Audiences best know soprano Julia Migenes from the 1984 film Carmen, in which she played the fiery titular character opposite Plácido Domingo’s Don José. Her acclaimed career has taken her to opera stages and concert halls all around the world—and beginning next week, she’ll be back in L.A.
Long an admirer and performer of the works of German composer Kurt Weill, Migenes stars in an intimate showcase of his oeuvre at the Odyssey Theatre. Julia Migenes Sings Kurt Weill will include songs from The Threepenny Opera, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, and One Touch of Venus.
“I actually fell in love, in the late ’60s, with the old style of Kurt Weill,” she says by phone between trips to Paris, “and the fact that his music had such an edge to it. When he was working with Bertolt Brecht, his music had a strange rhythm and incredible harmonic structure. The Brecht was very modern. He’s talking about the one percent, which is very now. It’s the same thing that’s happening today. It’s unbelievable to sing his music and have the Iraq War.”
Weill’s music has been performed in opera houses, concerts halls, and on cabaret stages. Migenes has opted for a comfortable cabaret setting for these shows. “It’s so much more personal,” she says. “It sets a whole mood. There are no distractions. It’s just the harmony of the chords, the rhythms, and the voice.”
A wonderful hazard of speaking with Migenes: some answers come along with snippets of songs. When asked about the “talky” verse style Weill often employed before launching into a melodic chorus, she replied, “If you listen to the operetta of that time…” before breaking into song. “It’s very…” [more singing]. “And then the melody starts. [Even more singing.] That was the style. Brecht and Weill could not help but incorporate this because it had been like that for the last 40 years. That’s why you get this dynamic.” [Cap it all off with some singing.]
Rather than have a career that was carefully planned, Migenes has designed the career she wanted. As she once told Opera News, “I’m the only one who knows my talent.” She clarifies further today. “When I had children and they were not in school yet, I could take them wherever I wanted,” she says. “As soon as they were in school, I didn’t want to be away for six weeks to do another opera. I would do concerts. Since I don’t like just standing and singing, I wrote my own shows where I could be funny. I had more fun doing my own thing rather than someone else’s creation, which used only one-quarter of what makes me happy.”
With a career as long and rich as hers, it’s something of a surprise that the 66-year-old can still harness the power of her vocal cords. But she orchestrated that, too. “I have preserved my voice,” she says. “I’m singing Kurt Weill in a lower register because I believe the music belongs in the lower register. I’m doing a tour of master classes in France. It’s a master class/concert where in each city that has a music academy, I audition all the kids. I sing and they sing. It’s everything from high…[she sings again]…to low.” [More singing.] “I still have my voice, which is practically unheard of at my age. I’ll probably die on stage.”