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Reunion: Julia Migenes

by ERIC MYERS

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Portrait by Michael
Childers

© Michael Childers 2004
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Migenes in Astor
Piazzolla's "La Argentina"
at Avignon, 2002

© Pascal Victor/Maxppp 2004
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At the Met, in 1985, as
Lulu - a role she says
was "under her skin"

© Beth Bergman 2004
In the fall of 1984, opera seemed poised to welcome its next female superstar. Julia Migenes-Johnson, as she was known at the time, was burning up movie screens worldwide as a highly sensual Carmen, opposite Plácido Domingo, in what many critics were calling the most effective cinematic translation of an opera ever. Migenes had already been thrust into prominence four years earlier when, in a true 42nd Street moment, she had been asked to substitute at the last minute for Teresa Stratas in a Live from the Met televised Lulu that turned into a personal triumph.

So what happened? Why didn't she wind up with a lengthy, flourishing Met tenure instead of one that lasted only four seasons? Why didn't she snag a major recording contract? And why did the opera world seem to snub her right after what should have been the defining moment of her career?

"That was difficult," she says today from her home in Los Angeles. "The film was tremendous in the sense that it made me visible and was so right for me in every way. I even got a Grammy. But I'm the type of person who's not very logical about her career. I just sort of do what I fall in love with. If I fall in love with dancing, I'll do it - chanson, I'll do it. Right now I'm in love with Piazzolla, and I'm doing that. For the opera world, that's not respected at all. So even though I could do all those operatic roles, people weren't really hiring me. But I've always been the black sheep, in that I'm not one to keep myself in a box. That's not what I'm about."

Migenes has been active since that heady period twenty years ago, but mostly in Europe and mostly in thematic concerts of her own devising. "I sing opera maybe once every two years. I've come to develop and write my own things, because I'm the only one who really knows my talent." This month, she'll make one of those infrequent opera forays when she plays the role of Harper in the world premiere of Angels in America, by Peter Eötvös, at Paris's Théâtre du Châtelet. At this late stage of her career, Migenes might seem an odd choice for a character that was played on the Broadway stage by the young Marcia Gay Harden and on television this year by Mary Louise Parker. "I was chosen because of my stage ability," she says, "because they know that Harper has to have so many facets to her. You have to be that thing between suffering and delusionary, and fear and laughing, and they trust me to deliver it - which I'm very happy about. I think I can pull it off."

After all, Migenes has faced tougher challenges: her own childhood, for one. Of mixed Greek and Irish-Puerto Rican heritage, she grew up on welfare on New York's Lower East Side in a violent household. She was one of five kids, and their father was prone to alcoholic rages. "My real father was our next-door neighbor," she says. "My mother had three children with the next-door neighbor and two with the guy she was married to. And so the two men were always killing each other. The next-door neighbor was Greek and had a bump on his nose, and three of us kids had a bump on their noses, so the distinction was pretty clear! They would get into physical fights, and my mom would call the police. My mother's husband once even took an ice pick to her, and she had to dump a pan of boiling water on his legs. It was in-sane. It was standard fare to have the police showing up all the time."

She got through it by isolating herself as much as possible, tuning out the violence around her and immersing herself in music. At age three, she made her opera debut as Trouble in Madama Butterfly. From that point on, she started appearing regularly in operas and musicals, even going on the national tour of South Pacific as one of Emile de Becque's children. By age ten, she was cutting school to run to the church across the street and sing Bach with the organist. She managed to get into New York's High School of Music and Art, and eventually Juilliard. "I lasted at Juilliard for about two minutes," she says flatly. "By my teens, I'd grown extremely rebellious and crazy and nuts. I nearly went over the edge." Fortunately, she was able to keep working. She played Maria in a City Center revival of West Side Story, and in the original Broadway cast of Fiddler on the Roof, she created Hodel, one of Tevye's five daughters. "I was the only Greek-o-Rican playing a Jewish Girl," she laughs. "Working with Zero Mostel - this unbelievable stage monster - was everything. I learned so much watching him and being onstage with him. I stayed with the show for about two years and worked with Bette Midler, too, when she joined the cast."

