Steal a Pencil for Me: Meet Adriana Zabala

Adriana Zabala in Opera Colorado’s world premiere of “Steal A Pencil For Me.” January 23, 2018. Photo: Opera Colorado/Matthew Staver

By Kelly Maxwell

Mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala knows exactly what she wants. Her direction and enthusiasm for her work are enough to make even the most focused among us green with existential envy. And you’d be hard pressed to find a more passionate storyteller, performer, or educator. Now, she brings her special electricity to Steal a Pencil for Me and to the complex role of Manja Polak—a woman navigating a disintegrating marriage and the wounded ego that comes with her husband’s conspicuous affair…all during one of the most tragic and horrifying moments in history. We know the cliché of the scorned woman, thanks to pop culture and countless romantic comedies, but Zabala infuses the role of Manja with heartfelt realism and plenty of empathy. Today we chat with Zabala about her confident approach to her character and her career.

What’s it been like preparing for this world premiere of Steal a Pencil for Me, and how do you feel about being a part of this story?

It’s an important story to tell, both for its circumstances and then on the flip side, as a love story. It’s interesting. It’s very difficult to have perspective on it. Personally, I’ve been doing a lot of new works lately and I wasn’t involved in the workshops for Steal a Pencil for Me. That’s especially unusual for me because I’m usually living with a new work for 18 months or so. A world premiere is almost like being on a media lockdown because you really don’t have any idea about how it’s going to go. It’s risk-taking and a little Thelma and Louise. You’ve got to hold everybody’s hands and hit the gas!

Tell us a little bit about your role. We’ve talked a lot about Jaap and Ina, the lovers at the heart of this opera—but they are, in fact, part of a love triangle and Manja is very significant to this story. 

A chorus member asked me on the first day of rehearsal, “How do you feel playing a character no one likes?” I said, “That’s totally not the case. I don’t believe that at all.” And he asked, “Why not?” Well, it’s very easy to see Manja and Ina (portrayed by Inna Dukach) as archetypes or clichés. I think the strength of this piece is the very fact that they aren’t these archetypes at all. Everything is a gray area.

I don’t know if it’s consciously having the wherewithal to play it all a certain way, as much as just trying to live moment by moment in those circumstances and make any sense or peace of what’s happening. When it comes to her marriage to Jaap, Manja is thinking, “We’re not suited. We’re not happy. If we weren’t in this circumstance, we would go ahead and divorce and just get on with it.” But in those circumstances, Manja is forced to ask herself, “Why can’t I just let him go right now? Especially when I have nothing left? The one thing I won’t tolerate losing is my foundation. My dignity being stripped away.” I think that’s extremely compelling and moving. In no way is she an unsympathetic character.

Mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala (Manja Polak) and baritone Gideon Dabi (Jaap Polak). Photo: Opera Colorado/Kelly Maxwell

If you’ve ever stayed with a partner for any complicated reason other than truly wanting to be with them, you can see yourself in Manja. She doesn’t make the easy choice.

I agree. I think I’m compelled to the character precisely for those layers and that dimension. Composer Gerald Cohen and librettist Deborah Brevoort gave Manja an important aria that was not originally part of the piece. After the initial workshops, they received feedback that she wasn’t really fleshed out and there was something missing. Imagine that character without that specific moment of, “Okay. This is how it is. Why do I feel this? This is going to be hard.”

What’s it been like working with Opera Colorado Music Director Ari Pelto and stage director Omer Ben Seadia?

It’s awesome. These days, because I’ve been in this business for a while, it’s really uncommon for me to arrive at any job—concert, recital, opera—without knowing almost everybody. But, I’ve only worked with two people here: Ari and baritone Andrew Garland (who sings the role of Abraham Soep). Andrew and I have been in five shows, we’ve played husband and wife, we’ve played boyfriend and girlfriend, and we were in grad school together, so we know each other very well. Ari and I worked together several years ago. Inna and I were at the same festival, but not in the same productions, so we met many years ago. Omer and I connected immediately, and we know hundreds of the same people, and it’s lovely.

