Who: Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet
Where: Santa Fe, New Mexico
Artist’s chosen location for interview: In her living room next to a bubbling fish tank
Q: When is a time you’ve been largely misunderstood?
A: I would say I’ve been misunderstood in my life because I’m one of those justice and truth-telling people. Sometimes I forget to have a filter. I say something that is meant to be helpful, and it crosses lines that other people don’t anticipate because they do have those filters.
When I was very young, a conductor asked me about a young woman that we both knew. It’s important to know that the conductor was not a young man. He was a rather old man. I said, ‘Oh, yeah, I saw her at a party,’ very innocently. Well, that started a big trauma because without me having any idea that they could possibly have something going on, he was obsessed with her.
It’s a good drama story.
Lots of people went crazy about it, and I was innocently guilty of starting the drama. Yet, no one could really blame me because I didn’t do it maliciously.
Q: What is something that you could never live without?
A: Poetry. Plants. Nature.
I have chickens, dogs, cats, a newt, and fish. I am a dilettante farmer. I give full credit to my family. I’m traveling a lot, so they take care of the animals all the time. When I come home I pretend like they are mine, and I play with them, but my family really does all the work.
The fish were given to me for my birthday because I would rather stare at fancy guppies and see their genetic work at play rather than watch TV.
Q: If you could throw a birthday part for yourself in the past, what age would you choose and what kind of party would you throw?
A: I would re-throw my twenty-fifth birthday because I had salmonella. Everyone at that party made food that I especially loved, and I spent the whole time in the bathroom. In fact, I spent many weeks in the bathroom.
I spend a lot of my time traveling, so I have had salmonella a couple of times. In Naples I got it from water in an old building and possibly a seafood pie. At twenty-five, I’m not sure exactly what gave me salmonella.
So I would redo my twenty-fifth birthday, and I would celebrate (with my perspective now) how free, easy, and exciting that time in my life was. I lived in Bloomington, Indiana at that time. My birthday is July 4th, and when I was young my father told me the fireworks were for me, and I’ve always believed him. That never went away. I still know deep in my heart that those fireworks are for me. [Laughing].
A birthday on the 4th of July is great because you don’t have the conflict you might possibly get if your birthday is around Christmas. Of course, having that July birthday was less fun when I had to play in marching band as a young kid. I played the flute, but I always wanted to sing. Yet, I played the flute because that’s what all the pretty little girls played, and I wanted to be one of those rather than claim my true Wagnerian voice. You’ll hear that my voice is very different than a flute.
As soon as I could relate the sounds that I love—dark, rich, low, slow things—the flute was no longer it for me.
So, anyway, I would redo that birthday, and it would include being outside, having lots of beautiful food, and the faces of all the people that I love. And no salmonella. I would like to be able to eat. And play that volleyball game that I couldn’t play at my actual twenty-fifth birthday.
Carefree birthdays are spectacular. I spent my sixteenth birthday in New Orleans with a sash that said ‘Me and Louis too,’ since he also claimed to be born on the 4th of July. I ran around the quarter in that sash and had a ball.
Q: What’s a time in history you’d like to go back to and be a part of?
A: So many times, but I would have to pick ancient Greece. I am trying to think where in Greece I would pick. I know Crete and Athens pretty well. Between those two, I would pick Athens, but I’d also like to go out of Athens. I don’t want to be kept anywhere.
I’d like to be in Athens when arts and philosophy were really coming together as ideas. I’m also guessing that in Greece you ate well no matter what time in history it was.
To walk in those buildings as they were coming up and as people were thinking about creating libraries and making theater would be thought-provoking and mesmerizing. At that time theater and music were not separated, but they were just starting to part, and I would have loved to have been around during that time. And having the audiences participating in these huge events that were very operatic would have been stunning. And their olives. And feta cheese.
That would be my period of choice.
Although, since I’m an opera singer I get to do large, grand art, and I have been blessed to travel and go to many of these places. I would want to see the Herodus Atticus theater on the Parthenon in action. I sang there one summer and spent a month on that stage, visualizing what it once was like with two layers of stage and a leather cover. I want to fly back to that stage and experience it in its true form. Women were not performing then, so I might have to be a man, but I can handle that.
A lot of the characters that I play stem from that time period. I’ve played Medea, so I get to access the wounds of our collective consciousness. [Laughing]. As Medea, I poisoned my wedding dress that Jason’s male lover—we had a different version—wore. We also did a ritual chopping off of my brother’s penis, and I was dressed as Grace Jones. It was fantastic.
So I get to tap into these characters and places. When I’m on the road I always say I have all of these parallel lives. I create those lives every place I go. I think, if I lived in Bologna, I’d have a little gelato stand in that park.
That’s just how I see the world.
NOOCA and Franklin graduate, Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet will be performing in three concerts (Tongo Labyrinth on May 25, Ma Mère L’Oye May 27, and Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder on May 28) for the Birdfoot Festival. The festival runs from May 18 until May 29, and you can see a full schedule of concerts and events here. To learn more about Jeanne-Michèle and her work, you can visit the following website.