Center Stage With: Jo Lampert

Jo Lampert is portraying the role of Mary Magdalene in “Jesus Christ Superstar” at Lyric Opera of Chicago and has taken the time to answer a few questions about her career, life, performance rituals, hobbies and upcoming performance projects. “Jesus Christ Superstar” opens on April 28th and runs through May 20th.

Q: Are you an Opera Fan? If so, what is your favorite opera or your favorite opera that you have seen?

Lampert: So, here’s what I can say about this… I have only ever seen two operas live, both were at the MET in NYC… one was Samson & Delilah and the other was a more contemporary opera called “The Nose” (Libretto by the composer, with Yevgeny Zamyatin, Georgy Ionin, and Alexander Preis, based on the story by Nikolai Gogol). I was blown away by both of them — the scale, the gorgeous richness of the storytelling, the epic nature of the stories themselves. But what I most am in awe of with opera is the technical facility of both the singers and the members of the orchestra and the conductors. so while I feel a bit out of place saying I’m a “fan” (because I think it would imply that I have seen many more than I have) — I still want to say YES I AM A FAN because I am totally and utterly blown away by the sheer level of talent and magnitude of technique of all those involved. Also, I have worked with opera director Kevin Newbury (who also does theater and other large live stage events) and the way he talks about opera makes me want to see evermore. Also, having met the choristers on our show (JSC) and now having seen the stunning Lyric Opera house as of being on stage yesterday, I am awaiting with baited breath until the next time I can sit and be audience to an opera! Very soon I hope!

Q: What is your favorite musical?

Lampert: That’s such a hard question! There are many I love for different reasons! Choosing favorites in any category of thing is always tough! — I would say one of my (more classic) favorites is “RAGTIME.”

Jo Lampert with an Accordion
Photograph from a show in which Lampert
both sang and played the accordion

Q: What type of vocal/performance training do you have? Do you have any classical vocal training?

Lampert: My Mom says I came out of the womb singing. She didn’t say I came out singing WELL! haha. But I was lucky that my parents put me into voice lessons at the age of 7 through a performing arts program called “Performers Theater Workshop” (PTW, for short) in NJ near where I grew up. There were private voice lessons, group voice lessons — it ran the gamut from learning songs from The Great American Songbook and musical theater, to singing the blues, scatting, and learning the greats of a more modern American songbook… the best part of the training was it focused immensely on teaching myself and my peers how to harmonize and train our ears. However, I never had classical training — operatic/classical music-wise. I did go to PTW from the ages of 7 to 17 and feel I gleaned a ton of music knowledge, style, and certain techniques, though… but in ways I am bummed I missed out on the strengths that come from training classically.

Q: What are your hobbies?

Lampert: Two of my favorite things to do, which also revolve around music, are to sing back-up vocals in bands and to record demos in the studio. Can I call hanging with my two dogs a hobby? Because then that too! I have tried my hand at some songwriting in collaboration with friends, I have put together a solo cabaret… but these are things I commit to less than steadily, so I don’t know if I can call them cultivated hobbies! Oh, I love making playlists (like music playlists, sort of like the ol’ mixtape)! That’s a hobby! And DJ’ing — I haven’t done it in a while but my old moniker was “DJ over easy” — a little double entendre… 🙂

Q: Do you have any performance rituals or anything you do prior to performances that helps you to focus?

Lampert: Oh yes! Yes, I have tons! I am quite neurotic (a product of my proud Jewish heritage! haha) — I do an approximate hour long warm up that includes stretching and getting in touch with breath and getting my tongue loose, and then vocalizing and building up to a place where I feel more elastic and free than tired and stuck, in all ways, so to speak! I listen to former voice lesson recordings and do my flow along to the teachers’ voices, they are my guides & their voices are of great comfort and warmth. I like to put on a Himalayan salt lamp, light candles, put on some incense. I try to steam and/or use a netty pot to get the sinuses flushed out and the cords hydrated. I usually get to the theater early and I get pretty ritualistic (maybe even a little OCD) about the order of things and the timing of it all. It’s best for me to be alone pre-show… I think I give off too much nervous energy to be amongst others haha! I like to really make my dressing room a space that is like a cozy home away from home… I like to settle in… I am also a traveling naturo-homeo-apothecary when I do shows. I have tons of throat sprays and lozenges and droppers and saline sprays and supplements etc. — and the list goes on! So, I often have a process for using those too.

Jo Lampert - Backstage for Jesus Christ Superstar
Photograph by Sherry Watkins in our LOSA shirt

Q: What does a day off look like for you?

Lampert: When I’m in NYC, a day off is spending time with my partner Sonya and our puppies at home and/or at Fort Greene park — going for long walks and then sitting on the stoop and drinking some hot delicious coffee from a local shop, reading and/or catching up on TV shows and/or getting the house itself back in order and cleaning out my email inbox. I also love to have a good meal with a friend or group of friends… sometimes in that busy city, we can all get caught up and forget to stop and catch our breath. Here in Chicago, the days off so far have been mostly zen days of long walks and vocal rest — starting to explore the area I’m living in (Logan square) and sitting at Intelligentsia coffee or eating at Lula’s and getting a feel for the rhythm of things here. We’ve also been doing some cast-family brunches and the like!

Q: Where and what did you study?