At the request of Gian Carlo Menotti, Migenes spent her vacation from Fiddler at New York City Opera, starring in The Saint of Bleecker Street. When a contract offer came from the Vienna Volksoper, she accepted, and she spent the next five years there. "I was getting paid nothing, but I sang everything - mezzo roles, high-soprano parts, comedy roles and divas. That's where I got my love for German music and style. I would sit and watch television, and they would show the operetta films of the 1930s that starred Richard Tauber and Jan Kiepura and Marta Eggerth. Operetta is actually quite vocally demanding. You have to sing it with tremendous passion. That passion and intensity with which they sang, that drama and romance - that's when I realized what it was about, how you had to sing it. If you were to hear Richard Tauber singing 'Dein ist mein ganzes Herz,' you would die. They would say to him, 'Herr Tauber, you're singing operetta!' And he'd say, 'No. I'm singing Lehár.' Lehár is a very demanding composer."

Eventually, Jean-Pierre Ponnelle hired Migenes to sing Musetta in San Francisco, which led to her contract with the Met. She made her Met debut as the second-cast Jenny in Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, on December 10, 1979. The following season she did her first Lulu, substituting for Stratas on less than twelve hours' notice. Reviewing that performance, Bill Zakariasen of the New York Daily News wrote, "She scored a decided personal success. Practically nothing in the music or the staging seemed to faze her.… Migenes accented lightness of touch, pixieish humor and vulnerability. She was certainly the nicest Lulu I've ever seen, which in a way was most intriguing, since the interpretation pointed up even more the basic black-hearted villainy of most of the other characterizations."

Even though Migenes had never sung Lulu onstage, she already had the role under her skin. "I got onstage and sang the shit out of it, because I'd been working on it for a year," she remembers. "I moved my whole family to London" - a lot closer to her than Long Island, where they had been living - "because I didn't want them to sit in a small town near Cologne, Germany, where my voice teacher was. And I was sitting during the week with my voice teacher hacking away at Lulu for the better part of a year, and I listened to a tape of it over and over 'til it was in my gut. When I went onstage, I had had only one blocking rehearsal." For the next performance - the Live from the Met telecast - Migenes received a call mid-afternoon that Stratas would be unable to go on that night. Migenes was staying at her mother's in Long Island, but she jumped on a train and somehow made it onto the Met stage and in front of the cameras in the nick of time.

It was choreographer-director Maurice Béjart who was responsible for her casting in Francesco Rosi's film of Carmen. He had directed her in Geneva in a reduced-orchestration version of Strauss's Salome and recommended her to the film's producer. Rosi cast her grudgingly - he did not feel she was sexy enough - and she spent the next year studying the role in Paris with Janine Reiss, one of the world's foremost vocal-interpretation coaches. To Carmen, she brought not only her sensuality but the lessons she'd learned in her youth. "Watching my mother throw boiling water on a guy who was coming after her with an ice pick - that rage, that desire to laugh, that desire to say fuck everything - that's what I brought into it, and that was real."

When Migenes returned to the Met stage for a run of six Lulus in the 1984-85 season, it was a hot ticket that drew larger-than-usual crowds for that work. Yet she never returned to the Met, and her other opera bookings dwindled as well. Despite everything, she has managed to keep busy by exploring new avenues of expression, including solo concerts of Latino music and dance. When an opera engagement comes along, it's something special - such as this year's Angels in America, or the staged Caterina Cornaro she sang in 1998 at Queen's Hall in London under Richard Bonynge.

Meanwhile, there have been four marriages (she is currently single) and two daughters, now grown. "And thank God," she says, "with all my traveling, and all the nannies and housekeepers, we've never had a difficult time. They've never hated me. They never went through any of that terrible teenage stuff. We're great friends."

And always, she lives a life that is active and full. "I go dancing every night, but I'm home at eleven o'clock. I don't stay up late, and even if I can't sleep, I'm in bed. I exercise, I eat very prudently, don't have more than a glass of red wine. You have to keep your entire body healthy. It's a commitment. I'm married to my voice - but my lover is dancing."

ERIC MYERS is the author of Uncle Mame: The Life of Patrick Dennis, available in paperback from Da Capo Press.

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