Q & A: Lisette Oropesa On Building Her Career & a Triumphant 2018

By Polina Lyapustina

It’s a Lisette Oropesa kind of Year!

After her huge success in the title role of “Lucia di Lammermoor” at the Teatro Real, she made headlines in Pesaro, Italy making her role debut in the title role of “Adina” at the Rossini Opera Festival.

Then she went to Paris for two successful runs. First, she stepped in for a new production of “Les Huguenots,” where she learned the role of Marguerite de Valois in a couple weeks. Right after that she made her role debut as Adina in “L’Elisir d’Amore” alongside Vittorio Grigolo.

And she hasn’t stopped since. Between her trips back and forth to Rome, where she is in the midst of “Rigoletto” rehearsals, Oropesa spoke to OperaWire to discuss her breakout year and what she looks forward to in the coming years.

OperaWire: You went from Marguerite de Valois to Adina rather quickly. Tell me about the challenges of going from one role to another in days?

Lisette Oropesa: Marguerite de Valois was much more stressful than Adina because I didn’t know the role. It was also difficult because they asked me to do it at last minute when Diana Damrau canceled. So I had to learn it very fast, which was very demanding for me.

It was a bit stressful in the beginning to sing the role of Marguerite because it’s not an easy role. It’s short, but not easy. Rehearsals were tough, but it was a very big success, and I’m very grateful that it went well and everyone enjoyed it, but that was a big deal. And then we lost our tenor Bryan Hymel due to illness. He didn’t feel well and couldn’t sing the performances, so we had to get another tenor, and that was kind of stressful for everyone.

Aside from that, it was a very good experience, I liked the conductor, I enjoyed the production and it was a nice time.

But Adina, even if I haven’t sung, I did study it before, when I was younger, so I knew the role. I was very comfortable with it. I was ready.

OW: You called the role of Marguerite “Bel Canto with steroids.”

LO: Yes, because it is a long part. Even if it’s only in the second act, it is an hour, and I sing the entire time. The music is very difficult, the coloratura and the rhythms are very complicated, the text — it’s a lot of words. Honestly, it’s not easy at any moment ever. And it goes on and on and on. The finale is long and heavy and everyone is singing on stage, the chorus, the orchestra is blaring away, everybody’s screaming.

It feels very much exaggerated. Exaggerated Bel Canto.

OW: You have taken on a lot of dramatic roles recently. What is the key to believable interpretations in the tragic operas?

LO: A key to tragedy is finding the light. Finding the beautiful, the innocent, the happiness, the funny, and pleasant things. That’s what makes tragedy more touching. In comedy, you also should find what is tragic. Like the tear of a clown. That’s what makes comedy special and funny. The contrast of two things, which makes each one stronger. So in drama, if you love the character, if the character is innocent, beautiful and sweet, that makes the drama worse. That makes drama hit harder and deeper. A key to being convincing in either drama or comedy is to find an opposite.

I’m always learning, and never feel like I’m accomplished. I still have new experiences and new directors teaching me a lot. Katie Mitchell pushed and challenged me to try new things, to go deeper, to be more intense, to find such deep layers I never tried. That wasn’t easy. But we definitely need such directors in opera who are willing to go deeper and deeper and show it on stage. Even if it’s hard or shocking. And these people serve drama as well as they serve music. And if you can still hear the music and enjoy the music, then it’s wonderful.

OW: Even if you try not to compare yourself with others, once you succeed on a stage like Covent Garden with an opera like “Lucia de Lammermoor,” people start to compare you with greats like Joan Sutherland. How do you feel about this? 

LO: Every person’s career and voice are very different and for the audiences, comparing singers is very natural. If they see “Lucia” at the Covent Garden, they will think about Joan Sutherland. She was the iconic Lucia and the icon of Covent Garden and one of the most famous singers ever. So any singer singing Lucia there will be compared. Just like anyone singing Norma will be compared to Maria Callas, even if they are nothing like her because the audience just got it in their minds. And there’s nothing wrong with it. I even think, that the more you listen to opera, the more you know, the more you will make comparisons, and eventually, you will start to hear all these small differences because you know so many voices.

OW: Let’s shift gears toward your “Elisir d’Amore” in Paris. What was your experience working with Vittorio Grigolo?

LO: He is wonderful. He gives a lot of energy on stage and he is extremely generous with the audience. So I enjoyed to work with him. He’s very unpredictable and that’s what makes it fun to work with him. I like to act, and that’s something I really enjoy with him. He doesn’t do everything the same way every time. He adds something special and new. He’s in the moment. And I really admire that.

OW: Have you started preparing Rodelinda, which is one of your upcoming role debuts?

LO: Yes, I’ve already been working on it and I’m writing some variations. We are doing Claus Guth’s production, which has already been done. There are some cuts and some changes. There are some things at the end that are a little bit different, and a little bit out of order.

But the role, for the most part, is complete. It’s also a new role and I haven’t sung Handel in a few years, so I’m very much looking forward to doing it.

OW: What is your process when learning a new role?

LO: I start with reading the score and the text from the beginning to the end. I come up with and highlight where the climax is, where the most difficult places are, which is more demanding. I like to roll backwards, to start from the ending, to see what’s happening in the end, and then work my way backward and to have an idea where the character has to arrive. Because it is important for me still to sing in the end. In Rodelinda we have an aria, a duet and a chorus at the end — not that hard, but I have to be able to sing it with no struggles. That’s why I always start there.

