Of all the aspects that make an opera performance exceptional: the right conductor, creative design, innovative direction: one facet of the art form has reigned supreme from the first operatic performance to the most recent: a great soprano or mezzo-soprano, at the top of her form, can electrify an audience like nothing else. The Met has a whole lineup of these artists available for devotion throughout the 2008 _09 season, with an impressive constellation right in the first few weeks.
The season opened with a salute to Ren_e Fleming, who starred in the Opening Night Gala on September 22 in fully staged excerpts from three of her favorite operas: Act II of Verdi's La Traviata, Act III of Massenet's Manon, and the final scene from Richard Strauss's Capriccio. She was joined by several distinguished colleagues, including Ram‹n Vargas, Thomas Hampson, Dwayne Croft, and Robert Lloyd, with Music Director James Levine sharing conducting duties with Marco Armiliato and Patrick Summers for the one-night-only gala.
"It's the ultimate dress-up event," said Fleming, who wore new costumes created especially for her by fashion luminaries John Galliano, Christian Lacroix, and Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel. "Costumes play an incredibly important role in the development of a character," Fleming continued. "The interesting challenge for these three designers was fitting their work into an existing production. They looked at photographs of what was worn before and what everyone else is wearing, while still maintaining their own integrity as designers. It's finding that balance between fashion and theater."
The Opening Night Gala, including the red carpet interviews leading up to the performance and backstage features during intermissions, also kicked off the third season of The Met: Live in HD, with the performance seen live by tens of thousands throughout North and South America. And the performance was broadcast live, for free, to thousands in Times Square and in the North Meadow of Fordham University across the street from the Met.
The night after Fleming kicked off the season, Finnish sensation Karita Mattila took the stage to reprise her unforgettable interpretation of the depraved Princess of Judea in Richard Strauss's Salome, one of opera's iconic : and most demanding : roles.
"You can't do it if you do not feel extra thick and in good shape, vocally and physically," Mattila explains of the role. Salome famously requires dramatic splendor, vocal virtuosity, and the ability to dance in the most exposed manner possible before delivering one of the longest solo scenes in the history of opera. "To dance for nine minutes and then do the monologue: that's a tour de force alone," the soprano says. "The rest is just a fabulous part." So how does she manage it? "I do it my way, with the resources that I have," Mattila explains. "And trust the magical moment and the fact that I am prepared. It gives me confidence to know that I've worked hard."
The unique demands a part like Salome makes on a performer may be easily apparent, but there are other great soprano roles that are just as challenging in their own ways. There is, for example, Verdi's Violetta, the courtesan who is nevertheless morally superior to everyone else in her world. It has often been said that La Traviata requires a different singer for each of the three acts to meet all the vocal challenges of the role.
This year these are faced by German soprano Anja Harteros. "It's a very satisfying thing to sing Violetta," Harteros says of the role, whose diverse vocal and dramatic demands are what most attract her to the part. "More often than not, lighter sopranos are cast as Violetta because the flexibility for the tricky coloratura in the first aria comes more easily to them. But you also have to look at the rest of the role. Then it becomes obvious that a rich voice with many different colors and technical capability is needed to do justice to this role."
Creating that rare blend of vocal fireworks and emotional depth is the trademark of another German singer who returns to the Met this fall for a much-anticipated role debut. Diana Damrau, last heard here as Mozart's Konstanze, sings her first Lucia in Lucia di Lammermoor in October. Mary Zimmerman's hit production of Donizetti's bel canto masterpiece provides a vivid vehicle for this exciting artist to add one more distinctively Italian touch to her wide-ranging repertoire. Damrau draws a parallel to another famous love story: "I consider Lucia to be a darker cousin of Romeo and Juliet. Both stories share the themes of revenge, female subjugation, and the political suppression of true love.
Though in Lucia's case, her madness makes the drama all the more biting as she unravels right before our eyes." In just three years with the company, Damrau has already debuted many roles at the Met. "After Rosina, Aithra, and Pamina, this will be my fourth," she says. "The audience here has shown me such warmth that I feel privileged to be performing Lucia for the first time for them: particularly considering the lineup of previous Lucias this house has seen."
Dazzling vocal acrobatics and the emotional nuances behind them are just two aspects of the art of the diva. But they don't belong to sopranos alone. The warm, golden sound of a mezzo-soprano can also send audiences into a swoon. Susan Graham, fresh from triumphs as Gluck's Iphig_nie and in Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito, returned to the Met to portray one of opera's most complex characters, the obsessive Donna Elvira in Mozart's Don Giovanni. "She is a fiery, proud, rather desperate character, and she offers great opportunities for personal catharsis," Graham explains. But she finds more in this character than the usual lovelorn lunatic seen on operatic stages for the past 200 years. "In the ensembles, she reveals her inner sensitivities, confusions, and fears," the mezzo-soprano adds. It is the diverse layers of the character that Graham mines in her characterization.
A similar challenge of managing diverse vocal and dramatic colors awaited Deborah Voigt, one of today's greatest dramatic sopranos, who is taking a break from Wagner and Strauss to sing the title role of Ponchielli's La Gioconda for the first time with the company. "It's true that with a dramatic voice, singing Italian opera helps you keep it fresh and in good health," Voigt says.
Back from her sensational success as Isolde this past spring, portraying the Venetian street singer is a trip down quite a different operatic lane. "For me, it's really more of a vocal challenge," the soprano explains. "But that said, if you're not into it dramatically, it makes it even harder to sing, so you really have to deliver all the goods." Voigt is one of an extraordinary number of women who are doing just that this fall.