The 4th of February sees the opening of the first revival of David Alden’s acclaimed production of Donizetti’s bel canto masterpiece, Lucia di Lammermoor at the English National Opera. Reprising her role as the ill-fated heroine is the American soprano Anna Christy. I was fortunate enough to be able to interview Miss Christy at the Coliseum recently, giving me the opportunity find out a little bit more about her career, as well as to obtain some insight into her interpretation of the celebrated and supremely challenging title role, one associated with many of the greatest singers in operatic history. She is the sort of singer who clearly values both the musical and dramatic aspects of the work, but recognises that in order to elevate this role from the province of canary-fanciers, all of its virtuosic arsenal (which ranges from exquisite trills to laser-like acuti) must be invested with meaning and dramatic purpose, thereby achieving a genuinely moving theatrical experience.
With Lucia occupying the apex of the bel canto repertoire alongside Bellini’s Norma, I was keen to find out from Miss Christy why she thought the works of Donizetti, Bellini and Rossini (others like Mayr, Mercadante and Pacini less so) are now so popular, when historically speaking much of it fell out of favour for quite some time, leaving the repertory without a trace (save perhaps for the odd revival for a celebrated prima donna) until the largely ground-breaking work of Callas in the 50s and Sutherland in the 60s ensued?
“Well, my husband, who isn’t a musician, said that when you are sitting in a seat in a theatre and some tenor or soprano hits a high note or floats some gorgeous phrase, what is it about that note or expression which produces a personal and individual reaction? He said that he feels a physical reaction; it’s not just something you hear, you also feel it, you sit up on the edge of your seat and it fills you with excitement. That for me is what’s special and unique about bel canto opera. Of course other operas can achieve similar results, but it’s not quite the same, as operas like Lucia di Lammermoor have so many wonderful moments which call you to attention. There is always a visceral thrill from hearing a high note or phrase executed well. It speaks to us in some way and commands a special reaction. It also has a lot to do with how it is written. Here in Lucia a high note is linked to a specific emotion, and so it is intimately connected, I think, to the drama. Donizetti, Bellini and Rossini all knew how to compose gorgeous melodies with an extraordinary understanding of the human voice and its possibilities. Sooner or later these works were bound to enter the repertory again, once the right interpreters were found. With great comedies and dramas abounding, no wonder they are so popular once more.”
Histrionically and vocally Lucia di Lammermoor is considered to be a very demanding opera, with an extraordinary reputation, making stars of some singers and damaging the reputations of those ill-equipped to sing it. I asked Miss Christy not only how it felt to be singing such a role, which rather dauntingly is connected to some of the most famous singers in history, especially Joan Sutherland, and perhaps to a lesser degree Maria Callas, but also whether this weight of history and association had ever become a source of concern for her?
“Not in the slightest, because I don’t think I have anything in common with those girls, not a single thing, vocally speaking that is! They are completely different singers in every respect; it’s not even apples and oranges. I’m more like a star fruit in comparison! I have always felt that I have just as much to offer in this role as anybody else does, and not just vocally, it’s the full package which I aim to bring. I think of every role I have sung, this is certainly my favourite. Of course there is always the odd person who says “Oh it’s not Sutherland”, well of course it’s not, I am a completely different sort of singer. These were undeniably great, great singers, but we can’t live in the past.”
Well indeed, you have to relive and remake the role, irrespective of associations with great interpreters of the past, otherwise opera really does become nothing more than a museum piece, and we may as well just sit at home listening to CDs rather than seeing live performances.
“You know, the other thing which is fascinating is that I don’t really listen to (she whispers) other sopranos! I love the low voices instead. I could spend all day and night just listening to the German bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff. My poor husband, who has become a real opera lover since we met, can only listen to his recordings when I am not home. I can’t say that high voices really appeal to me, which is odd when you remember that I fit into that exact category of singer. You know, I can’t even remember when was the last time I sat down and listened to a recording of Lucia. The good thing about this is that my interpretation isn’t therefore affected by anyone else’s; it is entirely my own creation. Everyone brings something to their roles; everyone brings a character to life in their own way, so there’s room for all of us in opera.”
All roles bring specific challenges for the singer, but what has been the principal challenge for you in undertaking this Lucia?
“Specifically stamina, as I don’t have the sort of voice which can literally take anything and everything thrown at it. It’s not indestructible, so I need to be careful about what I sing and how I sing it. There are some singers out there who can sing for days and days, but not me. I have to therefore plot it carefully.”
