When Tamara Wilson packed her things to head to Miami for rehearsals of the Florida Grand Opera production of Un Ballo in Maschera, she forgot one important item: Her copy of the score.
Her assistant later mailed it to her, but having it at hand again perhaps was more akin to having a good-luck charm nearby. This is Wilson’s fifth appearance as Amelia in Giuseppe Verdi’s 1859 masterwork, and she knows the role cold.
“It’s a show that I’ll definitely hold in high regard for my career and my life,” she said. “It was one of those huge-leap decisions that paid off.”
It was in 2006 that Wilson was asked to sing Amelia, a woman married to Count Anckarström, best friend of Gustavo, the Swedish king who is hopelessly in love with her — and she, him. And she was being asked to sing the part for the most classic of operatic reasons: the soprano scheduled to sing the part in the Houston Grand Opera production, the much-admired Patricia Racette, was not going to be able to perform.
So far, so good. But at the time, Wilson was not only unfamiliar with the music, she didn’t know it existed.
“When they offered me the role and pushed the score in front of me, I had never heard of it. I was completely green, to use a horrible Verdi pun,” she said. (Verdi’s name translates to Joe Green in English, which has provided decades of fun for opera wags.) “Over Christmas break I listened to a bunch of recordings, played through it, and looking at it, I was like, ‘She sings a lot more than anything I’ve ever sung before.’
“And it was going to be difficult because of the style and the weight of the orchestra,” said Wilson, who up to that point had been a singer of Bach, Handel and Mozart. “I was trepidatious at first, but the company and my vocal teachers assured me that I would be able to sing it.”
And she did, opening Houston’s 2007 season to strong reviews and a career that has now included a dozen Verdi roles including the title character in Aïda, with which she made her Metropolitan Opera debut in 2014. Last year, she won the prestigious Richard Tucker Award, which goes to singers the Tucker Foundation believes are on the verge of major international careers.
Tomorrow night, Wilson takes the stage as Amelia for opening night of Ballo, the final production in Florida Grand’s 2016-17 season. Starring as Gustavo is the Puerto Rican tenor Rafael Davila, and baritone Todd Thomas is Anckarström. Soprano Elena Galván is the page, Oscar, and mezzo Dana Beth Miller sings Ulrica, the fortune-teller who foresees a tragic end for Gustavo.
The double-cast opera will feature Jonathan Burton as Gustavo and Alexandra LoBianco as Amelia in three of the seven performances. FGO artistic director Ramon Tebar will lead the music, and the stage direction of the production originally created for Utah Opera will be Marco Pelle.
The opera is based on a major historical event, the 1792 assassination, at a masked ball in Stockholm, of King Gustav III, who was the target of dissatisfied noblemen. (He survived the shooting but succumbed a couple weeks later to the infection that set in afterward.) The story, drawn from a French play, was turned down by Italian government censors as being too provocative, and so Verdi and his librettist, Antonio Somma, changed the setting to colonial Boston in the 17th century.
In recent years, opera companies have taken to restoring the opera to its original setting, and that will be the case for FGO’s production, which runs for five performances at the Ziff Ballet Opera House in Miami and two at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale, where it closes May 13.
Wilson, who’s 35, has become known as a Verdi dramatic soprano, which is to say a singer well-suited for the Italian master’s epic female roles, which require powerful, large voices of great stamina, agility and color. Just before coming to Miami, she sang Elvira in Verdi’s Ernani for the Théâtre du Capitole in Toulouse, France, and in July she sings Leonora in Il Trovatore for the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona.
She sees Ballo’s Amelia as a very human, conflicted person.
“When we are taught opera as young singers, we watch the old DVDs and listen to the old recordings. And all the women tend to be stoic and proper, and it made it seem like you had to have this Jane Austen air about you, with all your hair in place, and you had to look ladylike, and you had to turn a certain way to show off your dress. I’m kidding you not; I got these notes when I was first starting.
“That’s not what this is about, though. This is about an actual human woman who is in love with someone she shouldn’t be, and is drawn so far into the situation that she has to go to a freaking witch to help her out of it,” she said. “This is a woman in dire straits. The fact that she is so upright and so moral is what makes the opera happen … In approaching roles like this, I tend to go straight to the heart of it. If I were in love with a guy, and it was a guy I know was bad for me, and I was already married, what lengths would I go to cut him out of my life — and not just unfriend him on Facebook.”
