Mur­der­ous Tu­ran­dot is one of opera’s most dif­fi­cult roles to sing. But, as we find out from a star so­prano, she is also a chal­lenge to act.

Fast-ris­ing so­prano Am­ber Wag­ner finds the hu­man­ity in Puc­cini’s no­to­ri­ous ice queen at Van­cou­ver Opera

The Georgia Straight - - Contents - > BY JANET SMITH

The com­mon per­cep­tion of Tu­ran­dot’s ti­tle princess is that she’s a fear­some, all-pow­er­ful ice queen with a pen­chant for chop­ping her suitors’ heads off. But in Van­cou­ver Opera’s new pro­duc­tion of Gi­a­como Puc­cini’s out­sized fi­nal work, Amer­i­can so­prano Am­ber Wag­ner is tasked with bring­ing much more to the role.

Ac­claimed Que­bec direc­tor Re­naud Doucet is fo­cused on find­ing Tu­ran­dot’s hu­man­ity. “He’s more in­ter­ested in mak­ing it a story that’s be­liev­able,” says Wag­ner, who’s tak­ing on the mon­u­men­tal role for the first time, after years of spe­cial­iz­ing in Richard Wag­ner. “Rather than say­ing ‘Here’s this frozen ice princess,’ how can we make it hu­man so the au­di­ence be­lieves it?

“This is what opera is re­ally about now,” she adds, on a break be­fore re­hearsal, sit­ting at the O’brian Cen­tre for Van­cou­ver Opera, sip­ping on tea to pre­serve a voice the New York Times has called “pow­er­ful, gleam­ing and richly ex­pres­sive”. “Re­naud’s done quite a good job build­ing a lay­ered and mul­ti­fac­eted back story for her.”

In the opera, set in an­cient Bei­jing, the steely princess sub­jects all her suitors to three seem­ingly im­pos­si­ble rid­dles. The price of a wrong an­swer? Death, of course. But when Calaf (played here by Ar­gen­tine tenor Marcelo Puente) falls in love with her, he gets all the ques­tions right. Tu­ran­dot still re­fuses to marry him, and that’s when he turns the ta­bles, pos­ing a puzzle of his own to the princess.

A story about rid­dles, set amid spec­tac­u­lar red-and-gold scenery and gi­gan­tic cho­ruses: does any­one hope to find a real woman in the mid­dle of all that, and still make the mur­der­ous man-hater seem like she de­serves a happy end­ing?

Yes—in fact, Wag­ner says she’s found em­pa­thy for the char­ac­ter. “She is fight­ing ex­pec­ta­tions in her cul­ture,” Wag­ner ex­plains. “In that cul­ture, women were more prop­erty than any­thing. The [rid­dle] oath has locked her into this unique, weird ex­pe­ri­ence.

“While I can’t re­late to the cul­ture she’s grow­ing up in, I un­der­stand that she re­sents those ex­pec­ta­tions and she’s scared of those ex­pec­ta­tions, so she puts on a façade,” Wag­ner adds. “Re­naud talked about that: she puts on the ex­te­rior of be­ing icy and cold be­cause it’s bet­ter that the pub­lic hate her—in­stead of killing her to take the throne.”

When she grad­u­ated from the Ryan Opera Cen­ter at Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2010, Wag­ner still thought her art form was “all about the singing”, she ad­mits. The mu­sic is still para­mount, but thanks to some in­flu­en­tial di­rec­tors, she’s changed her view.

“I don’t think the au­di­ence wants park and bark,” she says, though she adds: “I would say they don’t want you rolling around on the floor while you’re singing an iconic aria, ei­ther.” In this Tu­ran­dot, she’s been en­gaged in an es­pe­cially in­ten­sive re­hearsal process, with Doucet hold­ing many read-throughs be­fore block­ing be­gins. “Our in­dus­try doesn’t do a lot

of ta­ble reads,” Wag­ner says with a smile. “In my ex­pe­ri­ence, you come in to re­hearsal and you talk while you’re on your feet and stag­ing.”

Singing the role of Tu­ran­dot is no­to­ri­ously tough, even with­out try­ing to dig into her mo­ti­va­tions. The ti­tle char­ac­ter has to rise above the huge cho­rus, pace her­self well be­yond her show­stop­ping open­ing aria, and reach some pow­er­ful high notes.

Wag­ner con­sid­ers it Puc­cini’s greatest work— above Madame But­ter­fly and even La Bo­hème. “Tar and feather me for say­ing this, but I’ve never found Puc­cini riv­et­ing,” she ad­mits. “I’ll take five hours of Wag­ner over his mu­sic! I have a very heavy Ger­man diet. But this one I love, I think be­cause of the ex­pres­sion he wrote into the mu­sic. It’s in­cred­i­ble how he used the cho­rus in this opera. There’s some beau­ti­ful mu­sic.”

In the end, Wag­ner’s big­gest chal­lenge may be wip­ing the au­di­ence’s pre­con­cep­tions about the iconic role from the map. “Every­body al­ready has an idea of who their favourite was and what it should sound like,” she says. “The cur­rent battle for us is that we bring our own thing to it.”

Van­cou­ver Opera presents Tu­ran­dot at the Queen El­iz­a­beth Theatre on October 13, 15, 19, and 21.

Am­ber Wag­ner (be­low left) tries to get in­side the head of Tu­ran­dot, a char­ac­ter shown above amid the epic sets that will be seen here (At­lanta Opera photo).

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