Interview: Sharleen Joynt on opera and "The Bachelor"

by Fred Child, Minnesota Public Radio
April 3, 2014

NEW YORK CITY — Sharleen Joynt is a 29-year-old coloratura soprano. Originally from Ottawa, Canada, Joynt has sung in operas by Mozart and Wolfgang Rihm and sung the role of Marie in Donizetti's Daughter of the Regiment. She's currently covering a role in Strauss's Arabella at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. She's known to millions, though, for her appearance as a cast member on the most recent season of ABC's reality show The Bachelor.

What does it mean to cover a role at the Met?

It's sort of the equivalent of a Broadway understudy. I show up to all rehearsals and watch someone else sing the role, and I have to come equally prepared. At the Met it's a little different than other places, because there's an entire cover cast — which blew my mind the first time I went there, just to think every single role from the main role to the tiniest one-line role is covered. There's a whole other cast, and they do entire run-throughs and everything.

So backstage at the Met there are all the people who've been cast in the roles getting ready to go on stage, and at the same time, are all the covers getting in costume and getting in makeup, just in case?

Not quite to that extent, but we are required to be in the vicinity on the nights of performances. Our phones have to be on, we have to have reception, so whether that means eating in a restaurant across the street, or you can sit in the greenroom, but you have to tell them where you're going to be and when. If you're going to be sitting in the house, you have to tell them what seat you're in so that you're reachable.

The worst thing would be to be called, and not get the news!

Yeah, that would pretty much be a breach of contract.

So what are the challenges for you of being a cover at the Metropolitan Opera in New York?

It's my second time covering, and it's challenging. It's a different sort of nerve that it hits. You know that you don't have to go on, so you don't have that pressure, but it is a different sort of pressure. You do sort of feel like you're proving yourself, in a way — and you sort of don't get the same rehearsal, when you don't have that certainty that you're going to be going on. Yes, we rehearse, I know the role, I know where to be when, but have I ever done it in costume? No. I've never done it with orchestra, and I've never done with anyone from the main cast, so if I were to go on...there's just lots of things. It's quite high-stress, if it comes down to you going on.

If you were called to go onstage, it would be your first time in costume, it would be your first time with the orchestra, your first time with the conductor...obviously you know the music, but what about the blocking? What about where to go on stage?

That's what we've been rehearsing, so I know where to be. I've watched Audrey do it several times now, but when it's not in your body--it's definitely nerve-wracking, for sure. It's scary to think about, but that would be...you know, that would be my Met debut, jumping in with an hour's notice or something.

There are a lot of great singers who have made their debuts in great opera houses doing exactly this.

This is the second time I've covered, and every cover has their own career, and I find that fascinating. No one who covers at the Met sucks. Everyone is going about their business, and has sung many roles, and this is what they do. It's the Met, so, they'll cover.

This points up something that is a real difficulty for singers. There's no obvious career path. You're a talented young up-and-coming singer...how do you see your career path? How do you create that for yourself?

That's a serious question. It's not really something that I've ever planned out in front of me, and if I did make that plan, I probably would have stayed in Germany for the rest of my life, if I'm perfectly honest, just because that's where the stability is and that's where the most opera houses are. That's where you can live more or less in one place while doing it. If you go freelance, you're really leaving a lot to chance and timing — that's huge. A lot of it is luck. You have to be good to get lucky, but you also need to get lucky.

So there are more jobs for opera singers in Europe in general, and in Germany in particular, than there are here in the States?

If I were to generalize, yes, but it's definitely not the way it used to be. It's just that almost every German city, even not the major ones, has its own opera house. It's part of their culture, and it's considerably covered by the government, financially. Young people, too, will go to the opera on, like, a Tuesday night, like we would go to the movies. There's over 100 opera houses, and they all have full seasons, so they all do several operas a season, and they all have full fest — meaning fixed — singers in their houses.

