Three weeks ago, I spoke on the phone with the two women who will be starring in Florida Grand Opera’s upcoming production of Tosca, Giacomo Puccini’s great opera about a brave, doomed painter, a jealous, doomed singer, and a very-mean (and very-doomed) police chief. One of these interviews was published in The Miami New Times, but we’re putting them both here to commemorate Tosca’s arrival last night at The Broward Performing Arts Center, where it will play through the weekend.
In the un-published interview, I spoke with soprano Angela Brown, whose debut at the Met caused The NY Times to shudder in uncommon ecstasy (“At last, an Aida!” they cried). Ms. Brown will be performing as Tosca on the 1st.
How many Toscas will this be for you?
This is my first staged version—I’ve only done it in concert, and one time semi-staged. This is my first full-blown one where I get to jump and all of that! (note: Tosca requires its soprano to leap from a window.) Oh, Lord. The first time I did it ever was in 2000, and that was in San Antonio. That was a semi-staged version. Or, no, in Brevard, North Carolina. That was the first one I did. That was a concert, in 1999 or something like that.
Had you been singing any of it privately long before that? In the shower?
No! ‘Cuz Tosca is something, I’d had the opportunity when I was at IU to do it, and it would have been my first opera ever. And my teachers and me didn’t think it was smart, at that time, to tackle an opera that can be a vocal ruiner, if you don’t have enough experience to handle the emotions that Tosca will bring out of you.
Are you more in tune with that now?
Yes! And still just as crazy! Because she can’t really be that contained, period, but you do have to remember to keep your breath under your voice so that it doesn’t become a straight scream.
What else have you learned that’s going to help you out in the role?
Tosca’s got to be a slow boil. She can’t be over the top the whole opera. She has to build. And, I also learned, it’s different to sing — well, I used to sing “Vissi d’arte” all the time, before I knew the score of Tosca, but I found that is one of the times in the whole opera that she should sing piano. Because she’s praying, she’s pleading to the Lord, and she’s asking and questioning God. So I’ve learned to build her — she can’t just be all over the place. And to sing her lyrically, and not be balls to the wall all night.
You don’t sing all of Vissi d’arte piano . . .
No. It has ebbs and flows. But it’s different, the way you would sing it in concert from the way you’d sing it in the course of a whole opera. Same thing with any aria that’s been extracted, when you sing it in the context of an opera during the evening, you’re gonna sing it differently, because it has to have a build. You have to develop a character throughout the evening. By the time she gets to “Vissi,” she is feeling very defeated, and she can’t sound very heroic at that time. So it’s not that I’d sing her entirely piano, but I would use the nuances and really pay attention to the dynamic markings that are in the score. And now I know why they’re there — she just did all this screaming with Scarpia! So that’s a moment to be kind of chill.
What previous interpretations do you listen to? Conversely, which ones do you listen to and think, “That’s not how I would have done it?”
Well, I don’t know about the latter, because I believe anybody who picks this up, you know, that’s the way they would do it. So I have to only talk about me. But I have been listening to the Leontyne Price version —
With Giusseppe diStefano?
. . . was that with diStefano? No. Placido. And then I’ve been listening to, I guess it was her very first one, and it was in English. Someone gave me a copy of that one, and I think it was in 1956 — maybe I’m wrong — but it was in English, and it was very different to hear her as a young singer, singing this, and how she approached it. She approached it very lyrically. And I have listened to Callas do it, and I think I even have a version of Kiri Te Kanawa. And that’s different, because the voice is different.
You’re much bigger-voiced than a lot of other Toscas, like Freni and Scotto. How does that change your approach—does the size of your instrument free you up to do things other people wouldn’t?
Well, it can probably be a blessing and a curse, and that’s one reason why it’s taken me a while to want to do this in the full opera — because my voice is big, and you add the emotion on top of it, and suddenly you’ve got this major situation if you don’t know how to reign it in. It’ll be exciting and interesting to find out what’s going to happen! ‘Cuz I’m able to throw the voice, do the ebbs and swells, do the pianissimos, and ride on a wall of sound — I can do that. So it’s interesting to me, and exciting to me, to be able to put it all together — the action, the energy of the costumes and scenery — because this really is my first one. So I guess we’ll find out together.
(The dusky-voiced Elizabeth Blancke-Biggs has portrayed Floria Tosca through the vast majority of the FGO performances in the past month, after preparing in South Florida for weeks. When we spoke, she had just come back from sightseeing around South Beach with costars Roger Honeywell and David Pittsinger).