I can recall the odd comment during the first run in 2009, where some felt that there might be a question mark about whether your voice could in fact carry in a theatre as large as the Coliseum. Which was strange, considering that you already had experience of singing in much bigger venues. Voice size becomes irrelevant as long as the singer has great projection skills. Bidu Sayo and Roberta Peters, both of whom had famously small voices, could be heard anywhere in the world’s largest opera house, The Metropolitan Opera in New York, because they had the ability to project well. What was your reaction to such comments?
“Well, I remember giving an interview during the first run and the interviewer asked if I was apprehensive about singing in such a large theatre? Well, I said that I sing mainly in the States and that means that I am used to singing in Barns, places that to some might be considered too big for an opera to be performed in. They can be enormous, so I knew if I could sing in those places then I definitely could sing at the Coliseum. The moment you get on that stage and sing you notice its special acoustic, and how the voice is being placed without difficulty.”
These Lucias are performed in their original higher keys. How have you found this transition from the now “traditional” lower keys?
“I personally find the higher keys are much more comfortable for my voice, especially as it has changed a bit since I had a baby. I have noticed a difference in how I can manoeuvre my voice, but it has remained largely the same as before. I started out by singing Oscar (Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera), which was really easy, but I didn’t start to sing anything really high until Blondchen (Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail) in San Francisco a few months ago and that was fine. And now I’m back here, and the voice feels a little different than it was before, but everything is in place, which is good! You know I’ve also performed Lucia in the “traditional” lower keys, but I’ve found that the higher keys suit my voice more. It sits more comfortably for me.”
I added how I noticed that the first time around the voice seemed perfectly attuned to the higher keys, as it is essentially a very agile, light and bright instrument. So when Miss Christy capped the Mad Scene with an interpolated high F, I really ought to have expected it, even though I didn’t. This led me to ask whether the famous Mad Scene was the most taxing aspect of the role?
“Well, I personally find the aria “Regnava nel silenzo” followed by its cabaletta “Quando, rapito in estasi”, far more challenging than the Mad Scene. It is for me the most difficult part of the opera. There is of course that long stretched out duet with the tenor, “Sulla tomba” and the baritone duet “Appressati, Lucia...Se tradirmi tu potrai”, which can get quite heavy at times. When the Mad Scene is performed in the lower key, I find it so much more difficult, because by the time you’ve powered through the beginning you’ve got very little left for the end, so getting up there for the high notes becomes a real struggle. The “Regnava nel silenzo” is similarly difficult for me in either key, as you need to get through that long aria and then suddenly you are expected to just lighten the voice for the cabaletta. It’s quite a challenge I can tell you.”
I add to Miss Christy that on balance I think I prefer the Mad Scene in its traditional keys, although the silvery effect which comes from singing in the higher key can be very effective, especially in combination with the glass harmonica, which I must admit, is not an instrument I personally enjoy hearing, although many obviously do. I believe it has been speculated that the use of that instrument can cause delirium. I have no idea if there is any scientific basis behind this suggestion, but it would make a fascinating evening should this happen!
At this juncture I move on to discuss Miss Christy’s career, and I begin by asking her how she classifies her voice, as often the label “coloratura” is bandied about in describing similar voices, even though this is often an inexact and misleading description? After all “coloratura” is a skill, a facility in vocal execution, or even in its strictest sense, it is a way of describing how we colour the voice; although admittedly this last description has all but been abandoned today in vocal pedagogy. For much of operatic history we merely had sopranos, rather than the maddening divisions and sub-categories of voice types which exist today, with little purpose it seems other than to pigeon-hole singers.
“Well in my own head I’ve always considered myself to be a high soprano, period. A lot of the things I sing just happen to have coloratura, which takes me to high notes. But I also sing some soubrette repertoire as well, though some of which I have sung tends to be a little low, but it’s another area I enjoy performing in.”
You were last in London singing Oscar at The Royal Opera in Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera. Do you have any plans to return to London in the near future?
Yes, but I can’t at this stage reveal too much! Things at the moment are not too good with the world economy, so you can’t be sure what will or will not happen. I did have two things lined up in the US, but sadly they were cancelled for economic reasons. It’s a shame, but it works out in the sense that I have a one year old, and so right now I prefer to be at home with the baby. There are further roles coming up at the Metropolitan and Chicago, but I don’t think they have announced their seasons just yet.”
One of the roles that I wished I had seen you in was your Cleopatra in Handel’s Giulio Cesare at L’Opera de Lille in the McVicar production. Cleopatra must have been a perfect fit for your voice?
