Olivia Boen, soprano

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

I was born into a family with a strong bloodline of music — both of my parents work in the Lyric Opera of Chicago Orchestra, three out of four of my grandparents were music teachers, one of my aunts is a violinist…there was sonic inspiration at every turn. But outside of my family tree, I was definitely most inspired by Renee Fleming, Mirella Freni, and Karina Gauvin growing up. And looking at the repertoire I most love to sing now, the threads of their influence are so clear with my compass always seeming to point towards Richard Strauss’ music, grand Italian Verismo, and pieces like Britten’s Les Illuminations (which Karina Gauvin made the best recording of, hands-down!).

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

Covid obviously threw a massive curveball and certainly hasn’t made the progression from student to professional life any more straightforward; but that being said, I was so thankful to be a part of the Opera Course at Guildhall during the bulk of the lockdowns. They provided us with structure and (lovingly) forced us to be creative. I think had I not had been thrown a life jacket from Guildhall, I may have struggled to keep my head above water. I really feel the greatest challenges of artists today are also the greatest motivators, because we live in such volatile times with such an incessant, immediate stream of things to be concerned about supplied by the internet. So the desire to retreat, reflect, and inspect where we’re standing at any moment in time battles against the sometimes overwhelming need to get as far away as possible from the specifics of now. The challenge for me these days is to allow this ebb and flow to happen, to not fight the waves of creativity.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

In January of this year, I was lucky enough to get to perform Strauss’ Four Last Songs for the first time in the Barbican with Dominic Wheeler and the London Schools Symphony Orchestra. Given how much I listened to Renee Fleming growing up, and that I have a horn player for a father and a violinist for a mother, it’s probably not a shock to most people that these songs are some of the most precious pieces to me. I never thought I’d get to sing them so early in my career, but this setting was the perfect environment for me to explore them for the first time.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

I’m not sure I know how to answer that, but I can say that I feel the most connected to operatic heroines who make bold, life-altering choices, anything from the Second Viennese School, American art song, and of course, my man Strauss.

You recently became a City Music Foundation Artist – how do you see your life as a musician progressing over the next few years with them?

I’ll be relocating to Germany this August to join the Studio at the Hamburg Staatsoper, so I won’t be as available for work in England as I had anticipated when I applied for CMF, but it’s a real comfort to know that if I was ever in some kind of pickle, they would be there to help. Managing the entrepreneurial side of a music career can feel so daunting after years of focusing so single-mindedly on the details of craft in conservatoire; I’m thankful for CMF’s guidance on how to be a savvy business woman as well as an artist.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

My beloved teacher from Oberlin Daune Mahy used to call me the “repertoire Pacman” so when it comes to recitals, my method is essentially to programme as much new, intriguing repertoire as I can manage, and then curse myself down the line when I have to memorize it all!

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences/listeners?

I don’t believe that classical music itself is unapproachable, but I think for many people who’ve never had any exposure, it can feel like an exclusive party that they’re not invited to. There’s a lot of stigma to breakthrough in order for people to see that it’s simply another form of story-telling; often in order to expand audiences, we just have to make sure that our walls are actually windows that anyone can peer through and that our doors are always open. I think the task for us now in the 21st century is to show that we don’t perform this music for its status or clout, but because we want to use our voices to amplify those unheard, to stand for what we believe in, to seek out beauty, and to grapple with the difficulty of how to coexist on this planet. The remarkable thing about this art form is its ability to translate all the extremes of the human condition into an experience beyond time and space. Music can’t be touched or properly seen or even precisely recreated. It can only be felt in the exact moment it happens and now more than ever, we need a bridge to the unseen world. All it takes is a pinch of curiosity and an ounce of access for those who crave this type of connection to perhaps find what they’ve been looking for.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

The most successful experiences for me, whether they be performances or auditions, are the ones where I’ve allowed myself to give in entirely to the spirit of the moment. This is a skill that has to be practiced, just like technique, but the exhilaration of not knowing exactly what’s going to happen on stage is unmatched by anything else. Somehow it doesn’t matter so much if everything was spotless when you got to go somewhere you’ve never been before.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Take your technique seriously, that’s the only way to keep your head screwed on straight and to create some stability in this otherwise completely wild business. Simultaneously, exercise the muscle of your imagination as much as possible because if we let it go into hibernation, it doesn’t always wake up on command! And finally, take the time to get to know yourself. The biggest challenge of being a professional musician is that it demands a large dose of both self-assessment and self-acceptance. If the inner critic is too loud, the magic starts to disappear, and the magic is what we’re really here for.

Praised for her “full-bodied, sparkling tone” (Cleveland Classical), Chicago-born lyric soprano Olivia Boen is increasingly in demand both on the operatic stage and in the recital hall. In the 2022-23 season, she will make her role debuts as Musetta and Gretel at the Hamburg Staatsoper, where she will be joining the International Opera Studio. This season, Olivia makes her debut with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Sir Andrew Davis in Beethoven’s concert aria “Ah, Perfido!” and performed her first Vier Letzte Lieder in the Barbican with Dominic Wheeler conducting the London Schools Symphony Orchestra. Earlier in the season, she opened Robin Trischtler and Roger Vignoles’ recitals in the 2021 Oxford Lieder Festival as an emerging artist with pianist Dylan Perez and is looking forward to returning to the Festival for four recitals with founder Sholto Kynoch in May. She was a finalist in the 2021 Guildhall Gold Medal Prize hosted by the Barbican where she sang a diverse programme of songs by Messiaen, Marx, Maconchy, and Rachmaninov, and arias from Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, Strauss’ Daphne, and Floyd’s Susannah. Olivia is a current member of the Wigmore Hall French Song Exchange led by Dame Felicity Lott and François le Roux, a City Music Foundation Artist, and a Samling Artist.

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Image credit: Frances Marshall