Denyce Graves is letting go of her inner femme fatale - at least temporarily.
Graves hit the musical big-time in the 1990s playing some of the most glamorous characters in opera: Carmen, the Spanish man-magnet; Delilah, the biblical temptress. Not only did she let loose with a red-blooded voice, but her looks gave her instant magnetism.
Graves won't be in the seduction business when she returns to Belk Theater on Saturday, though. In "Il Trovatore," Giuseppe Verdi's story of love, rivalry and revenge, she'll play a half-crazed gypsy who is - or at least claims to be - the tenor's long-suffering mother.
The mystery about the relationship helps make "Trovatore" a classic example of the convoluted opera plot. It revolves around what happened to a pair of baby brothers long before the opera's beginning. "Trovatore" has been the butt of satire at least since the Marx Brothers' 1935 romp "A Night at the Opera."
Thanks to the tunes that explode from Verdi's score, "Trovatore" rises above the ridicule. For viewers who get on its wavelength, it is full of vivid situations and characters. The one played by Graves - who last came to Charlotte to star in "Margaret Garner" in 2006 - is the most striking of all.
Azucena (pronounced ah-zoo-CHAY-na) is not just "a kooky grandma," Graves says. When Azucena was a young woman, she saw her mother denounced as a witch and burned alive. She still hears her mother's last words, commanding her to take revenge. That urge "became her life."
Azucena has been "completely traumatized for the whole of her life - not able to move past that unbelievable horror," Graves says. "I have a great deal of compassion for her. She's kind of all alone. Even the gypsies that she's with ... have no idea of what she's gone through."
Despite her afflictions, though, Azucena has determination, and it becomes one of the opera's driving forces. Graves thinks it links her to Carmen and Delilah, even though "it isn't wrapped in sex appeal and seduction and playfulness."
"What I see with these women," Grave says, "is that they're incredibly strong ... and used to having to depend on their own resources for their survival."
"I think the opera should be called 'Azucena,' " Graves adds, laughing. "Because it all hinges on what happens there (with her craving for revenge). And she gets the last word - 'Sei vindicata, o madre.' O mama, finally!"
Opera vs. reality
Obviously, Azucena is a quintessentially operatic creature. Yet she makes Graves think of the real world.
"When I pass homeless people on the street ... I often wonder what their story is and what happened in their lives," Graves says. "I guess most of us start out with great passions and ideas. ... And so many times, life unfolds very differently from what we dream about."
Graves speaks from experience.
She recalls going to Florida in 2001 for "Carmen," only to have her vocal cords break out with bleeding. She got through the performances with the help of a throat doctor who was backstage every night. Then she had an operation.
Later, Graves' marriage ended. She had been "an absentee wife," she says in retrospect. But she got another chance when she and her neighbor on a flight to Paris began to chitchat.
In 2009, Graves and Dr. Robert Montgomery, head of the transplant department at Johns Hopkins University hospital, were married.
"I said to him, 'I finally understand what I've been singing about all these years. I finally understand what all the poems are about.' "
Now they live in Maryland with the children they each brought to the relationship. Even though their careers are demanding, Graves says, they work to carve out time together. During the summer, they packed the children - including Graves' daughter, Ella, 7 - into an RV and toured national parks. When they can't be quite that close together, they stay in contact via Skype.
"We leave it on and walk around the house and cook and talk about what's going on," Graves says. "We do homework on it. It's a wonderful, wonderful tool."