Lampert: When I moved to New Jersey from Brooklyn (as a kid, at the age of seven) I started at an outside-of-school (after school and weekends) theater program called “performers theater workshop” — that I mentioned before — where I studied private and group voice, dance (which I was terrible at! haha), and acting from seven until seventeen when I graduated high school. I feel that PTW laid the ground work for my love of, and passion for, singing… and of my knowledge of The Great American Songbook and a more modern American songbook (everything from Irving Berlin to Stevie Wonder, etc.)… I wasn’t sure, though, that I would end up studying theater in college, but when I ended up miraculously getting into NYU Tisch, I decided to go. However, I didn’t go for musical theater, rather I went to a program/studio where I ended up focusing on directing and sound design. And when I graduated, I decided not to get headshots and audition, and instead ended up working for the famed “Joe’s Pub”, a music venue connected to the public theater in downtown NYC (beginning in 2007 right after I graduated Tisch). While I worked there, though, performing and singing crept up on me in many ways — it was like it beckoned me to be more fearless and to think about doing it professionally, even though I seemed to want to resist it. Music has always been the number one love in my life, and though it was fulfilling to work with musicians at Joe’s (I was the artist relations associate), it became clearer and clearer that I would not be truly fulfilled unless I tried to perform fulltime and that’s what I have been doing (albeit also working at restaurants and the like in the in-betweens) since 2010.

Mary Jo Lampert - For Vogue Magazine
Photograph by Annie Leibovitz for Vogue

Q: If you could perform any role, what would it be? Why would you choose that role?

Lampert: One of my dream roles is Fanny Brice in “Funny Girl.” It’s about as legit of material that I would be able to sing within a classic musical theater context, and I just love what that show did to showcase a strong female, Jewish woman when it blasted onto the scene both on screen and on stage. I think it would be a real challenge… but also a really cool version of an ingénue to play!

Q: What musician/composer would you want to write the story of your life and why?

Lampert: Wow, this is a really interesting question. I can imagine that this answer might be one that evolves over time… just as life changes, grows, deepens… so, perhaps, would this answer shift and change. BUT, right off the bat I would say BJÖRK. I just think she is one of the most profound artists of our time… and she is a shape-shifter, a music-game-changer, a mystic, a revelation… and I have no doubt that she’d be able to carve out an intimate portrait of a life, even one that isn’t just her own.

Q: What kind of music do you listen to in your down time?

Lampert: I listen to music all over the map and I love exploring and finding new things… but I also love to make playlists that include songs new and old and I often listen to records on repeat if I fall in love with them — though I try not to wear them out! Right now I am in a huge Sufjan Stevens headspace, all the music projects he’s a part of. I am also really digging the new Janelle Monae music that’s been surfacing. I always re-root in old Björk records and I also always revisit and touch base with cat power and feist James Blake and Bon Iver. Kurt Vile (the Philly Indy rock artist) and tUnE-yArDs, whose music feels like an old friend, and even in some ways like an old flame. But yeah, I love the mixed and varied sensation of a good playlist… and one of my closest friends, Preston Martin, makes a new playlist every month and that always keeps me going and keeps me abreast of what’s new!

Q: Do you have a sore throat remedy?

Lampert: I love to have a delicious brew of ginger-turmeric tea with honey and a splash of apple cider vinegar. I like to eat a clove of garlic if I’m feeling under and drop some oregano drops straight into my throat! Then I love to toss a Grether’s Pastille in my mouth and let that dissolve in all its vocal-health goodness.

Mary Jo Lampert with Partner and Dog
Pictured with her dogs Luca, Nahla and partner Sonya Tayeh

Q: Do you have any pets? Tell us about them.

Lampert: I am obsessed with my two dogs. I didn’t grow up with or around pets. But having them in my life now has changed me for the better, absolutely. My partner Sonya and I have two gals… Nahla (a 7-year-old rescue pup who is a mutt — definitely Chihuahua but maybe mixed with some beagle and some Italian greyhound)… she’s precious and thoughtful and really goes to the beat of her own, calm drum. Then we have the precocious and forever-puppy Luca, who is a long-haired Chihuahua. She was an accidental “how much is that doggy in the window” pup — we truly fell in love with her at first sight, and even though our plan was to rescue (and we will for our next pup, which we want soon! a little bigger-sized dog), we felt Luca needed a home too… and so we took her to ours! At first it took Nahla some time to warm up to her new little sister, but now they are really a cute and perfect pair… compliments to one another and they provide unconditional love… and I am better for having them in my life!

Q: What performance related projects do you have coming up?

Lampert: There will certainly be a down swing after this show, as I have nothing directly following this on the books, but the next artistic opportunity I am most excited about is a remount of a piece called “You’ll Still Call Me By Name” which is an original dance-symphony choreographed and directed by my partner in art, life, and love — Sonya Tayeh — and composed by my dear, incredible, prolific friends — The Bengsons. It’s an hour-long concert/dance experience with live music performed by a six-piece band… and I get the privilege and pleasure of singing in it, and playing some accordion and synth. It’s an investigation of familial and romantic bonds and the chasms that form between us and those we love, especially those who share the same blood and cells as we do. It’s a really glorious experience to perform in it and to have been part of the process of creating it with my art-family. We premiered it in NYC in 2016 at New York Live Arts (Bill T. Jones’ dance-theater space in Chelsea, Manhattan) and we will be remounting it this summer on some of the holiest of dance ground — at Jacob’s Pillow in Massachusetts.