Good things come in small packages. Take the pun or leave it, but definitely hear for yourself this Saturday as Denná Good-Mojab takes the stage at the University of Washington’s Brechemin Auditorium in Seattle.
Denná – a 17-year-old opera singer who will graduate cum laude next month from the University of Washington with a Bachelor of Music in Voice – is petite, with an easy smile and tinkly laugh. A few minutes of conversation reveal that she is also passionate, curious, and a second-degree blackbelt in Taekwondo (she started when she was 6).
As if this wasn’t enough under one belt, Denná has performed in ten operas, most recently Händel’s Semele with Pacific MusicWorks and the University of Washington. She has also earned numerous awards, among them the 2014 Young Artist Awards Competition co-presented by KING FM 98.1 and the Seattle Chamber Music Society, which she won last week. She is set to continue her vocal studies at the University of Washington this fall as she pursues a Master of Music in voice.
Here is more about Denná in her own words:
How does a person come to zoom through all these phases? Do you feel like it’s been a fast pace, and do you perceive yourself continuing at this pace for the next… however long?
I don’t see it so much as a fast pace, as much as… I just skipped a few years. And I feel like things are happening at the speed that they would be happening at if I was doing this in five years instead of now. I just started the whole process when I was – you know, being in college when I was 12, as opposed to 18. I fell in love with music when I was little, and I fell in love with opera when I was ten, so, you know – everything just happened earlier, not so much faster. Now that I think about it, a lot of things have been happening lately, but I think that just comes with being in college and being in this part of my life where I’m trying to figure out what I’m doing and start building something for myself.
You seem like a person who some things come quickly to, but you also probably work really hard at them. Are there some things that you really love that were hard to do?
I think it’s mostly the amount of work that is involved, as opposed to the type of work, because I’m doing all of these music things but I’m also in college at the same time. So there’s all the normal good old homework that happens, and then on top of that I’m constantly in an opera, rehearsing for a recital, volunteering around the community, and then I’m also trying to juggle all the basic day-to-day assignments for all the classes I’m in. Thankfully, I’ve managed to pick a major where the musical things I do and the homework are often the same. When I have a paper, I will try to make it relate to opera – especially if it’s 10 pages long and it’s supposed to be about Bach. I will write about why he did not write opera. I’ve also done role studies through academic papers.
But still – with the opera that I just finished (Semele), we would have rehearsals generally 3 or 4 hours a day for 6 days a week, and on Sundays we’d have 6 hours… so it’s a really crazy schedule. And remember, this is my evenings, where you’d generally do homework if you didn’t do it during the day. Mostly, it’s just managing all of the stuff that I do. I mean, the work itself I love – maybe not so much the ten-page paper, but, you know. All the singing, anything that’s related to singing, languages – I’m studying Italian – that’s fun. I think the hardest part has been juggling all these things.
How do you balance all these things? Do you have any advice for others?
Be reminded by your mother! [Laughs] And try not to procrastinate too much on things.
I’m not an expert on time management. Sometimes I’ll get to a place where I just think, “I’m SO overwhelmed – nothing is happening when it should be, there’s way too much to do.” But then at some point, I will get out of that and just refuse to be beaten by whatever it is. It’s not something I really think about on a very conscious level, it’s just that I refuse to be knocked down by something that I could do.
And what counts as relaxation?
Playing piano. Listening to music – not necessarily classical. For recreational purposes, I usually listen to anything BUT classical. I don’t generally walk even from one part of a building to another without listening to music. That’s kind of my thing. I love – LOVE! – reading, although I don’t get as much opportunity to really get into reading now, because if I’m reading, I’m reading a textbook. I love being outside and doing active things: soccer, hiking, swimming, biking. I’ll do pretty much anything except beekeeping, or maybe skydiving. When I was little, I was terrified of bees, so it was the one thing that got crossed off the list of things that I could do. Or that I would do.
As a person who seems to be really passionate about trying new things, is there anything you got into that you decided: no, this isn’t interesting to me, this isn’t what I want to be doing right now, there are other things I’d rather be doing?
I dabble in things when I can and I move on and I come back to them. It’s never that I just don’t like something and decide I’m never doing it again. I don’t think I’ve ever felt that way about anything.
What are your favorite aspects of performing?
I get a rush of joy when I’m on stage and acting something, singing something. I just feel really happy when I move people to feel what I’m trying to get across. I’ve discovered that my most real smiles are the ones I give at curtain calls. Everyone is bowing, and everyone’s together, and we all just did this wonderful thing and we’re so happy – and that is when you’ll get my best grin.
