Lady of the hour: soprano Othalie Graham, Lady Macbeth in Opera Carolina’s November 2019 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth
[Photograph © by the artist]
Io vorrei in Lady una voce aspa, soffocata, cupa...la voce di Lady vorrei che avesse del diabolico. | I want for the Lady a harsh, throttled, somber voice...I want Lady’s voice to embody the diabolical.
It was with these words, written in a letter to librettist Salvadore Cammarano on 23 November 1848, that Giuseppe Verdi described the qualities that he wanted the voice of the eponymous thane’s consort in his ambitious operatic treatment of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth to embody. Rarely in the history of opera can a composer be found to have complained of a singer’s voice being too beautiful and angelic to sing a rôle effectively, but this was the foundation of Verdi’s dissatisfaction with Eugenia Tadolini, the soprano who earned Gaetano Donizetti’s admiration with her creations and, in the cases of first Giovanna Seymour and later the title rôle in Anna Bolena, recreations of leading ladies in his operas and was engaged by Teatro San Carlo to sing Lady Macbeth in the Neapolitan première of Verdi’s Macbeth.
When Macbeth was introduced to the public at Florence’s Teatro della Pergola on 14 March 1847, Lady Macbeth was sung by Florentine soprano Marianna Barbieri-Nini, a renowned exponent of dramatic bel canto who had already created the part of Lucrezia Contarini in I due Foscari for Verdi in 1844 and would later be the first Gulnara in Il corsaro. Eighteen years after the opera’s Italian première, Verdi substantially revised Macbeth for a Paris production. His second incarnation of Lady Macbeth was first sung by Amélie Rey-Balla, a soprano whose career is sparsely documented aside from accounts of her acclaimed portrayal of Sélika in Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine. Prodigiously documented are the formidable demands of Lady Macbeth’s music, before and after the composer’s revisions: rivaling the ferocity of the vocal writing for Abigaille in Nabucco, Verdi’s musical portrait of Lady Macbeth is one of opera’s most intimidating sings.
Indicative of the work’s many difficulties is the fact that, though Il trovatore, Rigoletto, and La traviata were performed in the company’s inaugural 1883 – 1884 Season, Macbeth was not staged by New York’s Metropolitan Opera until the 1958 – 1959 Season, when a production by Carl Ebert served as the vehicle for the house début of soprano Leonie Rysanek. Already celebrated for her portrayals of Wagner and Strauss heroines (and, at the time of her MET début, already heard in New York as Lady Macbeth, courtesy of a 1958 Carnegie Hall concert performance by The Little Orchestra Society), Rysanek shouldered the unenviable task of singing the rôle originally intended for Maria Callas, whose supremacy as Lady Macbeth was established by five performances at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala in December 1952—her only performances of the part. In subsequent seasons, Macbeth has been performed slightly more than one hundred times at the MET, whereas La traviata has amassed more than a thousand MET performances since 1883.
Veritable armies of singers have performed rôles like Bizet’s Carmen and Mimì in Puccini’s La bohème at the MET, but the company’s roster of Ladies Macbeth is considerably shorter, its relatively meager ranks including Americans Irene Dalis (the first mezzo-soprano to essay the rôle under the MET’s auspices), Elinor Ross, and Olivia Stapp [regrettably, the exhilarating Lady Macbeth of another American soprano, Marisa Galvany, never graced the MET stage]; the Swede Birgit Nilsson; the Ukrainian Maria Guleghina; and Russia’s Anna Netrebko, who is scheduled to reprise the rôle in the MET’s 2019 – 2020 Season. Also significant is the fact that the MET’s sole Italian Lady Macbeth to date is the inimitable Renata Scotto.
