For three weeks now I’ve been rehearsing an opera that is very dear to my heart. The opera Cyrano, by David DiChiera, was premiered in Detroit in October of 2007. I had the enormous opportunity to debut the role of Roxane, an extraordinary part in a breathtaking story. I am more than delighted that Florida Grand Opera co-produced the opera and have included it in their season. The past three weeks have been filled with much joy as I dig back into this character and bring to life, with deliciously gorgeous music, this precious girl, Roxane! For those of you unfamiliar with the story, the opera is based on the play Cyrano de Bergerac by Rostand. You may also be more familiar with the late 1980’s Steve Martin film, Roxanne, which is a loose adaptation of the story. As I mentioned, the world premiere took place nearly 4 years ago. It was performed a few times in Philadelphia in 2008 but with the hardships of the economy, several performances at various opera houses had to be canceled. I am thrilled things are recovering around the country and that we are now bringing most of the original cast back together for these performances in Miami.
When I prepare a role I spend some time listening to the singers of the past to gain familiarity with the score. I like to hear how different each performance can be and how the slightest change of tempo can alter the mood of the scene and intention of character. It is one of the most fun parts of learning a new role. Obviously, being part of a new opera meant that this learning curve was no longer available to me and that gave me an even more exciting learning opportunity. For the first time, I have been able to create a role from the bottom up, note by note with my personal stamp on it first! Dr. DiChiera wrote most of the role with my voice in mind. I remember in fall of 2006 when I was covering Natalie Dessay at the Paris Opera, I received a phone call from Dr. D. He was working on Act II and specifically my aria that would start the act. We talked about things that I liked to do with my voice, things that I thought made it unique. I remember telling him that I loved high notes! He asked for ones in particular and I told him that high D’s would be just perfect! I remember thinking of how extraordinary it was to request how a piece be written and it made me wonder how much other singers in the past influenced a composer’s writing. We do know that Mozart was highly influenced by his women! I felt honored to be continuing in such a long tradition. So much so, I had to pinch myself!! Roxane’s music has many arching lines and sustained high notes and the aria Dr. D wrote is exquisite. It’s a sensual explosion in reaction to the letters of Christian.
My dear character Roxane is a delight to play. Our director and librettist Bernard Uzan, upon being asked by me if I was being too cute and cunning with my character, kindly suggested that I need not to worry. He said they cast me as Roxane because I WAS Roxane. Bernard said, “You need not do anything but be yourself.” It’s amazing how we don’t see ourselves the way others see us! Of course, he is right. I only need to focus on those elements of myself that are most like the character. I love that she obsesses over beautiful things. It is most poignant that her allure to what is beautiful and perfect blinds her from ever seeing the possibility of love with Cyrano who was the most genuine love she could ever have known. I guess we all tend to miss the forest for the trees? She is elegant and intelligent and I love how passionate she is about Christian without even knowing a thing about him. She reminds me of my 16 year old self and maybe some of my 35 year old self who tends to day-dream and create wild stories of love and romance. These lovely parts of Roxane make the character pleasurable to play and it is easy to find myself in that realm of naïveté. The challenge of the role is the realization of Cyrano as the one behind the letters and the voice of Christian. The realization happens during a duet and can’t happen all at once. Finding the balance of when the tears come, the shock, or the desperation, has been the largest challenge. Sometimes just the beginning phrases of the music make me cry and I know I have a lot further to go, but I just go with it and hope that the tears can seem to be coming from many levels of emotions. Pacing emotions over bars of music can sometimes be quite difficult, but it has now become my favorite scene. The words in this scene are the most stunning. Cyrano tells Roxane that he was unaware of feminine comforts and that his mother didn’t find him handsome, he had no sister, and he dreaded the lover for fear of being mocked. He tells Roxane, “Je vous dois d’avoir eu, tout au moins une amie. Grâce à vous, une robe a passé dans ma vie.” (I owe you to have had at least one friend. Thanks to you a dress has passed through my life.) After this incredibly heartbreaking line Roxane replies with my most favorite line in all of opera, “Je n’aimais qu’un seul être, et je le perds deux fois.” (I loved only one soul and now I have lost him twice.) Well, the rest you will have to come to the opera to see. To say that I am completely infatuated with this role and this music is an understatement.
I know that it is typical to boast about how perfect everything is in an opera in order to lure the public into buying tickets. I do not take my words lightly. It certainly isn’t like me to sit and write a dissertation about an opera just to get you to come. I write these things because I believe in this opera AND because I do think we have the perfect cast. Our Cyrano is being inhabited by the extraordinary Marian Pop. I say inhabited because that is really what he does. It is as if all the great parts of Gerard Depardieu, José Ferrer, and Kevin Cline morph into Marian. If only any of these legends had Marian’s voice! He gives a splendid, exhilarating performance and is truly the definition of a singing actor. Our Christian is new to the role and comes from France. Sebastian Geuze is everything a Christian is supposed to be. Handsome beyond words, witty, and he is a formidable singer. The duet between Christian and Cyrano is stunning, reminiscent of other great tenor/baritone duets we have come to love in opera. I am thrilled to be singing again with the great bass Peter Volpe. Peter plays the role of De Guiche, a lustful, vengeful count who attempts to marry Roxane off to another man so that he can have his courtly rights with her. In my scene with Peter I get to trick him into keeping Christian and Cyrano out of harm’s way by suggesting it would be the best way to get revenge since Cyrano adores dueling and action more than anything else. It works and crisis is averted. I secretly marry Christian instead!
Since most of us have performed this opera before we have had the great opportunity to be adding layers to our characters. Whenever you perform a role for the first time you are really focusing 75% on getting the music and words right. The other 25% is spent on remembering where you go on stage, how to remove hats, capes, and gloves appropriately, and then add some layer of believability on the top. This time we have the luxury of knowing the part really well, so we have spent a lot of our time working as actors do. Our director Bernard Uzan has pushed us to find ourselves in our roles and to layer many more specific elements to our characters that we just didn’t have the space for when we performed it in Detroit. Not that our performances were bad, but this time we are coming from a place of knowing how it goes which gives us security in knowing we have room to play and grow. I’ve loved going to work each day trying to find new ways to say a word or new ways to respond to my colleagues. The level of commitment and effort put into this production astounds me and I am very proud of our work. Our conductor and orchestrator Mark Flint has helped us everyday stay true to the score and his orchestration is stunning. The colors he brings out in the orchestra really make this piece come to life. I know that I am very fortunate to be working in the arts these days. It isn’t lost on me that times are hard and we must enjoy the opportunities when they come our way. I hope that if you are in the Miami area you will come to see Cyrano. We open next Saturday night, April 23 at the Adrienne Arsht Center in downtown Miami. You can find tickets at www.fgo.org and you may want to follow my tweets this week. I’ll be tweeting all about the final rehearsals and be giving some backstage pictures as well. I can be found on Twitter as leahoperabird. Come join us and may I suggest you bring your tissue?