By Grace Becker
The first singer of the music department’s learning session March 17, Jessie Neuffer, 21, walked out in a black and gold mermaid-style dress. Short, dark hair pulled back against her she smiled at the applause from her classmates and friends, and stood quietly as her accompanying pianist sat at the massive Steinway. Maybe someone who didn’t know what they would be watching would have expected something different, but as Neuffer opened her mouth, a flowing, elegant, Japanese opera echoed through the music department performance hall.
A student at California State University Stanislaus, Neuffer is in her third year at the school. She lives in nearby Modesto, and commutes five days a week, attending her voice and music theory classes, as well as performing in “directed learning” performances where she performs a piece in front of her classmates and professors.
Opera wasn’t always on the table, however. While Neuffer always knew she wanted to be a singer, and has taken lessons since she was in the fourth grade, it wasn’t something she really enjoyed.
“I love classical music, but I hated opera,” Neuffer explained. “I actually started studying music at Stanislaus State with a plan to go on Broadway but I wanted classical training. It wasn’t until my sophomore year that I started to like opera.”
It was the role of Cherubino from the opera Le Nozze di Figaro that started Neuffer’s love of opera. Cherubino is what is known as a “pant role” or “trouser role,” which is when a woman plays a man or a boy.
“I always though opera was so boring because you had these long arias that never seem to end and you had to play these boring female roles of like, the main, or the gossipy servant, or a mother, or the damsel in distress,” Neuffer said.
It turned out, though, that with her voice type she can play all the pant roles that she thinks are really fun. After getting the role of Cherubino she did more research and opera quickly became an obsession.
“Now I really think that opera is a lot more interesting than most people know,” Neuffer said. Her love of opera is very evident in the way she describes it. It has dramatic story lines that are fun to perform, and isn’t just this ‘old timey, stuffy kind of art.’
Opera is hard, though. Neuffer explained that it is challenging because there is a great deal of technique just in the singing alone, not to mention the acting and sometimes even dancing. You sing opera without microphones, so your voice has to be able to carry in big opera houses.
“Also the language…that is a whole other story,” Neuffer sighs. “You have to try to connect to the text and know the language as much as possible. Most opera singers speak many different languages that they sing in.” Neuffer has sung in Japanese, French, Russian, German, and Italian, though she cites German has her favorite to sing in.
“I just love all of the consonants and the sounds you make that sound like you’re clearing your throat. I like taking all of those sounds and using them to my advantage to make the diction and the scene more dramatic,” Nueffer described.
Though opera is a more recent obsession, her love of music is a family affair.
“Music is something I grew up with,” Neuffer explained. Both of her parents are music teachers, and her father performs with different orchestras. Her mother teaches band, orchestra, guitar, choir, and winter percussion. Music has always been a big part of her life.
Close friends and classmates praised Neuffer’s talent, as well as her progression as an artist. Nueffer’s partner, Jaime Farrar, commented on her transformation.
“It’s not just her singing, which is great, but just the way she holds herself,” Farrar said. “It’s very poised, and kinda just captures your attention. She’s always been amazing, but watching her grow has been awesome.”