Following a much-anticipated début in the rôle with Toledo Opera in October 2019, Ontario-born soprano Othalie Graham returns to Charlotte for three further performances as Lady Macbeth with Opera Carolina. Previously heard in Charlotte as Verdi’s Aida and Puccini’s Turandot [reviewed here], Graham is an uncommon singer with a voice that is at once attractive, powerful, and flexible. Her depiction of Turandot, potentially one of opera’s most unidimensional characters, in Opera Carolina’s 2015 production confirmed that she is also a shrewdly intelligent actress who instinctively discerns the touchstones of a characterization in the rôle’s music. She is a performer whose sincerity forms the nucleus of her approach to any rôle. In an instance of felicitous casting, Graham will be partnered in Opera Carolina’s new production of Macbeth by another distinguished singing actor and bona fide Verdian, baritone Mark Rucker. It should not be unusual in 2019 for the leading couple in a Verdi opera to be portrayed by artists of color, but opera companies’ rosters still do not reliably mirror the increasing diversity of opera’s audiences.
La luce langue: mezzo-soprano Grace Bumbry as Lady Macbeth in Los Angeles Music Center Opera’s 1987 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth
[Photograph © by Los Angeles Music Center Opera; image from the Detroit Public Library collection]
Racial bias in the casting of rôles in Verdi’s operas has been prevalent since the works’ first performances, especially in the name parts in Aida and Otello. Russell Thomas’s 2017 début in the rôle in concert performances with the Atlanta Symphony welcomed an exceptionally rare Otello of color, but, regardless of the suitability of their individual voices for the character’s music, Black sopranos from Leonora Lafayette and Gloria Davy to Jessye Norman and Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez have been encouraged to sing Aida. It is narrow-minded to suggest that casting singers of color as Aida has often been based primarily upon race, but scrutiny of performance annals discloses a worrying—and continuing—pattern. Alzira has been performed too infrequently to engender casting trends, but how often have singers whose appearances reflected the character’s Andean heritage been engaged to sing Alvaro in La forza del destino? Unlike most of her sisters in the Verdi canon, however, Lady Macbeth, unquestionably a Caucasian character, has benefited extensively from the dramatic prowess of singers of color.
Defying prejudice with a triumphant depiction of Lady Macbeth opposite Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s Macbeth at the 1964 Salzburger Festspiele, St. Louis-born mezzo-soprano Grace Bumbry became the first artist of color to don the Lady’s crown for the Metropolitan Opera when she sang the rôle in a concert performance by MET forces in Newport, Rhode Island, on 17 August 1967. Ultimately, six of Bumbry’s seven MET Ladies were sung in tour performances: only her final MET performance of the rôle, on 4 June 1973, was sung at Lincoln Center. Praised in The Saturday Review for ‘the manner in which she conceives the character’s [in the context of Irving Kolodin’s review, Eboli in Verdi’s Don Carlo] place in the drama,’ Bumbry exhibited dramatic sensibilities with much in common with Othalie Graham’s artistry.
Also assuming Lady Macbeth’s mantle at the MET in 1973 was one of America’s most gifted Verdians, native New Yorker Martina Arroyo. The vitriolic psychology of the power-hungry Lady could hardly be more different from the good-humored soprano’s natural temperament, but her mastery of the music imparted the necessary duplicity. In nearly three decades with the MET, Arroyo built a repertoire that encompassed parts as diverse as Donna Anna in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, virtually all of the Verdi heroines then before the public, rôles in Wagner’s Lohengrin and Der Ring des Nibelungen, and Puccini’s Cio-Cio San, bringing to her interpretations welcome emotional directness. Possessing a voice capable both of delivering florid music credibly and of voicing dramatic rôles like Turandot with the requisite aural impact, Graham perpetuates Arroyo’s legacy.
Remarkably, the Lady Macbeth of Shirley Verrett (1931 - 2010), justifiably cited by many aficionados as one of the preeminent operatic portrayals of the Twentieth Century and documented on disc and film, was heard only once at the MET (15 February 1988). Like Bumbry, Verrett was a mezzo-soprano who possessed vocal range and dramatic versatility that enabled her to diversify her repertoire by singing soprano rôles. Though her MET tenure as Lady Macbeth was unfortunately limited to a single performance, her depiction still casts a long, intimidating shadow. A critic’s description of Verrett’s Leonora in a MET traversal of Donizetti’s La favorita as ‘stupendous in vocalism and amazingly believable in action’ also accurately recounts the essence of her Lady Macbeth.
