KRISTIN CLAYTON – A Conversation with “The Diva” of Teatro ZinZanni

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Sean Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Photo by Lynn Imanaka

“On The Air” is the new show in the Pier 29 Spiegeltent of San Francisco’s famed Teatro ZinZanni. After more than eleven years and 800,000 visitors, 40 separate theatrical productions and 200 of the finest international performing artists, Teatro ZinZanni will offer its final performance at this location on New Year’s Eve 2011. “On The Air” is about as fabulous as it gets for this very lively and determined company. Headlining the production are Bay Area icon Geoff Hoyle and blues phenomenon Duffy Bishop along with an amazing cast in a brand new storyline that echoes ZinZanni’s own struggles to remain in San Francisco. Nevertheless and as the familiar saying goes, “It ain’t over until” – in this case, anyway – “the very glamorous Diva sings!” – I wanted to be sure I heard those final climactic moments from one of the most fiery operatic Prima Donnas in the San Francisco Bay Area. Soprano Kristin Clayton has been with the show since the beginning and is totally confident that all’s well that end’s well – which translates to, the show must and will go on! According to Kristin, the particulars regarding Who knows What, Where and When are very close to being announced.

I spoke with Kristin shortly before the Opening Night performance of “On The Air”. Being familiar with the general format of the ZinZanni experience – including the on-going character types, comedians, singers, acrobats and aerialists, fabulous costuming, and the savory five-course dinner menu – I wanted to know what aria she would be singing and in what kind of situation. In the previous show, Kristin was a knock-out in basic black and flurry of feathers.
Click here for ticket information: Teatro ZinZanni

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Barbara Stanwyck — Kristin Clayton — Beaver Bauer

Sean: What are the hidden messages in this costume?

Kristin: This was a character called “Leona Wonkenheimer” – one of my first opportunities to play The Villain of the show. I would come in announcing that something really bad was happening – to get everyone motivated toward overcoming The Villain and all that stuff. I’m not really “Cruella de Ville”, but she was so much fun.

Sean: Perhaps more like the Femme Fatale within Film Noir?

Kristin: Yes! A little bit of Barbara Stanwyck, with the bangs. You know we have this amazing costumer, Beaver Bauer, who is just so off the charts when it comes to being creative and putting all our visions into reality.

Sean: I know you went through the Merola Opera Program and the Adler Fellows, both being amazing training programs associated with San Francisco Opera. I’m a vocal coach here in The City, so I bring a singer’s experience and teacher’s perspective to everything theatrical. What will you be singing in Teatro ZinZanni’s new show, “On The Air”?

Kristin: The theme is around the radio hour shows of the 1940s where you really had to listen. My character is hired as a jingle singer, but she lets everybody know that her dream is to sing opera. So, I’m thinking that “Quando m’en vo’” from La Bohéme would be particularly nice for the evening. The show is a short-run, ending on New Year’s Eve, and it’s going to be jam-packed. In the opera, the aria takes place on Christmas Eve. My character is Southern, her name is “Charlene”. And I think I’ll be picking someone from the audience who will be one of my “biggest fans”.

Sean: This is a really popular aria.

Kristin: Yes, I wanted something very familiar.

Sean: It’s one of those select classical pieces with a compelling theme that so many people have come to know – who may not even frequent the opera – but recognize from one source or another. For the right singer, it has that legitimizing effect – “Wow! If she can sing this, she must really be good!”

Kristin: Exactly, it’s an important part of what I bring to the show along with all the characters I’ve played. All of the artists at ZinZanni have their act and specialty.

Sean: How did you get involved with Teatro ZinZanni?

Kristin: I was in the original cast back in March 2000 here in San Francisco. I actually auditioned for them at the Opera House. It was really funny because these guys were not like opera folks at all. More like ZZ Top. The lady who was in charge of hiring tried to describe what I was auditioning for, but it was hard to imagine. Somehow they determined I was the right fit and I’ve basically been in and out of a run ever since. It’s made me stronger as a performer because you’re just right there. Five nights a week you have to think on your feet in front of a live audience. And, as you know, anything can happen! So, it really helps you prepare for just about any circumstance, to keep your concentration, get over the nerves and keep going. It’s been a wonderful place to learn my true craft.

Sean: What did you sing for your audition that day?

Kristin: I sang Marguerite’s aria, “The Jewel Song”, from Faust. We actually used it in the show. There were three French jugglers who brought all these jewels out and I would put them on as I was singing.

Sean: What’s going on for you after the show closes and re-locates? What’s on the horizon for Teatro ZinZanni?

Kristin: They’re working with the City to get the location confirmed. They have two sites they’re looking at and making sure they’ve got everything they need with electricity and water, and so many other requirements. Then there’s the environmental survey that America’s Cup is doing along the Embarcadero. Once all of that is complete, then they will announce the new site. I’m hoping that will happen before the end of this run. We’ll have to shut the tent down very quickly, maybe even store it for a little while, and work on some upgrades. It’s an opportunity to make some really positive changes and we’re hoping it can happen as quickly as possible.

Sean: During times when you’re not actively involved with the show, do you keep your operatic aspirations in view?