Are rehearsals underway?
M-hmm. We’ve got a dress rehearsal tomorrow night, a piano dress rehearsal.
Have you seen your outfit yet?
Oh, yeah! We had fittings the first week we got here. They’re beautiful costumes — they’re from the Baltimore Opera.
How many rehearsals will you get with the orchestra?
We get a zitsproba — which is essentially an orchestra rehearsal where you just stand and sing, and don’t do any staging — and then we get a couple of orchestra dresses.
I guess Angela Brown and the other cast, when they come in, won’t get many of those.
I don’t think she’ll get any orchestra rehearsals at all.
Must be stressful. For the second cast, not for you.
It can be stressful, but it’s also fairly common. When I made my Met debut, I’d rehearsed it, but I’d never been on the set for that, for the Zeffirelli Traviata. It’s always a little stressful — they walk you around the set before each act, show you where you can die, what not to do and where not to step. But it’s really common practice, especially in other houses where they have multiple casts, like the Met, San Francisco, Vienna. It’s very common to have multiple casts, though it’s unusual that they’ve started it here — when I sang Fanciulla here there was no other cast. But I think it’s to do with the scheduling at the new Carnival Center, they want to have more shows back to back.
Because they’re doing so well.
Yeah — you know, this is one of the greatest communities to come back and work in. Every year I come here, I see things are improving. It’s really exciting to see — it’s a really vibrant arts community.
How many Toscas is this for you? Where were the others?
This is my fourth production. City Opera, a tour — mostly just, you know, places you’ve never heard of. Oh — and I did Omaha Opera, I did it with Stewart Robinson (the principal conductor of Florida Grand Opera). That’s his other company.
Has your approach to Tosca changed from when you started?
Oh! It changes every time you do it. Because you’ve got different people and different situations, different chemistries with cast members, so it’s always fresh. You know, it’s always a different take.
Do you have a fairly easy time getting inside Floria Tosca’s head?
Yeah. I really love her — I think she’s a straightforward, honest, decent character; quite loveable and quite likeable. Which is very nice. Oftentimes, there are characters that you’re playing that aren’t quite as loveable, and that’s always more difficult for a human being to try to pull off.
She seems like a good fit for you. I was listening to some of your performances on YouTube, Nabucco in particular, and you have such a dark, mournful timbre . . .
Yeah! It’s funny—even though I play a big repertoire, the places where people always comment, it’s always, ‘Oh, I really like your death scene.’ It’s funny; it’s always been my sort of basis of power, the fact that even though it’s a big, powerful sounding voice that I guess could be intimidating, I always manage to keep enough of that fragility, and, you know, honesty in it. So I take that as a compliment. It’s something I’ve worked very hard to do.
But does you voice have a naturally darker color?
I think when I was younger, people tried to artificially brighten it — and, you know, that’s a very typical thing: ‘Oh, that couldn’t possibly be your natural sound.’ And you come around to a happy medium between your natural sound and your trained sound.
What previous Toscas do you like?
Well, I love Callas. Obviously, she’s the touchstone for everybody—
The 50’s or the 60’s Callas?
Oh, I don’t know. I listen to them all for different reasons — I listen to the younger Callas to hear the fresher sound, and I listen to the older Callas for an interesting, clever, artistic woman. You know — it’s just an interesting thing to listen to someone who is perhaps not at their vocal peak, trying to make choices, dramatic choices, based on some kind of vocal weakness, and make it an absolute success. And I listen to Caballe for pure beauty and sound — she’s one of my real idols, because she sang so many different kinds of repertoire, and I do that as well. I try to keep the Bellinis — I sing Norma, I try to keep all of these things moving at the same time. I don’t like to sing too much of one kind of music. I find it just a little frustrating.
What’s something people should bear in mind, going to see Tosca?
I just think they should enjoy it. It’s one of the most perfectly written pieces of musical theater. It’s not a stand-and-sing kind of piece — there are arias, but they’re more in the style of a dramatic monologue. It’s not about staid musical numbers. It’s very active, and things flow perfectly from one thing to the next. Really, I think it’s the beginning of opera as musical theater. And it’s beautiful from the very first minute to the last.
Performances are tonight at 8 p.m. at The Broward Performing Arts Center (201 SW 5th Ave, Fort Lauderdale). Tickets run from $21 - $200. Visit www.fgo.org for more info.
--Brandon K. Thorp