“Well, stay tuned on that! You know that production was just so much fun, it really was. The music is simply amazing; it’s like one great tune after the other, a hit parade. It’s on my IPOD, that’s how much I love it. My absolute favourite aria is “Se pietà di me non senti”, but every single character has such great music to sing in this opera. I used to sit in the wings and listen to everyone else. Talking of Handel, I’ve also got a Morgana (Handel’s Alcina) planned, which should be fun. That’s right up my alley.”
Do you have any plans to sing other bel canto roles, as aside from Lucia you have also sung Rosina in Il barbiere di Siviglia, Norina in Don Pasquale and Marie in La fille du regiment?
Well I have sung Bianca in Bellini’s Bianca e Falliero with Vivica Genaux in Washington DC before. That was right after the Lucia here in 2009, and it was so much fun. I don’t think I will go any heavier than Lucia. Some people say, what about Gilda or Violetta, but they are not for me. There are so many roles out there which are right for my voice, so why would I sing something that doesn’t feel entirely comfortable? I can literally roll out of bed and sing Blondchen! But when people say are you going to sing Constanza, I’m like no, never. I am very happy where I am and I don’t have any misconceived notions about where I am going, or what my voice is. I know it can be hard for some people, especially when the carrot is dangled like that, but sometimes you just have to say no. I have a fantastic manager who knows what’s right for me. I’m sure there will be more Bellini and Donizetti in the future.”
Returning to the Lucia, I asked Miss Christy what she thought of the incest twist, which was quite a novel development in this production? It had after all taken many of us by surprise, but in my opinion it worked well in providing a unique explanation for the damaged relationship which exists between Lucia and her brother Enrico.
“Well it comes more from desperation, rather than any incestuous longing for his sister. Of course it ultimately turns into that, but it evolves from a place of complete futility and hopelessness, and in that way it makes complete sense in the current setting. From the beginning of that scene, that’s not where you think it’s going to go. It’s just towards the very end when you get a little shade of it, and you start to think, am I imagining it? The upshot of which is to make everything seem that much darker and more dramatic. The scene with the brother is one of the most dramatic in the opera, as she is tested and tested to her limits. Plus he doesn’t leave when Raimondo comes in; he’s still there, observing everything. It’s quite chilling.”
From the perspective of character development, how to you see her journey? What sort of person is she?
“She’s a very isolated girl, about fourteen or so in my head, with no friends or parents around. When you are that isolated and you have something so special and treasured, like the love of Edgardo, then that relationship becomes everything, it’s all-consuming, there is nothing else in life bar that love. It’s almost a madness in itself, or at least it can sow the seeds of madness. To me she is intensely fragile, so the gradual degradation of her mental health is all but inevitable.”
Many singers have famously embellished the role of Lucia, making it even more vocally challenging than written. Was the decision to interpolate the high F at the conclusion of “Spargi d’amaro pianto” your idea, or was it the conductor’s?
“Oh it was mine, as I assumed it had to be done! Obviously when I sang it down a whole-step, I would go up to the E-Flat, but this time I took it to the F. It seemed like the natural place to finish. I had never sung a sustained F before this Lucia, although I had sung the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte years before, and hated it, it’s quite a thankless role, but that was staccato. I therefore went to my teacher to find out the best way to do this, and we figured it out together. I didn’t want it to be showy or anything, at it had to come from something dramatic. I didn’t want to just cap the Mad Scene in a flamboyant way, otherwise it just becomes too much of a cliché, and we are certainly not doing clichés here!”
To conclude this interview I asked Miss Christy about her burgeoning reputation for creating roles in new operas, and what it was like to work with living composers who could presumably shape roles and arias to the specifics of her voice. Most recently Miss Christy created the role of Muffin in the world premiere of William Bolcomb’s A Wedding.
“Well, before I had even got the role I had to go and sing for Bill Bolcomb in New York. So I went down to the Chelsea Hotel and sang for him in the studio. He then wrote the aria for my character. I mean he probably had an idea about the structure of the aria beforehand, but after I sang for him he certainly added a few new things that were particular to my voice. Initially he wrote in a high F, but this had to be pulled, because I felt that a high F in this particular aria only makes sense if you can float it comfortably. I can’t float a high F and make it sound pretty! In the end I think it was taken down to an E, which proved to be a better fit. I suppose I’ve been developing a bit of a reputation for creating these roles, primarily because of Bolcomb’s A Wedding and Picker's An American Tragedy, which was also an amazing experience. Early in my career I also premiered Jiang Ching in Sheng’s Madame Mao at Santa Fe. But “modern opera” is just one aspect of my career, I love to sing in so many other genres as well, especially bel canto!”
Booking is now open for David Alden’s production of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor at the ENO. Opening night is on Thursday the 4th of February. Click here to be taken to the ENO website for booking information and further details.