Jaquelynne Fontaine knows how to make a dramatic entrance. When she takes the stage as Carlotta Guidicelli, the diva of the Paris opera in The Phantom of the Opera, she greets the audience with her stunning beauty, a soaring voice and a severed head.
“The audience opens into the middle of a rehearsal and it’s just me on stage, I sing a cadenza, where I hit a high D and a high C and it’s just really fun,” she says. “It’s a way to connect with the audience, and I might or might not kiss the head at one point.” In October, 2013, Fontaine was among the first people cast for this production of Phantom of the Opera and has since performed in over 800 shows. “It’s the same Phantom that audiences know and love. It’s the same music. It’s a 21st century take on the characterizations. It’s really filmic. One scene really bleeds into the next. It’s a fantastic set that takes 20 semi trucks and a really new-telling for our age.”
She gracefully inhabits the role of Carlotta, a big leap from her previous roles as the starry-eyed ingénue. “They never really struck me because their whole purpose was just to fall in love. I like Carlotta because she has personality. She’s a career woman. The way that we’re drawing her, it’s not one-dimensional. This Carlotta is at the height of her career and she earned it, and why isn’t anyone else taking these ‘coincidences’ seriously? Why are we all dragging our feet here? I like that she’s a little more three-dimensional like all the other characters in the show.”
One of her favorite moments is performing ‘Prima Donna’, an ensemble number which allows Carlotta to do a complete costume change on stage. “I love my colleagues,” she says. “And it’s just so much fun to get to play with your friends on stage.”
The production has remained largely unchanged over the last two years, save for the subtle nuances each new character brings to their respective roles. “A couple of my costumes have been upgraded, which was really nice. They are gorgeous and heavy, too,” she says. “It does change a little bit with what the new actors bring and I think that’s what makes this production so special. Our stage director Laurence Connor really let the individual actor bring what they have to offer, keeping the original idea of the show in mind. It doesn’t require a huge overhaul of the character.”
Fontaine wears six different costumes throughout the show, three of them each weighing in at around 40 pounds. “It’s like walking around with a child on my hip,” she says. “When I got the score, I sat with that score for a month before rehearsals started. I build up to it, kind of like an athlete builds up to a big race. You don’t go right out and run the 26 miles. I had to do a little bit each day until it just became second nature. I usually can sing the show. But if I have to call out, it’s because I’m too sick and can’t wear the heavy costumes. It can be pretty exhausting.”
As a professional opera singer, Fontaine has performed throughout Italy and speaks the language, which she credits for giving her a unique perspective into Carlotta’s fire and passionate sensibility as an Italian woman. “She’s glamorous and one of my main draws is the costumes,” she says. “In some ways, I identify with her. As someone who did pageants, I love gowns.”
Fontaine grew up in Southern California and started studying piano at 9. “I thought I was going to be a lawyer when I went to college. I tried out for a play just for the heck of it and got cast as the lead so I thought, ‘I’ll try this for a little bit,’ but I found out that I loved classical music much more. That was much more my voice. So I transitioned to opera in my junior year and almost never looked back.”
She embraced the stage as an actor and as a pageant contestant, taking the title of Miss California in 2006. Fontaine went on to place in the top 10 at the Miss America pageant the following year and was awarded the top prize in the talent competition.
Fontaine completed her masters in Vocal Performance at USC and two years for her doctoral study. “I thought, ‘I’m young. I need to be striking while the iron is hot.’ It just so happened that I was cast in an operetta, so I was still able to do musical theatre and opera at the same time for about three years before I was cast in Phantom of the Opera, which was always one of my favorite musicals growing up. I had it memorized. It was very special to be a part of that culture and that modern history.”
Between shows, Fontaine is respectful of her voice but she in no way stays quiet. She fulfills her passion for teaching in her down time. “I love to teach voice and I’m teaching some members of the cast. It’s really half of my heart is missing if I’m not teaching for a while,” she says. “If I’ve done too many voice lessons or rehearsed my own opera music, by the end of the week I might feel it. As hard as it is, I have to stop talking backstage and stop talking when I get home. We send a lot of texts to each other. Thank God for technology.”
Even after 800 shows, Fontaine says never tires of the songs and sharing the story with captive audiences night after night. “It’s timeless. Andrew Lloyd Webber really produced a masterpiece with this,” she says. “The story itself speaks to a lot of people because it speaks of loneliness, of unrequited love, of feeling somehow different and rejected, and at all points in our life, we’ve felt that way. So to follow the journey of a man who has been alone and rejected his entire life and finally finds this love, and through that love, redemption—it’s gorgeous.”
The FSCJ Artist Series presents The Phantom of the Opera February 10-21 at the Moran Theatre at the Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts (www.artistseriesjax.com).