Q & A: Leah Crocetto On ‘Tosca,’ Northern Lights Music Festival & COVID-19

By Francisco Salazar

On July 17, the Northern Lights Music Festival will open its socially distanced production of Puccini’s “Tosca.” It will mark the first U.S staged opera production since the March lockdown due to COVID-19.

The festival has lined up an all-star cast, which will include acclaimed star soprano Leah Crocetto in the title role. For Crocetto, the new production will mark her second outing as Tosca, after an acclaimed run at the Pittsburgh Opera, where OperaWire noted, “Leah Crocetto Triumphs In Her First Tosca.”

The soprano has since performed to great acclaim with the San Francisco Opera, Metropolitan Opera, Washington National Opera, Glimmerglass Festival, Seattle Opera, Opera Philadephia, and Festival Castel de Peralada.

OperaWire had a chance to speak with the soprano about her return to the stage, the Northern Lights Music Festival, and what felt it like to sing after lockdown.

OperaWire: How have you been during this pandemic? What has it been like for you to not be able to get on a stage and have so much work canceled?

Leah Crocetto: Thanks for asking. I’m not going to lie, it has been rough. There have been moments of fear and wondering where I was going to get rent money. There have also been moments of deep gratitude and complete solace. Gratitude for the time to just center myself and remember what is most important in life, and solace in the knowledge that we will get through this.

The hardest part has definitely been not knowing when or if I would get on stage again and also the knowledge that my savings will run out at some point.

OW: When did you get contacted about the “Tosca” with the Northern Lights Music Festival and what was your first reaction?

LC: I was contacted by my dear friend Tamara Sanikidze six days before rehearsal started, and she asked me if I wanted to do a Tosca for my soul.

I said, “Of course. Where?”

She told me: “Northern Lights Music Festival.”

Truth be told I had never heard of the company, and when you think of Minnesota, the first place you think of is usually Minneapolis. Well, this is NOT happening in Minneapolis. It is in Chisholm, MN and it is five hours NORTH of Minneapolis. You really have to zoom in on the map to see it, and it’s a lovely place to be.

Tata’s connection to the company is that the director or the production is the director at the University of Texas at Austin’s Butler School, where Tata is in charge of the opera program. And Gavriel Heine, the conductor and music director of the program, is married to Tata’s high school best friend. This music business is such a small world! So, she asked me, and I didn’t ask how much the fee was, or who was involved or what the circumstances were.

I simply said, “Yes. I need this. I need to sing. Now.”

And this “Tosca” has indeed been feeding my soul. Of course, there was a bit of fear too because we are in the midst of a pandemic, but the company has been great and we have collectively taken every precaution.

OW: What does it mean to get back on stage after three months of not performing?

LH: Oh my goodness. Our first music rehearsal as a group, we get to “Vissi d’arte” and in the middle of the aria, I couldn’t continue. The tears just flowed. This is what it is all about.

“Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore … Art is love and I live for it.” Music is a gift from God and without it, we are not fulfilled. This moment was one of the most special moments in my career. Returning to the opera and the aria that started it all for me, is a sensation that I don’t know how to put into words.

OW:  During quarantine how often did you sing? Or did you take a break, as many artists did?

LH: To be honest, it took a couple of months for me to be able to open my mouth. It was very depressing. I was being asked to record things and sing for certain other things and I said no to many, in the beginning.

Then, after a couple of months, I was asked to do the Opera Jukebox for Artist Relief Tree, hosted by David Hyde Pierce, and that was an incredible experience. He is a wonderful man.

Then I was asked to do a Couch Concert for The Kennedy Center and Washington National Opera. It was a co-concert with Quinn Kelsey and hosted by Francesca Zambello. That was my real return to singing. They wanted a full Verdi concert so I needed to brush up my chops! It felt really good to study and get back to basics and to really SING the Verdi! Since then, I never looked back and I began singing regularly again. It feels good.

