Singer Ariel Downs Comes Home to Star in Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Iolanthe”

BY CARY GINELL

It wasn’t too long ago when Ariel Downs was a kid, singing in middle and high school musical programs. Now fully grown, the petite, perky 25-year-old is a professional singer and actress who has returned to Thousand Oaks as one of the stars of the Ventura County Gilbert & Sullivan Repertoire Company’s performance of Iolanthe. We caught up with her on a rare day off in between rehearsals.

VCOS: Have you played Gilbert & Sullivan before?

ARIEL: I have. This is the third one I’ve done. I was in The Mikado about a year-and-a-half ago with the Pacific Opera Project in Los Angeles and then I did Pirates of Penzance twice. I started working on The Gondoliers but ended up not performing it. I love Gilbert & Sullivan. Their stuff is so silly. (laughs)

VCOS: Tell me about your background.

ARIEL: I graduated college in 2012 with a degree in voice performance at the University of Puget Sound up in Washington. I actually started out in this area where I grew up, as you know, and sang with the Los Robles Children’s Choir. That was my beginning as a singer. I was around eight years old. Singing has always been a great love of mine. It developed pretty naturally.

VCOS: I remember seeing you in Into the Woods at Thousand Oaks High School

ARIEL: Yeah! That’s right! I still have the article that you wrote! So after I graduated from T.O. I went straight up to the University of Puget Sound and began studying voice up there. I studied with a great teacher, Dr. Dawn Padula. I performed in different operas  at school and got my feet wet in performing. And I started discovering what I wanted to do long-term. 

VCOS: Was your strength always opera?

ARIEL: It was probably my first love. I don’t know if I can say that it has been my strength. When people ask me why I started specializing in that, I often say because it was the hardest for me. I’ve always loved a good challenge. It still, at times, doesn’t come easily to me.

VCOS: By aiming high, does that make it easier to do less challenging kinds of music?

ARIEL: Yeah, in my experience, I think so. I always thought, even from a really young age – probably because of my experience in children’s choir, which was such great musical training – that if I have a strong classical technique, I can do anything. My interests are really varied, but there’s something really grand about opera that I love. 

VCOS: The pageantry?

ARIEL: Yeah, and also, it can be very simple. I love the moments when it is just a voice and orchestra. That’s when everything else gets shuts out and it’s just the voice, which is amazing to me how it can fill a hall with several thousand people in it. Those are my favorite moments. The audience is such an integral part of a performance, and I can feel their energy, so at times it’s almost an out-of-body experience. 

VCOS: What have been some of the favorite productions you’ve been in?

ARIEL: When I first moved back to California, I was in the chorus for Sweeney Todd with an opera company in Los Angeles. That was my first foray into the musical world after leaving school, plus the show was just incredible. I also did The Turn of the Screw in which I played Miles, the little boy in that production. That was the most challenging project I’ve ever taken on and definitely one of the most rewarding. 

VCOS: With your build and youthfulness, you’d be great as Peter Pan. Have you done that yet?

ARIEL: I haven’t, but someone else just mentioned that to me! I’ll have to Google that and see if there are any auditions for it! That would be really fun. To play this role I had to wear a wig that kind of looked like how I have my hair cut now. I liked it so much that I cut it off afterwards. 

VCOS: When you do things like Sweeney Todd or Gilbert & Sullivan, it’s like the best of both worlds for you – you have a little bit musical theater and a little bit of opera. Do you like that kind of balance?

ARIEL: I do. I really like dialog. In Iolanthe, those are some of my favorite moments. The music is beautiful and it’s very funny but there are also some very tender moments. But it’s Gilbert & Sullivan, so it’s still very comical. But, yes, in those kinds of works, that’s where I find the most sparkle in the characters, which is really fun for me. The character I’m playing now, Phyllis, is really one of my favorites. She’s very dizzy, like all of Gilbert & Sullivan’s ladies, but she also has this Disney princess quality with her eyes wide open about everything. But she’s also deeply pragmatic in a way that I think is kind of unique and I really love her. She has more gumption than some of the other ladies. Mabel, in Pirates of Penzance, is similar, but she has a little more sass. 

VCOS: What are some of the challenges of doing Gilbert & Sullivan for you?

ARIEL: Because it is in English and since it is light opera, the diction becomes even more important. When I sang Benjamin Britten, that was also in English, but it was slightly more – I don’t want to say elevated, because I don’t like that distinction – but it was more focused on the vocal quality rather than the words. But in something like this, there are no supertitles and the text in the songs really drives the story, and there’s a lot of it, so that’s a challenge. I don’t have any patter songs but I think the Lord Chancellor has more words than the rest of us put together! (laughs)

VCOS: What about the comedy aspect of it?

ARIEL: I didn’t take acting in college but in high school it was a big part of my training. I had a great acting teacher, Joe Donia, and actually went to see him a week ago to tell him about Iolanthe. That was a really fun thing for me. Even as far back as middle school, my acting teacher was Patrick Foy at Redwood. What those teachers gave me was a solid foundation in looking at characters and figuring out how to build that. Patrick Foy used to say that acting is doing what your character does, simply and truthfully, and I have really taken that to heart. So when it came to the comedy, I think it came naturally to me. Often, Phyllis doesn’t know she’s being funny. At one point she says to Strephon, “We’re not going to be happy forever, we’re just getting married.” 

VCOS: Have you reconnected with some of your friends from school?

ARIEL: Yes. Facebook is a magical thing when it comes to that. It’s amazing to see how many of us are still performing. I was thinking about Into the Woods, and I was playing Snow White a couple of weeks ago, so that brought back memories of it. Jennifer Foster is performing all over the place; she might be in New York now. Carly Bracco, who was in Young Artists Ensemble, is a professional, and there are so many others, so it’s really exciting to see how many of us stayed with it. 

VCOS: So you are living in Thousand Oaks again?

ARIEL: Yes, I moved back two-and-a-half years ago and have mostly been working in Los Angeles, so it’s nice change to be back home. 

VCOS: What else have you been doing?

ARIEL: I sing in churches and do concerts occasionally, but I also work with composers, which is a favorite thing that I do. I sing opera and new music. This summer I’m going to a festival in Vermont to sing with a bunch of composers. I told a friend the other day, “I don’t know what I’m singing because it hasn’t been written yet!” (laughs) But it will be by the time I get there. Hopefully. (laughs)

VCOS: What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned about being on stage?

ARIEL: Hmm. That’s a good one. This is sort of ephemeral, I suppose. But really, taking everything as a learning experience and staying in the present moment. There have been a couple of times on stage where you miss an entrance or something, but you have to think in the present. OK, I’m here, right now, this word, this line, with this person, and I don’t know what’s going to happen next. In The Turn of the Screw, I was playing a little boy, and he has a sister. And there’s a scene where the two of us are sword fighting on stage while singing a song. All of a sudden, I’m looking into her eyes, and her eyes were just getting bigger and bigger, so I looked down and her skirt was falling off. On stage. It was just the two of us so we just kicked it in back of us. She still had her petticoat on, so we kept singing and looking like young kids just having fun. That’s the beauty of live performance. 

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Iolanthe plays through March 29 at the Theater on the Hill at the Hillcrest Center for the Arts in Thousand Oaks. For ticket information, dates, and showtimes, plus directions to the theater, visit the VC On Stage Calendar. See our review of Iolanthe in this week’s Acorn newspaper.

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