In 1988 mezzo-soprano Susan Graham sang her first leading role in Opera Theatre of St. Louis’ production of Barber’s “Vanessa.” Thirty years later, she returns to sing the title role of Regina Giddens in Marc Blitzstein’s “Regina.” This second production in OTSL’s 43rd festival season opens May 26.
“I was very fortunate to get to sing the role of Erika in ‘Vanessa,’ another American opera,” Graham told St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh. “I was very young, and it was very fun, and it launched my career.”
Graham was joined by bass-baritone James Morris and soprano Susanna Phillips on Wednesday to discuss the production. Both Morris and Phillips make their Opera Theatre of St. Louis debuts, although as a frequent soloist with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, the soprano is no stranger to St. Louis.
Set in Alabama in 1900, “Regina” is based on Lillian Hellman’s play “Little Foxes” focusing on the Hubbard family and their greed. The role of Regina was immortalized by Bette Davis in the film version.
“She’s such a deliciously evil character, very, I like to think, opposite, certainly opposite of most of the characters that I play, but I’d like think opposite of how I am in real life too, although my colleagues may disagree,” said Graham of her role.
Morris sings the role of Ben Hubbard, one of Regina’s two brothers.
“I won’t say he’s the most conniving,” Morris said of his character, “because Regina holds that end up pretty well. He’s out to make money for the family. It’s all about greed in the South during Reconstruction. And he’s doing everything he can to make the family rich and cut Regina out. He’s a real snake.”
Phillips’ character, Birdie Hubbard, came from an aristocratic family before Ben arranged her marriage to his brother Oscar.
“Then they [the family] proceeded to dismiss her and ignore her and she became an alcoholic,” said Phillips. Even so, she is an endearing character, Morris said.
Graham added, “She is the sympathetic character in all of this because all of us are horrible people who just used her as a pawn to augment our own family wealth.”
“Regina” was initially written for Broadway before moving to the opera house. The Broadway influence is evident in that the opera contains a lot of dialogue, some of it spoken over an orchestral background. Consequently, the dialogue, but not the singing, is amplified.
Phillips commented on the challenge of using a microphone.
“You give up a certain amount of control over your performance to someone else so you don’t get to necessarily choose how loud or soft something is,” she said.
But all three singers agree that it would be difficult without the amplification.
Morris pointed out that all three of the singers are doing their roles for the first time, which is both a challenge and very rewarding.
“We’re having the best time,” said Phillips. “I just hope that everyone who comes to see it gets as involved and enwrapped in the story as we are.”
The Opera Theatre of St. Louis season continues with the world premiere of “An American Soldier” by Huang Ruo and David Henry Hwang, which opens June 3, and Gluck’s “Orfeo and Euridice,” opening on June 9. Verdi’s “La Traviata” is already playing. The OTSL young artists will be featured in the Center Stage concert on June 19. The season closes June 24 with the final performance of "Regina." Opera goers are invited to picnic on the lawn before each performance and to meet the singers in the tent afterwards.
What: Opera Theatre of St. Louis Presents Marc Blitzstein’s “Regina”
When: 8 p.m. May 26 and 31, June 8, 20 and 24; 1 p.m. June 6 and 16
Where: Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road, St. Louis, MO 63119
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