Articles & Interviews

Look Before You Leap

By Ed Hawkins

Michele Capalbo talks to Ed Hawkins about her interpretation of Tosca. Capalbo makes her Seattle Opera debut as Puccini’s fiery heroine (February 24, 29, March 2, and 9).

ED HAWKINS: Tell me a little bit about where you’re from and when you started singing.

MICHELE CAPALBO: I was born near Toronto, Canada. My first public performance was in a local music festival at the age of eight. In my early years I had the good fortune to sing in a number of choirs with conductors who believed in a vocally expansive, soloistic approach to music. The time I spent in choirs could have been either a disastrous or inspirational experience, fortunately for me it was the latter.

EH: Disastrous because it can stunt your development?

MC: Apart from the obvious stylistic differences of singing as a soloist versus singing as a chorister, I believe it is detrimental to keep an instrument of a certain operatic size and tendency in a chorus too long.

During university when I was finally allowed to sing operatic repertoire, I was presented with a few “safe” Mozart arias. I would like to say a great epiphany followed, but these arias did not inspire me to consider opera as a career. I had not yet discovered my operatic niche.

EH: How many times have you sung Tosca?

MC: I’ve sung Tosca in at least a half-dozen productions in the US, Germany, and Canada. This will be my West Coast debut in the role.

EH: Does the fact that the character is an opera singer change the way you approach playing her? Does it give you an easier “in” to her psyche?

MC: For me, it’s almost irrelevant whether or not she’s a diva. Although it has helped me make certain physical choices concerning her movement, apart from issues like that, it has no bearing. I approach her as I would any role by examining her loves, desires, ambitions, motivations, and character flaws. Her being a diva helps me with certain physical choices concerning her movement, but apart from that, it really has no bearing. I dislike viewing Tosca as a stereotypical “diva” as I find those dramatic choices limiting.

EH: More than most opera characters, Tosca seems to be defined somewhat by contradictions.

MC: Tosca has a mercurial and contradictory nature, most evident in her opening scene. In this scene with Cavaradossi, you have a very short period of time to convince the audience that she loves him so much she would kill for him. To make that job a little harder, you have to enter in a fit of jealous rage, spend some time praying, and then a lot of time alternately chastising and trying to seduce Cavaradossi. However, I find her very focused and not contradictory at all in the rest of the opera.

EH: How useful a tool is the music in meeting that challenge?

MC: The music is gorgeous, well written for the voice, and accessible for the audience which always helps. Puccini uses certain leitmotifs to introduce characters as well as to color their text. This is particularly helpful in the first act where we have Tosca at her most mutable.

EH: Do you find that this a role that you’ve done enough that you can get totally lost in it? Or is always a part of your mind that has to stay outside the character?

MC: In every score there are almost always “Olympic moments” which requires vigilance due to the difficulty in the music or staging. In this role, the easiest opportunity in which to lose myself is the second act with Scarpia. It’s wonderfully efficient, there’s not a wasted musical or dramatic intention in the whole act.

EH: She displays so much passion—do you ever find that you’d like to take that to the nth degree but are unable to go all the way because being in control of your technique keeps you in your head and takes precedence?

MC: You can sometimes give more than you ever expected but it depends on a host of issues. Probably most important is the relationship between the singer and conductor. You must be able to trust that the conductor is there to catch you if you try something risky rather than giving you just enough rope to hang yourself. There are many intangibles in every performance. I don’t think you can ever put Tosca on autopilot when there are so many challenges, including stunts, involved.

EH: Is it fair to say that this is a melodrama and yet also a high art masterpiece?

MC: Are you referring to the original play and critiques, which refer to Tosca as a “shabby little shocker”?

EH: It just seems, particularly in Act II, things are so archetypal and exaggerated: The Bad Guy, The Noble Act, the torture, the peril, the super high stakes. There’s not much grey area. Is there room in that kind of clear cut, elevated environment for things to also be happening on a nuanced, human level?

MC: If that’s the definition of a melodrama, then I can probably consider every opera I sing to be one.

Finding your own interpretation comes from asking simple, direct questions. Who is Tosca? Why does she act and react the way she does? How much control does she have over her decisions? We are dealing with a series of situations and manipulations that result from the very human choices these characters make. Tosca is unlike many other heroines who are often merely swept along by events. In the end, she is responsible for her own destiny.

EH: It’s not like she enters in Act I knowing how she’s going to die.

MC: Exactly.

EH: And she doesn’t really know that until less than a minute before taking the leap.

MC: Sometimes she sees it earlier, but it’s always her decision.

EH: Does Tosca’s past as an orphan play into your understanding of the role at all?

MC: It does, especially in the initial thought process. For me it lends her strength of character as well as force of will. This also gives us a clearer understanding of the nature of her faith since nuns in the church would most probably have raised her. It raises the interesting question of Tosca’s piety.

EH: Other people that I’ve interviewed have talked about when they’re in an opera they have something that they really miss when they don’t have a show going on; how it’s not just the applause and the recognition of their good work that brings satisfaction, but that the habit, going through the ritual of several hours where you know what will happen every minute, and it’s all in service to Art which is part of a greater good.

MC: I feel very fortunate to be able to sing this music. I love the rehearsal process because the exploration of the music and the character can be such a pure musical experience.

Regarding performance day, I often feel as if I’m in stasis waiting for the moment to go on stage.

EH: How do you feel about singing on the floor?

MC: I travel with my own knee pads! I have no trouble singing on the floor and I spend half my singing life doing just that. The only consideration I have regarding this is whether or not the costume will allow me to do it.

EH: Do you have any favorite Toscas?

MC: I particularly admire recordings of Italian Toscas because I enjoy hearing the verismo style and language sung by a native. I don’t have any “favorites” per se—I would answer that question by saying I enjoy it when any artist can take me on a journey and make me feel something, regardless of what her name is.

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 Lisa Daltirus's Interview by Ed Hawkins

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