When audiences headed to see Rossini’s “Otello” this past March at LoftOpera, many were looking forward to seeing the rare bel canto opera and its famed three tenor roles.
But when all was said and done, the consensus seemed to be quite surprising – soprano Cecilia Violetta Lopez owned the run. Here at OperaWire, we singled out her work as the “dramatic core” of the production and concluded that “It was a revelatory performance from an artist that looks slated for a big-time career.”
But we weren’t alone in our praise, with a number of writers noting that she essentially stole the show and proclaiming her a veritable Bel Canto specialist.
The irony is that López has actually never been a bel canto soprano and despite her current run of “Don Pasquale” at Zomeropera, Desdemona in “Otello” was actually her very first bel canto role.
Too Many Notes
If you look through the soprano’s past engagements you will find a lot of Verdi (specifically “La Traviata”) and Puccini, composers whose melodies were developed through longer vocal lines with minimal need for the bravura found in Rossini.
So it should be no surprise that the moment López opened the score for “Otello,” she was overwhelmed.
“I opened the score and all I see is a bunch of little notes. And in my head, I’m thinking, ‘What am I going to do?’ It’s still very intimidating even though I already know the role, but every time I go on it’s like, ‘Okay no mistakes today,’” López told OperaWire in a recent interview.
The difficulty of the role made her judge her ability to do it in many instances, the soprano admitting to telling LoftOpera music director Sean Kelly that she was not sure she could pull it off.
But she persevered drawing on a number of experiences from throughout her life.
“I had a Tahitian dance teacher in Vegas I went to and would always tell us that, ‘Practice doesn’t make perfect, it makes you better.’ I’m a firm believer in that so it’s just a lot of practice and just starting out very slowly just like any other role. You always have to break it down to the simplest of forms and practice very, very slowly and eventually all of those itty bitty notes become a phrase and then I add emotions to it and it just becomes more natural and it comes easier for sure.”
One of the expectations of taking on bel canto is the addition of high notes. While Rossini’s scores don’t have the stratospheric notes that have become a staple of the repertoire, any singer that enters the world of bel canto must be ready to fire off their voice far higher than anything experienced in the roles of Puccini.
For López, singing Desdemona meant pushing her vocal range far beyond what anyone could imagine. At the climax of the piece, the soprano has an emotional meltdown. With the chorus singing around her, the soprano poured all of her vocal resources in a High E.
Getting to that point was quite the journey. But López felt that the score called for it.
Well first of all the role was written like that because in act one where the duet, the line doesn’t go past a G,” López related. “Slowly throughout the opera, it gets higher and higher. The drama, I think, calls for the intensity at the peak, if you will, the climax, at the end of the act two scene where she’s crazy.
“The recordings I heard have the B natural and then they resolve them down to the E below the B. When I was running them with maestro I asked if I could add a high E. He stopped playing the piano, looked at me and he goes, ‘Do you have the high E?’ I said yes and he encouraged me to do it.
More than Verdi
Rossini’s opera is often overlooked for the later adaptation by Verdi. The latter “Otello” is arguably the greatest Italian opera and for many, the greatest ever created. It is more faithful to Shakespeare than Rossini’s effort and the music is simply on another level.
However, there is one aspect of Rossini’s drama that most concede fits better than Verdi’s – the character of Desdemona.
“In Verdi, Desdemona is just as prominent though she is a lot more innocent than this one. Here she’s really passionate and intense. We see her struggle a lot more vividly.”
In preparing the role of the opera’s main victim, López actually pulled from her personal life.
“I’ve had an experience with my dad where I felt like I really let him down. And it’s just the most heartbreaking thing,” she narrated. “I remember in rehearsals we were getting to that scene and I go ‘The mistake from an unhappy woman.’ It really hit home with me because I’ve unfortunately have had that conversation with my dad and I’ve been ashamed and embarrassed and all I’ve wanted was for him to love me.
“And the whole love triangle, who hasn’t been in junior high and you have a crush on someone and that person you have a crush on has a crush on someone else.”
But pulling from real-life took on even greater form during the final scene of the opera as López faces her fate at Otello’s hands.
“We were putting that last scene together in rehearsals. [Tenor] Bernard [Holcomb] had his recit where he said, ‘Why did God make me this color?’ First of all those words are heart-wrenching, to begin with. At that moment I was in my bed pretending to sleep. And I get up to deliver my recit and I look at Bernard, I look at his face and he’s got tears running down his face. At that moment I thought, ‘Okay this is going to be that kind of show where we can go to that next level of realness and that moment where I saw him I saw that tears streaming down his cheeks, I couldn’t help but cry too when he kept on accusing me of being the cheater and the liar I broke down into tears.”
Shifting Gears, Yet Again
Imagine going from doing your first ever bel canto opera to your first ever comedy, that also happens to be bel canto. Well, that is exactly what López is up to these days, taking on the role of the trickster Norina in “Don Pasquale.”
“Comedies are very tricky because there are certain elements, whether it’s physical or in the music where you have to get the timing right, otherwise the joke isn’t delivered well and then the audience just stares at you awkwardly,” she noted.
Playing Norina, who dupes an old man into marrying her to help her lover reclaim his inheritance, also poses a unique challenge for the soprano.
“She is definitely more playful than the characters I play normally,” López noted.
“Her first entrance shows her reading this book. And the little laugh afterward, shows everything that she is. She’s almost saying, ‘I’m the woman with the pants here. I’m going to be the mastermind of it all and this is my show. I love how the aria represents who she truly is throughout the opera. She’s reading this beautiful book and all of a sudden it changes; it changes into what she really is.”
Dreaming Big With The Most Important People In Her Life
After her big breakout, the soprano is bound for more opportunities. And she is also already bracing for what those opportunities could be.
“I want to do Marguerite in ‘Faust,’ I want to do ‘Carmen,’ it’s just the list goes on and on. All these amazing beautiful verismo things. I want to do ‘Manon,’” she enthused. “Honestly I’m one of those that whatever comes my way I will do it and I will love it and learn a way to love it because it’s fun.
“I love what I do, I love traveling and meeting new people and making new music with new tenors, new sopranos, new anything, the opera world is another family of performers and we’re all a community. It’s a great support system.”
But there is perhaps no greater support system for the soprano than her own parents, who have pushed her to go this far.
López noted that during a performance of “Madama Butterfly,” the soprano struggled to separate her personal life, during which she lost a custody battle for her daughter, with the opera itself.
“I just felt like I was literally reliving my story within an opera and crying, crying, crying, crying at the end.”
She went to her dressing room, broken and wondering if she really wanted to put herself through this pain in the future.
But her dad, who had left his mother in Mexico for years while he found a way to bring her to the U.S., reminded her that the two had suffered a similar fate to that of the title character. And it strengthened her resolve.
“I asked them how they liked the performance and my dad goes, ‘I’m so proud of you,’ with the biggest thickest Mexican accent with the hardest rolled ‘r.’ And of course, I lost again because it just meant so much for my parents to be there witnessing what it is what I did and being so vulnerable as a mother and being able to tell that story to my parents it’s just very meaningful.”