|Melody as Tosca|
I have promised, for almost a full month, a blog entry pertaining to the unbelievable opportunity that I had to sing Tosca with the San Francisco Opera last month.
The opera Tosca is one of those benchmark roles for sopranos. Everyone loves it. The music is soaring and dramatic. The leading lady gets to scheme, bargain, demand, murder and sling herself off the roof of the famous Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome, Italy (featured in the movies Angels and Demons and Roman Holiday. Originally built as a mausoleum and used in the papacy as a fortress and castle – now a museum). Maria Callas was most famous for her interpretation of the diva Floria Tosca; so, everyone in the opera world has a VERY steep opinion of how Ms. Tosca should be played and sung. The role itself is vocally demanding, long and includes multiple high and low c’s in quick succession of one another. In short, if you get the role…you get a good deal of pressure with it.
My part of this story begins humbly. I happened to be looking online at the SF Opera’s upcoming season and saw that Tosca would be performed with Angela Gheorghiu and Patricia Racette as the leading ladies. There were twelve shows scheduled within 17 days and NO ONE PERSON can sing Tosca that many times in a row. So, both ladies were sharing the heft. I had watched Patricia at some public rehearsals when she sang Marguerite in Faust the year previous and thought to myself, “I would love to study her interpretation of Tosca!” I contacted the company and asked the Artistic Administrator, Gregory Henkel, if I might have the opportunity to watch Patricia when the show went on stage for dress rehearsals.
Greg asked, “Are you singing Tosca anytime soon?” I informed him that inquiries about my ability to sing the role had come from two separate opera companies and that I was strongly considering the study of the score. He suggested that I learn some snippets from various acts and sing an audition in front of him. We set a general audition time two weeks into the future and I began cramming all I could. After singing the audition, Gregory sat me down and said, “I have no doubt that you CAN sing this role….I just wonder if you SHOULD sing this role. It has killed many a soprano and this company loves you and your voice. We wouldn’t want to hurt you.” I said, “Let’s not forget that I am not a spring chicken. I am 40 years old and I have sung quite a bit of bigger Puccini. Although this will be the biggest thing I’ve sung to date, I think I can do it.” We agreed that I could understudy Patricia and Angela and, if the role became too much of a challenge, I would gracefully bow out of the project.
I began my personal study by coaching locally with Bob Mollicone at SF Opera. I then took a trip back to my Alma Mater, Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, and coached the role daily with my tried and true “team Melody” (Sylvia Plyler and Allen Perriello). Finally, I drove to Akron to see my voice teacher, James Mismas. I sang this huge piece of music every single day for over a month and, then, I rested. Hey, even the good Lord had to take a nap.
About three weeks before rehearsals began for Tosca, I began practicing my stamina by getting into practice rooms and just running acts - both in order and out of sequence - to “trick” myself and not get stuck in a pattern. I had also begun rigorous training and muscle building in order to handle the length and physicality of this demanding stage experience.
Finally, the first day of official rehearsals came and I was too excited to sleep the night before. I showed up well-dressed and having eaten a full breakfast – raring to go! Then, the wall of reality hit. Oh…..I’m the understudy. My job is actually to just sit here and be available. Shoot. All that work – to sit.
As the weeks went on, it became apparent that I was to do just that – sit. I became a bit melancholy, but then I began to think, “You know what? Use this time wisely and REALLY learn the role. Keep practicing it vocally and mentally. Go through your blocking in your mind and make sure you know what you’re doing. That way, when you finally do the role, you’ll know so much more about it.” I read “Tosca’s Rome” to get an idea about the great city during the 1800’s – a period of great political unrest. I read the play, “La Tosca” by Sardou and began to get a really good sense of character. I walked my blocking when nobody was looking.
Fast forward to opening night of the opera, November 15th, 2012. It was a day like any day. My partner, Stacey, and I had gone to the gym. We tooled around town on foot and made our way leisurely to the Opera House. I had received a “wellness” call from the Opera to let me know that Ms. Gheorghiu was, indeed, well and going on for the evening’s performance. I wore a nice pair of jeans and a cashmere sweater in case I was seen by anyone in the company on my way to the 4th floor conference room. In the Opera, the understudies are allowed to watch the opera via closed circuit television so that we don’t have to sit in the patron’s seating area. We are to be at every performance even if the leads are well.
