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  • Writer's pictureEllen Wilkinson

A Portfolio Career: Ellen Wilkinson explores how soprano and director Julia Mintzer balances two creative jobs

“Can I sit on the floor?” Julia Mintzer asks. She is barefoot and cradling a mug of freshly brewed Pukka herbal tea. Her strong frame and mane of curly red hair gives the impression of a lioness, a likeness which only strengthens as we chat over the course of an hour. We are sitting in the cosy living room of her house in Hackney, and I am now raised above her on the sofa. The relaxed ambience is far from the grotesque drama of Strauss’s Salome’s Dance and Closing Scene, which we both performed with the Odyssey Festival Orchestra a month prior, on 2nd May at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. I played cor anglais, and Mintzer was Salome, reading Oscar Wilde’s grisly interpretation of a young girl who has ordered the head of her lover to be presented to her, before launching into Strauss’ sung rendition of the tale. 

Mintzer was raised in Pennsylvania, and spent several years in her twenties in Germany, before settling into her UK base. Now in her thirties, she has built a thriving dual career as a singer and director, performing with the Washington National Opera and the Welsh National Opera, and directing across the opera and independent theatre scenes, including a recent rendition of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, a new opera starring Nathan Gunn.  

For her training, Mintzer spread out her undergraduate degree at the Juilliard School of Music over five years, completing a dual course in anthropology at Columbia University. She attributes this study to “a fascination with human behaviour”, which ties into her work in opera singing, acting and directing. By her final year of study, Mintzer was already singing professionally and working in a yoga studio, before completing paid apprenticeships at Santa Fe Opera and Washington National Opera, and then moving to Dresden to sing with the Semperoper’s Youth Ensemble, which was her first journey over to Europe.

 She moved to the UK in 2020, to sing the mezzo-soprano role of Carmen with the Welsh National Opera, but it was cancelled midway through the tour due to Covid, so she took a year off of singing and explored theatre directing instead. She also took the time off during the pandemic to reorient her singing technique towards returning to performance as a soprano. It was a switch she always knew was coming. Post 2020, she continued pursuing her directing career, alongside her new soprano roles. 

 As a young woman at the start of a portfolio career in performing and writing myself, I am struck by the unpretentious tenacity in which Mintzer approaches two professional pathways, and am inspired to learn about how she finds balance. For now, I ask her to rewind, back to her first memory of music, and of singing.  

Julia Mintzer: My mother was a ballerina, who danced as a soloist at Pennsylvania Ballet. I spent all the time until I could walk in the dance studio, so I fell in love with classical music via ballet. It was always the most exciting thing when she had a live pianist. I started playing the piano, but then wanted to make classical music with other people, so I started the cello at nine.

I fell in love with playing music via piano and cello, but I also loved English, poetry and prose. Soon I wanted to combine both and so I started singing. My first memory of singing publicly was having a solo in the school’s Lion King Medley at age nine. My parents then got me singing lessons when I was twelve or thirteen, since puberty was on its way, and your voice can change around then. 

Ellen Wilkinson: At what stage did you realise that you wanted to sing professionally?

JM: At around fifteen or sixteen. I knew because of my mother that a performing career was an option, and in my teenage years I absolutely fell in love with musical theatre, but often the operatic bits, like the guitar riff from Rent, which is the same tune as Musetta’s Waltz from La Bohème. I didn’t know that opera existed at that stage.  

EW: Who inspired you musically when growing up?

JM: A singer called Leontyne Price, who I would listen to obsessively. Also, Denyce Graves. There was a Barnes and Noble bookstore that was within walking distance from my house, which was one of the first places I could walk to on my own. I would go into the CD section and look up all the names of singers. There was also a public library where you could get CDs, so I would go after school and listen to the entire collection. I had a Schubert Lieder CD of Winterreise, and one of Mozart arias, sung by a German baritone called Matthias Goerne. I would repeatedly listen, and learn as much about the repertoire as I could. 

Mintzer’s equal division between performing and directing is a rare feat for a performer in her prime. I ask where the seed for her drive to direct was planted. 

JM: Singing so many misogynistic, puerile versions of Carmen and thinking “no real woman functions this way – this isn’t how human behaviour works.” I figured out directing on my own. I got a job in grad school teaching high schoolers at a summer programme, and I would direct the opera scenes there with the students. Then there were so many small fringe theatre shows in New York, and I wrote to them and said “Let me have a go”, and some of them did!