What does it mean to be an ensemble member at the opera house in Heidelberg?

It's a wonderful thing and I'm definitely lucky; it's a perfect stepping stone, especially for a relatively young opera singer like myself. A fest contract is pretty much all you can hope for in terms of gaining experience and getting paid to sing--which is obviously a huge hurdle — and building repertoire fast. That's huge. I have many roles under my belt — several roles a season — and it would be next to impossible to gain that just by going freelance straight out of school. I've been paid to sing since I graduated. I don't know how I got so lucky, but step by step I've been making it work, I guess.

So you are making your way in the world as a singer.

I've gotten paid to sing since I graduated. I don't know how I got so lucky, but somehow, step-by-step, I've been making it work, I guess.

We were just talking about covering a role at the Met; now, let's not talk about that role. What role are you covering?

Fiakermilli. It's not a large role; she's only in the second act, and she's sort of the party girl.

But a pivotal character in the story. What's her role in the story?

Apparently the ball that they're having [in the opera's story] is once a year; there's this big ball where the higher and lower classes will mesh, the one night of the year where it doesn't matter where you come from. I think she's sort of their mascot for that. She has a baton and is sort of the ringleader.

In your heart of hearts, are you hoping for the chance to go onstage?

That's a tough question, because...yes, you're immediately thinking, it would be so great to have my Met debut, but at the same time, you want to earn what you get in this world. That's not to say I didn't earn the opportunity to cover, but it would be nice to be cast, even if it was a tiny role, for my Met debut. You want to sound your best, so it would be nice to do something and rehearse it from beginning to end and know that I would get those performance dates.

Being cast instead of an understudy who happens to get onstage.

Yeah. Don't get me wrong; I wouldn't turn that down, but I think every singer dreams of that contract, knowing that they're going to be in tip-top shape, they know it so well. I'm rehearsed, I'm definitely ready, but I'm not the state I would be if [I'd been] rehearsing in full costume several times with orchestra.

Given the state of your voice and who you are as a singer, if there happen to be any opera managers reading this, what do you think would be the perfect role for you?

My absolute best role is Zerbinetta from Ariadne auf Naxos by Richard Strauss. It's what I consider vocal home; it's like it was written for my voice. I love singing it. I've sung it several times; it's just my favorite role in the world.

Another Strauss opera.

Yeah, I like that stuff. My voice suits it.

We were talking earlier about choices that you have to make as a singer and the difficulty of making your way and finding your career path as a young operatic coloratura soprano. You made an unusual choice in your career and public life quite recently...I suspect you know what I'm talking about.

Hmm, I wonder! [laughs] Yeah, I went on The Bachelor.

Speaking of getting cast! You went to a casting call. Is that how this worked?

The way it works is that all year long, you can mail in an application with a video; other than that, in most major cities they have these open casting calls where you can just show up. I did a pretty crazy thing, and I knew it was crazy. I did it sort of as a joke, honestly. I was about to have dinner with friends at Lincoln Center...I don't really know what I was thinking. The audition was at the ABC building, which is right at Lincoln Center. I just randomly showed up at it, no forms or anything.

What happened at that open casting call?

There were hundreds of girls and I definitely felt out of place immediately. I don't know what I was expecting, really, but yeah, there were hundreds of girls and they were all really dressed up and you fill out all these forms — a lot of girls showed up with their forms already filled out — and you get your photos taken, you get interviewed on camera, and things like that. Usually, then, I think you just leave, but in my case, the casting director came over and made me feel pretty special and gave me this packet saying that I was in the next round. She definitely made me feel like maybe it wasn't ridiculous that I'd shown up.

So you went through these rounds and then the call finally came: you were cast in The Bachelor.

More or less. There is a major step in that process, and it's called casting weekend, where you're flown to L.A. for 48 hours and you talk to producers. You go through the rigamarole, they make sure that you are what they thought you were.

Was being an opera singer a plus or a minus for being cast on The Bachelor?