OW: How much time do you need to prepare a role like this?

LO: For Marguerite de Valois I had 1 week, and I would not recommend doing that. So I had to be in a practice room every day for four hours. Trying to get higher and lower, and just to memorize. Riding my bike back and forth, I was in Pisa at that time, and singing music in my head.

Normally I like to spend much more time — two to four months. For Rodelinda I have three months before the rehearsals.

OW: How do you feel about festivals and experiments in classic opera in general?

LO: It doesn’t matter if I like it or not, my job is to convince the audience, that I’m 100 percent behind this role. Because, I did some productions, that I didn’t like. And I had to find a way to believe in a production. And I could be convincing in my role.

When I don’t like something, I try to find what will work, what will make me believe because if you don’t believe when you’re singing and playing on stage, the audience will not believe it. It can be a thing which I don’t like musically, but the conductor will ask to do. It’s not necessary that I like it. It’s not my job to like it. And we can have a great performance because it’s not about me or anyone else on stage.

OW: More and more operas today are dedicated to women’s rights or led by women. And it’s definitely a positive change. After #metoo no one wants to put up with women in opera as powerless victims, but it’s a huge part of the operatic heritage. How do you think this issue could be solved?

LO: I think it’s important not to view operatic female characters as victims. A lot of times they chose their own destinies and they were strong. And if we play them as victims forever, they will be viewed this way. But if we find directors willing to find their strengths, it could be different.

For example, “Traviata.” In the book, she is a very strong woman. She is a businesswoman and she decides what she does in her life. She spends her own money and she is very particular about what’s important to her. Yes, she is sick, that’s not fair and Alfredo want to save her. But actually, she doesn’t need to be saved. She’s dying, and it will just happen. She falls victim to society, but she struggles all the way through it. And I think, it’s important to show it also on stage: women feel like this — because of strong men in our society, they can’t do what they want.

It is a lot about #metoo. Because what does Giorgio Germont do? He exercises his power as an older gentleman with a certain reputation to manipulate a woman who is vulnerable, and she has no choice. He makes her feel like she has no choice. And this concept, even if you change some names or circumstances — it’s a woman in a room with a man, who makes her feel that she has no choice except to do what he wants her to do. And what does he say? “You have to leave my son. You have no choice. You must. And the reason, which works out, is that he makes her feel sorry for his daughter, so she will do it for her. That’s a woman reaching out in a way for another woman. She doesn’t do it for Alfredo, she does it for his sister. She sacrificed herself. That’s a heroic thing to do. If you don’t have this view, this interpretation, you can see her as a victim. But she’s not, she is a hero.

OW: What are the keys to getting younger audiences interested in opera?

LO: We should show that opera is relevant. That opera themes are relevant and contemporary. How will you get young people interested in Shakespeare? You will show that it’s not outdated. It’s never outdated, that is why it’s a masterpiece.

The same is with opera. I don’t think it matters if a production is modern or not. Many TV shows have set in different periods and they are popular. Time period is not that important. Of course, the answer is not to update everything, but to show another point of view.

Such as making a female character not a victim. To show them in a different light that wasn’t mentioned before. Let’s look in a text again. If we keep singing the same “La Bohème” over and over again even if it’s amazing and beautiful. People who’ve never seen” La Bohème” deserve to see the classic version, but there’s nothing wrong also with taking the idea of the characters and finding new things about them. Do we know everything about Rodolfo or Musetta? It can be done in many ways with many operas.

OW: Is there anyone you want to work with that you haven’t yet?

LO: Yes, I would love the opportunity to work with Ludovic Tézier. He is one of my favorite baritones, and I worked with him just once. I was young and I sang Susanna at the Metropolitan Opera when he was the Count. And I remember he was really wonderful.

There are also other singers with whom I hope I will have a chance to work with again, like Joyce DiDonato. I have conductors I would be happy to work with: I’ve never worked with Riccardo Muti in opera. I worked with him in concert and learned a lot from him!

OW: This year you had several recitals. How do you choose what to perform? And what is the most important and exciting thing about the concerts?

LO: I have a hard time with it, because there’s a lot of repertoire that I like, and I try to find things that are new.

I try to sing songs and lieder that I don’t know yet because I want it to be a challenge. I prepare my own translations, I prepare my own programs, and it’s a lot of very personal work. I think preparing recitals is more work than preparing a role. You have to make all the final decisions: tempo, pianist, what you want to wear, what order you’re doing. That’s great. I like it so much, but it’s hard work.

OW: You once said that 2017 was “a landmark year” for you. What would you say now about 2018 with all those challenges?

LO: “Lucia” [in Madrid] and “Les Huguenots” set up more engagements for me. I was invited by Maestro Mariotti to “I Masnadieri” to La Scala because of that Paris success. Every year you have something that helps you move forward. That’s how career has to be built. It is nothing about happening overnight. Little by little. It’s a hard way, but it’s the best way for me. I need time to grow and develop myself. Every opportunity, that comes my way, I try to do everything that I can. When Paris Opera asked me to replace Diana Damrau, it was a huge honor. So that was a landmark for this year and for my whole career, and I really appreciate it.


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