Also, I love singing to a particular person. I don’t do this very often, and I should do it more: just pick someone, if it’s a friend all the better, and just pour my heart out to them. I think that would be really, really fun.
And the most challenging?
The most challenging is trying to express well something I can’t connect to as much. I don’t dwell in the hardship. I’m not a good example of the true romantic musician. I’m not tortured. It would be very hard for me to be tortured.
Are there particular songs that you love to perform?
My all-time favorite is La Fioraia (by Rossini). A new one is the one I’m going to end my recital with. I can’t tell you what it is, though. It’s a surprise.
Do you want to talk about what you’ll be doing for your recital?
I’ll be doing the entire Hermit Songs, by Samuel Barber, Suleika I and Suleika II by Schubert, and 3 Italian art songs that sound like arias.
What should we listen for?
I’ll do a lot of nuances when I get really into a song and I can express it, and the expression that I feel and I’m acting gets into the actual sound that I’m producing. So there will be vocal color and dynamic things that you will find in phrases and sentences and parts of the meaning that I feel I can really express well. It’s mostly these kinds of emotion-put-into-sound nuances that I will do. Look out for it whenever I go high, because that’s my favorite part.
Speaking of high notes, have you had any breakthroughs or particularly memorable sessions with your voice teacher?
Yes – a breakthrough with my own voice, really. A couple of times. It involves my sound: I just discover, “Oh, that’s how you do that!” and it takes my sound to the next level. One time, I was singing one of my favorite songs of all time – Fleur des blés (by Debussy) – and I had to sing a “u” vowel on a high G, and I could never get it to ring as much as I wanted to, and then I figured out how to do it. I just figured it out that one day, and it stuck. You can’t really go back after you learn that, because going back is going to a less developed stage – which you don’t have to do. You can just be the better singer, and continue on with your life, and keep doing that.
Often when you develop, you can’t pinpoint when a particular development happened, but with this kind of stuff there is a first time that I remember doing it. [You can hear some of those developments here.]
At the moment, I am kind of a soubrette/lyric coloratura soprano kind of person. All of the characters with my voice type – I mean, it’s going to change, I’m only 17 – we get the maid role, or the sister character, or the female sidekick, but even so the role can be a major one.
Is it weird knowing that your voice will change?
No, I’ll just change with it! I just get to sing more things!
If you could work with any musical artist from any genre, who would you like to collaborate with?
For pop… you see, I’ve never thought about… mmm, that’s not true. I could go with a classic like Beyonce. I love Beyonce. Do you know MKTO? I feel like it would be cool to do some kind of collaboration with these young emerging cover artists, like Max Schneider and Sam Tsui. I would love to do something with those people. Oh – one more thing, just because we’re being honest here. Working with One Direction wouldn’t be terrible.
Opera collaboration? Anyone from Semele. They were all amazing. Big stars? I kind of really, really like Jonas Kaufmann, who is a tenor that can pretty much sing any fach. You don’t find people like him very often, as far as I know, that can sing Verdi, Puccini, Wagner and Mozart all well – and he’s amazing. In terms of women, being in an opera with Anna Netrebko would be awesome. And Renee Fleming.
What excites you about working with these artists?
Whenever people are around people who do better than them, they want to do better themselves, and it’s this endless spiral of awesomeness that keeps increasing. Whenever I’m surrounded by people who are as passionate about what they do, I improve and become that much more passionate about what I do.
With Semele, we really interacted on an individual personal level with the principals. There was all this collaboration and interpersonal, individual relationships that formed in the few weeks that we had with these people. We’re all together, and the rehearsals are great, and we’re doing all these wonderful things, and the audience is there, and we’re just on.
It really does give you a boost to do your best, and be your best, and really interact with people as people and also with other characters as characters. It’s a two-layered thing. There are these moments when you’ll turn around and look at someone as you, and then you’re going to look at them later as a character, and sometimes you do it at the same time. And the audience being there, and you knowing that they’re being moved by what you’re doing – it’s all just so fantastic. That’s what I love about being in opera: the interpersonal interaction on so many different levels, while you’re singing, doing what you love.
Hear Denná perform her senior recital this Saturday, May 31, at 7:30pm at the University of Washington’s Brechemin Auditorium. The concert is free and open to the public. More details here.