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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Superconductor Interview: Angela Meade

A conversation with the next queen of bel canto.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
"I don't read blogs." Soprano Angela Meade in Ernani.
Photo by Marty Sohl, © 2012 The Metropolitan Opera.
"The essence of a great bel canto opera is beautifully written melodies that seem extremely organic." Soprano Angela Meade should know. In the last five years, Ms. Meade has taken the spotlight as a bel canto specialist, reviving this lost operatic form (the phrase is Italian for "beautiful song") for a new generation of opera lovers.

"There's something in a line that's written," she says. "You can tell what someone's soul is saying," she adds. "It's not just notes on a page. I think that the essence is those emotions. With singing, I express who I am."

She took time to talk to Superconductor in the midst of preparations for a new role, the title part in Vincenzo Bellini's rarely played Beatrice di Tenda. (It's  never been staged at the Metropolitan Opera.) This performance will be a concert presented by the Collegiate Chorale at Carnegie Hall on December 5. The Chorale is featured along with the American Symphony Orchestra conducted by James Bagwell.

"The music for Beatrice comes very naturally to me," she says. "It uses a lot of my high, floating notes and long lines. With something like Norma (another Bellini opera) there is more chest singing. In Beatrice there's a lot more...liquid."

"You have to lean on the note before the high note," she explains. "It's like a trampoline. You have to get down in to the note before, that's what gives you the 'bounce.' Then you can expose the high note and let it float through the air."

The word "liquid" comes up a lot when talking about bel canto, an operatic style that was popular in the first half of the 19th century. Singers were required to produce a smooth legato, running notes together in a seamless line that thrilled and hushed opera audiences. Exponents of that tradition include Giuditta Pasta, Jenny Lind and Luisa Tetrazzini.

The style saw a revival in the 20th century with the rise of Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland, two iconic singers who worked to popularize "lost" operas in the French and Italian repertory. Angela Meade is very aware of that tradition.

"I don't read blogs or reviews," she says candidly. "I did when I started. I think maybe there is a cult following for me, but I hope I'm doing the right things in pursuing the revival of bel canto."

The "cult of Angela" started in 2008, when  she stepped in for Sondra Radvanovsky in Verdi's Ernani. "As young singers we dream of circumstances like that happening. "For most, it doesn't--you don't just get to step into a major role. That could have been a traumatic event, but my colleagues were so wonderful."

Performances like that Ernani, a 2010 performance of Norma at Caramoor, and last year's Live in HD broadcast of Ernani have made her famous have made the opera world (and the blogosphere) take notice. And while she's been offered Wagner parts and heavier repertory, Ms. Meade is sticking with bel canto as long as she can.

She would like to expand into the operas of early Verdi, many of which remain neglected. There's I Masnadieri ("The Bandits") with its difficult soprano part written for Jenny Lind, and its immediate follower Il Corsaro, ("The Corsair") which was recorded by Montserrat Caballe. Her dream role though is Massenet's Esclarmonde, a specialty of Joan Sutherland.

I'd like to do more of the early Verdi or some Mozart," she says. "I've covered (Rossini's) Armida (for Renée Fleming) and woud love to do (Bellini's) Il pirata.  I think that many years from now, I think I'll sing the heavier Verdi--Forza or Don Carlo, things like that. But I don't want to risk my top and coloratura."

Next March, she returns to the title role in Norma at the Washington National Opera. Although she's sung Norma in concert, this is Ms. Meade's her first foray into a fully staged performance of that legendary role. The opera opens March 9.

"It's gargantuan," she says. "First of all you sing the entire night. You have to use everything in your technical tool belt to sing it. You have to sing high, and loud, and low, and soft. She also goes through the gamut of emotions. You have to throw yourself into the character and reach your innermost self."

She admits that the concert setting is more exposed. "It's very in-your face. You can't hide behind the sets and costumes," she says. "I quite enjoy it. It doesn't get stuck in the staging. Sometimes the stage director will have you do funny things while you're singing!"

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