Jennifer Borghi ’02 grew up in Leonia, New Jersey, and began her vocal studies with Ronald Cappon while pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Comparative Literature at Princeton University. She was subsequently awarded a Fulbright Scholarship in order to continue her vocal studies at the Hochschule für Musik und darstellende Kunst of Mannheim, Germany, with particular emphasis on the German lied tradition. Borghi has performed in classical musical venues throughout Europe, including the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, the Greek National Opera, the Theater an der Wien, the Opéra Royal de Versailles, the Teatro Comunale di Treviso, the Salle Pleyel (Paris), the Megaron Musiki (Athens), BOZAR (Brussels), the Arnold Schönberg Center (Vienna), Villa Medici (Rome), and the Palazzetto Bru Zane (Venice). Active as a stage and recording artist and as a recitalist, she has won prizes in international competitions including the Maria Callas Grand Prix, the Hilde Zadek International Voice Competition, and the Hans Gabor Belvedere International Voice Competition. She has been particularly engaged in the re-discovery and promotion of French operatic works of the 18th and 19th centuries. Collaborating with France and Belgium’s foremost historical instrument orchestras, she is featured on more than a dozen world premiere recordings of operas by Méhul, Rodolphe Kreutzer, Gossec, Sacchini, Grétry, and other Classical and proto-Romantic composers. Borghi lives in a village on Lake Como, Italy.
“If you want to do this … then you need to be prepared to become extremely intimate with uncertainty.”
When did you first discover music, and that you had a voice?
Our dad (I have an older brother who is a professional percussionist) is very enthusiastic about music and has wide-ranging tastes. He introduced us at an early age to everything from orchestral music to Steely Dan. I always liked singing, even in elementary school, and I always liked my voice. I didn’t know if it was good, but I liked it! We had a decent music program in the Leonia public school system, with an excellent program in the high school. I started on the violin, then switched to the trumpet, which I thought was a lot more ‘extroverted.’ I always sang in the chorus, but trumpet was my main thing. Every now and then, I would audition for a regional or county chorus and would get in, but wasn’t until Princeton that singing became my focus.
How did you end up at Princeton University?
In high school, I was interested in a lot of different things in addition to music, particularly in science and physics. My Mom didn’t want me to go farther away than a three or four-hour drive, so I looked at universities up and down the East Coast. As I did my round of school visits, I was completely enchanted by Princeton (and it wasn’t in the ‘Big Scary City,’ which pleased my Mom). When I visited Yale after admission, I thought, ‘this is really nice,’ but a little voice from deep inside said, ‘But I’m going to Princeton.’ That little voice has cropped up only a few times in my life, always around major decisions, and I would say it’s always been right.
D’OLLONE, Musiques du prix de Rome
Share a story from Princeton University about a teacher, mentor or advisor who inspired you.
I joined the Princeton University Chapel Choir right away and was a very engaged member all through Princeton. I was President by my senior year. Singing with that choir in that space, there was such a majesty to it, a beauty, and making music with Penna Rose, especially, has been consistently an extraordinary experience. Penna taught me perhaps the most valuable lesson I’ve every received about being a musician. All the best people I’ve worked with reiterate this lesson, but Penna taught it to me first. We were talking about some singers (not me, fortunately!) and she got really worked up. She said, with a vehemence that took me aback, “Don’t ever, ever, ever put yourself before the music. That’s a rule.” And that rule has stuck with me throughout all my musical life. It’s good to have a really healthy ego, you need that resilience as a performer, that natural confidence to be able to stand in front of people and say, “You should be listening to this! But listen because it’s great, not because I’m singing it.”
Share a highlight of your professional career as an artist.
Can I share two?
The first was performing my favorite role in the entire history of opera, the role of the Composer in Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos at the Greek National Opera. It’s a divinely written character: a young prodigy, filled with idealism. He doesn’t accept that the world is full of low comedy and people who don’t swoon about the depths of the human soul, but instead are concerned about what and when they are going to eat. He wants to live in some romantic truth of the soul, of mythological grandeur, and is frustrated that he’s trying to get all of this out and people are thwarting him left and right. He only sings in the prologue and it’s the most heavenly music, full of exuberance and despair. Each time I’ve sung through that part, I just want to take him in my arms and say, ‘It’s OK. I’m sorry. It’s all right.’