When [the casting director] first spoke with me she had no idea that I was an opera singer, so I'm guessing that was just based on what I look like, or she saw something in me, but...I definitely think that by the time casting came around, the fact that I was an opera singer was a fun novelty for them. It was definitely a first.

Among the women who are cast on The Bachelor, it's rare to have someone dedicated full-time to an artistic career around the world like that.

Yeah, I don't want to say for sure, but...they asked me a lot about it, I'll put it that way.

On the show, you were reluctant to sing. Why was that?

I've seen the show before, and I know the things people do to stand out or to seem different or to be different, and...from the get-go, I didn't want to be any different than I would in real life, meeting someone for the first time. I know that is just a ludicrous thing to say, because it is a reality TV show, but I'm not the kind of person who, if I'm at a restaurant with a friend and let's say the cake comes out, it's their birthday, I wouldn't sing "Happy Birthday" with my opera voice. For me, my career is quite separate from my personal life — as much as I can make it, anyway. I didn't want [my career] to define me.

That's a part of who you are, but you didn't want to stand out as a novelty. You didn't want to be "the opera girl," you wanted to be yourself.

Right. It's what I do, not who I am.

So you made an unusual choice — as opera singers go — to go to a casting call, you got cast, and then you made an unusual choice as a member of the cast of The Bachelor.

Yes. After seven episodes, I chose to leave of my own volition.

Why?

I knew in my heart, as cheesy as that sounds, that I wasn't the one for him — or he wasn't the one for me, rather. It's a two-way street. Yes, he's picking the girls and sending the girls home and things like that, but...[my decision to leave] was right before [visits to] hometowns as well, so the thought of bringing him home and introducing him to my parents as a real potential husband. No insult to him, but I knew that was never going to happen. I would [have] officially [been] acting, or faking it, at that point.

Are you still in touch with Juan Pablo, the Bachelor in your season?

We follow each other on Twitter and tweet here and there, but it's not like we talk on the phone every day or anything like that.

So, more or less...no.

[laughs] More or less no, yeah.

Did you learn anything from being on a reality TV show that has helped you in the world of opera?

I definitely can say I learned things about myself and just in general that help me in life, but I wouldn't say opera. As of now I can say that it hasn't done anything good nor bad for my opera career. They don't really overlap.

Just another line on your bio, at this point.

I learned a lot. What I was sort of overwhelmed by was how many people really responded to my just being my weird, somewhat awkward self. I wasn't "turned on" for the cameras or anything like that. I got a lot of e-mails, a lot of Facebook messages, a lot of tweets, everything you can imagine, from people just saying...girls in high school saying that they don't fit in, and that I inspire them to accept that different is good. Things like that kind of make you tear up a bit.

You said you learned some things about yourself. What did you learn?

I've always known that I'm kind of a weirdo, but I also think that everyone's a weirdo in some way. I think it's kind of a great thing to just be different and for that to be okay; if anything, it'll make you special. It sounds so cliched, but I've never felt it to be more true than when the show was airing and I got the responses I did.

And you were never under the kind of scrutiny that you came under on the TV show either, until then.

It's not an easy thing to watch the show unfold. You don't really get a say in what's edited or how you're coming across or anything like that, so...I'm making it sound like it was all rosy, but there was definitely one week when I cried every day, like I could not have regretted going on the show more, just because people were like, "Oh, she's so this," "she's so that," "I hate her," "she's so boring," "she's so awkward," "I can't stand her." People are not necessarily at their nicest on the Internet. They warn you not to read that stuff...it's really hard not to, but it gives you a thick skin. Now that it's all over, I can say that I'm more sure of who I am, if I can say something so cheesy.

Well, there's something right there for your operatic career! If you can stand up to the wrath of trolls in comment sections and on Twitter, you can take anything that any critic writes about you in any newspaper for any operatic performance around the world.