Act One began and I remember thinking, “Angela seems…..off.” Now, anyone who knows the name Angela Gheorghiu knows that this woman is a bonafide star and Prima Donna. She has a GLORIOUS instrument and is sought after all over the world for that voice of hers. I have “covered” her twice and always had a pleasant time doing so. She was kind to me and generous of spirit. Because of my previous work experience with her, I could see that something was wrong and that she was not well. She was shaking and her eyes seemed distant. I told my fellow understudies and Stacey, “You know what???? I’m going to go warm up. I don’t like what I’m seeing.” I got a few wary looks, but decided to just follow my gut.
While I was warming up, I received a system page asking me to report to the office. I went nervously upstairs, my breath getting shorter and shorter with each step, and….waited. We were already 10 minutes into the intermission between Acts One and Two and I knew that, if I were to be called to go on, I would have precious little time to get ready. I watched nervously as the head of scheduling, Marin Venturi, sat with a walkee-talkee in hand and a phone nearby. About five minutes after arriving, the phone rang and, after a short series of “Mmmm Hmmmms” and “Okaaaaaays”, Marin turned slowly in her swivel chair and said, “We’re gonna need you to go get into costume.”
Even as I was whisked away upstairs and greeted by no less than 8 people dressing, powdering, tugging at me and running musical cues with me, I still had no official word that I was going on for Act Two. I learned this fact by listening to the announcement AS IT WAS MADE by our General Director over the sound system. I heard him say, “I am so regretful to inform you that Angela Gheorghiu has become ill with a stomach virus and cannot finish tonight’s performance.” (General murmur of the audience) “She will be replaced by her cover, Melody Moore.” PANDEMONIUM. Claps and cheers! I could not believe what I was hearing. I was “raised” in the San Francisco Opera House, but I will NEVER forget the generosity that was shown to me on that night by the dedicated and loyal opera goers of the FINEST CITY in the U.S. Thank you, San Francisco.
The team of dressers, make-up artists and musical staff kept buzzing ‘round for another 10 minutes and I asked for just 10 minutes to collect myselfprivately. I kept being asked by staff if I wanted to practice anything. The murderous stab? The suicidal jump? The Act Two staging that we went over only ONCE? To all of these questions and more, I continually said, “No.” “The best thing for me to do is NOT think and just get out there and do it.” It was so clear to me that no human being had the power to make these events transpire the way that they did. Nothing of this night was occurring because of something I “did.” Therefore, it would not be bettered by something I could “do”, but rather – all would be well if I would just “be.”
I have never felt so in-tune in my life. Every hair on my head knew its name that night. I could feel the grain of the canvas floor covering. I could hear my dress swooshing as I turned. I could feel the clammy sweat of my colleague as I pushed him away from me in our scene. My brain was a fine instrument of multi-tasking as I thought both ahead toward the next move and presently about the music. I remember looking at my colleague (who played the treacherous chief of police, Scarpia) and loathing his very movement. I knew that I was no longer operating as …. Melody. Each moment that passed was even more revelatory as I came closer and closer to the ….no, THE famous Act Two soprano aria, “Vissi d’Arte” – meaning “I lived for art.” This aria is so simple and bare and has the power to destroy. One simply must be fully grounded to even attempt it. I remember thinking, “It is already done – just breathe.” Apparently, it was a successful. I wouldn’t know. I was breathing. The night continued on past the aria so fast that I was jumping off the church before I could say “Puccini.” I’ll never forget my curtain bow as the house, again, showed ultimate love and support for their “hometown gal.”
The reviews….well, I couldn’t have paid for better ones.
I, subsequently, got the chance to sing another full performance for Angela when the same bout of stomach flu resurfaced. The second time, while less….dramatic…., was no less special and I drank every moment of it.
The hardest part about singing Tosca has been NOT singing Tosca. Indeed, the weeks that have followed have been very low in comparison to such an extreme state of functionality and artistry.
I am now happily ensconced in Houston, Texas beginning rehearsals for Francesca Zambello’s Showboat, playing the part of Julie LaVerne. It is my intense honor to “come back home” where I got a huge portion of my early musical training and have such a fun time on this huge show. I have already been able to teach a Master Class for high school kids who are preparing to enter college and audition for scholarships. I plan to contact my High School and ask if they may like to have me come speak to the kids. I would never have made it this far if an army of professors and teachers had not nudged me in the right direction. I would love to do the same.
Two offers of Tosca for other opera companies have come to my attention. We shall see what offers come of this fairy tale experience in the future.
I can say that I will always be so very excited to perform the role again and to learn even more about our heroine, this fine piece of music and….not least of all... myself.