My second was participating in the world-premier recording of the cantatas by Max d’Ollone with the Brussels Philharmonic and conductor Hervé Niquet. D’Ollone had an innate sense of how to write for every voice type and the orchestration is absolutely beautiful−sumptuous late romantic music−very satisfying to hear and to perform. Over a one or two-week period, we would come together each day very early and work intensely for several hours. Then, I would go home, have some soup, read a little Jane Austin, go to bed, and get up and do the same thing the next day, and the next day, and the next…working with Hervé Niquet on this very beautiful music was a dream come true. He is an outstanding conductor who gets the best out of every singer and orchestral player. Each day we would get to do our very best, and each day we would be pushed to do better. The experience was utterly exhilarating.
Listen: “Adrien” by Méhul (1800) with Orfeo Orchestra, György Vashegyi, dir.; Palazzetto Bru Zane – Ah, ne me parlez plus! (Sabine)
“La caravane du Caire” (1783), André-Modeste Grétry
Air d’Almaïde: “Je souffrirais qu’une rivale”
Les Agrémens, Guy Van Waas (dir.)
Give us an example of your daily routine.
It would be wonderful if one could have a prescribed daily routine! As an artist, you’re always adapting to the exigencies of what you are doing at the moment. When you’re in a conservatory or in a production, that provides a structure. But during those periods of time when you don’t have work, you need to find ways to establish and maintain a sense of rhythm to your days. In the morning, I like to do a technical warm-up of 15 minutes, then I go off and think about something else—I work on administrative tasks or have a coffee and chat in the village—then I come back to it and do some more intensive technical work for a half hour or so. In the afternoon, I work on repertoire. An hour and a half actual, heavy singing time each day is about all the vocal cords can take on a regular basis. Beyond that, I spend a few hours at the piano with scores to get to the bottom of how a part works, how the music works, etc. Some days I’ll have a coaching with a pianist. Also, I’m an avid reader, and I enjoy spending time walking and hiking. It’s very free form, which on one hand is good and on the other hand poses challenges for maintaining discipline and maintaining a sense of internal rhythm, which you need in order to bring freshness to what you’re doing.
Share how studying the arts at Princeton transformed, inspired, empowered you.
Whenever anyone asks me what it was like to be at Princeton, I always answer, “I would wish four years like I had for anyone who loves learning.” The message from the University, consistently, in all the time I was there, was, “Are you flourishing? Is there anything we can do to help you flourish more?” It gave me the opportunity to grow, be ambitious, remain optimistic and be willing to try anything. The contrast when I got to the conservatory in Germany was absolutely brutal. I learned a lot of hard lessons about power relationships and games—even a small dose of that, after a lifetime of great teaching, was rough—but I was able to turn around from that and come to the realization quickly that, “No, this is no good, this is not helping me,” because I had something to compare it to. I knew what great teaching could be. Also, at Princeton, I had the opportunity to perform in fully staged operas: my junior year, The Coronation of Poppea, my senior year The Magic Flute. It wasn’t until I was in Mannheim that I learned that this is an experience that a conservatory wouldn’t necessarily provide at the undergraduate level. I think it’s extremely important to be a young person in an environment that wants you to flourish, and that’s unique–Princeton gives you that.
What is one piece of advice you would give to a student or young person who might be interested in your profession?
I would say that, if you want to do this, to be an opera singer, a soloist, then you need to be prepared to become extremely intimate with uncertainty. In a university, and even in a conservatory, there’s a structure, a home, for however long, but when you go and start to get work, that’s when uncertainty starts to whack you in the face. Recently I have had a very big encounter with uncertainty. Two years ago, out of the blue, my voice changed. Within the space of two weeks, my instrument rose by a whole step and got bigger. It was significant enough that it changed me from a medium-sized mezzo-soprano to a larger soprano voice, which meant a complete repertoire change. For the most part, I haven’t performed much in the past two years. I’ve been spending the necessary time working on my voice, building stamina, learning new repertoire—I’m just now ready to begin singing for people again. I’ve been getting across the board, from my voice teacher and other coaches, ‘yeah, you’re a lyric soprano!’ They start to get excited and say, ‘Oh, you could do this role or sing that part! —everybody loves playing fantasy casting games. A number of Mozart heroines are appropriate, and some Puccini roles, and there are one or two Verdi roles I could now do—an aesthetic that was completely shut out to me as a lighter mezzo. My voice has turned into this wonderful instrument that I’m so, so grateful for. At the same time I’m thinking to myself, ‘I’m now at the bottom of the hill again, I have to prove myself all over again.’ It’s a complete identity shift, and all this goes back to uncertainty. This is something I wasn’t expecting, it just happened, and it’s important to know, if you go into this, you are signing up for an unwritten story.