My work is pretty much 50/50 performing and directing. For me, the link between anthropology, psychology and opera directing is a fascination with cultural structures and the worlds that people create, and the rules that they play by. When directing an opera, I try to find an internal logic. That could be in a specific time and place where that opera is set, or in a totally devised situation.

EW: It sounds as if you consistently advocated for yourself with developing your dual career. Would you say that is a core part of who you are? 

JM: 100% - I just hustled. I would offer to assist, and then occasionally the director would drop out. That is how I directed my first opera. I had some videos from that experience, which I sent out to more companies, and it escalated from there. I kept it simmering quite low until I got myself established as a singer. In 2020, I moved over to the UK to sing Carmen with the Welsh National Opera, around the time that I was switching from mezzo to soprano roles. But with Covid, I took a year off of singing entirely and directed as much as I could, because I thought “here is my chance!”

The London fringe scene, in terms of talent and ability level, is equivalent to regional opera in Germany or the US – there is just such a glut of talent and so few companies. I also had singers who were at my career level, who were out of work and wanted to do things. I directed a huge number of outdoor productions from 2020-2022. 

EW: Do you have to do both singing and directing, or could you ever choose between them? 

Mintzer smiles at the inevitability of this question. 

JM: As long as I am able to do both, I have to do both. With age, I will inevitably choose directing, and it uses more of my brain.

EW: What has been the most challenging part of developing your career?

JM: The practicalities of it! I have never really fit into a slot or track in terms of how a career goes. I don’t know anybody else who does an equal measure of opera directing and performing like I do. I really like to do a mix of both contemporary opera, which is really my passion from an intellectual and directing standpoint, but also the big romantic German repertoire from a vocal standpoint.

EW: How have you found moving to the UK?

JM: Really challenging. I am going to make broad cultural generalisations here! Being an outspoken American, I assumed that others will be as forthcoming as I am. In Germany, there is less of an assumption of politeness and people are more direct. Once I was acclimated to that, I loved it, because it made me feel incredibly safe.

In the UK, I found it a very strange environment to adjust to, since difficult operatic themes, such as gender and sexuality, are less explicitly addressed or discussed. I found there to be several levels of cultural translation, compared to America or Germany. 

EW: Are there any positives about the UK?!

Mintzer laughs, and her face brightens generously.  

JM: The diversity. I have an incredibly international group of friends. I have also loved being in a place long enough to meet different types of people, since I have officially had my base here for five years. For me, that is ages! I didn’t buy a piece of furniture for the first time until I was thirty-five and it was that couch you are sitting on!

However, my husband is British, and if it were not for him I would still be in Germany, since I much prefer the opera culture there. Berlin and Hamburg are more my home because it is where I “came of age”.

EW: What has been the most exciting part of your career? 

JM: Getting to know the characters and the novelty. I love being a freelancer – I would never want to stay put for a long time in an opera house. Every situation is new and I keep my career as broad as I can. I go from premiering a piece and being part of the writing process, to singing a completely traditional Tosca or Carmen. It also means I experience different parts of the world and different cultures. For example, I went back to Dresden recently as a guest in the Semperoper and we did an opera that used AI, It was collaboratively written by a composer from Hong Kong and a Berlin electronic dance music team, as well as six classically trained singers. I just love the variety of it. 

Strauss’s Salome lies on the traditional end of Mintzer’s spectrum, and the rich tone of a former mezzo voice, combined with her soprano range, generously filled the Queen Elizabeth Hall. 

Firstly, there was the alluring sensuality of The Dance of the Seven Veils. Then, after a dramatic blackout, a spotlight appeared on Mintzer, as she moved through the audience reciting the unnerving lines from Oscar Wilde’s play that had inspired Strauss. Actress became singer as an eerie double bass solo launched Strauss’s thrilling Closing Scene, and sung with vivid conviction by Mintzer. I move the conversation towards how Mintzer became a part of and worked towards the “Lollipops and Blood” concert, and her reflections on it.  

EW: How did you get involved with the Odyssey project? 

JM: Through Odyssey’s conductor, Peter Ash! He conducted the first production of Salome that I sang in Oklahoma in the US, which was actually my first role fully as a soprano. Peter and I just got along instantly, and became good friends, and he asked if I wanted another go at the role! 