Wilson said she prefers productions of the opera that play up other aspects of the characters’ humanity, such as having a real child on stage for Amelia to say goodbye to after her husband threatens to kill her over the affair. And Anckarström himself — Renato in the Boston version — is not a cartoon bad guy.
“I don’t like Renato as a villain. I don’t like it when people play it like that. He’s just a guy for whom jealousy takes over —normal human stuff, like we all do. He’s totally right in his way to be like, ‘How dare you betray me?’” she said. “The good thing about this production is we’re trying to find the relationships between people, rather than the standard stand, sing and let Verdi do the talking.”
Raised in California and then in the Chicago area, Wilson holds a vocal performance degree from the University of Cincinnati-College Conservatory of Music. Although she now sings a lot of Verdi, she also sings many other composers on the opera and concert stages. In January, she sang Wagner’s gorgeous Wesendonck Lieder with the Milwaukee Symphony, Britten’s War Requiem with the North Carolina Symphony earlier this month, and next month she sings Mahler’s Second Symphony with the Oregon Symphony.
Wilson says she’s happy to be making her FGO debut, and starring opposite Davila, a familiar face and voice to South Florida opera-going audiences.
“He’s so sweet. He’s adorable. It’s really nice to have a tenor who’s not, quote-unquote, a tenor, you know what I mean?” said Wilson, laughing. “He’s super down-to-earth, he’s very generous on stage and he actually looks at you while you’re singing. That’s all I need these days, for someone to actually acknowledge they’re on stage with you.
“He’s a sweetheart. And so is Todd: He gives great energy on stage,” she said.
Wilson is having a busy career in an industry that’s attempting to change along with its audiences and technology. One aspect of that she’s concerned about is the Hollywood-style focus on beautiful people, and movie-style dramatic values, that has become much more prominent in opera, and classical music in general.
“You can train people to sing well, but they have to have some sort of natural ability built into their genes before they become a singer. And to force them to be a supermodel in order for them to do what they do well is a disservice not only to singers, but to the industry, because you’re basically saying that good singing is useless without being a supermodel on top of it,” she said.
That’s not to say the two can’t go together, because there are celebrated singers with exceptional looks, she said. “But if you’re going to tell an entire generation in school of young singers who may be average, who may be pretty enough for theater; if you tell them that they’re not worth it, that they have no business singing because they’re not beautiful people, then what voices are you missing out on?
“Because if you’re going back to the ’50s and ’60s, every single one of those people could not be singers today by our standards,” she said.
And that crossover from movie norms also tends to hype up staging, in part to bring younger audiences to the opera house.
“They try to put as much blood and sex and violence on as they can, because it works on ‘Game of Thrones,’ and therefore it will work for opera and bring people in,” Wilson said. “The problem with that is you have to have good music, because the music is essentially what opera is. I don’t care how many boobs you pull out, if there’s not good music behind it, people are just looking at bodies on stages. And that’s not theater. That’s not art. And that’s not what’s going to bring people back.”
Wilson also is outspoken about political issues, which has become much more common among artists after the election in November of Donald Trump, and even more so after the president proposed eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
That hit home for Wilson, who plans to teach after she retires from the stage.
“I thought, ‘Wow, my backup (career) might be gone because there won’t be any more arts education in schools on any level,’” she said. “The thing about opera singers is that we do get to see the world. We have a very different view of globalism (than) somebody in a state who’s never left their city. We know what other cultures are like, and they’re just like us, but they just do things differently.”
“We can speak the languages other people don’t speak. We know the humanity behind the stereotype. We’re very fortunate in that sense. When we see blatant ignorance, it’s very hard not to be vocal about that,” she said.
Wilson said she doesn’t see this as a Republican vs. Democrat issue; rather, she sees the country experiencing a “morality-free void in which all bets are off.” But she also sees a bright spot.
“I do feel that music and musicians will ultimately come out of this better because our art was challenged. When art gets challenged, more art happens,” she said. “We might be in the Dark Ages right now, but Enlightenment No. 2 will follow.”
Un Ballo in Maschera opens at 7 pm Saturday at the Ziff Ballet Opera House in Miami, followed by performances April 3o, May 2, 5 and 6, with two additional presentations May 11 and 13 at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale. Tamara Wilson sings Saturday, May 2, May 6 and May 11 with Rafael Davila; Alexandra LoBianco sings Sunday, May 5 and May 13 opposite Jonathan Burton. For more information or to buy tickets, call 800-741-1010 or visit fgo.org.