Imagine you’re an official of the Homeland Security Department, assigned to review requests by foreigners wishing to enter the country. One particular application catches your eye, notable for its detailed description of the damsel desiring to cross the border:
Willful. Headstrong. Hostile to societal norms. Plays by her own rules. Exudes sexual magnetism, which she uses to manipulate others. Has a history of escaping the custody of law enforcement. Willing to die rather than submit to an authority she does not recognize as valid.
Would you let her in?
This may explain why Opera Santa Barbara had to scramble to cast the most important role in its 2009 season, which gets underway Saturday night in the Granada Theatre. The above paragraph is a description of Carmen, the title character of the great Georges Bizet opera-a role that was to be sung by Canadian mezzo-soprano Louise Guyot.
With just a few weeks remaining before the beginning of rehearsals, Guyot found that she was unable to obtain a visa to travel to the U.S. Perhaps the bureaucrat handling her case confused the singer with the character she was scheduled to portray. Or perhaps he was simply safeguarding our nation from the ever-present threat of terrorists posing as mezzo-sopranos.
In any event, artistic director Valery Ryvkin realized he needed backup. Fortunately, he had just been to New York last month, auditioning singers for next season’s productions. One 32-year-old mezzo, Emily Langford Johnson, had blown him away.
“Emily had a sensational audition,” he recalled. “The Handel aria she sang was a jaw-dropping experience. I realized this was someone who could make something special out of Carmen.
“It’s a challenging role,” he added. “Many people have a preconceived idea of how Carmen should look and act. You’ve got to have somebody very strong who can make it her own.”
That should not be a problem for Johnson, who will be making her debut in the role. “I understand her in a way that’s kind of scary,” she said. “Seven or eight years ago, I had this wonderful French coach, and we were working on a scene from Carmen. He said to me, ‘You know, you don’t have to try to be her. You are her.'”
The Merry Widow Too
The 2009 season of Opera Santa Barbara was never going to be routine. For one thing, the company is moving from the Lobero Theatre into the much larger Granada, a move that presents both opportunities and challenges.
The much bigger orchestra pit means the company can use a larger instrumental ensemble-43 or 44 players, rather than the 32 they squeezed into the Lobero. The increased seating capacity allows the company to diversify ticket prices, some of which will be as low as $20.
On the other hand, moving from a 680-seat to a 1,550-seat hall means a lot more tickets need to be sold-a particular challenge given the current economic climate. Thus the company chose to set aside its usual practice of presenting a themed season, and instead scheduled two audience favorites: Carmen, which it last produced in 2002, and Franz Leh¡r’s operetta The Merry Widow, which it has never staged.
While both works are audience-friendly, they are “incredibly challenging to do well,” Ryvkin said. “Both require Style with a capital S. There has to be a sparkle to The Merry Widow, but also a strong sense of romance. It’s heavily orchestrated, so to get it really light-to get it to dance-can be very difficult.”
Ryvkin will conduct that waltz-heavy 1905 comedy, which concerns a wealthy widow who is romanced by an aristocrat whose small Eastern European nation is desperately in need of foreign capital. (Now there’s a story line that feels contemporary.) Carmen, opera’s ultimate depiction of the archetypal femme fatale, will be conducted by Santa Barbara Symphony music director Nir Kabaretti.
“Nir of course started out at the Vienna State Opera,” Ryvkin noted. “He’s a terrific opera conductor and a wonderful presence in town.”
His Carmen is a native of Boca Raton, Florida, a wealthy area near West Palm Beach. “Santa Barbara is very similar, except for the mountains,” she noted with a laugh. Emily Langford Johnson is the product of a musical family: Her great-grandparents ran a music store, her uncle is a professional organist and choir master, and her father is an amateur pianist, flutist, and guitarist.
Johnson started piano lessons at age five, and was singing soon thereafter. “I wanted to be on stage, and I didn’t want to be trapped behind an instrument,” she declared. She performed in school musicals and community theater before shifting her focus to opera.
“I remember watching a video of Pl¡cido Domingo and Teresa Stratas performing La Traviata and thinking, ‘I want to do that,'” she recalled. “When I firmly made that decision, I was about 15.”
She took an unusual-but eminently sensible-route with her education, earning a bachelor’s degree from the Manhattan School of Music, followed by an MFA from the drama school the Actors Studio. Yes, that’s the one run by television personality James Lipton.
“He’s a dear, dear man,” she said. “At the beginning of the year, he introduced me to my 76 classmates saying, ‘One of the top 10 actors of the 20th century was (legendary opera singer) Maria Callas. I want to say that I believe we have our next Maria Callas.’ No pressure!”
All that training served Johnson well when she got the call from Opera Santa Barbara in early February. While she had studied the part for years, she had never sung it all the way through, nor was she familiar with the spoken dialogue that bridges the big scenes.
But between the musical ability she built up playing the piano and the knowledge of drama that she picked up at the Actors Studio, she was able to learn it all quite quickly, and could confidently tell Ryvkin that she could step in if needed. Which, as it turned out, she was.
“I had to throw some clothes into a bag, say goodbye to my life for a month and come to Santa Barbara,” she noted. “I didn’t think twice about it-and neither would Carmen. That’s what turns her on! She’s very arrogant. She wants to make her own fortune, her own choices. I can completely relate to that.”
Indeed, Johnson comes across as very Carmen-like in her self-assurance and assertiveness. She is unafraid to boldly plunge into a role, even if it means “shooting myself in the foot, which I’ve done a few times,” she said.
“You have to make your own choices, and they have to be strong choices,” she insisted. “It’s the director’s job to say, ‘That doesn’t quite work here. Let’s try something else.’ If you’re generic, you’re dead in the water.”
Carmen will be performed on Saturday, March 7 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, March 15 at 2:30 p.m. The Merry Widow will be performed on Saturday, March 14 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, March 22 at 2:30 p.m. All performances are at the Granada Theatre. For tickets and information, visit operasb.com.