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My many Marcis : on singing roles you hate

My graduate school career was limited to one semester. It was a good thing, too because it was  largely miserable. I didn't like the town, didn't like the school, didn't like most of my classes, and generally felt like a misfit. The culture was SO different from my undergrad, and I didn't really understand it. Fortunately for me, I was accepted into the Lyric Opera of Chicago Center for American Artists, now the Ryan Center, and ended up doing that instead of grad school. All in all, I think it was an excellent trade.

The opera in that one semester was The Marriage of Figaro. Not one of my favorites. I'd seen it before, and found it was boring, too long, and not particularly funny. There were no "good" roles for me, and when I was cast as Marcellina, I was pretty disappointed. I wanted to do Cherubino, just because it was a bigger part and had arias. I certainly could sing it, even though it wasn't really my voice type, but I was too curvy and, let's face it, too fat. I would have been one chunky boy. So, Marcellina it was.

I hated her. She was an old lady, she was mean, she was an object of ridicule, she didn't have anything fun to sing and certainly no arias, as the one written for her is always cut (and good riddance; nobody wants to sing it or listen to it). We were doing it in English, and frankly I just thought it was too long and boring. The only thing I really liked about it was my costume, a low-cut wine-colored taffeta trimmed in black lace with a black mantilla, atop a handsome black wig. It looked good --- too good, in fact. I believe the direct quote was, "You look like Carmen."  They grayed the wig and aged my makeup a little. It won't do for Marcellina to be too pretty (seriously, it won't do). 


With Todd Payne as Figaro. University of Illinois, 1990. (Observe my lack of enthusiasm).

I chalked it all up as a learning experience, and Lord knows I needed a lot of those. I got through it, never enjoyed it, just survived it, and headed off to the Lyric ... where they were doing The Marriage of Figaro.

It was an impressive cast. Samuel Ramey was Figaro; Marie McLaughlin and Janice Hall alternated as Susanna; the very sexy William Shimell was the Count; Felicity Lott the gorgeous Countess; Felicity Palmer Marcellina; Francois Loup Bartolo; and Frederica von Stade and Suzanne Mentzer alternated as Cherubino. I was in the chorus. It was revelatory. Suddenly, it all made sense. I still didn't want to sing Marcellina, but I no longer hated the opera; its beauty and humor and genius had been revealed to me.

It was years before another Marcellina came my way --- this time at Des Moines Metro Opera. I had my reservations, but it was completely different this time and turned out to be a marvelous experience, dispelling all doubts about the role.

For one thing, I have learned in the course of my career that I have to find a way to relate to the character; the character has to be justifiable (if not always likeable) to me. It has to make sense to me and I must play it in a way that makes sense. Also, many a time had the seasons turned since grad school; I was not a kid any more, and roles like Marcellina are not meant for kids to sing. A college-aged girl simply cannot understand what it means to be a woman who is no longer considered young --- by which I and for the most part society means beddable --- and who is desperately trying to hold on to her looks and land a man before it's entirely too late. A decade or two lent some perspective. Suddenly I knew who Marcellina was --- at least, who MY Marcellina was --- and suddenly, I liked her. I had empathy for her. More importantly, through coaching with an excellent musician and truly understand the cadence of the Italian language, I learned to deeply value and love the music. Because of my particular voice type, I don't often get to sing interesting ensemble music. That's practically all this role is, one gorgeous ensemble after another. It's a treat.


With David Ward as Bartolo, DMMO 2010

 I am happy to say that, for my next three Figaros, I was blessed with truly amazing castmates, conductors, and directors. Each one has been special for different reasons. Marcellina is now mine, and I love singing her.  I had to mature as an artist and a human being to understand and to be able to do justice to this beloved character, and it taught me a very valuable lesson in approaching other assignments.


With Paul Corona as Bartolo, Kentucky Opera 2012

 Every singer has a few roles that they would be very happy never to have to sing again --- or have no desire to learn in the first place. I have a short list of "only under special circumstances" roles: roles for which I'd have to be getting a great deal of money or be singing in a very prestigious house to ever consider taking on again. This includes one role I've made quite a lot of money doing and get great reviews for. And I just hate it. I do it really well, but it is entirely unsatisfying on every level. I refer to that role as "Paycheck".

So, my Marcellina lessons don't apply to every role. But I have learned to take the approach that if I don't like a role at first glance, it's not the role --- it's ME. I'm the one who hasn't delved deeply enough, in the character or the music. I have to give that role a chance. And even if I still end up disliking it --- which rarely happens these days, I might add --- it's my job to make it entertaining.


With Philip Cutlip as Figaro and Kevin Glavin as Bartolo, Jacksonville Symphony, 2014

Funny thing about that grad school Figaro, though. As I was combing through my scrapbooks for a photo, I found something I'd completely forgotten about --- the very first fan letter I ever received. It was from an elderly couple who attended all the performances at school, and reads in part, "No doubt you have more fan mail than you can acknowledge (AS IF! - Ed.) but we want you to know that we think your performances were terrific! ... We'll be watching for your name. We hope you have a brillant career!"

So there's another important lesson. In the end, no matter how much you like or dislike the role, it's not about you. It's about your audience. You can't be selfish. Your job --- no matter how you're feeling --- is to give them a good show.  You may never love the role, but at least you will know the satisfaction of having entertained people and having done a good job. Sometimes, that just has to be enough.

PS. If you'd like to hear and see one of my many Marcis, click here.