A rising opera star finds success as she balances teaching and performing. By Jayne Denker
Soprano Jennifer Aylmer ’94E is a rising opera star, getting rave reviews, most recently for her performances as Emilia in the New York City Opera’s production of Flavio and as Gabrielle in La Vie Parisienne with Opera Boston.
But when Aylmer isn’t on the stage, she often can be found in a much quieter place—a music library.
“I always go in looking for one thing and I leave with 14 others,” she says. “I keep a notebook where I write down recital ideas, and I keep a list of things other people want, like song arrangements in a particular key, and I’ll get copies for them.”
It’s a testament to Aylmer’s two loves—performance and scholarly pursuits. She finds herself divided between singing opera and learning about—and teaching—her craft. Aylmer digs through library holdings—including those at Eastman’s Sibley Music Library—uncovering obscure pieces to make her own and always on the lookout for interesting items to draw the high school students she teaches in her Long Island hometown of Hewlett into classical music.
“I see a lot of myself in my students,” she says. “They’re into Broadway, because it’s accessible to them. When I was in high school, I was in musicals and community theater. But at Eastman, I discovered hundreds of years of repertoire I had never seen before. So I’ll assign my students Broadway songs for fun and have them do a classical piece ‘for me,’ and they get excited about the classical piece.
“I choose the piece depending on what they like. They find out that Kurt Weill wrote ‘Mack the Knife,’ and then I connect it with the fact that he wrote The Threepenny Opera.”
Aylmer tries to strike a balance in her career, keeping the number of students she teaches small (“just a handful, not a studio with 40 or 50 students”) and to a limited schedule.
“I go there once a week—twice a week if a student is preparing for something special—and fit everyone in,” she says.
The rest of the time she’s performing in New York and across the country, in operas, recitals, and occasionally with pianist Brian Suits and violinist Kyung Sun Lee in the group Trio con Voce.
“I’m lucky—I do a stint in opera, then three or four concerts—that way I’m not away from home for too long,” says Aylmer.
Aylmer continues to build her singing career—her upcoming stage roles include Dorinda in the New York City Opera’s production of Handel’s Orlando in March and April.
“You always want to do certain roles, but you always end up having more opportunities to do one than another. I’ve done Marriage of Figaro a lot, but never Don Giovanni. I’ve done Mozart’s Magic Flute, but never Donizetti’s Elixir of Love. I’d really like to play Cleopatra in Handel’s Julius Caesar
“I’d also like to return to the roles I’ve done before, like The Turn of the Screw, now that I’m more mature.”
But she enjoys teaching so much she has to make a concerted effort not to let it overshadow her time on stage.
“My voice teacher said, ‘I know you like teaching, but focus on performing right now, because if you focus on teaching, you’ll go down that road. Do it for fun, though,’” Aylmer says.
She acknowledges that her life is still in transition.
“In 5 or 10 years, I’ll still be singing, and I’ll keep a residence in New York, but I don’t have any definite plans,” she says. “I’ll have performed the roles I’ve always wanted.
“I also hope to have a relationship with someone who understands and supports my career, and I will keep the friends I have now, because they’re so supportive.”
Pianist Tim Long ’92E (MM) is one of those friends Aylmer has valued since they met at Eastman when Long was a graduate student.
“Jen’s so smart and expressive—she doesn’t hide anything,” Long says. “At Eastman, you could tell her mood by how she dressed—when she had a bad day, she’d wear a leather jacket and jeans with rips in them. For performances, she’d draw from her own experiences for the emotions she had to display—she does it like breathing.”
Long, Aylmer’s accompanist at Eastman, continues to do recitals with her.
“We inspire each other musically and trust each other—:we don’t rehearse a lot,” he says. “A couple of times we’d get together on short notice, practice once or twice, then do the recital.
“She’s so high energy—we’ll go shopping and sing Satchmo on the street. Sometimes she’ll play the piano—poorly—and I’ll sing—also poorly. She’s one of my favorite people on Earth.”