Soprano Kathryn Lewek had no personal experience to help her portray a character who loses her grip on reality. Then the side effects of an all-day trans-Atlantic trip helped get her in tune with the doomed heroine of “Lucia di Lammermoor.”
The morning after landing in Charlotte, where Opera Carolina stages Gaetano Donizetti’s drama beginning Saturday, Lewek dived into rehearsals. As that first day of work extended into nighttime, Lewek had to tackle the Mad Scene, in which the deranged Lucia’s hallucinations terrify the crowd at her wedding. Woozy from jet lag, Lewek felt herself losing touch with the performers around her.
Voila: impromptu method acting.
“You know when you’re really tired, and you just stop caring what other people think – like, you’re walking through the airport and you’ve been on three flights, and you don’t care what you look like and don’t care if you smell bad? That’s how I was feeling,” Lewek says.
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“Here I was doing some of these (crazed) moments in the music, and I was approaching some of the chorus members with this delirious look on my face. They were literally backing away from me,” she says with laugh. “They came into the rehearsal not knowing that I was NOT actually crazy.”
Anything that helps Lewek get on Lucia’s wavelength comes in handy as the young soprano gears up to portray Donizetti’s heroine for her first time.
Thanks to the title role’s vocal and theatrical pyrotechnics, plus a big-tune sextet that’s among the most famous numbers in all opera, Donizetti’s story of a young Scottish woman forced to marry a man she doesn’t love has dazzled audiences ever since its premiere in 1835. “Lucia” belongs to only a handful of Donizetti’s 60-plus operas that have never dropped out of sight.
Yet its impact was long skewed by musical approaches better suited to the lush romanticism of later Italian operas, says Opera Carolina general director James Meena. The company is staging “Lucia” for the first time in a decade in order to freshen it up.
Rather than treat “Lucia” as a foretaste of Giacomo Puccini, Meena wants it to sound more like an heir of Mozart, animated by vigorous tempos and clear, vivid orchestral sounds.
“The piece becomes quite exciting when you approach it from that standpoint,” Meena says.
He also has cast up-and-coming singers who are new to their parts as Lucia and the sweetheart she’s forbidden to marry, Edgardo. Lewek, making her Opera Carolina debut, has played her calling-card role, the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” with companies including New York’s Metropolitan Opera and the Vienna State Opera. Tenor Zach Borichevsky, another newcomer to Opera Carolina, made his British debut last fall playing the passionate Alfredo in Verdi’s “La Traviata” with Glyndebourne Touring Opera.
When eager young performers take on new roles, “they bring a freshness … that’s a very different experience (from) an artist who has done a role 100 times,” says Meena, who has worked with Lewek and Borichevsky in other cities. “Young artists are more willing to take risks. They’re more willing to look at different possibilities. They’re more open to trying new things in order to bring the impression of the piece out – and of course to make it their own.”
Lewek has been working for a year to craft her approach to Lucia. A video of “The Magic Flute” from a French festival showcases the musical arsenal she brings: a voice that not only blazes through the soprano stratosphere, but puts a wallop in music that’s closer to earth. The impact harks back to her beginnings as a singer, when her voice’s fullness in the lower range made Lewek and her teachers think she was a mezzo-soprano.
Lucia, she says, was “a dream role” even when she thought the dream would never come true. The appeal?
“The drama, for sure,” Lewek says. “She’s a unique character. There are so many facets to her, and so many different ways of playing her. … It’s interesting to portray something when I can’t draw on any experiences from my own life – in terms of the insanity.”
“Of course, everyone has moments of insanity that are short-lived,” she says with a laugh. “But to truly fall into that chasm of madness and not come out of it is an incredibly weird thing to get your mind around. I think that’s why she is fascinating to me.
‘Lucia di Lammermoor’
Opera Carolina presents Gaetano Donizetti’s Scottish drama.
When: 8 p.m. Saturday, 7:30 p.m. April 16, 2 p.m. April 19.
Where: Belk Theater, 130 N. Tryon St.
Details: 704-372-1000, www.operacarolina.org.