Thursday, October 9, 2014

Meet Our Singers: ELIZABETH CABALLERO, Donna Elvira

Elizabeth Caballero made her Seattle Opera debut five years ago, singing the spitfire Susanna who wed the Figaro of Nicolas Cavallier in The Marriage of Figaro. Now she returns, again opposite Cavallier, as the Donna Elvira who relentless pursues her wandering ‘husband’ Don Giovanni to the gates of hell itself. Caballero spoke to us the other day about this favorite character of hers, about the challenges of singing Mozart, and about the unique magic of being at a live performance.

Elizabeth Caballero sings a passage from Elvira's aria, "Mi tradi"

Thanks for speaking to our blog, Liz! You and your colleagues in this Don Giovanni cast are very active on social media.
Yes, there’s more people getting into it, more singers tweeting nowadays.

Were you one of the first singers to make social media a major part of your life?
I got on the bandwagon right away. I’d had a website for years, and it’s true that I set up a Facebook fan page before a lot of singers. I wanted a separate private persona away from my public career. We’re out in public, and people want to get to know us, but it’s nice to have your own life, too. That’s where the fan page is helpful. And when tweeting started, I got right on board. And Instagram. What I haven’t done is Tumblr.

Do you like working with a cast like this, where everyone is tweeting to each other?
Yes, it’s fun! We take pictures in rehearsal, and share them, and I think it helps create a buzz before the show. My fans tweet to me or Facebook-message me, and I try to reply to what they say.

How are opera-lovers different on social media than in real life?
Oh, they’re not very different. They’re excited to know you’re in town: “Oh, you’re here! I can’t wait to see you!” Some of them are shy, so I’m usually the one to invite fans to meet me at the backstage door. Many fans on Twitter are students, who are learning about opera or learning to sing your roles, so they have lots of questions. Others may be people who have been following opera for years, and it’s nice to be on their radar.

Elizabeth Caballero as Mimì in La boheme
Elise Bakketun, photo

We last heard you in Seattle as Mimì. What’s the difference between singing Puccini and singing Mozart?
You use the same exact voice; just the style is different. I’m not going to change the color of my sound, I’m not going to change my technique; but Mozart calls for clean lines, whereas in Puccini, in verismo style, you’re allowed to make portamento, that is connecting note to note, or more flexibility in terms of matching the voice to the orchestra. Mozart is much more exposed. I find Mozart to be much more difficult. With Puccini, there’s a big orchestra beneath you, and there are places you might be able to hide a technical flaw in there.

That’s so interesting...when that happens, are you aware of it? Do you know you’re hiding a technical flaw?
I don’t. This is why I love to maintain Mozart in my repertoire, because with Mozart you can’t hide it. It creeps up. “Oh, I’m having trouble singing this line...why?” You have to go into technique and fix it, to figure out why you’re having trouble.

Ted Schmitz as Don Basilio and Elizabeth Caballero as Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro
Rozarii Lynch, photo

It’s like hearing a funny noise from your car, and you have to become the technician who fixes it.
And once I fix the problem, in Mozart, suddenly Puccini becomes easier to sing, too. It worries me when I hear young singers say, “Oh, I can’t sing Mozart.” Well, you should be able to sing Mozart! Just sing it with your voice—that’s one of the things it took me a while to figure out. Your voice doesn’t change; the style does. Tucker sang Mozart. Birgit Nilsson sang Mozart. There’s no excuse for a person with a big voice to say, “Sorry, I don’t sing Mozart.” Alexandra LoBianco, one of our Donna Annas here, has a huge voice, a Brünnhilde voice, and she’s singing Mozart and it sounds absolutely stunning.

What do you sing by Verdi?
I like to sing La traviata, and I just sang my first Alice Ford, in Falstaff. I’d like to do Desdemona someday. Luisa Miller I’ve been learning. I would like to learn more of these early Verdi roles, the more bel canto roles.