Fatal mia donna: mezzo-soprano Shirley Verrett as Lady Macbeth (left) and baritone Ryan Edwards as Macbeth (right) in Boston Opera Company’s 1976 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth
[Photograph © by Boston Opera Company]
In the context of her depiction of Lady Macbeth garnering appreciation in her homeland, soprano Margaret Tynes, who was educated in and has many ties to North Carolina, was even less fortunate than Verrett. Tynes’s MET tenure consists of only three performances, all of them of the title rôle in Leoš Janáček’s Jenůfa in 1974, in which her Laca and Kostelnička were Jon Vickers and Astrid Varnay, who was also an accomplished Lady Macbeth. A pirated recording of a 1972 performance of Macbeth from the Teatro Petruzzelli in Bari affirms that Tynes was an imposing, atypically sympathetic Lady Macbeth. Like Verrett, Tynes was an adventurous singer whose solid technical footing enabled her to impress in parts as different as Amaltea in Rossini’s Mosè in Egitto and Strauss’s Salome. Again, the parallel with Othalie Graham is unmistakable.
Latina artists have also excelled as Lady Macbeth, both in and beyond North America. Though none of them enjoyed opportunities to sing the part at the MET, sopranos Nora López, Gilda Cruz-Romo, and Áurea Gomes (1942 - 2018) wielded unique traits in their performances of the rôle. Now primarily familiar only to aficionados, the Chilean López sang Lady Macbeth in a memorable 1961 Rai Torino broadcast performance, sparring excitingly with the Macbeth of Mario Sereni. In nearly fifteen years on the MET roster, her Mexican colleague Cruz-Romo refined her Verdian credentials with interpretations of Violetta in La traviata, Leonora in Il trovatore and La forza del destino, Amelia in Un ballo in maschera, Elisabetta in Don Carlo, Aida, and Desdemona in Otello, in addition to a stunning turn as Odabella in Attila with Lyric Opera of Chicago. As Lady Macbeth, Cruz-Romo was simultaneously vituperative and vulnerable. Rightly lauded with fervor in her native Brazil, Gomes was an impassioned Lady Macbeth, one whose tale was indeed ‘full of sound and fury.’
It is maddening that in 2019, when the indignities endured by people of color on every continent are more visible—and more rectifiable—than ever before, occasional productions of Porgy and Bess are still fêted as increased diversity in opera. Porgy and Bess deserves a place in the standard operatic repertory, but George and Ira Gershwin would surely have agreed that staging their work more frequently should be but a small component of the initiative to make opera more demographically inclusive. As artistic representatives of a wonderfully diverse city, Opera Carolina productions have often featured artists of color in prominent rôles, including the cast of Richard Danielpour’s and Toni Morrison’s Margaret Garner (2006); Lisa Daltirus as Leonora and Denyce Graves as Azucena in Il trovatore (2011); Gordon Hawkins in the title rôle of Nabucco (2014); and Kevin Thompson as Zemfira’s father in Rachmaninov’s Aleko (2016). Casting Mark Rucker and Othalie Graham as the sinister spouses in Macbeth perpetuates the company’s commitment to obliterating prejudices and stereotypes in the Performing Arts. Moreover, Graham’s rôle début as Lady Macbeth—a milestone for the artist, Opera Carolina, and Macbeth—honors a storied past in which ladies of several ethnicities have proclaimed that the only colors that are important in opera are those projected by the voice.
Graham and Rucker are joined in Opera Carolina’s production of Macbeth by Zaikuan Song as Banco, Valentino Buzza as Macduff, and Jonathan Kaufman as Malcolm. Opera Carolina’s Artistic Director James Meena will conduct.
Click here to read a Voix des Arts profile of Othalie Graham.
For more information about Othalie Graham’s career and future engagements, please click here to visit her official website.
Opera Carolina’s production of Verdi’s Macbeth opens in Belk Theater at Charlotte’s Blumenthal Performing Arts Center on Thursday, 7 November 2019. Additional performances are scheduled for 9 and 10 November. Click here to learn more about and to purchase tickets for the production.