The conductor Leopold Stokowski once said that “a painter paints pictures on canvas. But musicians paint their pictures on silence.” If that’s the case, then this week’s Portrait paints quite a pretty picture indeed. Ashley Marie Robillard is a multi talented vocalist and performer. With a Master of Music in Opera and Bachelor of Music from the Curtis Institute, Robillard made her professional debut with Opera Philadelphia in 2017 and followed it up playing Musetta in La bohème, a role that earned her praise for her “crystalline vocal sparkle” and “wonderfully complex” performance. Robillard is also a passionate interpreter of recital and chamber music, and has performed in numerous recital tours and recital series. Not being content to only explore traditional repertoire, Robillard has been making waves as a cabaret artist among many other things. Over Valentine’s Day weekend she will be participating in a very special program, “Love Notes Dinner and Virtual Opera.” A three course dinner and virtual concert being presented by the East Passyunk Opera Project (ePOP) and several local restaurants with pick-up locations throughout the city. Ah, the scent of love and lasagna is in the air.
When did you hear the first opera piece that made you take notice?
When I was growing up my family was always robbing Peter to pay Paul but they were able to make the arts a staple in my life. I did musical theater for a long time. Opera was one of the many things I was doing, though it hadn’t really grabbed my heart. I had the very, very good fortune of someone at my dad’s company who heard there was a 10 year old who liked opera, and he insisted on getting me to see my first full production. I assumed it would be a local company or in nearby Boston, but he got us tickets to go to New York to sit in a parterre box at the Met! I was changed. I was entirely electrified from the time the orchestra started tuning. I was utterly enchanted from that point on. It totally enveloped my imagination and brought me into that glorious clusterfuck of things known as opera.
When did you realize that you had some ability in that realm?
I was lucky in that I had very supportive parents and mentors. My parents are the coolest people I know, I hope I’m one iota as cool and kind as they are. Whenever I had an impulse to be creative, they fed it. I went to a boarding high school for the arts which was another lucky event. My parents couldn’t afford it, and 7 days before I was going to start public school, an angel donor came in and paid for me to go to arts school. I get emotional about it still, because finances are such a tender spot in my history and because that was when I realized that if someone was investing so much in me, it might be time to start believing in myself. The school was incredible, it was an intense, wonderfully collaborative place to be. I miss that, the ability to mix with people in all sorts of disciplines, to turn to someone at the lunch table and say, “Hey, why don’t you write some music, you can choreograph a dance for it and I’ll sing!”
I understand, I went to an arts school too and it was like being in the movie “Fame” with people dancing on the lunch tables. Tell me about the fam.
Oh, I’m so glad you asked; my parents have a grossly cute love story! They were pretty young when they had me and separated soon after when my father at 21 freaked out at the idea of being a father. He came back and apologized and her response was, “Your words don’t mean shit unless you back them up with actions.” He wrote her a love letter every day for a year and they got back together after my first birthday and have been gorgeously in love ever since. My little sisters are fraternal twins and some of the most powerful people I’ve ever met. One is into heavy metal and has a very alt personality and is super smart, and the other is equal parts hard-ass and super sweet softie, one of the kindest people I’ve ever met, and I have another adopted sister who is the light of my life, a beautiful visual artist and stunning human. We really resonate because we’re both connected to the arts.
What were you like as a kid?
It’s hard to not look back and cringe a little! I was a very excited, passionate, full throttle kid.
[With warm sarcasm] I’ve known you for 3 minutes and I just can’t imagine that.
[Laughing] I get that a lot! Yeah, my partner still teases me because I’ve always had to make friends wherever I went. There was a time when I was enamored with men with beards. We lived with my grandmother for some time, and her house was the place where everyone came if they needed a place to stay. There were a lot of random bearded guys there and so I associated that with comfort. When I was about 8 I would invite every dude with chin hair that I saw at the mall to my birthday party! As a kid I was fearless; I never questioned myself, I just went for things and assumed they would happen. Not material things, I never asked for that because I didn’t want my dad to feel bad because we couldn’t afford them, but when it came to what I was capable of doing, they made me feel like I could do almost anything.
What did the folks do?
My mom was a bartender for a while, she’s such a badass, she taught me to be a strong, powerful human. She’s the one you want on your side in a fight. When my sisters were born she stayed home and recently she got into the security industry and now she’s being headhunted by some big international companies. My dad does sales and for the first time ever, they have the financial stability they’ve always dreamed of. It’s beautiful to see and gets me emotional, they deserve so much.
What was a favorite toy?
Tickle Me Elmo. I think I didn’t even know we had channels other than PBS growing up. I’d watch Curious George in the morning, Sesame Street in the afternoon and Great Performances in the evening. But I loved the toy in part because one of those unofficial bearded uncles fought the crowds on Black Friday to get it for me and the story of this 20-something dude battling the moms to get me an Elmo doll makes me smile. I also liked Pretty Princess and Star Wars stuff. Though mostly my best friend and I played with our imaginations, pretending to travel the world in her basement.
What’s the best thing you ever did with a box?
I love that question! When I was a kid, we did a community theater production of “Anything Goes” and there was a box on the set that the ship stow-aways popped out of. That’s the first thing that comes to mind.
What’s the most unusual extracurricular thing you did in school?
