Three Weeks for Verdi

Opera Santa Barbara’s Upcoming Festival Preps for Bombardment of Bravos and Bravissimos

After testing the waters with an abbreviated Puccini festival last winter, Opera Santa Barbara jumps in headfirst to its new concentrated schedule with its sophomore effort, a full-fledged three-week festival dedicated to the Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi.

The ambitious program, which begins on February 24, includes not only two large-scale opera productions – Verdi’s much-beloved “Rigoletto” featuring many of opera’s most famous arias, plus “A Masked Ball,” which is performed less frequently but offers a magnificent score and true drama – but also a plethora of ancillary activities, from free dress rehearsals to backstage tours, gala dinners, pre-show talks, meet-the-artists discussions and much more.

“This is our time,” says the outfit’s artistic director, Valéry Ryvkin, who is conducting both operas. “We’re taking over the town for three weeks. The productions are much bigger, there are much larger choruses, and much more difficult parts. It’s an opera lover’s paradise.”

Ryvkin is especially proud of the Young Artists program, new to the festival this year and has brought eight fledgling singers from all over the country to take part in masterclasses and coaching sessions and perform as part of the choruses and in special lunchtime concerts called “Brown Bag Bravissimo.”

“Rigoletto,” of course, needs little introduction, as any opera fan knows the tragic story of the hunchback court jester whose attempt to exact revenge on his tormentor the Duke backfires most devastatingly. But Ryvkin is even more eager to offer the rarely seen “A Masked Ball,” which he recognizes is a difficult sell in a small town.

“There’s a great deal of black humor and darkness, like Mozart’s Don Giovanni,” he says. “Also lots of sarcasm and all of it is in the music. Yet it’s also an old-fashioned drama and love triangle. It’s a piece that looks forward to the later Verdi but yet has all the charms and beauty of Rigoletto and La Traviata.”

“Ball” will also bring the Santa Barbara debut of rising young soprano Fabiana Bravo, an Argentine singer who began her career in musical theater before an encounter with famed tenor Luciano Pavarotti set her on a path to opera stardom. Her story is worthy of an operatic treatment in itself. Barely 10 years later, she’s found international success in both concert settings and portraying operatic heroines. She was added to the Metropolitan Opera roster six year ago, and continues to regularly perform in New York, Washington D.C, San Francisco and Chicago.

Bravo recently took a few moments after rehearsal to discuss her career, and her role as Amelia, who is the center of the love triangle in “A Masked Ball.”

Q. You were a star in Argentina. Why did you want to make the transition to singing opera?

A. I always loved opera. When I’d see Pavarotti or Plácido Domingo on TV, I’d always wonder how they started, and wish I could be doing it. But my early life wasn’t easy. My father died when I was thirteen, and my mother was in a coma for two years. I came from a very poor family so I had to work. The main thing was to have a job, so there was no time or money for music studies. I decided to go to Buenos Aires out of desperation trying to find the work. I knew I had a natural voice and I had danced flamenco all my life. So when I auditioned for a musical, they took me immediately. I moved from one to another making a reputation. But always I wasn’t dying for it. But opera…when I’d hear opera, that’s when my skin would get goosebumps all over and my soul would vibrate. So I wanted to find my way in, but I didn’t know how to start. I knew I needed a voice teacher, but they don’t do that in theater.

So then you got the big break of meeting Pavarotti?

Yes. I was lucky to be singing with Valeria Lynch, who is a famous folksinger in Argentina, like Madonna is here. Her husband is a major music impresario and when he heard my voice he said he had to introduce me to Pavarotti. At that time, I didn’t know how to sing much opera at all. The only aria I could do was “Vissi d’Arte” from “Tosca.” I was so afraid – I was the only person in the world who knows only one aria and will audition for Pavarotti. Then when I started to sing it, he said, “No, no. You’re too young. Sing something else.” But I said, “Maestro, I don’t have anything else.” So he asked me to just warm up my voice, and when he heard me, he realized I could sing. He told me if I could prepare in three months he would put me in his vocal competition. That was my beginning of the change of my life.

I won the competition and then I debuted with Pavarotti in 1996 at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia. From there I went to university because they told me I had the instrument but I still had to study in order to completely leave musical theater behind.

You’ve sung the role of Amelia in “The Masked Ball” before. What can you tell me about it?

It’s one of my favorites, but it’s a very demanding and dramatic role both in the music and the acting. It’s extremely musical. I studied this role first back in 1999 in Italy and then in Parma. After that I sang it in private lessons, then at Catholic University. So I have had hours and hours with my voice teacher and pianist. It’s a challenge. You have to be completely ready mentally and physically.

When I first sang Amelia, I wondered why this woman doesn’t relax and do something else. But I decided to just try to understand the role and not to judge it. She’s a very noble person inside in her soul. She’s very committed to her husband, and even though she has a passion for Riccardo, she decides she will not break her bonds as a wife. So it’s an extremely strong character, contrary to those who think she’s weak. It takes strength to fight the passion you have inside. That’s why I think she’s one of the most true characters in opera. She deals with what a real human being goes through.

Do you think your background in musical theater gives you a leg up in the drama of opera because of all that previous acting experience?

Yes, it’s very important, because I always see the character as a human being, not just a vehicle for delivering the music. I try to portray them as real as possible, which I learned from the theater. So it was helpful that I had that experience.

Your last name is Bravo. It must be fun to hear the audience shouting that out at the end of the show.

(Laughs). It’s my real last name. It’s a very common name in Spain, which is where my father is from. So it’s nice to hear that at the end, but I don’t think it’s only for me…No, No. It’s for everyone on stage.

(The Verdi Festival begins on February 24 and lasts until March 11 with all performances taking place at the Lobero Theatre. To purchase tickets, call the Lobero Box Office at 963-0761. For more info visit www.operasb.com.)