Soprano Joélle Harvey on Getting Back to Basics

By Catherine Yang
Catherine Yang
Catherine Yang
December 5, 2016 Updated: December 8, 2016

Soprano Joélle Harvey wants to do more to help people understand the value of the classics. Beyond giving uplifting and moving performances, “that’s our [classical artists’] biggest responsibility right now,” she said.

Harvey is still searching for ways to do this, because there are barriers to appreciating classical music. She had just been speaking to a man on a plane who recounted his experience of going to an opera with a short lecture beforehand, which taught the audience about the basic plot and a few interesting points. It made all the difference; he didn’t feel overwhelmed by how large the work was or that it was in another language.

“It makes people more comfortable. They are able to understand it more easily and connect to it with just a little bit of education beforehand,” she said.

Harvey, a soprano with a bright, crystalline voice, enjoys performing both operatic roles and classic choral works. More recently, her schedule has been mainly filled with choral work, like Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, Mozart’s Requiem, and Handel’s Messiah, which she will be performing on Dec. 15–18 at the Kennedy Center in Washington.

She feels immense gratitude that she is able to sing these works for a living, and adds that the career itself has given her great perspective on the world as well.

“If we want to have careers in this business, it is our responsibility to do what we can to make sure there’s an audience for that,” she said.

People today have become more insular and even less aware of their surroundings, much less the past. But classical music offers the opportunity to reconnect, according to Harvey.

“There’s a simplicity with these classic works that resonates with me,” Harvey said. With these works, it is all about the music. “There is so much in them. … There are super exciting parts, there are beautiful parts, there are parts that are a little more stagnant. It’s so dramatic, it doesn’t need a set, it doesn’t need costumes.

“It stands on its own and can speak for itself. You don’t have to do too much to express what Mozart was trying to express.”

These works are important to us, because “everything comes from [the classics], whether it’s literature or music or architecture,” Harvey said. She feels the classics give us a link to the past, and therefore gives us perspective. “You have to know why you are where you are, what you grew from.”

Works like the Messiah address such profound ideas, like life and faith, irrespective of whether or people believe every word, that Harvey hopes future generations will continue to look for and appreciate them.

Growing Through Community

Coming from a small town in western New York of barely a thousand people, Harvey was always supported in her love of music. She has been singing for as long as she can remember, and in kindergarten, her teacher recommended that she take voice lessons. She sang in school musicals, people’s weddings, and eventually a summer choral program that opened her eyes to what it was like to sing with a community.

But now her worldview has expanded. She’s gone from a town with little to no diversity and only hundreds of people to experiencing a diversity of cultures, classes, and so on.

Her next performance, Handel’s Messiah with the National Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Laurence Cummings, will be the first time some friends and family will get to hear her sing.

Some of the other performers and the conductor, a baroque specialist, are also her friends, so “it’s going to be great to be sort of at home and to know a number of people,” Harvey said. The classically trained singer’s world is small and singers often meet many of the same people again and again. 

Harvey says one of the things that keeps her inspired, though, is seeing and learning from other singers. 

“You’ve done Messiah 30 times, and one person is singing something in a way you’ve never heard before. That can inform you in something you sing next time, even if it’s not the same piece,” said Harvey. 

Now that she has a 9-month-old daughter, Harvey appreciates a repertoire that allows her breathing room—getting back to basics with the simplicity of choral works.

But she also enjoys playing operatic roles, like Susanna from Mozart’s comedy of errors “Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro).”

“Susanna is so quick. Her brain works so quickly and you have to, as a singer and an actor, be even faster than the character, and that’s definitely a challenge. I like to stay busy in a role, and [Susanna] keeps you very busy [on stage],” Harvey said. Susanna, a lady’s maid and the bride of Figaro, conspires with her groom to ensure that her lady’s husband remains faithful. 

From time to time, it’s fun to play a different kind of character, one that is stuffy or even mean, but Harvey says she is definitely drawn to kinder, gentler characters.

Whether it’s opera or a mass, Harvey said she relishes in the opportunity to communicate with others through music. “And hopefully change somebody’s day, turn their day around, or just have a positive impact,” Harvey said. 

She said her daughter was a perfect example.

“The way that she responds to music is really awesome,” she said. “She loves Mozart, she also loves ‘Leaving on a Jet Plane’ (recorded by Peter, Paul, and Mary). Seeing how music can touch and affect anybody, whether you’re 9-months-old or 90-years-old, I just love doing it.”