If anything, I would say that it kind of happened the other way around. I thought, going into it, that I had a super thick skin. I get reviewed all the time in Germany — I get good reviews, I get bad reviews — and I'm also hyper self-critical, to the point where I can get ten good reviews but if I got one bad review, that's the only one I can focus on and I'll obsess over it and be really upset. So, based on that sort of lifestyle and always being scrutinized somewhat, even if it's for singing, I thought that I would be better prepared. I guess when it's a reality show, you're not playing anyone else. It's not about your singing voice. You're more or less yourself. To get criticized that way...I wasn't ready for that, but now I can say that I have a thick skin all around, both with singing and my personal life.

It cuts deeper in a way, because it's about you the human being, not necessarily about you the performer.

Absolutely.

You said earlier that your appearance on The Bachelor was not a plus or a minus for your operatic career, but you were turned down for one audition, by an American opera company, and you thought that might have had something to do with your appearance on The Bachelor.

That one line has gotten a lot of press. US Weekly wrote about it. A lot of people wrote about that one line. There were a lot of things said, but who knows? I have my suspicions that's the reason why, just because...I'm not saying my resume is so great or anything, it's just that my resume is decent enough that it can usually get me ten minutes in an audition room at an opera house. If Covent Garden would give me ten minutes, I would hope that other houses would as well, but...it could be any number of reasons. Maybe they didn't need my voice type, or they have next season fully cast. The bottom line is, though, that they told my agent that I was too junior league for them, instead of saying that they didn't need my voice type. I won't reveal the opera house, but it is a city that is sort of Bachelor-centric, if I can say that. It's the kind of city that follows the show.

As you said, this was one line that got a lot of attention, so I don't want to make more of it than there is — and this is a chance to set the record straight — but that maybe brings up a bit of a culture clash. These might seem on the surface to be two very different worlds: the world of opera and the world of reality show TV. Is it possible that these two worlds just don't understand each other very well?

It's certainly possible. I kind of go back and forth. When I think about how many people have visited my website or sat through 13 minutes of Zerbinetta's aria or enough to say specific parts that they thought were great...these are people who never would have sat through something like that had they not watched The Bachelor, and now they're listening to Richard Strauss. I think a lot of why younger people have no interest in [opera] is a lack of exposure, and I think there's a lot to discover. I'm a young person and I'm obsessed with it, it's what I do; but I also think if it weren't what I did, I would also, with some exposure to [opera], come to love it. If nothing else comes of it, the fact that so-and-so tens of thousands of people have sat through that on YouTube kind of warms my heart a little, if I can say that. That sounds really cheesy, but...same with that Washington Post article by Anne Midgette, to think that lots of people who watch The Bachelor, which, on average, are not the average operagoers, to think that they read an entire Washington Post article which really goes through the ins and outs of an opera career, that's a wonderful thing. That they're just getting a taste of it, that they know a little bit more about it than they did before.

As a young up-and-coming singer, you're doing everything you can to make your career work and to get attention for your work and for your voice. I don't mean this to sound crass at all...

[laughs] Believe me, nothing can sound crass at this point.

...but is there a way to leverage your appearance on The Bachelor to help your career as an opera singer?

Your guess is as good as mine. Most of my work is in Europe anyway, where I'm pretty much unknown — I'm only known for singing, if I'm known at all, I'm not known for The Bachelor — how I could leverage that here, I don't know. I still think I would need to get an audition and it would have to be a good audition. I kind of think that it hasn't affected [my opera career] at all. If I could say that I leveraged it somehow, it would require an opera house taking a chance on me, and then if they took a chance on me, and then somehow a lot of people wanted to see it, because let's say they're Bachelor fans and they wanted to see me in action, then maybe that chance would pay off for that opera house. But it would require an opera house doing that first, because all I can do is do my best in an audition and then do my best to deliver in performance. There's not really much I can do — it's not like I'm doing the hiring.

