Opera preview: Soprano ready to top scales in 'The Magic Flute'

When Pittsburgh Opera's "The Magic Flute" opens at Benedum Center Saturday evening, soprano Audrey Luna will take on the iconic part of the Queen of the Night. It will be the Oregon native's second local foray in the role. In 2007, when she was a resident artist, she substituted on short notice when the originally scheduled singer became ill. Since then, she has performed the part more than 100 times.

The "star-flaming queen" is one of opera's briefest leading roles. She participates in only three short scenes totaling 12 minutes in an opera that lasts approximately three hours. The other characters sing their hearts (and voices) out for an entire evening, yet the Queen of the Night is the one you're most likely to remember after you've left the theater.


Pittsburgh Opera's 'The Magic Flute'
Where: Benedum Center, Downtown.

When: 8 p.m. Saturday; 7 p.m. Tuesday; 8 p.m. Nov. 15; 2 p.m. Nov. 17.

Tickets: $12.75-$179; 412-456-6666 or pittsburghopera.org.

Two of the Queen's three appearances are spectacular virtuoso arias that contain dazzling coloratura (fast notes on one syllable) passages with glittering staccato roulades that take the singer up to an F above high C -- the highest note generally sung in standard operatic repertory. A few singers, notably French soprano Mado Robin (1918-60), have sung and recorded even higher notes. At the Metropolitan Opera, Ms. Luna went up to G-sharp in Thomas Ades' "The Tempest," and she likes to interpolate a high A when she sings the doll Olympia in Offenbach's "The Tales of Hoffmann."

Mozart's Queen, composed for his sister-in-law Aloysia Lange, is a dramatic coloratura part, not meant as fodder for light-headed operatic twitterers. There has to be a lot of vocal steel in this character's high-flown ranting. Ms. Luna has that as well. As Opera News' Brian Kellow has described her, "Audrey Luna is no piping soubrette; she's a bright lyric coloratura with real backbone to her voice."

"The most important thing," said the singer, "is to create a clear character for the audience. You have to be clear about who you are, so that the audience will either love you or hate you."

Singers who specialize in this role tend to become typecast. American soprano Rita Shane, who performed more than 400 Queens of the Night all over the world to great acclaim, told the Post-Gazette in 1982: "The Queen was my friend, and she was my foe," alluding to the difficulty the singer had winning more conventional roles. More recently, Diana Damrau, whose 2003 Royal Opera House Covent Garden DVD is a touchstone for the Queen's arias (check them out on www.YouTube.com), has eschewed this part for more lyrical repertory. Ms. Luna has several lyrical roles to balance her coloratura parts, among them Delibes' Lakme, Gounod's Juliette and Gilda in Verdi's "Rigoletto."

Mozart composed "The Magic Flute" in 1791, the last year of his life, on commission from Emanuel Schikaneder, owner of a low-end theater in suburban Vienna. The work was intended as a German Singspiel, roughly comparable to our Broadway musicals. Schikaneder supplied the libretto and performed the leading comic role of the bird catcher Papageno.

Mozart gave his patron more than he asked for, however, mixing simple songs with elaborate arias, adding elements of the Freemasonry movement (with which Mozart had become involved) and transforming the play's serious characters into mouthpieces for high-minded ideals about brotherhood of man, and social class being unrelated to nobility of spirit. The high priest Sarastro, a basso profundo (deep bass), represents all that is good, the realm of light. His sagacious arias, by the way, include some of the lowest notes in opera-dom. The Queen of the Night represents evil, although in Act 1 she appears falsely as a spirit of good, urging the noble prince Tamino to save her daughter, Pamina, from the supposedly evil Sarastro.

The Queen's Act 1 aria is a grand scena in what was then the Italian style: an introductory recitative (words sung in the rhythms of speech) exhorting Tamino to take pity on a sorrowful mother, an expository slow aria, and a brilliant conclusion in which vocal fireworks are used to express heightened emotion. In contrast, her Act 2 Vengeance aria, in which she orders Pamina to kill Sarastro, is a single emotional outburst, marked by repeated staccato high Cs and, of course, the four high Fs. Ms. Luna refers to this aria as "target practice."

The soprano made her Met debut as Queen of the Night on Dec. 29, 2010, and because she was not first cast, she never got to rehearse in costume or on the set.

"They didn't tell me that at the end of my first aria, the set spins," she recalled. "I had to flail around a moment or two before I found the exit." She added that "the most difficult thing for me is all the waiting backstage."

Robert Croan is a Post-Gazette senior editor.

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