Thursday, April 1, 2010

Six Weeks with Violetta Valery

For the next six weeks I am going to focus blogging about my journey with the role of Violetta in La Traviata. I am performing this role with the Opera Company of Philadelphia in May and I want to write about my progress, process, excitements, and ambitions concerning this beloved tragic character.

My relationship with Violetta began early in my career. In 2003 I was selected right out of the Young Artist Program of the Florida Grand Opera to appear in the opening show for the 2003-2004 season as Violetta which was directed by the world renowned soprano and great interpreter of the role, Renata Scotto. When I was told that I would be given the part I was in shock and really didn’t believe it. I didn’t think it would happen. I couldn’t understand how they would take such a risk with a young singer. It wasn’t that I doubted that I could do it, I just doubted that everyone else believed I could do it. I was wrong. They believed it too, and before I knew it I was sent to Italy to study Italian and was sent to New York to begin coachings with Ms. Scotto. I had the entire summer to prepare for the role which I would debut in October of 2003.

That summer I spent a lot of time listening to recordings of La Traviata. I was still connected with Indiana University at the time, and spent time browsing their magnificent library of the countless recordings of the opera. I would sit in the library with my score and a notebook and I would take notes on the performances. I would write whether or not a soprano followed Verdi’s score or whether she took liberties. I would note whether she used a mezza di voce or whether she used portamenti. I was obsessed with finding out everything I could about the performance practices of Violetta. Who took the high e flat at the end of the Act I aria? Who sang all verses of the arias? Who read the letter simply and who gave elaborate, emoted soliloquies? There were lots of voice types that sang the role. I was worried about being young and on the lighter side of the soprano types and I was trying to find recordings of singers who matched me in vocal weight. I wanted to see where the orchestra drowned them out or if I could find parts in the opera that were problems for other lighter voiced Violettas. I was meticulous in my note taking and obsessed with Violetta Valery.

I was very nervous about doing Violetta for the first time because there is such a plethora of great performances preserved for us on recordings. Everyone you talk to has their favorite recording and then the other handful of people you talk to have actually heard their favorite performance live. My teacher at the time was a great Violetta, Virginia Zeani, and I was well versed in the many recordings available of her which spanned her entire career. I was so afraid I was going to miss something about this character whom I consider to be one of the most, if not the most interesting character in all of opera. I was afraid of embarrassing myself if I didn’t portray the character in the ‘right’ way. For three months I was submerged in everything Violetta. I put her on the highest pedestal possible and I made myself a nervous wreck. My expectations were high for anyone who performed this role and I knew that opera audiences probably high expectations as well. Gulp.

When I began working the role with Renata Scotto she did me a huge favor. She made me learn the role without any vocal mannerisms. She made me learn the role come scritto, which means as written , in Italian. This means I was to take out all of the portamenti from note to note and exaggerations of emotion and instead, ordered me to do exactly what was written on the page. It seemed very boring to me and I knew from all my research that this was not the way most women had sung the part. If I knew anything, it was that Violetta was all about emotion and I was going to need to emote. I spent a good part of the summer stripping my Violetta of all vocal mannerisms and it seemed to me that I was stripping her of all of her emotions too. Ms. Scotto begged me to trust her. So I did. Gulp, sigh.

When we began staging the opera Ms. Scotto was still coaching me musically. Slowly, based on my emotions from the staging and from working with the other performers, she began to allow me to add more expression. Ms. Scotto wanted it to be spontaneous and from my emotions through the character. Over the three week rehearsal period I began to understand that I couldn’t look to a recording of someone else’s performance to determine what I needed to do in the role. I didn’t need to look to another performance to find what was acceptable. All I needed to do was to listen to myself and go with my natural instincts with the character. These natural emotions would give me all I needed and would sound authentic and true because they were authentic and true for me. By the time the performances came I was risking holding a note longer, or singing a different color on a word, or singing something with chest voice, not because Caballe, or Sills, or Callas had done it that way, but because I was feeling it that way. It was a huge lesson for a young singer and one that I try to implement in every role I undertake.

Just a few days ago I was having lunch with my friend Brian and I was talking about my upcoming rendezvous with Ms. Violetta and I told him that I was eager to listen to some recordings because I wanted to hear how - insert famous singer - sang the part. He said to me, “Why don’t you just do it the way Leah Partridge sings the part? I bet that would be pretty good too.” Hmm, gulp, not a bad idea! Then I thought of my work the first time around and what I had learned from Renata Scotto. Now, the next weeks of preparation are all about how I want to do it and how I feel. That is a pretty exciting place to be as an artist!

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