Thursday, June 19, 2003

From rocker to opera star

Eva Urbanova changed the direction of her life so she could be part of something that required 'a big voice'

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Eva Urbanova
Ask opera star Eva Urbanova who her first role models were, and her answer might surprise you.

"Queen, Freddie Mercury, Metallica, Tina Turner - wow," says Ms. Urbanova, rolling her eyes.

Urbanova, who stars as Princess Turandot in Cincinnati Opera's season-opening production tonight, got her start singing with a heavy metal band in the disco halls of Prague.

Lunching downtown at Aioli's last week between rehearsals, Urbanova hardly looked the part of either the operatic "Ice Princess" or Tina Turner, in her demure lacy blouse and ethnic-inspired blue print skirt.

As a child, she loved to sing, even though no one in her family was musical, she explains in halting English. As a twentysomething, she embarked on a pop career while continuing to study opera privately.

It was an unconventional career track to opera. But when she won an audition with Seattle Opera, "I canceled my rock music," she says. "Finished."

Why opera? Urbanova explains: "In rock music, you don't need a big voice, but in opera you do. In rock music, you don't need emotion and expression."

She discovered she could tackle difficult parts, such as the title roles in Tosca, Turandot, La Gioconda and Kostelnicka in Janacek's Jenufa.

"It's heavy, but I like it," Urbanova says.

Since making her debut in 1987 at the National Theatre in Prague (as Milada in Smetana's Dalibor), the singer's star has steadily risen. Five years ago, she made her Metropolitan Opera debut, singing Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana in a performance in Central Park.

A year later, she made her debut at Italy's La Scala. That launched a string of major roles at the Met - including Ortrud in Wagner's Lohengrin - as well as on the prestigious stages of Covent Garden, Deutsche Oper Berlin and the Paris Opera.

"Soprano Eva Urbanova was an ideal choice to project both the crushing emotional baggage in Kostelnicka's life and her hidden gyroscope of integrity," wrote Herman Trotter in The American Record Guide, about her performance last month in Jenufa for Canadian Opera in Toronto (a Nicholas Muni production).

In Cincinnati, Urbanova will sing the company premiere of Turandot with the new ending by Italian composer Luciano Berio (who died last month). She sang the world premiere in 2001 and will record it with Riccardo Chailly later this month.

It is quite different from the traditional version completed by Franco Alfano after Puccini died before he could complete the opera.

"The Alfano ending is big and emotional, and in Berio, the music is very sweet and intimate," says Urbanova, who not surprisingly prefers the "big" ending. "The music slowly dies away."

Urbanova has had many operatic highlights - "but I have only one big moment," she says, smoothing her dress. She has just lost 65 kilos - 143 pounds - on the Hay Diet, a seven-year regimen. Losing weight had nothing to do with the requirements of today's opera stages, she says.

"This is my dream, to be slim," she says.

And, even though she still listens to heavy metal, today her role models are her teachers, Ludmila Kotnuerova in the Czech Republic, and opera legend Renata Scotto, who coaches her in the Italian repertoire.

Scotto, she says, "is a woman who speaks with big emotion - the same emotional character as me - and she has a big heart."

The opera stories abridged:

Turandot: A fairytale princess with a stone-cold heart dares any man to love her. Her suitors must answer three riddles to win her, or die. The dashing Prince Calaf unexpectedly passes her test.

Triple bill, La Voix Humaine; Seven Deadly Sins; and Medusa: 1) A woman phones her ex-lover in a desperate attempt to reconcile. 2) Anna hits the open road across America in search of fortune, and is tempted by the seven deadly sins. 3) Snake-haired monster gets her kicks by seducing sailors and turning them to stone.

La Traviata: Baby-faced bachelor falls for Parisian party girl with a nasty case of consumption.

Norma: Druid priestess has secret fling (and two children) with enemy Roman chief; meanwhile, he falls for a vestal virgin. The story ends on a funeral pyre.

If you go

What: Cincinnati Opera 2003 Summer Festival

When: Today, Saturday and June 27 - Puccini's Turandot. Eva Urbanova (Turandot); Jon Villars (Calaf); Measha Brueggergosman (Liu); Dean Peterson (Timur); Peter Rothstein, director; Alessandro Siciliani, conductor.

June 26 and 28 - Triple bill: Kurt Weill's Seven Deadly Sins; Francis Poulenc's La Voix Humaine; William Bolcom's Medusa.

July 10, 12 and 18 - Verdi's La Traviata.

July 17 and 19 - Bellini's Norma.

All performances are at 8 p.m. in Music Hall. Opera Insights (lectures) begin at 7 p.m.Tickets: $22-$120. 241-2742 or


Opera's season of the ladies
From rocker to opera star
Pearl Jam's tour even surprised bassist Ament
Symphony delivers Bach's 'hits'
Networking inspires retro jersey craze
Three reasons to see 'Mark' at art museum
Beat bookstore celebrates 50
Harry Potter countdown
Top 10s
The Early Word
Get to it