Opera fans love real-time drama, too -- a favorite episode being The Last-Minute Replacement. San Francisco Opera is presenting Puccini's Tosca as the final offering in what has been an artistically dazzling season. The production has been double-cast and features two beloved sopranos in the title role -- Angela Gheorghiu and Patricia Racette. Following the first intermission at the opening night performance, David Gockley (General Director of SF Opera) announced that Ms. Gheorghiu had been rushed off to the hospital with intestinal flu and would be replaced by Melody Moore, who was busy getting into costume and make-up. Following the murmurs and gasps, the audience applauded their support for the popular soprano. They cheered her at the curtain call. The evening had been a madcap variation on a very familiar backstage story. "You're going out a Star, but you're coming back a Prima Donna!"
Just prior to the company's 2011 season and the much awaited premiere of Heart of a Soldier, I interviewed Melody about her up-coming role as the hero's wife, "Susan Rescorla." At the same time, Melody was preparing a set of songs by Kurt Weill to be included in San Francisco Ballet's premiere production of Nanna's Lied, choreographed by Helgi Tomasson. I asked about her dream roles, especially those reserved for the seasoned performer. Puccini's Tosca stood out in front. In fact, she was looking at it. "I think it will come around," she said. And then -- bam! -- it did. We spoke a few days after the performance.
MELODY MOORE, Soprano. Photo, courtesy of the artist
"Sometime in May," she said, "I was looking on the San Francisco Opera website and saw that Tosca was coming up. It's one of my favorite operas -- also Turandot -- but I love Tosca more. I saw that Angela Gheorghiu and Patricia Racette were singing and that it was an every day schedule, each of them toggling the role between them. I thought about their vocal presence and what it would sound like with either one of them doing the role. So I contacted Greg Henkel, the Artistic Administrator at San Francisco Opera, and said, "Greg, I think it would be really great if you would allow me to come and watch Pat in rehearsal." When she was here doing Faust, I was also doing Faust, and I asked him if he would allow me to come in and watch the public rehearsals - and he did. I believe Pat is one of the best sopranos ever, both acting-wise and vocally. I wanted to watch her do Tosca. He got back to me and asked if I were singing Tosca. I said I'd been asked by two companies if I would be ready within the next two years. I believe that if I were given that amount of time, I could see if it was for me. I've sung through the role and I think it's good. So, he wrote back and said, "Why don't you bring in two snippets of the opera and do an audition for me?" I thought, 'Oh, OK.' All I really wanted to do was watch Pat -- but, fine."
Whoever sings Tosca must know at the outset that their vocal stamina and physical strength will sustain not only the learning process, but a succession of heavy-duty rehearsals followed by a contracted number of performances over a specific period of time. Becoming Tosca means working like an Olympian.
"He gave me two pieces, one of them -- the most difficult portion from Act III, Il tuo sangue -- where Tosca tells Mario about killing Scarpia. All of this is happening in June while I'm doing "First Lady" in Magic Flute. We set a date about two weeks out, to give me time to prepare. I coached it with someone and then sang for Greg. He sat with me a long time. He said, "Look, we want to be careful with you. We love your voice, we think you're talented. Tosca can be a voice-killer. And we don't want to give this lightly to you. It's a very big responsibility, but this is your home House and we love you. We would definitely take care of you and not let you do something that was wrong. So, why don't we set out saying you can cover the role? And if there is a difficulty amidst all of this -- like, suddenly it becomes too much or it doesn't look like it's going to work out -- we can talk about that too. But, let's put you on as the cover."
"I was just so happy! So, I booked coachings with a staff accompanist at San Francisco Opera and then booked a flight to Ohio, where I went to college, and saw my old voice teacher and coach. We did about two weeks of intensive rehearsal -- daily, four hours a day -- and I came back in late August. Then for two weeks I worked it back up with the Assistant Conductor before rehearsals started in October. The rehearsal period was cut short because both Pat and Angela have done the role. Neither of them needed much stage rehearsal. I kind-of did? I got one day -- in a room, not on the stage. Just me."
