Saturday, October 11, 2008

Confessions of an Opera Addict, Part XI

The School of Barbie

The late '90s was, for me, a cornucopia of opera: trips to SFO, Jennifer der Torossian and the Bay Shore Lyric, and the research and development of my opera novel, Gabriella's Voice. My perceptive and critical skills had come to an absolute peak - just in time for Barbara Divis to come in a and blow them all away.

Barbara began her four-year residency at Opera San Jose in 1996. It didn't take me long to realize that this was a special singer.

(This, by the way, is a little game we play at Opera San Jose. Since the company's specialty is developing young singers, the patrons spend a lot of intermission time guessing who will "make the bigs." One night, a baritone named Mel Ulrich was playing Don Giovanni, and I told my companion, "What the hell is he doing here?" Within three years, Mel was playing leads with the New York City Opera.)

My reviews for Barbara began to take on ridiculously poetic tones. Granted, I actually am a poet, but that flavor of writing rarely invades my journalism. Thanks to Barbara's website (, I will now quote myself:

"(The) cast was one of the strongest in recent Opera San Jose history. Divis returns with a stunning new shimmer in her vibrato, evident especially in the haunting Vilja."

"The all-important principals, Divis and tenor Robert McPherson, sing this stuff like they were born to it. If last season's Lucia weren't proof enough, this Juliet removes any doubt about Divis' remarkable range and agility. One minute she's tossing off poofy florist-shop cadenzas in the sprightly waltz, the next she's unfurling streams of triple­-F agony at the news of Romeo's poisoning. And her top notes are downright captivating."

"Divis was divine, endowing the opera's most empathetic character with an appealingly gentle strength. To picture her lush descending tones at the finish of 'Bei Mannern,' please visualize a silk burgundy scarf wafting down from a third-story window."

Note that last line: when does an opera critic go to such lengths to draw an analogy like that? But her great care in crafting her lines, her ability with dynamics, demanded such illustrations. And the sheer power of her voice! She is perhaps the only singer I have personally heard that I have dared to mention in the same sentence as Tebaldi, because she shares that quality of a huge yet supernaturally agile tone. And, as I watched, it began to improve, taking on a lyric shimmer, a sense of the tone spinning out through the air, that I have rarely seen duplicated.

I am generally pretty careful about hanging out with performers. There's always the chance that I may, someday, have to write something unpleasant about them. But then one night I saw Barbara in Eugene Onegin, and added tremendous acting ability to my already high regard for her talents. I had always considered Tchaikovsky's famed Letter Scene as problematic. Despite the remarkable beauty of its orchestral sweeps, dramatically the scene is basically an infatuated teenage girl saying, "Oh, I don't know - should I like send the letter? Should I like not? Am I being like totally a dweeb? Oh. My. Gawd. I am in like one of those die-lemma things!" Twenty freakin' minutes of this nonsense.

Barbara, however, managed to take these silly adolescent back-and-forths and give to each a distinct emotional character. She actually made it interesting. And of course, her singing - more relentless gushing from me. That was enough. I was never, ever going to write a bad word about Barbara Divis, so I introduced myself after the show. Naturally, she was delighted (and don't try to tell me that sopranos don't read reviews), but fairly quickly the subject turned to tennis.

Barbara and I share that lovely trait of low metabolism, and she is constantly concerned about "fitting into those gorgeous gowns that they give me." Thus, we began to meet for tennis, and it was my job to ruthlessly run her from one side of the court to the other. I was perfectly happy just to rally - she's a good player, so we can sometimes run it up to a couple dozen shots - but Barbara insisted on sets. She figured that the competition would make us play even harder, and she was right. The terribly comic part was that, even though I have a foot of height, a gender-based muscle advantage and a few more years of competitive play on her, she fully expects herself to beat me, and gets terribly upset when she doesn't. I can still hear her self-abasing cries of "Oh, Barbie!"
Next: Barbie and the Gabriella's Voice reading


Patty said...

Fun read!

(I hear Mel has retired completely from opera now. I was sorry when I read that.)

Michael J. Vaughn said...

What!? That is such a bummer. Well, I realize what a hard road the performing life is - especially for singers, who have to travel all over the place. But I'll really miss seeing him on stage.