EW: Do you think the role of Salome suits your voice type? 

JM: I love it, it feels totally comfortable, due to the tessitura (where it sits vocally). There is a combination of really long lines, dramatic moments and spoken bits, which I feel like give me a lot of opportunity to explore the text.

EW: How do you view the character of Salome? Is she a monster or a disturbed child? 

JM: I think she is a product of her environment. I think she has grown up in a situation where the only concept of love she has been shown is transactional. It is not “I want to know you and love you”, but “I want to own you”. She has grown up around extreme violence, and it is what she knows. 

EW: How did you work at the acting process? Do you enjoy acting? 

JM: I love it. I think of singing as an excuse to play the roles. I wouldn’t want to ever just be a straight actor, but the reason I am interested in opera is because it is theatrical. I was nervous to do the spoken acting because I have done very little of it, and none in English. It was out of my comfort zone, but “out of comfort zone” is my comfort zone. 

In terms of the process of learning the lines, it is just like learning the text for singing, but one step quicker, since I would always approach the text for opera as a spoken actor would anyway. 

EW: Have you worked with many pre-professional/amateur-mixed orchestras before and did you find it to be a different experience?

JM: I had never worked with a non-professional ensemble since school, but Odyssey’s level of playing is far beyond what you would hear at any small regional opera house. You guys sounded substantially better than some professional orchestras I have worked with! 

The sense of style, the level of playing and Peter’s artistic commitment was infectious. The rehearsal process was also a joy, because of the collaboration and the way Peter approaches the details of the score dramaturgically. I love how he talks about the character motivations and the symbolism of each of the parts of the orchestra.

I also loved the red dress that the costume designer, Sebastian Freeburn, gave to me, and that the Artistic Director Donald Sturrock asked me to perform barefoot. 

EW: Do you have any pre or post concert rituals? 

JM: Before a concert I stretch! I do a full Bikram yoga routine. I have to rely on physical strength more than the size of my ribcage. It is less about a vocal warmup and more about engaging the muscles from my pelvic floor upwards. 

Post concert, I eat – I am always ravenous! 

EW: In 2022, in Tulsa opera house, you initially learnt the part for Salome in six weeks. How did you do that? 

JM: I was incredibly methodical. I start with the rhythm. I “ta” and conduct.  Then I speak the text and conduct, bit by bit. Then I speak the words while playing the basic melody on a piano, or give myself a chord structure and lip trill the melody. The last thing I do is put all the elements together. 

EW: What about Salome musically do you love the most? 

JM: The instability of it. There are fewer landing points than you will find in the music of other composers of that era. Strauss sometimes won’t write specific rhythms into the bar-line, it's about how the text fits organically over a structure. The melody line and how he moves from chord to chord won’t necessarily make sense but within that bar, everything slots right in. 

EW: What was your favourite moment from the concert day? 

JM: When I first heard the orchestra. The timpani part in the Dance of the Seven Veils is thrilling. 

I conclude the conversation with some lighter, quick-fire questions, as well as finding out advice that Mintzer has for Odyssey players. 

EW: What is your dream role to sing? 

JM: Lady Macbeth. 

EW: What would you be if not a singer/director? 

JM: This week, I would either be a corporate negotiator or an off-grid cult leader. 

EW: What advice would you give to members of the Odyssey Orchestra who are looking to pursue a career in music? 

JM: Don’t stop being a whole person, or you will make yourself crazy. What you do with your instrument is only one small part of who you are and how you move through the world. Who you are as a human and how you function in society should inform how you make art. Also, the process is the end point and the process is the reward, so make sure you enjoy it. 

EW: What is your favourite language to sing in? 

JM: French. Technically, the oral positions that come with French vowels, I find much easier to sing in and I like the fluidity of the consonants. 

EW: Hobbies away from singing? 

JM: Outdoors and sports! My husband and I do a lot of hiking and cycling, to explore landscapes. I also love dogs, but that isn’t so comfortable with the lifestyle we lead. 

EW: What are your goals for the future, both professionally and personally? 

JM: I would love to do more directing using the traditional craft of opera but telling less and less conventional stories. Personally, I want to focus on keeping a balance, so I can support my students and mentees to be whole people. That is a recipe for being a more happy human, and therefore a more generous artist.

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