Night after night, St. Louis opera lovers gave Rene Barbera standing ovations for his expressive, lyrical, tenor voice. That was three years ago at Opera Theatre of St. Louis, when Barbera smoothly delivered an aria's nine high Cs as Tonio, in Gaetano Donizetti's "Daughter of the Regiment." He made the joyful high notes seem effortless.
Before the Texan left St. Louis that season, the Opera Theatre's leadership decided to stage another Donizetti opera, specifically to bring back Barbera's expressive voice.
Major opera companies plan years ahead and in June 2011, OTSL’s next uncharted season was this one. With the tenor in mind, Timothy O'Leary, Opera Theatre's general director, and his staff chose Donizetti's 1832 romance, "The Elixir of Love." It seemed a fine showcase for Barbera’s lyrical gifts, O'Leary said.
So Barbera left St. Louis that June, having verbally agreed to return this year. Virtually, his next stop was the Operalia competition in Moscow. There he sang "Ah! mes amis" from “Daughter of the Regiment,” once again dishing out the nine high Cs. Wowed judges awarded Barbera three first places, an exceedingly rare feat.
The Russian win rushed Barbera into the happy position of being offered parts across the U.S. and Europe, he said before a recent rehearsal.
This season, he sang at the storied Naples’ San Carlos Opera House, Paris Opera National and major U.S. houses. After finishing "Elixir," Barbera and his finance, jewelry designer Anna Cypher, will fly to Rome, where he will sing before the towering ruins of the Baths of Caracalla.
Barbera is enjoying being back in St. Louis among friends he made three years ago. "It is a treat. The company has many hospitable, kind, really wonderful people," he said.
Bel Canto master
Stephen Lord, OTSL music director, has conducted the opera around the country a dozen times, and seen it many more. He said if the singers are not gifted in making their voices shine with lyrical emotions, it does not do justice to the work.
Donizetti was noted for the bel canto style. Beautiful singing is the literal English translation of bel canto, but it's way more than that, Lord said. The theatrics of the story are delivered in the voice.
Bel canto composers expected their singers to embellish the notes on the printed page adding more and often reaching much higher to enhance emotion — especially joy and sorrow.
"It is difficult music that sounds simple and it has to be done well," Lord said.
Soprano Susannah Biller is pleased at how Lord listens and gets singers to work on their strengths.
“Stephen is the king of bel canto," she said. "He breathes this music. It comes out of every pore. He takes your ideas and marries them with his, the music and it all comes together."
Lord had been a French major at Oberlin College who switched to piano about half way through. When he was packing up four years of stuff and cleaning his rented apartment, he turned his radio to the Cleveland classical station. It was broadcasting the New York Metropolitan Opera’s "Elixir."
He was gobsmacked. It was magical.
"I couldn’t stop listening, couldn't stop cleaning,” he said in an interview. “By the end I had a very clean apartment."
This now renown opera conductor took up the baton before an orchestra for the first time at a OTSL 1987 winter holiday production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Gondoliers," at Edison Theater. In 1991, OTSL’s second general director, Charles McKay, named Lord to his present post of music director. Since then, he has conducted one or two OTSL operas annually, attends all auditions and consults on planning casting and rehearsals of all other operas. He's had lots of offers to do other late spring-early summer gigs and took a sabbatical last summer.
"But here,” he said, “I have people I love.”
"’Elixir’ is a romantic comedy with stress on the romance, or, a romance with some very funny bits," Lord said. A lot of opera is about kings and queens but this is about humble people who live in a small town and think that they know each, but don't really."
At its center is Adina, who doesn't think she would even consider having a romantic attachment to a man who didn’t measure up to her educational standards. In librettist Felice Romani’s original version, the woman owned a fine estate and Nemorino was a peasant.
Jim Robinson, OTSL artistic director, places the story in rural America. When he did “Elixir” for the San Francisco Opera, he set it an Italian-American community in the Napa Valley. The St. Louis production will be set in a small town in the Midwest. The romantic lead, Nemorino, is an ice cream seller who wheels his cart around, working when everyone else plays. The woman he loves, Adina, is the town librarian on a mission to get neighbors to read books.
"She doesn't know she loves him until she comes to her senses," Lord said.
Singing From Life
"The opera is really about coming to love on your own terms, and realization of what love is,” said Biller, who sings Adina. "Finally, Adina realizes she loves him and it is nearly too late."
Biller thinks most anyone can relate to the “Elixir” love story. She lived the plot in gender reversal, she said. At the end of the last decade, she was the love-struck person in her friendship with Austin Kness.
They dated, and they broke up. By the time Kness realized he loved her, she had almost overcome her heart-ache and moved on, she said. They have been married four years.
"We are thinking about moving to St. Louis,” she said. “It has small town friendliness with such wonderful cultural” resources, she said. When not working during rehearsal weeks, Biller has been visiting the Art Museum, Powell Hall, Forest Park, and Pappy's Smokehouse. The Chattanooga native who has lived in New York and San Francisco likes the St. Louis arts community’s openness to contemporary music and art.
St. Louis has another plus: it is less than a day's drive from her parents and friends in Tennessee. She grew up in a music-loving family. Her aunt is mezzo-soprano Wendy White who sang more than 500 times at the Met.
After Biller earned her M.A. in music at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., she moved to New York City and worked part time a backstage assistant to her aunt. That experience helped the young singer become much more focused on a singing career, she said.
She's sung in several opera world premieres including Tobias Picker's "Dolores Claiborne." In that opera, Biller worked under Robinson in San Francisco. “Claiborne" is based on a Stephen King novel about domestic violence. Biller's mother is a psychologist; her father is a psychiatrist. Both work with domestic violence victims. She was gratified that the opera drew audience awareness to the domestic crime, she said.
"This is a romance, the perfect first opera for anyone," Lord said. "It was my first and I still love it.”
Donizetti's "The Elixir of Love," the second offering in OTSL’s 39th festival season, opens at 8 p.m. May 31, at the Loretto-Hilton Center for the Performing Arts in Webster Groves. For the full schedule and ticket information, go to http://www.opera-stl.org/