BWW Interview: Walking the Tightrope with Angela Meade in Bellini's IL PIRATA at Caramoor, July 8
Being an opera singer is a little like walking a tightrope without a net--no matter who you're singing with, you're out there on stage, alone, for the crowd to cheer but, also for everyone to hear each glitch or misstep in your singing. Soprano Angela Meade--who's starring as Imogene in Caramoor's concert performance of Bellini's IL PIRATA, a role debut, on July 8--not only did her first wire-walking with a major role but at a big house: the Metropolitan Opera.
That role was Elvira in Verdi's ERNANI, which she was covering [opera-speak for understudying] for Sondra Radvanovsky in 2008, who had sung the first performance of the season with a viral infection but couldn't go on for the next. Enter Meade, who was still in school at the Academy of Vocal Arts (AVA) in Philadelphia. Sure, she wasn't on stage by herself--there were a couple of "minor" singers, tenor Marcello Giordani and baritone Thomas Hampson--but she was the one with the opera's most famous aria, "Ernani, Ernani involami," which she has to "simply" walk on stage and sing. (She nailed it, by the way.)
Of course, it wasn't as if she'd stepped out of total obscurity into the limelight on that evening. Indeed, operaphiles were already aware of her. After her standout performance at the Met's National Council Auditions the year before--an annual event that's a big deal in the opera world for singling out up-and-comers--she'd been offered the opportunity to stand-by for Radvanovsky.
The 2007 audition's Grand Finals Concert was a particularly high profile event, not only because of the caliber of the performers (others included mezzo Jamie Barton, tenor Michael Fabiano and soprano Amber Wagner), but also because it was caught on film and later became a documentary, "The Audition." Meade knocked people's socks off with "Casta diva" from Bellini's NORMA (a role she'll sing in the Met's new production this season) as well as "Ach ich liebete" from Mozart's ABDUCTION FROM THE SERAGLIO, which was chosen for her by the Met.
The latter, perhaps not as well known as the Bellini, is a killer of an aria, calling for great breath control, superb legato, an unbelievable range and more than a modicum of style. At that point, she'd only just learned it a few weeks before and never had sung in public. "So I went to rehearsal and it was fine," Meade recalls, rather nonchalantly, "but that's kind of been the way throughout my career: 'Let's do it for the first time in front of lots of people.'"
Caramoor, in Katonah, NY, has been one of those places "in front of lots of people," where she has debuted a number of roles, including this week's PIRATA. Since she made her Caramoor debut in 2009 in Rossini's SEMIRAMIDE--a 4-1/2 hour epic that she will also be doing at the Met this season--Meade has done the starring roles in Bellini's NORMA, Verdi's LES VÊPRES SICILIENNES (the French version of I VESPRI SICILIANI), Donizetti's LUCREZIA BORGIA and now PIRATA. Not one of them is a day at the beach.
What made her say yes to PIRATA? Several reasons: One was working with Will Crutchfield, who's led the "Bel Canto at Caramoor" program since 1997 and is finishing up his tenure this season. "I like working with Will"--who is also conducting the performance--"and being at Caramoor," she explains. "When you work here, it's all about the music." [At Caramoor, the opera is officially listed as "semi-staged"--but, basically, it's traffic patterns, Meade says, e.g., you go on here, stand here, and bring your own clothes.] "Many times when you work at an opera house--because we live in 'the age of the director'--there's more emphasis on the staging than on the music," she says.
"Sometimes after you introduce yourself to the conductor, you sing through a role one time and next time you see him is at the orchestra rehearsal, a day or two before the performance. That's difficult, because, well, how can you get the nuances and agree as a unit with your other colleagues and conductor to put a cohesive piece together when there's not a lot of input. It's not the conductor's fault, but it's the way that rehearsals are scheduled today. Here at Caramoor, it's a different experience."
Just as important a consideration in accepting the role, however, was the chance to sing one more opera by Bellini, a king of the bel canto opera tradition in which she excels; it was something she couldn't pass up. (For those who don't know, bel canto translates literally from Italian as "beautiful singing," but it's much more than that. According to the Harvard Dictionary of Music, it is "the Italian vocal technique of the 18th century, with its emphasis on beauty of sound and brilliancy of performance rather than dramatic expression or romantic emotion," though the latter aspect was changed forever when Maria Callas picked up the gauntlet in the late '50's.)
"I have always been a fan of resurrecting pieces that aren't done all the time," she explains. "As much as everyone wants to do new works"--and she's in favor of adding new works to the traditional repertoire, though she doesn't do much herself--"there are a lot of old works that are never done and I think they need to be brought back. I'm doing a variety of pieces that haven't been heard for a while"--PIRATA was done at the Met for Renee Fleming in 2003 but not done often before or after--"some of these piece get done once and slip back into obscurity."
Bellini, who had a very short life (he died at 34), wrote PIRATA as the first of four great operas he produced between 1827 and 1831 that also included I CAPULETI E I MONTECCHI (the Romeo and Juliet story), LA SONNAMBULA (about a sleepwalker), and NORMA (the trials of a Druid princess and her unfaithful lover). It was written for two of the great singers of the day, tenor Giovanni Rubini and soprano Henriette Meric-Lalande, but fell out of favor as tastes changed. Fast forward to the mid-20th century, when Callas and her great costar Franco Corelli got their vocal cords around it at La Scala in 1958. It was the start of the new age of bel canto and PIRATA--though not Bellini's most famous work, that going to NORMA--was part of the trend, most notably as a vehicle for Callas, Spanish soprano Montserrat Caballe and, more recently at the Met, Renee Fleming.
"Obviously, I'm a great proponent of NORMA, which I love, and [another Bellini] BEATRICE DI TENDA, but PIRATA is a little different, not as fluid as either of those others. Yes, there are lots of great melodic moments in it, lots of pathos and emotion, but because it was written early in his career, it is more disjunct than something like NORMA, with lots of key changes, and it doesn't go where you expect it to go," says Meade.