News and Events
Fields of Dreams
By Gina Ledbetter
Soprano Jessica Rivera has all the elegance and beauty of Susanna in Mozart’s acclaimed opera, The Marriage of Figaro. It is, in fact, the role that the 1996 Seaver graduate performed recently with the Los Angeles Opera at the prestigious Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
This beautiful, rising star said that the chance to sing the most famous female lead in an opera was a matter of faith. “God made sure that I was in the right place at the right time,” said Rivera, “and He has lived up to His promise found in Jeremiah 29:11, ‘I know the plans I have for you…plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’”
The character of Susanna is on stage, “at least ninety-five percent of the opera, either singing or listening to someone sing,” Rivera explained. “In the four hundred-fifty page vocal score, Susanna appears on four hundred pages.” And playing the lead role is familiar to Rivera. It is both the role that began her career three years ago, and also the role that brings Rivera’s three years as a Los Angeles Opera artist-in-residence to an apropos climax.
Prior to receiving her bachelor’s degree in Music from Pepperdine, Rivera auditioned with the Los Angeles Opera while still a senior at the University. She was chosen to join the opera chorus the following fall of 1996, where she sang for two shows. She continued singing with the Los Angeles Opera chorus through the 2000-2001 season. In January 2001, she was the understudy for the part of Susanna.
With only forty-five minutes advance notice, Rivera was called to play the complete four-act part of Susanna for the dress rehearsal, which progressed into the final dress rehearsal with an invited audience. “The role in itself is a huge undertaking,” said Rivera, “but what is even more overwhelming is to perform the role, complete with costume, wig and make-up, sets, lighting and orchestra—without ever having rehearsed it.” But as her colleague and leading man, Richard Bernstein, singing the role of Figaro, reminded her, God was in charge of that rehearsal. Bernstein said, “You’re in good hands, and besides, I know all of your lines.”
After what must have been a near perfect performance, Placido Domingo, in his first season as general director of the Los Angeles Opera, made one of his first and arguably best decisions. He personally thanked Rivera for taking the lead soprano’s place in what was a last-minute emergency, and then invited Rivera to be a part of the company in an artist capacity. Rivera feels privileged to have worked with Domingo from the start of her career. “My first professional opera experience was singing in the chorus with Los Angeles Opera in the Franco Zeffirelli production of I Pagliacci, with Domingo in the lead role. I am privileged to have benefited from his genius, both as a musician and a performer; he is truly the consummate singing artist.”
Having studied voice since the age of nine—and focusing on opera from age fourteen—Rivera knew music was in her future. As a sophomore in high school, she attended the Pepperdine production of My Fair Lady. “After I saw that performance,” she said, “there was no doubt in my mind that Pepperdine was the place for me. I knew that I would have the opportunity to develop my skills and talents in a way that is not possible on the undergraduate level in most conservatories.”
Joyce Fizzolio, Rivera’s first voice teacher, also encouraged her to audition for the highly regarded music program at Pepperdine. In doing so, Rivera discovered a school that combined music and the Christian faith, and she soon began to regard Pepperdine as home.
As an undergraduate, Rivera developed a philosophy about who she is. She said, “Pepperdine is a huge part of who I am and who I’ve become. I attribute much of my success, both personally and professionally, to the support I have received from my Pepperdine family.”
Along the way, her extended Pepperdine family has helped to open doors to Rivera’s musical career. She describes David Davenport, who was president when Rivera was an undergraduate, as “incredibly supportive”. She added, “He took the opportunity to introduce me to certain individuals who have opened some very important doors for me.”
Flora Thornton, whose family name adorns both Pepperdine’s Thornton Administrative Center and University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music, arranged for Rivera’s audition for the Los Angeles Opera. Thornton also offered to sponsor Rivera’s graduate school education, wherever the young talent wanted to go. And now, Rivera’s future is clear. “I feel it’s a duty to be able to share with other people,” she said, “and to bless them the way that I’ve been blessed.”
After she completed her master’s degree from USC in performance and vocal arts, she returned to Pepperdine and worked for one year as the administrative assistant in Pepperdine’s Hispanic Affairs Office, with Israel Rodriguez. But her connection with Pepperdine didn’t end there. Not only was she the music ambassador and ARTSReach coordinator with the Pepperdine Center for the Arts for two years, she said, “Israel continues to support my career by inviting me to sing each year at the Pepperdine Hispanic Council Annual Mariachi Concert.”
While singing the part of Maria in Pepperdine’s production of The Sound of Music, Rivera was also carrying eighteen units, serving on the Pepperdine Ambassadors Council, employed as a resident advisor in the Rockwell Towers Residence Hall, and also managed to miss one too many convocations. When she was notified of her negligence, she explained, “I was probably up in the hills of Pepperdine singing, so please dismiss this absence.” The response she received was, “How do you solve a problem like Maria?” Perhaps the only way to tame the ambitious, like Jessica Rivera, is with song.
This article first appeared in the Pepperdine Voice Magazine, Fall 2004.
Editors Note: Jessica will be performing April 8 and 9 at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza in Carmen by G. Bizet. For more information on this performance and all of Jessica's upcoming performances, please visit the Jessica Rivera Web site.