Lots of great heroines there. Who’s the best female character in Don Giovanni?
I just sang my first Donna Anna. But I’m singing Elvira here in Seattle—that’s one of the roles I’ve done the most, so I know her very well. I’m a little scared to ask why they always cast me as Elvira! Donna Anna is a lot easier to sing. Elvira sits in the middle, and my voice is higher-placed, so for me it’s comfortable to sing Anna, who is always up on top. But dramatically, Anna doesn’t interest me as much, particularly toward the end of the second act.

Dramatically, that’s when Elvira stops being so funny and pathetic, and starts getting awesome.
That’s the thing about Elvira—you do get to be funny, too, whereas with Anna you have to be serious the entire time. I love Anna’s Act One aria, “Or sai,” and the recit...

That’s that fiery quality you have—that’s why everyone is keen to cast you as Elvira! So have you ever known a Don Giovanni or an Elvira?
Oh, of course...I’ve been Elvira a few times, I’m sure! Every man likes to think of himself as a Don Juan. And every woman, every person, really, has played Elvira once or twice...this part of, “Oh, why don’t you love me anymore?” That’s life.

So everyone has been an Elvira, has gotten dumped, abandoned. But the woman in the opera goes one step beyond most of us, no?
The difference with Elvira is that she has God in her life. Don Giovanni found her in a convent. She was a novice, going to become a nun, and you see that in her when she sings “Mi tradi.” She’s still in love with him; but she now feels this sense of responsibility, that she must save his soul.

She likes to save people, to intervene. We saw her try to save Zerlina in the first act...
Exactly. But is she trying to save Zerlina for Zerlina’s sake, or is she just trying to prevent Giovanni from getting with any other woman—does she want to keep him for herself there? She is jealous. But in “Mi tradi” it become Elvira’s responsibility to save Giovanni—now she knows that he’s a murderer. That’s mortal sin.

If you could suddenly become a bass, which male character in this opera would you want to be?
My favorite character is Leporello, without a doubt. I know the opera is called Don Giovanni, but I think it should be called A Day in the Life of Leporello. He goes through so much. And I love, love, love the Catalog Aria!

Playing Elvira as often as you do, you must hear that Catalog Aria a lot—you probably know it as well as most basses!
That’s one of the best things about being Elvira, is you’re a prop for Leporello during his aria.

Is it always the same? Or do you find new reactions as you hear about Giovanni’s conquests for the umpteenth time?
That’s what’s so great about live theater. Every night, every moment is different. Every cast is different, every person is different, on each day they’re different. That’s why you need to come see live performances. Sure, enjoy the HD broadcasts, they’re wonderful—but at a live event, your energy is what is feeding the performers. We need that. We’re all responsible for putting this baby up together.

Elizabeth Caballero as Susanna and Nicolas Cavallier as Figaro in Le nozze di Figaro
Rozarii Lynch, photo

It’s the Cavallier/Caballero show once again at Seattle Opera! What’s it like working with Nicolas again?
Right, Nicolas Cavallier and I sang Figaro and Susanna here in 2009. He was such a wonderful colleague, my first time here in Seattle, my first and only Susanna. I’ve never sung her again—people see me as a Countess. Speight gave me the wonderful opportunity to sing Susanna, and I thank him so much for that. I was nervous, it’s a long role, lots of recitative, it was my Seattle Opera debut, and there was a lot of pressure. When I went online to do my research, I found I’d be working with this French guy, Nicolas Cavallier, who had done it so many times...I thought, Oh, my God, he’s going to be so hard on me, he’s going to expect so much! But he was such a sweetheart—he held my hand the entire time, he was so kind, and the performance was a huge success because we had such lovely, lovely chemistry. So I was very happy when I saw that he was coming back to sing the Don.

Nicolas Cavallier as Figaro and Elizabeth Caballero as Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro
Rozarii Lynch, photo

How would you describe Cavallier as Don Giovanni?
I love it. He’s so elegant. It’s been played for so long as this gruff, woman-eating kind of man, just out to get women. And that misses the elegance which the Don needs in order to be able to seduce, both women and men. There’s a reason why Leporello won’t leave. There’s a reason why everyone buys into his lies, his trickery. He has this art of seduction, this grace. And Nicolas is doing that so beautifully. He’s bringing a lot more colors to the role than you normally see nowadays.

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