MELODY MOORE (Tosca) and ROBERTO FRONTALI (Scarpia)
Photo, Cory Weaver
"So it was a walk-through," I said. "Something along the order of -- I shove the knife into Scarpia, like this, over here. Which means I wind up placing the candles beside him -- like that, over there! Just rely on the logistics."
"I don't think I even relied on that," she said. "To tell you the truth, I don't know what I relied on. Really! I did my very best to be mindful about what had been shown to me. But when you get into that situation you just have to let it go and do whatever you have to do. What I tried to do was react. How would I react? I had to keep my bearings about the music -- and occasionally look at the Maestro. I'm not even sure I looked at him. I remember thinking -- and this is the first time I've ever taken this liberty! -- 'They're just going to have to follow me.' I remember the stage manager asking if I wanted to rehearse the jump. NO. They were holding the curtain for me! I needed to get out there and just do it. Don't make me think! Thinking is, like, so bad."
The importance of physical fitness among classical singers is a huge issue with me. I asked Melody at what point did she know that the role was in her voice, in her body, and ready for her to debut at San Francisco Opera -- that is, if one or the other sopranos suddenly became inconvenienced.
"It was during that two week period when I worked with every person I could get my hands on and sang the thing everyday. That started me thinking I could actually do this, because I was not tired afterward. I was fatigued to a degree from just the work, but not in a way that was damaging. I also started a physical training program. I lost 20 pounds and now I have biceps!"
Melody had called a former trainer at 24-hour Fitness and said she needed to be able to stand and scream, on pitch, for several hours. "If you nail down just the moments Tosca sings," she said, "it adds up to sixty-nine minutes. Mimi is thirty-four minutes, Manon Lescaut is thirty-seven. So, I told him I needed to double the length of anything I'd ever done. And I wanted to double my core strength, because that's what I have to rely on."
I was curious if some grand revelation had happened during the performance. "You're finally on stage, facing the audience, with a baton waving in your face -- and here's a new hit on what and how you've prepared up to this point."
"There was a lot of magic involved. What shocked me -- because I was shoved into this so fast -- was that I wasn't able to think. Anytime someone asked me, 'do you want to go over...' -- the answer was 'No, I don't want to.' That was new behavior. It was magical and very different from anything I would normally do. Once I was backstage, singing the "Cantata," it became real. I was about to walk on that stage, with the set, for the very first time. I remember looking at Scarpia, standing behind his desk. I felt this wave of hate toward him and thought, "Well, I'm Tosca now!" The whole audience was for us that night. I just had to Be. It's the most exciting thing that has ever happened to me. It was spiritual in a way, because it was so big. Self-reliance to the max, faith and trust."
"And a few guardian angels along the way?" I asked.
"More than a few. I said my thanks to them, thanked my grandfather and prayed -- not in a desperate sense -- but in a thankful sense. In the dressing room, people kept remarking, 'How are you so calm?' -- and I would just start laughing. The director says, 'How are you feeling? Aren't you nervous?' And I said, 'No. Look, this can't happen by my own power. That's impossible. The fact is, it's a meant-to-be thing and I just need to step into it.' But here's why I keep laughing. I'm debuting Tosca -- it's opening night at the San Francisco Opera -- I've never rehearsed on stage or with the orchestra -- I'm going on for Angela Gheorghiu. That is hilarious! You have to laugh. There was nothing else to do but say, "OK, God. Thank you."
MELODY MOORE and ROBERTO FRONTALI. Photo, Cory Weaver
Tosca is a career-defining role. The opera is a jewel in the crown for composer Giacomo Puccini. Melody Moore has proven herself as Most Valuable Player this season at San Francisco Opera. It's mind-boggling that two world class sopranos know there is a stellar replacement out in the wings ready and able to take over if something should happen. And it could.
"It absolutely could!" said Melody. "I expect it to."
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