Articles & Interviews

Look Before You Leap

By Ed Hawkins

Lisa Daltirus talks to Ed Hawkins about bringing a balanced interpretation to Tosca. Daltirus makes her Seattle Opera debut as Puccini’s fiery heroine (February 23, 27, March 1, 5, and 8 performances).

Ed Hawkins: Tell me how you came to be an opera singer.

Lisa Daltirus: I was born and raised in Plainfield, New Jersey. I took piano lessons, did ballet, tap, and jazz, and sang in church choirs growing up. It wasn’t until my senior year in high school that I decided to go for opera. A music director at my church had attended Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey. I auditioned, was accepted, and received my formal opera training there.

EH: You made your professional opera debut as Tosca.

LD: Yes, in Central Park. Can you believe that? Thousands of people…that was a real blessing.

EH: How many times since have you performed the role?

LD: Seattle will be my twelfth Tosca.

EH: Tosca herself is an opera singer. Does that make it easier for you to get in to the role?

LD: I wouldn’t say that it makes it any easier. You never actually see her being an opera singer, first of all. I am never singing as Tosca playing a character on a stage in Rome. I am simply singing out the character and her circumstances. It’s the same process as any other role: I have to find what she’s dealing with in the moment and simply play the emotion, circumstances, and environment. In that respect, she’s like any other character.

EH: What about the temperament and physicality?

LD: You mean because she’s a “diva”? Well, that also qualifies as character development because I like to think I don’t carry myself that way. Physically, she has a little more elegance, grace, and importance when she walks into a room. That’s where I get to satisfy that urge, if you will.

EH: That must be fun.

LD: Oh, sure! Absolutely. But you can have fun with any character.

EH: To some degree, Tosca seems to be a character of contradictions. She is quite pious but also very passionate. She is jealous and tempestuous towards Cavaradossi at first yet steadfastly loyal to him as the story progresses. How do you reconcile all the competing elements of her character?

LD: Well, that’s what makes her such a juicy and enjoyable character to play. She makes so many super-quick adjustments between what she believes, what she feels, and how she reacts to this situation that’s beyond her control. She grew up in a convent, so her piety—and all that comes with it—is engrained in her. Even after she’s killed Scarpia, she still feels this pull to set up the candles and the cross and prepare the body for burial. And from her very last line we can tell that she believes that the spirit goes to God. And she definitely has some earthiness to her. That’s what makes her character so juicy: her earthiness contrasting with the world of refinement and luxury in which she lives.

EH: Similarly, her relationships with God and Cavaradossi—they’re not really in conflict, yet she is equally loyal to both.

LD: Yes, her love for Mario is just as strong as her faith. So much so that she would lay down her life, or give very much of it away, for his sake. She’s a very passionate person in every sense.

EH: And beneath that passion, her love for Mario is true.

LD: Definitely. She truly loves him.

EH: This opera has often sported the label “melodrama”, especially since the play upon which it is based is very much in that mold. To my mind, “melodrama” isn’t necessarily a bad label. It doesn’t have to be the damsel tied to the railroad tracks with the villain twirling his moustache; but even if it is, if presented thoughtfully and with style, it can still be compelling, satisfying entertainment. Tosca may have started out as a tawdry potboiler, and Puccini may have retained its melodramatic plot and flavor, yet he managed to elevate it.

LD: Right.

EH: But I imagine as a performer you still have to navigate the whitewater of melodrama—making sure you don’t overdo it.

LD: The genius of Puccini, and I daresay this applies to Verdi too, is that they’re very specific about what they want and they structure it very well. Still, as a singer you do have to bring something to the table; the road map is not clearly laid out for you. Puccini doesn’t give it all to you. You definitely have to do your homework. Finding your own interpretation while remaining true to the score, is where the artistry lies.

EH: The love/jealousy duet in Act I of Tosca has been cited by many opera fans as one of Puccini’s greatest compositions. Would you agree with that?

