Preview: 'Tosca' singer aims to 'demystify opera for people'
Tosca (Angela Brown) seizes an opportunity -- and a knife -- to end Scarpia's (Mark Delavan) tyranny in "Tosca."
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"Tonight I jump!" says Angela Brown, getting ready for the first stage rehearsal of "Tosca," which opens Saturday at the Benedum Center.
Puccini's eponymous heroine is a plum role for an opera soprano. Tosca herself is a famed diva, who during the course of the opera must be passionate with her artist-lover Cavaradossi, watch him being tortured for his political affiliations, bargain for his life by promising to have sex with chief of police Scarpia, murder the villain to avoid having to keep the bargain and, at the end, jump off the battlement of Rome's Castel Sant'Angelo. It's the latter act, not the singing, that strikes terror into the hearts of those who would assay this formidable role. Vitorien Sardou's "La Tosca," the play that was the basis for the opera libretto, was written for the legendary actress Sarah Bernhardt.
Ms. Brown has sung this role many times, including at the Paris Opera, but she points out that "this is my first Tosca in my new body." She underwent bypass surgery last year and looks forward to presenting a new, svelte version of the heroine.
"Singing after the surgery," she admits, "was a shock to the system. Your voice lightens up a bit. I had to rethink my support." But at 48 this year, she says, "I'm in my juicy prime, vocally and physically, and I'm loving every minute of it."
As for the character of Tosca, the singer quips, "I don't know if I would have been that loyal to Cavaradossi [to go to the prison to rescue him and kill herself when she is discovered as Scarpia's murderess].
"Acts 1 and 2 are a breeze for me," she says. "I love the torture scene. I love the acting, but when Act 3 comes and I'm supposed to go back from being a murderess to being [Cavaradossi's] lover, all I'm thinking of is jumping."
The real-life diva is able to make fun of the opera and of herself. She recently performed her delightful recital program, "Opera ... from a Sistah's Point of View," at the Pittsburgh Opera headquarters. In the course of singing four arias and a spiritual, she tells the story of "Tosca" in modern-day lingo -- "Are there kids in the audiences? Well, Scarpia wanted to take me for pizza and I didn't want to go with him" -- and then sings the most famous excerpt, "Vissi d'arte," seriously and very beautifully.
"I'm trying to demystify opera for people who wouldn't go otherwise," Ms. Brown explains, "to encourage diversity in our audiences. Opera is for the people, and it's about people of all colors, persuasions and nationalities. 'Aida' has an African subject; 'Carmen' is about the Spanish; 'Turandot' and 'Madame Butterfly' are about Asians. It has to be fun for everybody."
She also says that her recitals keep her going when the jobs get scarce: "In this economy, the reality is that you have to have something to fall back on. You've got to keep yourself employed. I don't expect any [employer] to be loyal to me. Every time I open my mouth it's an audition, a job interview. If there's a job, I take it, to keep from being crazy. Everybody's got to eat."
When she finishes her stint in Pittsburgh, Ms. Brown will go for a residency at Skidmore College in upstate New York, doing her "Sistah Act" along with master classes and private lessons. Later, she will go back to "real opera," making her role debut as Puccini's "Manon Lescaut" in Hamburg, Germany.
In between she will return to her home base in Paris to celebrate her first wedding anniversary with dancer Anselm Blaise Argelier and her three new stepsons. The couple live in the 20th arrondissement, close to the airport, to make it easier for her to travel to her jobs. "If it wasn't for Skype, we wouldn't have a relationship," she says.
This career didn't come easy for the seemingly lighthearted singer. She did the Metropolitan National Council Auditions three times before winning the finals in 1997. "This was a turning point," she says. "I became a Met cover [understudy]. But even so, it would be seven more years before she made her Met debut. Her last-minute substituting for an ailing singer as "Aida" made front page of The New York Times. She describes that event as the high point of her career.
"It was so exhilarating. There was so much [unexpected] hype. As a cover, I never had a stage rehearsal. A stage manager allowed me to walk on the stage that afternoon, and I practiced a bow, looking up at that vast expanse of empty seats. Then he made me get off the stage, saying 'Now you have to earn it.' "
She says that good singing means "having a good attitude, most of all passion. You have to keep on doing it until you succeed on your own terms.
"Me -- I just keep swimming on."
First Published March 22, 2012 12:00 am