Thursday, July 17, 2003

'Norma' takes some nerve


Luckily, opera star Lauren Flanigan thrives under pressure

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Lauren Flanigan sings the title role of Norma and Dario Volonte is Pollione in Cincinnati Opera's 2003 production of Vincenzo Bellini's classic.
(Philip Groshong photo)
| ZOOM |
It wasn't the role that attracted opera star Lauren Flanigan to Norma.

"It was seeing if I could sing this music," says Flanigan, who stars in the title role of Bellini's classic with Cincinnati Opera tonight and Saturday. "The other day, I was half-joking, saying the first part of my career was about acting. This part's going to be really about singing."

Tall and sporting short-cropped blond hair, Flanigan projects intensity. Time called her a "thinking man's diva." As an actress, she dominates the stage - whether singing Abigaille in Verdi's Nabucco or Christine in Marvin David Levy's Mourning Becomes Electra. An ardent champion of new music, she has learned 81 roles in 11 years - an astonishing achievement that few singers today can match.

"I've never had a vacation," she says. "I'm constantly learning music, constantly taking voice lessons, because modern music wrecks your voice," says the San Francisco native, who lives in New York. "(People) appreciate it now, because I'm 45 and I've lived to tell about it."

In the early '90s, she was working in a New York management consultant firm, singing opera when she could, when Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown, N.Y., asked her to sing Strauss' Intermezzo.

"People were like, 'They do opera in a garage!' " she recalls of the now internationally known festival. "Now everybody wants to do it."

Short notice? No problem

Two years later, she stepped in for an ill Aprile Millo to sing Verdi's I Lombardi opposite Luciano Pavarotti at the Metropolitan Opera, with no stage rehearsal. One of the performances was televised.

There's no question that she has nerve. Last April, she substituted on two days' notice for her good friend Deborah Voigt to sing Weber's Oberon at Carnegie Hall - after barely studying the score. Several composers have written operas for her: Deborah Drattell, Robert Beaser and William Bolcom, whose A Wedding she will premiere in Chicago in January.

"Under pressure, I've learned a lot," she admits.

Possessing a wry sense of humor, Flanigan doesn't mince words. "I think the thing that distinguishes what I've done - basically I took a lot of offers everybody thought was crap, and I made them into what people think are fantastic.

"I've done lots of things my colleagues think are complete career killers. I never did a project I didn't really, really believe in. I believe in those as much as I believe in Norma."

Flanigan has waited 20 years to do this role. Norma takes a special kind of nerve. One of the most demanding roles in all of opera, it calls for fluid singing, tremendous stamina and commanding stage presence. Rosa Ponselle, Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland have been among the few to carry it off.

"Singing Bellini is constantly stressful; you can't take an acting choice that takes you out of the vocal moment," she says.

During rehearsals, she and Cincinnati Opera artistic director Nicholas Muni have been "constantly re-evaluating the dramatic thrust of a piece - constantly. We are constantly sparring about what a moment really consists of - how authentic is it; how contrived is it? How theatrical can it be?"

The production has a few risky moments, she reveals.

"I'm trying something in the first act that probably no one else has tried. People come to Norma with such preconceptions, based on their favorite singer who has sung this part. I don't come with those conceits to any project."

Cincinnati is no cinch

Even though she's been compared to Callas, she says simply, "I have a talent for learning really hard music. We're good at what we're good at."

About choosing Cincinnati to try out a new role, she says she couldn't pass up working with "great guy Nic Muni."

"If you think this is a place to try out something, you're insane," she adds. "The press from all over the bloody world is going to come to this thing. It's like doing it in New York."

If you go

What: Bellini's Norma. Lauren Flanigan, Norma; Kristine Jepson, Adalgisa; Dario Volonte, Pollione; Nicholas Muni, director; Marco Zambelli, conductor

When: 8 p.m. today and Saturday

Where: Music Hall

Tickets: $22-$120. 241-2742 or visit www.cincinnatiopera.comE-mail jgelfand@enquirer.com

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