LD: I think it is absolutely ingenious. It gets you to the heart of those characters and makes you like them immediately, from the very beginning. And that was Puccini’s specialty: taking you right there, without a lot of character development. Puccini was a genius at getting you to know who the characters are, to understand their relationship, and to identify with them enough that everything that follows makes sense. It falls into place, you understand where it’s coming from. And it doesn’t take him forever to get you there.

EH: Is there a risk of overdoing it with this role?

LD: Oh, yes. It’s happened throughout history. Some people think that Tosca, being a “jealous diva” who’s capable of killing somebody, must be totally crazy and wild. I don’t see that at all. There are definitely prescribed moments when she loses her temper – but she pulls herself back in. Certainly the desperate act of killing Scarpia is extreme, but it’s an extreme situation. It’s her only way out. That’s important to remember. She’s not stupid – she’s in love! She’s trying very hard to protect her lover and get both of them out of an extreme situation. She’s desperate. But in that same scene, you can find nuances and depict her as a thinking person who stands up to Scarpia while playing his game. I don’t believe these are the acts of a dumb person.

EH: Scarpia is dealing with an equal.

LD: Absolutely. They’re going toe-to-toe. And in that scene the music is so soaring, strong, and heavily orchestrated, some people think they just have to scream it out and play her as purely wild. I maintain that you don’t. There certainly has to be fullness and intensity of emotion, but it’s not wild.

EH: Who are some of your favorite Toscas?

LD: Maria Callas would be at the top of that list. I like Tebaldi. I’ve certainly been impressed by others, but I think I’ll hold the line right there as far as favorites go. What is most important to me is that I can hear the drama in the voice, especially in this role. Those two did that for me.

EH: You’ve been praised for bringing a real sense of drama to this role while singing with clarity and precision. How do you achieve that balance?

LD: In a nutshell, you have to really study the part, and continue to study it—I don’t believe you should ever put anything down, no matter how many times you’ve done it. I’ve studied Tosca enough now that it’s settled in my brain, engrained as muscle memory, and I can give myself to the drama without overwhelming or losing that technical knowledge. I can fully portray the character and still have a good sense of what words to bring out and where to nuance phrases. I’ve spent enough time with both study and portrayal that my brain now knows when it needs to pay attention and guide me: “Remember to take a deeper breath here so things don’t get screechy.”

I’m working on a few levels in my head at once on stage. But in order to do that in performance, you really have to dissect everything in study and preparation, just so your brain knows when to go to what place. You’re always monitoring yourself to some degree, and it’s not always on a vocal or acting level—people don’t realize just how much we are processing on that stage!

I recently wore a Tosca gown that had an especially long train. So, on top of creating energy and intensity, singing, and interacting with Scarpia, I had to remember: “move the train out of the way, run past this chair without hooking it and knocking it over, watch the conductor, make sure not to sing upstage because the audience needs to hear me.” This is just a single moment and I’m processing all of that in addition to the drama and the vocal technique!

That’s why I said you really have to be solid on all of the individual elements—technique, acting, language—so that, upon integrating them into a package, your brain is able to switch between them instantly and seamlessly so the audience doesn’t see it.

EH:Not to mention being able to react to the “anything can happen” nature of live performance.

LD: Right. I had a situation happen in dress rehearsal where the retractable knife cracked in half after the first stab and I had to drop it. In a split second, I had to come up with another way to threaten him. I just made it look like I was ready to strangle him and let my hands to the talking. Things like that happen all the time. You can’t be so caught up in counting your notes or prepping for a high “C” that you can’t react to unplanned circumstances on the fly. That’s live performance.

Ed Hawkins, a Seattle Opera staff member, is active in Seattle’s fringe theatre community as a director, actor, and sound designer. His artist interviews are a regular feature of Seattle Opera’s publications and web site. An abridged version of this interview appears in the Tosca program book.

Click Here for Michele Capalbo's Interview by Ed Hawkins

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