Joélle Harvey finds her niche away from opera

Unlike many classical vocalists, Joélle Harvey prefers concert assignments. “I really enjoy doing opera, but it takes you away from home.” She makes her Chicago Symphony Orchestra debut Nov. 11-13 in Barber's "Knoxville: Summer of 1915."

Joélle Harvey has never been on the cover of Opera News magazine, and she doesn’t expect to be. Rather than fame and fortune, the soprano is seeking a balance between a meaningful career and rewarding home life. “I don’t have delusions of grandeur,” she said after a day of substitute teaching at her daughter’s school. “I’m happy to make good music with good people and make enough to pay my bills.”

But don’t misunderstand. If Harvey is not exactly an operatic diva, she’s hardly a professional wallflower, either. As evidence, look no further than her debut Nov. 11-13 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra — a high-water mark for any singer’s career. She will join guest conductor Jakub Hrůša for Samuel Barber’s ever-popular song cycle, Knoxville: Summer of 1915. “It’s very exciting,” she said. “It’s another bucket-list place. I’ve never sung with them before.”

Unlike other singers, Harvey, 36, has largely concentrated on serving as a soloist for orchestral and choral concerts in works such as Handel’s Messiah or Mahler’s Second Symphony, assignments that typically don’t have the same visibility as operas. She has appeared with such prestigious groups as the Cleveland Orchestra, Handel and Haydn Society in Boston and Mostly Mozart Festival in New York City. “It’s kind of how my career developed and also just how I wanted it to once I had a taste of both,” she said. “I really enjoy doing opera, but it takes you away from home.”

While a symphony engagement might mean a week of rehearsals and performances, an opera production can require a singer to be on site for four to 12 weeks, depending on the work and the company. After her daughter, now 5 years old, was born, Harvey realized that she wanted to be apart from her as little as possible. “I love being a mom,” she said. “I’m very hands-on.” That said, she has not given up opera altogether. Harvey is scheduled in March, for example, to appear as Aristea in Pergolesi’s L’Olimpiade at Zürich Opera, and she has other roles in upcoming seasons scheduled at the Metropolitan Opera and Royal Opera House.

For the most part, she has performed repertoire by composers like Handel and Mozart and new music by John Adams and others, but little in between. “The clarity of tone that is preferred for Baroque and early Classical and contemporary music is similar,” she said. She tried performing in Donizetti's bel canto opera The Elixir of Love, with a Glyndebourne touring company, but she found the role didn’t suit her voice and artistic sensibility as well the eras she prefers.

She realizes that she's aging out of some signature roles, for instance, Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro — a part she adores. “Men can play the Count into their 60s, but a woman approaching 40 is probably not going to have a lot more chances to sing Susanna.” Because opera is not at the center of her career, Harvey does not have to worry about such concerns. “I can sing Knoxville when I’m 40 or 45,” she said. “The Mozart Requiem and all this stuff, it doesn’t really matter how old I am, as long as I’m still able to sing it the right way.”

As a child, Harvey began taking voice and piano lessons. Her parents saw them as a way to foster a general love of music, but the youngster quickly developed aspirations of being a performer. “I wanted to be Christine in The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway,” she said. “That was my dream for long time.” Later, she realized that her voice and her personality were more suited to classical music.

She went on to pursue bachelor’s and master’s degrees in vocal performance from the respected University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. In 2007, after finishing her undergraduate studies, she was a member of Glimmerglass Opera’s Young American Artists Program, performing the role of Cupid in Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld and covering soprano Lisa Saffer in Philip Glass’ Orphée. She got job offers after her summer there, so she was sometimes away from school for engagements while she was finishing her graduate degree. “That gave me the hope I could do it full time after school,” Harvey said. “Prior to the pandemic, I’ve been very, very fortunate that I haven’t had to have any side jobs. It’s just sustained me the way I needed it to.”

Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 is a one-movement work based on an excerpted version of a prose poem by James Agee that conjures his childhood memories of a summer evening in his Tennessee hometown. “Agee’s poem was vivid and moved me deeply,” the composer said later, “and my musical response that summer of 1947 was immediate and intense. ... You see, it expresses a child’s feelings of loneliness, wonder and lack of identity in that marginal world between twilight and sleep.”

Harvey has performed Knoxville three previous times. During her preparations, she fell in love with the work and wished she had taken it on sooner. “It’s got a lot of variety musically,” she said. “The text is just so fabulous. There are parts that always make me tear up. It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve sung it or heard it.”

In one section, there is a reference to the child’s father and mother, and Harvey recalled that she could barely get through those words during her last performance, because her father and daughter were in the audience. “That was so difficult to not cry.” 

Barber composed the piece for Eleanor Steber, who premiered it in 1948 with conductor Serge Koussevitsky and the Boston Symphony. Other famous sopranos known for the work include Renée Fleming, Barbara Hendricks, Sylvia McNair and Leontyne Price. “Singers love to do it,” Harvey said. “It’s fun for the orchestra to play, and the audience can be drawn into it and affected by it. What’s not to like about any of that?”

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