Monday, December 3, 2007

Charismatic Women

A popular theory claims that the reason why so many gay men fall in love with the operatic literature's soprano repertoire is because the heroines they worship tend to be larger than life. Mind you, now, when I use that term "larger than life," I am not referring to obese Wagnerian stereotypes such as Rita Hunter, Linda Kelm or Gweneth Bean! Instead, I'm describing the genre of overblown operatic characters who (like classical versions of Judy Garland, Bette Midler, Carol Channing and Bette Davis) possess the kind of outrageously dramatic personas whose emotional spikes and methods of demonstrating their affection go far beyond the ordinary.

Even though the emotional make-up of such creatures ranges from the inspired wackiness of Offenbach's Olympia and the noble femininity of Bellini's Norma to the hypnotic destructiveness of Berg's Lulu and jovial amorality of Sondheim's Mrs. Lovett, these roles present stiff vocal and dramatic challenges to the artists who attempt to fill the character's shoes. The jilted rage of Donizetti's doomed Anna Bolena, the cold-blooded ambition of Verdi's conniving Lady Macbeth, the bitter vengeance of Mascagni's frustrated Santuzza (not to mention the fickle sexuality of Bizet's Carmen and the tragic naivete of Puccini's Cio-Cio-San) are, in and of themselves, such intense theatrical forces that once these characters move to center stage they are inevitably guaranteed a captive audience.

In many ways, the operatic roles I've just mentioned are so dramatically strong that, once mastered, they can -- and often do -- provide a professional meal ticket for any artist who can succeed in putting a personal stamp on them. But, alas, that special kind of artistic success requires lots of practice and, only after twenty or thirty performances in a role does a singer really begin to get under the skin of such a complex character.

Nevertheless, every artist who wants to perform lead roles has to start somewhere and, with that thought in mind, I decided to pay a visit to the Sarasota Opera this spring. Now nearing its 30th anniversary, the Sarasota Opera is the kind of regional American opera company where young artists can cut their teeth on new roles while remaining free from the critical eye of the mainstream musical press. In this year's production of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, mezzo-soprano Melissa Thorburn was trying on Cherubino's pants for size while baritone John Brandstetter was singing his first Figaro in Italian. Many of their professional colleagues were similarly tackling new roles.

Other than its opera company, Sarasota boasts several curious cultural charms. I happened to be in town for the weekend when the Ringling Museum staged its annual Medieval Faire. It was equally difficult to ignore a sign indicating the home of "Goo-Cheese Designer Pizza" or, for that matter, the arrival of the Sarasota County Area Transit's "SCAT Special" bus.

While on the grounds of the Ringling Estate, I visited the restored winter home of John and Mabel Ringling and a fascinating museum devoted to the history of the circus in America. Along with its concrete dwarf garden, Sarasota's famed Asolo Theatre (an imported jewel-box of a baroque Italian auditorium where I saw a production of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men) offered several more surprises.

And what of the performances I attended in the 740-seat Sarasota Theatre of the Arts? The youth of the singers appearing in each production brought a certain rawness to each performance which could be exciting, irritating and, more often than not, indicative of greater things to come. And thus, the Sarasota Opera's artistic product, if not necessarily marked by top quality productions featuring superstar casts, was certainly interesting in its own right.


A mainstay of the operatic repertoire, Puccini's Tosca takes on a much different tone when performed in a tiny theatre. Using Robert Little's sets from Tri-Cities Opera and Helen Rodgers' costumes, Victor DeRenzi (Sarasota Opera's artistic director) conducted and staged Puccini's "shabby little shocker" as part of the company's 1988 season. While I had no complaints about DeRenzi's conducting, I occasionally felt that trying to conduct and direct may have stretched his talents a little too thin. If the stage direction I witnessed seemed a bit too mechanical, the singing was not.

Maureen Born (the young and extremely pretty soprano who performed the title role for the Eugene Opera last year) made an interesting Floria Tosca: a diva whose rapid changes of emotions may occasionally have stemmed from her fear of the vocal as well as dramatic challenges confronting her. Although Hans Ashbaker's Cavaradossi continues to grow in strength, I was more impressed by baritone Darren Nimnicht's vocally and dramatically forceful Scarpia.

With Surtitles by Ray Chesin, the performance I attended scored strongly with Sarasota's audience which consists, by and large, of retirees eager for some live entertainment. Production values were solid, even if this was not necessarily the kind of Tosca that would blow anybody's socks off. That being said, the Sarasota Opera's production could still acquit itself rather handsomely when compared to some of the miserably bloated and poorly sung efforts presented by much larger, wealthier and more prestigious opera companies.


Franz Lehar's The Merry Widow depends on a certain amount of theatrical panache and yet, as directed and choreographed by Kay Walker Castaldo (and conducted by Gary Sheldon) the performance I attended seemed more mechanical than anything else. Lee Mayman's sets and Helen Rodgers' appealing costumes could not hide the fact that the cast was a little too young to appreciate the sadder-but-wiser insights of Victor Leon and Leo Stein's charming libretto.

If I was less than thrilled by the Sarasota Opera's staging of The Merry Widow, you can rest assured that the rest of the audience seemed to be having themselves a good time. Although baritone James Busterud (a former Adler Fellow with the San Francisco Opera) offered a lean and lanky portrayal of Count Danilovitch, his characterization made Danilo seem like more of a gawky teenager than an overly rambunctious scion of royal Petrovian blood. Brian Scott's Nitch was, at the very least, annoying (but so are most portrayals of this obnoxious operetta character).

Sherry Overholt's coquettish Valencienne and Stephen Smith's appealing Camille di Rosillon lent strong support. In the title role, soprano Martha Thigpen demonstrated few, if any soft edges around Hanna Glawari's heart. Vocally, Thigpen was a bit too brash to communicate the delicately aging charms of Lehar's very merry widow. But, as I noted earlier, this was a chance for her to grow into the role and begin to discover its nuances.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on June 2, 1988.

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