popular flavor at an ice cream social for families, but the good news is I just love ICE CREAM. Strawberry, mint chocolate chip, chocolate chip cookie dough and cookies and cream are top contenders. The only ice cream I remember not liking in the past was garlic ice cream. And even then, I might have liked it had it not followed an entirely garlic-flavored meal (at a clearly garlic-themed restaurant in California).

OSO: Have you done other site-specific productions before? How is this different for you than a conventional show in an opera house?

JZ: I’ve definitely not done an opera that was quite this interactive before. Really engaging directly with the audience while staying in character is an interesting challenge, but one I’m really excited to take on!

OSO: What is the craziest or funniest moment you’ve ever experienced onstage?

JZ: I’ve been performing since I was 7… oh the stories I could tell! I have a zillion crazy injury stories (mine and other people’s), technical failures galore, missed entrances, lines skipped, props missing… okay, I’ll choose just one from my year in Fiddler on the Roof: at the beginning of the show, the Fiddler would be lifted in his flying harness and then this cool set piece of a house would fly up in front of him. The house unfolded as it flew up and once it cleared the space below the stage most of the cast would line up on a big flight of stairs that was moved into place. One show, the house didn’t fly, which meant no stairs, which meant no cast appearing at the back of the stage, which meant instead we all had to make a mad dash for the backstage stairs and then enter on the sides of the stage looking like this was absolutely what was supposed to happen. The energy onstage surged with this hilarious mad dash, it was amazing to be a part of. I have a feeling that kind of thing will not be a problem for us in the museum, since the dinosaurs are pretty rooted to their spots.

OSO: This is a relatively short show. What is the shortest role you ever sang, and how was that experience?

JZ: My Met debut was in (funnily enough, the very lengthy) War and Peace in 2007. I sang 9 words in French. 9 words is hardly enough time to get your bearings onstage, so the whole experience felt like a whirlwind, albeit a most amazing one. Just before I entered I could look out from underneath this stage containing about 200 people and see the entire audience. Each time I felt excited, breathless, terrified, then took a deep breath and went.

OSO: When you’re not performing, what is your favorite show (theater or opera) or music you most enjoy? 

 JZ: I don’t even think it’s possible to narrow down to a reasonably sized answer what my favorite shows are. I love good stories being told with great music and words. That spans so many decades and styles that I’ll just leave it at that.

I love lots of musical genres and artists, it’s hard to settle on a favorite. Sam Amidon is an awesome singer I love listening to, I often listen to him while getting ready for concerts because I find it centering/calming. I love to listen to Mahler (whom I swear wrote the music in my soul), Cake, Beck, Bon Iver, Bjork, Rosanne Cash, etc; I have the weirdest Pandora playlist selection! Also I have a 5 1/2 year old so I usually just end up listening to Laurey Berkner.

I actually mostly listen to podcasts when I am commuting and doing dishes or taking walks. I am a podcast fanatic! Favorites: This American Life, Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, 2 Dope Queens, Radio Lab, Invisibilia, Reply All, Science Vs., The Moth!

OSO: Any other general thoughts about “Rhoda and the Fossil Hunt” or On Site Opera you’d like to share?

JZ: Singing in (and as) Rhoda will most certainly be life changing for me. I can’t imagine it’s possible for me, and also anyone in attendance, to experience the museum the same way again. That’s what’s so wonderful about On Site’s vision. To have such a unique experience in an otherwise “regular” location means opening people’s hearts and minds in new ways, and I am so proud and delighted to be part of that!

For more information on Rhoda and the Fossil Hunt, click here.


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