I grew up in Norton, Massachusetts, and on Saturdays the music department would go to Boston for choir and orchestra at NEC (New England Conservatory). There was a bus at 9am for the musicians and then a bus at 3 for the chorus kids. I would take the 9am bus and then walk around the city by myself. I’d go to the Museum of Fine Arts first and then I’d get a $1 slice of pizza and wander for hours. Even though I was walking in public spaces, and shared locations, it was intensely personal and meditative. It was almost a ritual.
I’ve often asked dancers what it feels like to leap across a stage, what does it feel like when you’re singing full throat onstage?
When I have a piece where I’m not worried about the technique or the other elements of a production and can let myself release into the experience, the character and the story… it’s transcendent, it’s very out of body and cosmic, and at the same time visceral and intense and adrenaline filled.
Other than the notes and the words, what are some of the other things you need to consider?
There are so many moving parts to an opera. You have the orchestra and the conductor who’s trying to get the sound together while making sure that the singers have something to go off of. You have supernumerary actors moving things around the stage. You have to be aware of what the other singers are doing while you’re moving and doing things and often singing. You have to know your music, know the translation, not just for your part but for everyone else on stage as well, know what every marking in the score means, and above all, you have to be respectful of your coaches’ and colleagues’ time. There are so many things that go into a performance. It’s the ultimate balancing act. One thing that makes me laugh in opera are the love scenes, from the audience perspective it looks so romantic, but the reality is that it’s basically two people screaming musically into each other’s faces!
How do you learn to sing in different languages, and which ones have you done?
Let’s see, English, German, Spanish, Russian, Latin, and Hebrew which I don’t speak. I speak decent French and okay Italian and allegedly English, so about 9 different languages. As opera singers we rely on a team to give the audience the performance they deserve and some of the most important people on the team are the coaches who deal with specific topics, from certain repertoires to certain dialects and languages who can help to make sure you sound natural and authentic.
What was your craziest moment on stage?
I was playing Donna Elvira in a production of Don Giovanni and I was wearing this super cool costume, it was gorgeous with a beautiful 5 foot train. It was patchwork and throughout the show she would lose layers. I had a bustle that covered the train and right before I had to sing an aria I was supposed to pass behind a piano on the stage. As I passed behind it, I felt a tug and heard an ungodly ripping sound. I realized that the dress had ripped in a manner that should the bustier come off, which Don G is supposed to remove in the next scene, my entire ass would be seen by the poor people sitting in the audience at the Kimmel Center! Thankfully one of my favorite colleagues, Jorge Espino, was playing Don G. As our characters were having a heated intimate moment, I was whispering, “Please don’t take the bustier off, my Deans are in the audience, please God no, it’s not that kind of show!” We worked around it, but it was a harrowing experience! [Laughing] If we’d been doing a burlesque version of the opera, I would have been open to it, but not then and not there.
And what is your identity in the LGBTQ community?
I’m a very proud queer woman. Queer is my favorite title because I think it’s the most amorphous. My sexuality is very fluid, I don’t care at all what equipment my partner has, my philosophy has always been, if we like each other I can work with what you have if you can work with what I have.
What was your first inkling of “hmmn, I may not be standard issue?”
5th grade, when I had the most wild crush on my homeroom teacher. I was wholesomely obsessed with her and then at one point my 10-year-old self said, “Wait a second, I think there’s something more here.” I came out in 8th grade and then went back in. I grew up outside of Boston where being in the middle and identifying as bisexual was not really accepted; you were supposed to choose a team. But that changed when I came to Philly which has such a strong and beautiful LGBTQ+ community. There were so many more resources here and things for me to experience. And I had a mentor at Curtis who was incredibly affirming and supportive and made me feel comfortable trying to figure out what was authentic for me.
Let’s promo the event you have coming up.
Yes! I’m going to be performing live from my apartment with my partner Joshua Blue. A number of accomplished singers, some of the biggest names in opera from Philadelphia to New York City and beyond and all of whom have sung leading roles at The Metropolitan Opera, will be making guest appearances. It’s going to be fun, we have one piece that’s an ‘ode to carbs,’ and we’ll have some drag! I can’t wait. There will be a special Valentine’s day three course meal from Jose Pistola’s restaurants. You can even order things like the Lover’s Punch cocktail if you like. It’s a great way to support the arts and the local restaurants that have been having a hard time.
That’s great. So, if you had a podcast, what would it be?
Hmmm, “We’ve Always Been Here: Queer Coding in Opera.“
Did you have a piggy bank?
I did! I think my grandma gave it to me and I really loved it.
What color annoys you?
Orange, and that was even before our last president. It’s just always rubbed me the wrong way.
Allergic to anything?
Yes, cats and dogs. It’s sad; I love furry friends so much but my body does not.
You do a lot of period performances, what era would you go back to?
There’s a legend about a bisexual opera singer from the 1700’s in France who would sword fight with dudes and then would sneak into a convent to have sex with one of her lovers who was a nun. I believe that convents were where queer women went to escape heteronormative life back then. “I’m just going to read books and marry God.” I would love to peek in on that.
What keeps you optimistic?
It’s been hard; with everything shutting down because of Covid, we lost a lot financially. Recently we had a video chat with a woman who is running a summer program that we were supposed to do that got postponed until hopefully this summer. She said something that was inspiring: she said that every day that passes is another day closer to when we get to be back on stage again and in a place that makes us happy and fulfilled. That was big, and I try to hold on to it until we get there.