Johannette Zomer in 10 questions to biography
Why have you become a singer…..
When growing up I was often surrounded by music, at first not in a professional way, but purely for the pleasure of making music together. Singing therefore was a natural thing for me from a very early age. Still I opted initially for medical study – biology and chemistry always had my interest -and then worked for 5 years as a microbiological analyst at a laboratory…. one interesting detail: I was the only one allowed to sing along with the radio during work…!
I always sang in choirs though, and once, during a Christmas concert, when I was asked to sing a solo, a professionally-trained fellow choir member came over to me, and advised me strongly to explore where my vocal talents could still take me. I took her advice, and used the next few months to prepare myself thoroughly – the music theoretical side of things especially needed some work – but it was to my big surprise that when auditioning a few months later for some conservatories in the Netherlands, I was accepted at all of them! I then choose the Sweelinck Conservatory in Amsterdam and started my vocal training with Charles van Tassel.
What fueled your musical development?
My family background:
My older sister was constantly making music with her friends, my mother played the organ, and my father liked singing a lot. His voice has a powerful, but smooth and round sound, and if it were not for the post-war conditions, he could very probably have made a career out of singing.
When I was 8 years old I started flute lessons, and soon began playing in small ensembles and orchestras, thus getting to know lots of different styles of music, and noted again the pleasure it gives to make music together. I could have decided to take my flute playing to a higher level by opting for a conservatory study, but I decided to keep it as a pleasurable hobby, and took a ‘proper’ job of lab-analyst first.
Charles van Tassel was not just my singing teacher, but also a coach, in many areas. He always encouraged me to explore other methods with other vocal teachers, learn other techniques, in order to find the best way to develop my voice personally. Later I continued this path in America, England and Germany with such vocal teachers as Marlena Malas, Diane Forlano and Abbie Furmansky.
Your musical interests are…?
… especially – but not only – baroque music!
My encounter with the musical language of J.S. Bach was a special event for me. Even though I barely knew how to sing it, when I heard his music, I felt right at home. Bach writes so organically, it seemed a another language I unconsciously already spoke, my musical mother- tongue so to speak. From there I started to discover the many aspects of baroque music, and soon this style became my career’s center of gravity.
Of course I do sing Lieder or later contemporary repertoire as well, and I Iove to perform Opera. I even dare state that Opera is one of the finest forms of the arts: singing, moving and acting together is a liberating experience! No other art form is so versatile, so ambivalent as Opera, but the team needs to be a harmonious and balanced one. If that isn’t the case, the three months one is together preparing and performing an opera production can be extremely lonely and tough: opera is one of the finest, most rewarding but also one of the most demanding forms of arts for us singers!
On stage I discover…
… myself again and again!
As a singer our main task is to captivate and convince the audience through a personal interpretation. It still gives me lots of pleasure and happens mostly intuitively. The moment the singer Johannette Zomer takes the stage all excitement and anxiety are converted into positive energy and expression. The private Johannette I would describe as more introvert and reserved. This phenomenon became already clear at my first, and of course very exciting, presentation at the conservatory. Even though I was so nervous I thought I would not be able to perform that evening, as soon as I stepped on stage, I seemed sovereign, and felt completely in my element, much to my own surprise. This experience helped me to make the decision to truly opt for a singing career.
What are you looking forward to?
To increasingly develop and promote my own projects. The founding of my own ensemble the Tulipa Consort in 2013 proved to be such a step.
Of course I hope to be able to sing as long as possible. I started relatively late, and handled my instrument with care right from the start, so the prospect looks favorable. And with an ensemble like the Tulipa Consort, but also with other projects or maybe even my own concert series or festival, I see opportunities to share my view, bring my personal convictions on music and singing to the attention of more and more people. Also teaching Masterclasses creates such a platform.
Do you teach?
I find it very important to share my own experiences with young singers, but also to teach them my views on singing and music in general. For me singing is quite instinctive, and, like speech, something natural. Matters like technique or e.g. resonance of the voice seem less important in my opinion. My starting point is speech and speaking, which we all know how to do. To be able to speak we take breaths and do this without thinking really. My singing has that same instinctive breath at its foundation. This all leads to a natural way of singing, breathing and phrasing.
Which brings us back to Baroque music and Bach. When I sing Bach, my ways of expression, colours, and phrasing literally emerge out of Bach’s text and his musical interpretation of it, giving the voice freedom to do what it naturally wants to do, as if speaking the text, providing answers in a natural way to all sorts of technical and interpretive questions, not just to the matter of Bach but for singing in general. Entirely new means of expression can be developed and one is able to look at the voice in a different, maybe even new way. Again and again I discover that looking at music from its text’s point-of-view can liberate, and let the voice sound at its natural best.
What does a career mean to you?
In the here-and-now it means something quite different than at the beginning of my career. When one starts to work, the ultimate goal for any singer is to sing with as many conductors and orchestras as possible, preferably at as many international venues as possible, and in as broad a repertoire as possible. The danger is to lose one’s musical authenticity and identity though.
The longer I work in this profession, the more important it becomes to concentrate on my personal ‘musical mother-tongue’, to safeguard my unique identity as a singer. I consider myself primarily as a humble intermediary between the composer and the public, and do not want any distraction to get in the way: it is not about me, but about the music.
Therefore I concentrate more and more on repertoire in which I can achieve that artistic goal, and means narrowing the career path down.
What is important to you in addition to music?
…Hiking, cycling, mountains, being in nature…
A few years ago I moved to a beautiful Hanseatic town in the rural east of the Netherlands. Here I am surrounded by nature, and feel energized and freed by the generosity of it. It also provides space for personal development, ideas and thoughts can run free, even if one doesn’t find the time to take a walk every day…
How do you see the current cultural climate?
….Still mainly positive!
In the beginning it was alarming to see that the general crisis with its budget cuts knocked away the foundation under our cultural structures, which made it collapse to a great extent. But now new initiatives seem to arise, bringing new developments and opportunities, with new visions on how culture needs to be funded and organized. Hopefully it will bring a kind of freedom, and we will learn to be less dependent on the former traditional structures.
The reaction and attitude of the public also seem to have changed since the beginning of the crisis. There is a growing awareness that the culture on offer and in its variety are not to be taken for granted as a few years ago. It makes the public more attentive during concerts (they seem to be like sponges, sucking it all up), acknowledging what music means for society in general, but also for them personally.
This is another reason to stay loyal and authentic in the process of expressing myself, and to stay true to the music.
What are your future needs?
That culture gets the recognition it deserves and that its significance to society gets appreciated again. The positive effects of music on the development of children but also to society in general have been adequately studied and known. Music has a stimulating effect on the intelligence and social development of children and youth, and a calming effect in lots of situations.
I wish for strong cultural advocates, who continue to deliver that message against the current trend of monetarised philistinism, and that we, as artists, continue to contribute as well.
Interview by Monika Treutwein, March 2015