For a lyric-coloratura soprano like Lisette Oropesa, it can be easy to be pigeonholed into the many mistreated ingenue roles that dominate the repertoire. But Oropesa has broken that mold. At only 34 years old, she already has a wide array of repertoire. From Baroque to bel canto to new music, she has sung it all.
This season, Oropesa returns to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion stage in two back-to-back roles. On March 10, she makes her role debut as Eurydice in John Neumeier’s new staging of Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice. In May, she assumes the role of Gilda in the first three performances of Verdi’s Rigoletto.
Eurydice and Gilda reside on opposite sides of the soprano spectrum — stylistically, dramatically and musically. Even the production values differ greatly. While Neumeier’s production of Orpheus and Eurydice treats the work cerebrally and leaves much of it up to interpretation, Rigoletto is lavishly staged, giving audiences more than a taste of the opulence of this art form.
“These two roles couldn’t be more different,” Oropesa told LA Opera earlier this month. “Gilda pretty much sits an octave higher [than Eurydice] the whole time. And she has a very different journey than Eurydice. Gilda is a more rounded out character, and the story is more dramatic and intense. Orpheus is about an emotional process that is very intimate, and Rigoletto is more about a series of events that causes a tragedy, rather than beginning with one.”
A native of Louisiana, Oropesa’s professional career began much earlier than most singers. At only 21 years old, she won the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, making her one of the youngest in the competition’s history to do so. Following her win, she was invited to join the Met’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, where she sang comprimario (or supporting) roles, in addition to stepping into some leading roles at the eleventh hour. Having begun her career so early, Oropesa has had the advantage of letting roles like Gilda simmer. But whether a character is new or she’s revisiting it, she approaches all of her roles in the same way. Her process begins with the text, story and the translations. As she goes through the score, she gets a feel for the character’s arc and where the turning points are. For Eurydice, a lot of the action happens before the show even begins.
“Because Eurydice is dead from the beginning, it’s more about Orpheus’ journey than it is about hers. With every character I sing, I want to find out what they want, what they need or what their motives are, and why they say what they say. The ‘Underworld’ is his process of grief, rather than a physical place. And I think that’s very powerful, because more people can relate to that,” she continues. “She’s a memory, she’s an idea, she’s a feeling, and that’s different than most productions of this opera. We see her finding her way through to whatever this whole ‘afterlife’ might be. There is a good chunk of time where the setting shows the scary part of the underworld, but then we see the peaceful part of it, and the audience learns that she is at peace. She’s finally at rest, so we learn that she’s in heaven, in a sense.”
Though Oropesa is making her role debut as Eurydice, this isn’t her first involvement with this Gluck masterpiece. She sang the God of Love (Amore) in the Italian version, Orfeo ed Euridice, at the Metropolitan Opera in 2011. But Eurydice is a different ball game, especially in Neumeier’s physically motivated production. Oropesa’s journey as Eurydice began over a month ago, when she travelled to Chicago for preliminary rehearsals with the Joffrey Ballet. Once rehearsals began in Los Angeles, she more or less had the movement down, before it was refined in greater detail by Neumeier.
“I love being in productions where there are dancers, especially if it’s with a company that works together a lot because they’re all very close — they know each other, they’re physical, they don’t have boundaries. They’re totally comfortable with their bodies, in a very different way than singers are. It’s really inspiring to watch.”
Eurydice may be new to Oropesa, but Gilda is her bread and butter. From Amsterdam to Paris to New York, it’s a role she’s sung all over the world to great acclaim. In revisiting the role as many times as she has, it is important for her to keep the interpretation fresh.
“I have to know that when I show up, I need to be an blank canvas for the director. And that’s fun! That’s what keeps it fresh, and I love the music. In all the years I’ve sung Rigoletto, I’ve never gotten tired of it.”
One thing Oropesa notices is that Gilda is less often portrayed as a victimized ingénue, and more as a strong-willed teenager with a life-or-death choice to make.
“In modern stagings these days, we try not to make Gilda a victim. More and more I’m running into directors who want her to be more strong, a bit more rebellious and hard headed. And that changes the entire dynamic of the physicality of the role, how she reacts to things. More often than not, your voice goes with it too; for example, if a director wants a softer, younger, naive, inward type of Gilda then you’ll sing it differently. What I’m finding, happily, is that nowadays most directors want a bit more strength to her character from the beginning.”
She has seen this trend not only in Gilda, but in many other roles in her repertoire, such as Konstanze in The Abduction of the Seraglio, Norina in Don Pasquale and Marie in The Daughter of the Regiment. While audiences of the past may have just been assumed that these women are helpless and reliant on male saviors in a patriarchal society, Oropesa says that in many of these musical scores, there is no indication that the female characters are “victims” at all.
“It’s an interpretation that has been missing for many, many years, but it’s always been there. I don’t feel like someone just had a ‘eureka!’ moment and changed the entire opera in order to make a character less of a victim. If you just look at what the female character says and does, you have to reinterpret it to make her the victim. These are characters who are trying to break out of the unfair society that they are in. If we keep putting them back in that victim box and ‘feminizing’ them, we are missing many layers of interpretation. After all, the composers gave these characters a ton of things to say.”
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