In the world of opera, like most of the rest of the world of classical music, you get chosen on the basis of your ability to perform. It's a meritocracy, and the fact that several million people saw you on TV doesn't matter one way or the other.

I'm a little surprised by that myself, to think that it really wouldn't matter, but I'm all about expectation management. When I think about how many Twitter followers or Instagram followers [I've gained via The Bachelor]...I get written [to] all the time, saying, "When are you coming to my city? I would love to see you sing." Oftentimes it will be, "I'm not an operagoer, but I would love to see an opera with you in it." I really get e-mails and Facebook messages like this, and I really think there could be something to that, but again, that decision is not mine to make. I can't be the one to cast myself in an opera in their city.

So what's next for you as a singer?

I'm still trucking along working. I'm here [in New York] for at least another month, covering. Then I have performances in the summer in Germany, and then I have a short tour of Ariadne auf Naxos in China in the fall.

Any continuing plans as somebody who appears on TV?

I get asked that a lot, and I honestly think people like seeing me squirm a little, because I was so not at home on TV. I don't want to say that I would never consider it, but I think that it would need to be a situation where I felt it was something I believed in or something that really spoke to me. I wouldn't write it off, but I wouldn't say that's an immediate-plan thing. I've been pretty career-focused for a while, and I guess I'll continue to be until I don't want to be any more.

You described going to the open casting call for The Bachelor as, really, a whim. Now, having [been on the show], how do you evaluate that experience for yourself?

I can tell you that when I went, I had no idea that it would become what it has become. I didn't know that I would become a major player in the [Bachelor] season. I didn't see that coming. When I was watching the show myself, I was shocked at just what a major player I was. I don't know how to describe it, but I got more screen time than I was expecting to get. I spent a lot of time avoiding the cameras; again, wanting to be myself, and myself wouldn't be at the front row jumping up and down for attention. The bizarre kind of fame I've achieved from having gone on [the show]...I could not have expected it. Would I take it back? On the whole, no, but there were really hard times, for sure, between then and now.

Where is home for you?

I ask myself that all the time. This is an opera singer thing — it's an issue for opera singers, and it's not really discussed that much, but if singers do have a home, the odds of them spending more than half their time there are slim to none. I still have an apartment in Heidelberg, but I haven't lived there for months; I have a subletter there, and I stay there when I'm working in Germany. I stay with friends in London a lot of the time, with friends in New York, obviously my parents are in Ottawa, my sister's in Toronto. I'm sort of all over the place; I live out of a suitcase most of the time. It's exhausting.

As is so typical for a young up-and-coming opera singer. It's a tough life.

It is super tough. That's one thing...if I could go back in time, that's one thing I wish [music] schools would emphasize a bit better is the lifestyle. I think they prep you for a lot of things, but the lifestyle is not something they [cover].

If you could tell your 18-year-old self something at the beginning of school, that might be it?

That sounds so Debbie-Downer-ish, but it totally would be, honestly. When I was 18 and applying to schools, I was like, oh, I want to be like Beverly Sills or Natalie Dessay, I want to travel the world and sing this beautiful music. What better life could you have? No one ever warns you, even when you're in your final year of Master's study in New York City, no one warns you that, you know, maybe when you hit a certain age, you want to have children. How will that tie in? How will they go to school? How will all your relationships be long-distance? Pretty much that's all I've had since I was in school is long-distance relationships. It's really tough.

Are you at a point now of re-evaluating your career as an opera singer?

Yes, and it's not for lack of love for the art. I love singing, but it really comes down to a list of pros and cons. Do you love singing more than you love having a real home? Do you love singing more than you love starting a family and being there for them? Those are big questions.

And you're at a point in your life and your career where they're coming up for you.

I'm 29 — that's still young for an opera singer. Let's say I continue to get work, there will come a time where I want to start a family, and that is closer now than it's ever been. It's something that is looming in my mind, for sure.


Listen to an excerpt from this interview.


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