Kristin: Definitely. I purposely try to take every other run off – number one, to give my voice a rest because it’s very demanding to sing five nights a week. Also, I’ve built relationships with other companies here in the Bay Area and around the U.S., so I try to do my opera work in-between. I worked with Houston Grand Opera for the premiere of Jake Heggie’sThree Decembers which we then did here with San Francisco Opera and Cal Performances at ZellerbachHall

Kristin: I love singing at Opera Theatre of St. Louis. I get to do a lot of new operas there and I’ve acquired a reputation for being able to create new characters. So, that’s been fun. I’ve sung with Opera Colorado and Opera Chautauqua. It’s very important for me to stay on track and not lose my technique and my connection to what real opera is about, in order to come back here and start fresh for the new show.

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Keith Phares and Kristin Clayton – in Jake Heggie’s “Three Decembers”
Photo, Houston Grand Opera

Sean: Do you still work with a vocal coach? Do you have a practice regimen that you keep up every day?

Kristin: Yes. I went through a bit of a vocal crisis right after the birth of my first child. I have two children. This was back in 1995—97. I tried different people and was very distraught trying to figure it out. I ended up going back to my original teacher in graduate school, Barbara Hahn, in Cincinnati, Ohio. She helped me through that. That seems to be the best thing for me. I just go back every couple of years, stay with her for about a week or two, tape all my lessons and all the exercises and just keep doing those until I go back to her again. Working with other people – you can get off-track if you’ve been lucky enough to find what works for you.

Sean: Absolutely. Do the companies you’ve worked with, or those similar to them, notify you about auditions or do you track that yourself?

Kristin: Basically, they contact my agent. It’s gotten to the place where I don’t really audition anymore. Luckily, things just come and – knock on wood – you hope that day never comes when the phone doesn’t ring. But with the balance of having ZinZanni here, it keeps me in shape and ready to go and do whatever else comes up.

Sean: As a singer and vocal coach, I can easily say, “It’s funny how Life treats a singer.”

Kristin: I know! And you just have to find your own way – you really do. Singers such as Maria Callas and others of that generation had so much more support than we do these days. It seemed like – once you got the coach you could work with – you kept that relationship, and they were in your life all the time. Now, it seems you’re so alone – you have to handle everything by yourself.

Sean: It’s true. I coach working singers here in the Bay Area and they will absolutely agree that you have to work at it constantly – that sense of urgency about keeping your name and presence out there all the time. That alone is a full-time job, especially for Solo artists, recital artists. If I were to push you into doing a solo concert, what would be on the Program?

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KRISTIN CLAYTON – singing “Pourquoi me réveiller” at Teatro ZinZanni

Kristin: I did a Schwabacher Recital. Jake Heggie was commissioned to write a song cycle for me and I was able to premiere it. It was called “Eve-Song” – eight songs with libretto by Philip Littell. I would love to bring that back out. But definitely I would love to include songs by Jake Heggie because I’m very close to him as a person, as a friend. I was there when he was writing Dead Man Walking and I actually work-shopped the role of “Sister Helen” for him. I love his music so much and feel so connected to it. My husband, Bojan Knezevic, a bass-baritone, recently joined the San Francisco Opera Chorus. It’s been great, because – when the jobs came in – one or the other of us would have to drop everything in order to take care of our home life, our children in school, all that stuff. I would love to do some duets with him in recital. We did Don Pasquale for Festival Opera in Walnut Creek and it was so much fun. We just don’t get to perform together enough.

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BOJAN KNEZEVIC, Bass-Baritone

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Jake Heggie’s “Last Acts” – in rehearsal
Keith Phares (Charlie), Frederica von Stade (Madeline), Kristin Clayton (Beatrice)

Kristin: St. Louis Opera just put a hold on me for next summer to possibly create the role of “The Queen of Hearts” in a new opera based on Alice In Wonderland. In the summer of 2010 I did the role of “Mrs. Gloop” in The Golden Ticket, a new opera by Peter Ash based on Willy Wonka. I had a great time. I can use the comic stuff we do here at ZinZanni to make those roles really fun.

Sean: One of the best things an opera singer can do for their career is to be part of a new work.

Kristin: It is so liberating! When you sing the traditional roles – there is always that huge pressure about what “the great singers” have already done.

Sean: What is your vocal “fach”, your vocal category?

Kristin: I’ve always considered myself a really strong lyric, because I don’t have the kind of power and intensity required for the heavier repertoire. I have the kind of voice that touches people’s hearts – I can do the long legato lines, and the high pianissimos. It would be my dream one day to sing “Tosca”, but I wonder if that will ever happen. Maybe it will be the thing I do at the very end. But, what’s coming into my husband’s and my life right now are some opera cruises. There’s one leaving on January 4th from Hong Kong that’s going down through Cambodia, Viet Nam, Thailand, and ending in Singapore.

Sean: Omigod – I cannot imagine.

Kristin: This is the thing that the little girl from Georgia had no idea about – what opera can bring into your life! On the Yachts of Seabourne. We’re going to do two different programs over the span of about two weeks. Bojan and I have always said that – between the two of us – we’ll make this thing work. The phone rings and sometimes it will just blow my mind what comes up and what people need. You have to stay versatile. Teatro ZinZanni has helped me to think “outside the box”, and just be open, and stay connected to all kinds of people and all kinds of opportunities.

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TEATRO ZINZANNI – The Cast of “On The Air”
Bottom row: Mat Plendl, Duffy Bishop, Kristin Clayton, Geoff Hoyle
Middle row: Christopher Phi, Bernard Hazens, Manuela Horn, Wayne Doba,
Andrea Conway-Doba. Top: Elena Gatilova

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