QandA

Leap of Faith

BRIAN KELLOW interviews soprano Lauren Flanigan about how she overcame a disorienting illness to take on one of opera's most formidable roles.

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Flanigan, photographed in Harlem by James Salzano
© James Salzano 2015

During her long association with New York City Opera, the electrifying soprano Lauren Flanigan gave indelible performances in works such as Hugo Weisgall’s Esther, Marvin David Levy’s Mourning Becomes Electra, Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, Jack Beeson’s Lizzie Borden, and Stephen Schwartz’s Seance on a Wet Afternoon. On March 19 and 21, Flanigan sings her first Tosca for El Paso Opera at the Abraham Chavez Theatre. She spoke with OPERA NEWS about her decision to take on the role. By BRIAN KELLOW

LAUREN FLANIGAN: Michael Chioldi and Raul Melo have been after me to learn Tosca for ten years now. 

OPERA NEWS: You’ve never studied it at all until recently?

LF: No, I never did. I never thought I was a Puccini singer. I had like the romance of a lifetime with Donizetti and Bellini and early Verdi. Once I found early Verdi, I never looked back. I loved Attila and Giovanna D’Arco. Loved it. But Tosca is a hard opera. I can take a breath and sing ninety notes. I just can’t take a breath and sing nine. Puccini asks so much more of you for the quality of those nine notes. 

ON: And you’ve learned Tosca at a time of your life when you’re suffering from Meniere’s Disease. When were you diagnosed with it?

LF: I’ve probably had this problem for a long time, but most of my repertoire lay so high that it was actually above the problem area in my ear. In 2009, I did a concert version of Antony and Cleopatra for New York City Opera. And I was having trouble, and I had all these MRIs. That was the day before the first day of Antony and Cleopatra. I thought, do I have a brain tumor? I went to the doctor, a $4,000 appointment, and I had every test under the sun, and he basically confirmed what the guy who charged me $150 had diagnosed. But he was sure I was finished as a singer. I said, “No, I’m going to sing Antony and Cleopatra.” Less than one-tenth of one percent of people have this condition. It could have been caused by a virus, or by antibiotics. I had meningitis when I was up at Glimmerglass in 1995. It could have been that. They don’t know. 

You remember when I did Maria Stuarda at Carnegie Hall with Opera Orchestra of New York? Remember how upset I was when you reviewed me and you said I sang flat? 

ON: I do.

LF: I said, “Why isn’t anyone telling me I’m singing flat?” It was because in the rehearsal room you can’t hear it if you’re standing next to me; it’s an acoustical phenomenon. You can hear it from twenty feet away. I had this problem for a very long time.

I’ve read a lot about the disease, and recently I worked with Diana Soviero on Tosca. She was fantastic in the way she helped me. The hardest thing now is that I have an extra step that I have to add in. This is the first new thing since my diagnosis with Meniere’s Disease. What I have to do is memorize the sensation of every single note I sing. Like I know “Vissi d’arte” is E-flat, D-flat, B-flat, A-flat. I do not listen to the orchestra; I find it every time. I think first, oh, that’s G-sharp. So I have a whole extra step in the process, which makes it far more reliable and in tune. Diana helped me in the process. I was overthinking the notes so I was making slight adjustments inside my mouth, so if a note fell in that part of my hearing where no signals get sent to my brain, it was a little flatter. Now it doesn’t do that. It doesn’t mean I can’t have a relapse. But I feel like I’ve found  a brain-body connection that keeps me singing. It’s almost like it bypasses the space in the cochlea where the hair is gone. 

Some operas kept me in that part of my voice where that hair in the cochlea was alive. Like Macbeth at City Opera. I had almost no low singing, except that in the revival in 2001, the Sleepwalking Scene was almost a whole step off. I heard it in a bootleg recording. But nobody else told me. I could have gotten help years before, but nobody would tell me the truth. Except for Raul Melo and Michael Chioldi. They would say, “That’s not in tune.” 

A huge part of my being able to do this Tosca is Michael and Raul, who sing correctly. They stay in that position. I don’t think I could have done it without the two of them. They’re never fooling around with sound. It’s in a position, they stay in the position and everything goes from there. It’s the three most intense musical hours, with all that energy coming from them.

ON: What are the most complicated aspects of singing Tosca? 

LF: It’s the concentration. In the second act, if you’re not watching and listening to Scarpia every second — you’re in trouble. You have to hear everything. There aren’t these big moments like with Abigaille in Nabucco. There are none of these moments when she’s on stage, singing these big overarching moments. 

ON: Tosca is more reactive.

LF: Right. I understand why it was so hard for the singers who played my daughter, Lavinia, in [Marvin David Levy’s opera] Mourning Becomes Electra to figure out how to act that part. In every other part I’ve done, I’m more like Scarpia! Now, in Tosca, I’m the reactor. I don’t instigate anything in the opera. I react to everything. I so understand why the Lavinia character in Mourning Becomes Electra is so hard to play, and why it’s so hard to take over the opera as the leading character, after Christine is dead. You’ve spent the best part of two hours reacting and now, suddenly, you’re the protagonist. 

ON: Sometimes it’s so hard to have the role that is responsible for sustaining the tension, even though you don’t do that much. 

LF: You think about all the great actresses who were acted upon. They never instigated the action in any scene. They were riveting nevertheless. In order to get where I am, I had to start taking in information again. Over the years, I have worked with directors who wanted me to put out. Not literally! But Nick Muni, Mark Lamos, Christopher Alden wanted to know what I knew. Thirty years of being sought after for what I know, and now, eight years later, a whole part of my life, I have to go to people and hear what they have to say to me. It’s crazy. Even Violetta gets to instigate things. Not Tosca. In this rehearsal, I said, “This opera should be called Scarpia.” 

ON: Any thoughts on mistakes that many women make in performing Tosca?

LF: It’s interesting what directors choose to concentrate on and what they don’t concentrate on. Many Toscas are so temperamental in the beginning, and they think that’s what justifies how Act Two works, and her ability to kill him. They think that if you see that she can turn on a dime, you believe she can pick up a knife. I don’t believe that personally. Listening to someone you love being tortured, I think, is enough to make you kill someone. 

ON: You’re doing the performances in El Paso, and then you’re taking it across to Mexico, correct?

LF: Yes, we’re doing two performances here in El Paso, March 19 and 21. Then on the 24th, we’re taking it to Juarez. We are walking over that bridge and if we have to sing it in the street, we are doing a performance of Toscaspacer 

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