Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Vissi d’arte: Our Upcoming Tosca, Sylvie Valayre

Soprano Sylvie Valayre was our inaugural blog post. Now, with her arrival to San Diego just a few weeks away, we're still excited that she's making her debut with us as Tosca. Even more exciting is the fact that we get to meet in person instead of chatting through emails.

We sent local writer Pam Kragen out to chat with Sylvie one last time before she arrives in San Diego and this is what she has to report.


If you want a phrase to describe Sylvie Valayre, the lirico spinto soprano who makes her San Diego Opera debut next January as Tosca, it’s “drama queen.”

But that’s not because the Paris-born singer is a diva. By all accounts, Valayre is described as warm, shy, funny, candid, self-effacing and exceptionally studious.

But Valayre is also one of Europe’s reigning interpreters of the dramatic repertoire, spending six to 11 months of each year playing opera’s most passionate heroines — Lady Macbeth, Salome, Turandot, Aida and Tosca — at prestigious houses such as Covent Garden, La Scala, Glyndebourne and Semperoper Dresden.

Valayre has been praised by critics as much for the fearlessness and intensity of her acting as for her emotionally charged singing.

“I think she can do any role that requires drama,” said Ian Campbell, San Diego Opera’s general and artistic director, who first saw Valayre perform five years ago as a whip-wielding dominatrix-style Turandot in Berlin. “Unless it has drama and passion, I don’t think she’d be happy.”

Valayre says she decided to follow in her parents theatrical footsteps (they were actors and operetta singers) as a teen-ager. But being the ever-pragmatic student that she is — she jokes that her husband, Turin Opera House violinist Marco Polidori, has to build her a new library every two years to accommodate her growing collection of opera scores, DVDs, books and jazz albums — she first earned a master’s degree in Anglo-American Studies and started a Ph.D. on Hollywood’s golden age, before she felt suitably grounded to risk an artistic career.

Still, she had a rough start. Valayre’s first acting teacher told her she should stick to comedy because she was too short (at 5 feet, 4 inches) and too fat (at 138 pounds) to play tragedy. Her objections got her fired from acting class on the first day, but Valayre has obviously had the last laugh.

She began her musical studies at the Paris Conservatory in the mid-’80s and among the many mentors who have helped shape both her technique and her career over the years she counts Christiane Eda-Pierre, Regina Crespin, Giuseppe di Stefano, Sergio Tedesco, Catherine Green and her childhood idol, Placido Domingo, who invited her to sing Maddalena in his 2002 Met production of Andre Chenier (without her even knowing the role).

“It was my dream to see him in person as a kid singer, and in the end he hires me to sing with him in his theater. I felt like Judy Garland meeting Clark Gable,” she said.

Early in her career, Valayre sang mostly Mozart roles and quickly became known for her vast repertoire, which ranged from the delicate Fiordiligi to the demanding Turandot. That sort of range can be murder on the voice, but Valayre said she likes variety and she’s careful not to mix light and heavy roles at the same time.

Ian, who has booked Valayre both for Tosca and for Abigail (in San Diego Opera’s 2010 production of Nabucco), said her voice has both the “creaminess” and the “intensity” to pull off these roles with ease.

Because she enjoys acting so much, Valayre said she won’t take a role if the character doesn’t appeal to her both musically and emotionally. Then, she approaches the part with scholarly focus — studying the libretto and researching the opera’s theme (in books, DVDs, CDs, plays and even paintings) before working with coaches on the music.

“To do my job, I have to build the character both musically and dramatically,” she said. “It’s a big, big job, but it’s great to discover new parts and new composers. It’s fun.”

Her fire and openness to new theatrical interpretations has made her a favorite with Europe’s most notorious opera directors, particularly in Berlin, where she played Lady Macbeth in kabuki makeup and a white fright wig; was the queen of a giant nest of human-sized bees in Nabucco; and was the leather-clad, goth teen Turandot, who made her grand stage entrance from the belly of a giant teddy bear. [ Yep, that's her in the bear and photo above.]

Some of these productions have been met with boos and hisses (Valayre said the angry crowds rattled her at first, but now she takes their reactions in stride). And sometimes, things go comically wrong onstage, like in the Berlin Turandot, when the bear’s belly door got stuck one night and she had to kick it open in kung fu fashion. In the same production, her prop sword (a plastic blade filled with red liquid) broke and showered the orchestra musicians’ scores with “blood.”

“Of course some times it’s disturbing when you can’t sing because a stage director wants you to tap dance while you must sing a super legato … but some other times it helps (the audience’s) understanding of the play,” she said of the sometimes bizarre productions. “If the updating is clever, I don’t see why not. The important thing is to be faithful to the work, not to the image of the work.”

One of her favorite roles, which she has been singing professionally for 18 years, is Tosca. She says her interpretation of the character has changed with time.

“The more I sing Tosca, the more facets I find in this character,” she said. “I guess my feelings of the character in the beginning were more primary and less subtle. Tosca is a romantic girl for sure, and she’s absolutely ruled by her passions. I think she is completely instinctive, which is normal for an 18-year-old former shepherdess who became a singer because she had a beautiful voice.”

For the San Diego production of Tosca, she’ll play opposite American tenor Marcus Haddock, who co-starred with her in a 2007 Tosca at the Opera National de Paris. Campbell saw that production and immediately hit it off with Valayre when he went backstage to meet her one night at intermission. “Ian was extremely sweet and friendly,” she recalled.
Campbell remembers being equally charmed.

“She is just delightful. She’s got a sense of humor that some sopranos don’t have,” he said. “She’s an excellent singer, fearless, accurate and sexy. And she’s a great physical actress as well. She will give you a Tosca that is special because it is idiomatic. It won’t be a cookie-cutter Tosca. She looks for those moments where she senses something coming from within.”

While Valayre admits she lives for art like her onstage alter-ego, Tosca, she won’t sacrifice everything for her career. She and her husband hope to adopt a child very soon, and she says she’ll curtail her vast studies of the world (her interests range from Frank Capra movies, Ella Fitzgerald and antique-shopping to classic languages, archaeology and science) to focus instead on child-rearing.

“I’d like to have a house with a big garden, trees and a dog,” she said. “We always had dogs as kids in my family and dogs are wonderful for kids.”

- Pam Kragen is a San Diego-based arts writer.


See, opera and dogs. We knew Sylvie was OK and we haven't even met her.

Now, what everyone really wants to see: Sylvie and a chorus of dancing bees from Nabucco. The things we suffer through for our art...

-- Edward

1 comment:

Smorg said...

Coolest interview! :o) I'm looking forward to Ms Valayre's Tosca. If anything, she won't have to put up with any bumbling bees in that opera, ay?