It reminds you that the challenging and awesome thing about our business is that you have to come in, have this incredible preparedness, with very top-down action and a total bottom-up vulnerability and openness. When you’re meeting new colleagues, really nice things happen. That’s happened here. We’ve all become very, very fast friends. Of course, you’re immediately at home with each other, and in some ways, you feel like family even if it’s just a temporary family. You stay connected and then you work together again. It’s like Thanksgiving with chosen family. I love our community, if you want to call it that. You’re always half a degree away from anybody you’re meeting.

Soprano Inna Dukach (Ina Soep) and mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala (Manja Polak). Photo: Opera Colorado/Kelly Maxwell

What made you decide to pursue a career as an opera singer?

I had a real seizing, a real cathartic, life-before/life-after kind of thing happen around age 12. I didn’t know that I would sing; I had no idea what my tool was, but it was this tripartite lightning flash of storytelling, classical music, and the idea of art. My life was never the same after that. If you can say a three-part path is a trajectory, I’ve been on that trajectory literally from one night when I was 12 years old to sitting here right now with you. I could say that I’ve been laser-focused on music, and that’s true, except that I take nourishment from absolutely everywhere along the way. So, it’s a bit of a contradiction to say I’m extremely focused on music and always have been, but I’m really passionate about so many aspects of human experience: life, innovation, science, everything! That’s a double-edged sword, as you probably can imagine, but I also wouldn’t trade it for anything. My pilot light isn’t often sitting on low. It’s usually ablaze.

So if you’re carrying that spark around with you, how do you deal with the rejection that comes with a life like this? We’ve also asked your co-stars Inna and Gideon this question; it’s such a present part of being a performer.

This will sound super Pollyannaish, but I know that I’m sitting in a place of privilege in the following way: I’m a full-time professor. I have a family. I’m out performing all the time. I couldn’t ask for anything more. It’s extraordinary to have to try to balance the things that I get to balance. I have to rewind to my 20’s and ask, “Will I get to live my values? Will I get to live this blaze?” Right now, that is what I’m doing in spades. Those three things I mentioned: teaching, family and performing, they are all a piece of me and that’s why they work. I can’t imagine any of them without the others.

Coming up in the business was super tough. You know when you do a cruddy audition and you know when something doesn’t connect. There are a lot of things I would say now to my younger self, that I say to my graduate students and younger colleagues (when they ask) about instances I certainly didn’t handle with grace and fortitude. I didn’t have the self-awareness of staying unchanged and not letting the outside erode you. Those are things I understand now. Once in particular, I was almost derailed. It was really important for me to go through because I had not experienced feeling derailed from the time I was 12 to the time I was 25. I had to dig so deep. Maybe by the grace of whatever, and some support and willingness to burn down the house and see what was left, I was able to build on that for the next 20 years.

Soprano Inna Dukach (Ina Soep) and mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala (Manja Polak). Photo: Opera Colorado/Matthew Staver

Tell me a little more about your life as a teacher. What’s it like being a performer who ventures out to the far corners of the universe and then returns home to teach?

It’s fabulous. It’s so a part of me. We’re in a really privileged time, as far as communication goes, and I’m constantly in touch with my students and my faculty. They started two weeks ago and I’ve already exchanged dozens of emails with admin, colleagues, and students. It’s deeply fulfilling on an intellectual and emotional level.

In teaching and performing, there’s this sense of cultivating a garden that’s also sustaining you at all times. The satisfaction of planting seeds in others, while being sustained and fed and nourished yourself, is how teaching feels. It’s so circularly nourishing, and I hope that my students would say the same thing. That’s the beauty of perspective and getting older… Things stop being life or death. I became freer, a better singer, a better performer, and a happier storyteller. Motherhood and teaching brought out a whole ecosystem I didn’t even know existed in me.

There’s no finish line.

That’s exactly right. And that’s why you’ve got to keep exploring. That’s what’s so beautiful about life. I’m set to play Cherubino in Le Nozze di Figaro in 2019. I’ve been doing that role for 20 years. But I never would’ve guessed that I’d still be doing it when I got into my 40’s. If people would have said, “Maybe there will be this renaissance in American opera, and you’ll be at exactly the right time and age to be doing all kinds of roles that are made for people your age.” That’s exactly what has happened. It’s incredible. The capacity for evolution for our art form is more than I could have imagined. I’ve been ultra-lucky at the timing and evolution of everything. I’m like the luckiest creature on the planet.

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