Humans of the MET: Dora Figueroa

by Katherine Anderson, violist

Violist Katherine Anderson sat down with Associate Principal Cellist Dorothea (Dora) Figueroa to discuss her discovery of the Met as a student, raising children in New York City, the parallels between parenthood and performing, and more.

Katherine Anderson: What year did you join the MET Orchestra?

Dora Figueroa: My audition was in the middle of the season, two days before Christmas of 2001, after I had just finished a concert tour with the Verbier Festival Orchestra in North and South America. After winning the audition, I made it home to Leipzig, Germany, in time for the holiday, took a couple of weeks to find an apartment in New York, and began preparing for my first few operas. I officially joined the Metropolitan Opera in February 2002.

KA: Where were you and what were you doing before coming to the MET Orchestra?

Annabelle, Anton, and Dora

Annabelle, Anton, and Dora

DF: From 1999-2001 I studied at the Juilliard School, working on my master's degree, during which time I often came to see performances at the Met. It was in a dress rehearsal of Pelléas et Mélisande, with Levine conducting, where I realized that this is the orchestra I wanted to play with. The sound was so nuanced, subtle, and expressive. Particularly in this opera, it is the music that tells the story behind all the unspoken, unsung lines and gives every shade of color and emotion, from a shiver to an outburst. As a child I had always been surrounded by opera, since my parents are both opera singers, but I discovered the Metropolitan Opera on my own and I got hooked!

KA: Dora, you are the mother of two young children: Anton (born November 2013) and Annabelle (June 2015). What was the most surprising aspect in becoming a mother?

DF: The most surprising aspect, perhaps, is learning more about myself. As much as I tried to imagine before having children how I would be as a mother, it is something you can only find out once you become a mom. For example, I thought I would be very protective of my young babies and not even let anybody else hold them, but once they were born my love for them felt so natural that I wanted to show them to other people - I was not afraid at all of their vulnerability. I have realized in the last three years that I'm not overprotective at all - on the contrary, I want my kids to grow to be independent and to let them learn by exploring and trying things by themselves. So I learned this about myself.

But what is even more important is becoming a better self in order to become a better parent. At this stage, I feel how important it is to be a good role model, since the kids are copying and learning so much from us. Here are some simple examples: I am speaking only German to my kids and my husband speaks only Spanish to them, so, together with speaking English outside of the home, they are growing up trilingual. A few months ago, I noticed my son swallowing some endings of words, and then realized that I have been doing that unintentionally. So now I am consciously speaking very clear “high” German, in a polite manner, because that's how I want them to speak. So they are actually improving my German!

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When I stay patient in stressful situations, they are learning how to cope with strong emotions, too. I've learned that the way we treat each other as a couple and how we act towards other people teaches them to be nice to each other as siblings. The learning is endless! By having such a close connection to my kids as their coach in all aspects of life, who they want to eagerly copy and please, "teaching" them anything is more about what I am learning about myself.

KA: Did you have female role models when you were growing up who combined working with motherhood?

DF: I am originally from East Germany, where there was practically no difference between men and women in the workplace, so every woman I knew was working - and most of them had a family. My mom loved being our mother and she also loved her work. As an opera singer, she performed big roles such as Brünnhilde, Senta, and Desdemona. In the evenings, she had to go to performances and transform into her stage role. It was the kind of work where you have to be incredibly focused on what you are doing in the moment and not thinking about whether your kids are in bed! I learned so much from my mom about how to make that quick switch from family to work and back again, without bringing any issues or problems from one side to the other. She taught me how to fully live in the moment. In my own life, I am often at the playground with the kids until after 6:00 and start playing the opera at 7:30!

KA: How do you balance the demands of playing in the MET Orchestra with raising a family?

DF: My husband, Rafael Figueroa, also plays at the Met, as Principal Cellist. When we are both at work, we sit together at the same music stand. Many people think it is crazy to be married and work together so closely, but I have to say, since we've had children, we cherish our time at work even more because that's essentially our only time together without the kids! Already, our short five-block walk to work is time just for us, but when we sit and make music together, it reminds us why we fell in love. It is connecting emotionally without words, concentrating and supporting each other, side by side.

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When Anton, our oldest, was first born, we only hired a babysitter when we both worked and alternated practicing, but since we had our second child, we get a sitter most mornings so that (if we don't have a rehearsal) we can get a few hours of practicing done to keep in shape, learn new operas, polish the repertoire, or work on other projects. Overall, we have much less time to practice than before we had kids, but I have noticed that I get more done in the little time that I have now, because I am even more focused.

Our schedule allows us to spend time with the kids during the morning before rehearsal and in the afternoon until an hour before their bedtime, when a sitter will come only if we both have a show. Honestly, it is a little hard and tiring because we have performances going close to midnight and still have to get up early in the morning, but our schedule also allows us to spend time with them during the day.

I find it immensely rewarding being with the kids and watching them grow. Yes, it can be exhausting to be with both kids the entire day - it was really telling last season, when Rafi and I played Elektra together, that we still found it more relaxing to come to work! But what we find is that you can concentrate and totally immerse yourself in the music without thoughts of anything else - and that often feels much easier than constantly attending to the needs of two young toddlers!

KA: Did you continue working until your labor started?

DF: Coming from Germany, it is unthinkable to work until you go into labor. For decades, there has been "Mutterschutz,” which is at least a month of leave before the due date. I even heard that in the orchestra in San Sebastián, Spain, no woman is allowed to play in the orchestra past the fourth month of pregnancy for potential noise issues to the fetus.

But in America, things are different. My water broke just 45 minutes after finishing a performance of Rigoletto. Many colleagues have had their contractions start in a rehearsal or performance.

KA: Was it difficult to return to work after your maternity leave?

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DF: After giving birth, we get eight weeks of paid family leave and another optional four unpaid weeks, by New York state law, whereas in Germany it is a full year paid maternity leave and two more unpaid years with the guarantee of your job when you return. I have to say that I am glad that those rules made me go back. Even though, at their births, I couldn’t imagine going back to work again, I was ready after nine weeks - I was happy to do what I knew how to do and to be a professional musician again (using the practicing rooms for pumping milk in the intermissions). Every mother needs a little time away from her baby! 

KA: Is the Met a supportive work environment for being a mom?

DF: The MET Orchestra women are incredibly supportive! For every new mother, we have a big baby shower where most of the necessary items are given. But even after we give birth, we have a great camaraderie: sharing experiences, having play dates, and hand-me-down clothes and toys. One thing I wish is that there was a daycare for all the Met employees, but I think that is a dream of the future. 

KA: Do you think your kids have an innate love for music since you are both musicians?

DF: Well, hearing is the first sense fully developed in the uterus, so they have obviously heard a lot of cello playing, starting from before they were born! Both of them respond to songs happily. They could be in a bad mood, but as soon as I sing something, everything gets better.

One time, when I wanted to warm up at home before a Salome performance, my son surprisingly said he was going to practice instead. I had held him on my lap a few times before, guiding the bow in his hand, but that evening he wanted to sit all by himself, and started singing the ABC song while playing up and down the fingerboard "just like papa,” as he said. 

It was also a great moment when we took Anton last December to The Magic Flute at the Met and he stayed focused throughout the entire performance. We had shown him the video several times before and it is still one of his favorites. This season I am looking forward to taking him to see both Hänsel und Gretel and Die Zauberflöte!

KA: Thanks for speaking with me, Dora. I look forward to seeing Anton at the Hänsel und Gretel and Die Zauberflöte performances this year!