OW: Tell me about the first reaction getting back on stage and what was it like to get into the rehearsal room?

LH: With our first music rehearsal, the tears flowed. With our first staging rehearsal, the butterflies came. There is nothing like discussing character and filtering the character through yourself after so long! Stagecraft is one of the most rewarding parts of performing.

OW: This is the first production of an opera that is being staged in the U.S. Can you tell me about the safety regulations that the festival took with the artists? What do you guys have to do before you get into the rehearsal room? Do you guys get constant tests?

LH: The Festival has been really great about this. We were all quarantined beforehand and once we arrived, we quarantined together. We are all staying in the same place and are only around each other.

Tests were administered and we have been taking temperatures every day. We have been rehearsing in masks unless we are singing, then we take the masks off. Hand sanitizer and masks are a constant when we are not singing and everything about the approach has been very cautious.

OW: The production will be outdoors and will follow social distance. Tell me how this Tosca will be done and how these protocols and regulations will work in the drama? How much physical contact will there be, if any?

LH: Yes, it is outside and the staging is not as intimate as your normal Tosca production. We are staged pretty far apart and far from the edge of the stage so as not to get into the space of the orchestra.

The only physical contact is between Mario and myself. There is no kissing. There is a brief embrace in Act three. But I think we manage to get the chemistry going without the physical contact. Rafael Davila and I have known each other for a long time, so we are very friendly, and I think that helps.

There is also no attack from Scarpia. Daniel Sutin is an incredible singer and is really able to bring Scarpia’s evil to the surface without physical action. He grabs my shoulders at one point but that’s it. As I said, tests were given and we spend every waking moment exclusively working together, so there is no worry there. 

OW: This will be your second Tosca. What does it feel like to perform your favorite role as you return to the stage and what have you learned about the character from doing this production?

LH: You KNOW this is my favorite role! It is my favorite because of how much I relate to the character. She is me, as she is so many singers. Tosca is probably the only role to entice me to any place so quickly during a pandemic. And to get me out of my quarantine funk every time I think of that fact that I would have been in Sydney singing Aida right now. That was such an important debut for me.

Leave it to Tosca. Tosca anywhere could get me out of that mindset! Having her be my first sing on my return to the stage has been a bit surreal and I am loving it! I have learned a lot more about her as a character too.

I feel like my first Tosca was very much all about the fire. This Tosca is more about the simmer and the flirt and then the sacrifice. You see her go through many moods and many thoughts and many trials. I love it.

OW: The majority of the U.S companies have canceled their fall and summer seasons. The Northern Lights Festival is taking a risk in presenting this and actually giving audiences a chance to see opera. Do you think other companies can take something away from this festival’s experiment ?As an artist what do you hope companies will do so that singers and artists can go back to work?

LH: My dear friend Michael Fabiano gave an interview with ABC and he said, “The arts should be the pioneers of new ideas in this critical moment.” I could not agree more. I feel like a lot of the major companies are waiting, and are not being proactive. There is a huge reliance on social media and it must go further than that.

I don’t have the answers, and I know it isn’t necessarily easy for a place like the Met to perform in an outdoor venue, but why not? Why not try? Why not look at outdoor venues and pursue other avenues.

San Francisco has many outdoor options, Stern Grove, and Golden Gate Park to name just two. They’ve performed there before. Why not follow the lead of Teatro Real and the little company that could – the Northern Lights Music Festival!

I think we are going to have to go back to the negotiating table and figure out a way to survive in this current climate and all aspects of performance are going to have to make some compromises. I believe soloists have already made more than a few compromises. Collaboration from all aspects of theater is the only way forward. The arts cannot just stop. We have to work together to find a way forward.

I think opera companies can definitely grab onto the infectious courage that this festival in Chisholm, MN has put forth. It is going to take vast amounts of courage to move forward. If anyone can do it, artists can. Let’s go! Let’s do this! Let’s move forward!


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