SOPRANO POISED TO HIT A HIGH NOTE (OR SEVERAL) IN FGO’S “SONNAMBULA”
by David Fleshler
February 4, 2013
The phone rang at about 5 p.m., the evening of the Metropolitan Opera’s performance of Offenbach’sTales of Hoffmann. The scheduled soprano was sick. Rachele Gilmore, the cover for that evening, had to be there immediately for makeup and costuming for the character of Olympia, one of the showiest, most challenging roles in the soprano repertoire.
Gilmore, who stars in Florida Grand Opera’s production of Bellini’s La Sonnambula, which opens Saturday night, left her apartment in Forest Hills, Queens, and drove her Toyota Highlander through rush-hour traffic to Lincoln Center. There she would face the toughest opera audience in the United States, a group that would include critics, bloggers, fellow singers, and fanatical opera fans who own 20 recordings of La Bohème—one of the few audiences that will still boo.
“I was scared, definitely,” she said. “But at the same time I kind of knew that I had a job and it had to be done. I don’t think I was necessarily excited. It was kind of like survival mode. It was fear, but it was definitely a controlled fear.”
Her abrupt debut at the Met came after she won an audition to serve as a cover for Kathleen Kim in the role of Olympia, a mechanical doll that sings with inhuman virtuosity and precision. Most covers never get to go on stage, but Gilmore did, and that night at the Met she performed her own version of Olympia’s aria, one that included stratospheric high notes and extra ornamentation to the already difficult part. Her performance was, by all accounts, a smash, one of those cases where the unknown artist fills in for the veteran and scores a triumph.
Her performance went viral on YouTube. There was talk that the A-flat she hit over high C was the highest note ever sung on the Met stage. “Rachele Gilmore’s 100 MPH Fastball” read the headline on one blog. “There were runs and trills all taken miles above the staff,” said another. And anyone watching the video would see she didn’t squeak and gargle her way up to those notes, she sang them, with assurance and vocal poise.
The reaction stunned her.
“It was pretty crazy,” she said. “When I got home, I went to bed immediately, and the next morning when I woke up I had over a hundred messages in my Facebook account from people congratulating me, friends, colleagues, strangers.” As a result, she was forced to undertake the extremely pleasant chore of setting up a Facebook fan page.
She found the reaction particularly surprising because she felt like she had been in trouble through much of the aria. “I actually didn’t feel like it was going well,” she said. “I felt really high in my breath and I wasn’t able to get control. I didn’t feel like it was my best performance, but obviously the reaction from my colleagues and the audience affirmed that I had done, I guess, a good job. If I could go back and do it again, I would love to do it again. It’s so funny because that moment of my career is pretty much what everybody sees because it became such a thing on Youtube.”
Before her Met debut, audiences in Indianapolis were able to hear the show-stopping Olympia aria when she sang there in a production of Tales of Hoffmann.
“You’d just see people’s jaws hit the floor every time she did it,” said Jim Caraher, artistic director of Indianapolis Opera. “High Cs are one thing, and sopranos go a step or two higher than that. But she just kept on arpeggiating that A-flat chord and went up to the A-flat and the high C and the E-flat above it, and then the next thing you know she was at the A-flat above high C. And it wasn’t one of those trick squeaks that some people can pull out, she sang it. It’s her voice all the way up there.”
And unlike some other sopranos, she carries herself without the diva attitude that can make their company as disagreeable as their singing is sublime. “She’s a sweetheart of a person,” he said. “In this age of temperament and hissy fits and the things that go along with—I hate to say it [with] sopranos more than others—there’s never been an ounce of that with Rachele. She’s a great colleague, who drinks beer with you afterwards.”
Her path to the Met stage began in suburban Atlanta. Her parents, now retired to Sarasota, were not musicians. But thanks to a strong public school music program—a point worth bearing in mind in current climate of funding cuts for arts education—she found her way into the school band as a trumpet player and got recruited into the chorus. Encouraged by a choir director, she took voice lessons, began singing arias at 17 and quickly developed her talent.
She attended the music conservatory at Indiana University in Bloomington, a school less known to the general public than Juilliard, but considered one of the top conservatories in the United States. She entered Florida Grand Opera’s Young Artists program and began to win leading roles at regional houses.
The celebrated soprano Carol Vaness, who was Gilmore’s mentor at Bloomington, said she is much more than a vocal gymnast who can string together flashy passages of fast notes, despite the attention given to the virtuosity she displayed on the New York stage. “What I heard in her voice was a beautiful richness of color,” she said. “For me it was the color and just the sound of beauty in the voice, so much beauty. I would always want to give her just five or 10 minutes more of a voice lesson just to hear her sing. She doesn’t just do it with virtuosity, she also does it with tonal beauty.”
Like the role of Olympia, the role Gilmore will sing at FGO is a flashy coloratura part attempted by only a select group of sopranos. Set in a Swiss village, La Sonnambula tells the story of the orphan girl Amina, whose sleepwalking lands her in a scandalous situation, putting her at risk of losing her fiancée. In addition to Amina’s music, the opera has several superb arias for tenor and bass, a big role for the chorus and a second flowery soprano part.
The opera is among a group of works by Bellini, Donizetti and Rossini that were wildly popular in their day and then fell out of favor, considered unsingable, old-fashioned and lacking in the musical value to justify the virtuosity they demanded. These operas returned to the repertoire in the bel canto revival of the 1950s and 60s, thanks largely to the tremendously gifted sopranos Maria Callas, Beverly Sills and Joan Sutherland, whose performances and recordings showed that these works were not only singable but full of great melody, drama and emotional depth.
Directing the FGO production is Renata Scotto, one of the great sopranos of the 20th century, who divides her time between a house in the northern suburbs of New York City and, appropriately, Opera Tower in Miami. Scotto achieved one of her early triumphs by filling in for Callas in the role of Amina.
The singer-turned-director said she has given a lot of thought to the opera, especially toward finding ways to make its simple but preposterous story more effective for modern audiences. Her solution is to frame much of the opera as a nightmare being experienced by the sleeping Amina. Scotto said Gilmore brilliantly meets the role’s vocal demands.
“She has a very beautiful ability of expression, and she has this coloratura and top which Bellini required in certain moments of the opera, with a lot of variazioni and show-off,” she said.
“Amina I think is a really great show of bel canto romantico, and the soprano has a chance to show lyric expression. It’s one of the first operas of the romantic style, a little bit like Chopin.”
This will be Gilmore’s role debut as Amina, which she considers among the most challenging in the repertoire.
“I’ve sung the bel canto stuff. I’ve sung Lucia and I’ve sung Elvira in Puritani,” she said.
“I think it’s definitely the hardest of the three of them, just because of the length, and when you walk out on stage, the first thing you sing, Care compagne, is probably one of the hardest bel canto arias in the repertoire. After I get through that first aria, I’m more calm.”