Girl of the golden voice: soprano Amy Cofield, Minnie in Opera Orlando’s February 2020 Opera on the Town production of Giacomo Puccini’s La fanciulla del West
[Photograph by Javier Vladimir, © by Opera Orlando]
By any standard, many significant events are documented in the annals of the first quarter-century of performances at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera. Two years after the opera’s inaugural staging in Vienna, Jean de Reszke and Emma Eames introduced Massenet’s Werther to the United States at the MET. Similarly, Verdi’s Falstaff arrived in the United States in 1895, two years after its world première in Milan, via a Metropolitan Opera production that featured the creator of the title rôle, Victor Maurel. The first American production of Diana von Solange, a score composed by Ernst II, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, was presented by the MET in 1891, and the company presented its first piece composed by a woman with the North American première of Dame Ethel Smyth’s Der Wald in 1903.
The musical diversity of the scores that received their first performances in the United States at the MET is astonishing, especially considering that the company has often faced criticism in recent years for mostly avoiding contemporary and long-neglected music. The USA premières of Ponchielli’s La gioconda (1883, with Christine Nilsson in the title rôle), Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1886) and Das Rheingold (1889), Spontini’s Fernand Cortez (1888), Massenet’s La navarraise (1895), Giordano’s Fedora (1906), Richard Strauss’s Salome (1907), D’Albert’s Tiefland (1908), Catalani’s La Wally (1909), and Gluck’s Armide (1910) all occurred at the MET. Further increasing the MET’s prestige, the company later staged the first productions in the United States of Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier (1913) and Die Ägyptische Helena (1928) and Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra (1932).
It was also the MET that hosted the USA premières of a battery of works that were subsequently forgotten, including Viktor Ernst Nessler’s Der Trompeter von Säkkingen (1887), Alberto Franchetti’s Asrael (1890) and Germania (1910), Antonio Smareglia’s Il vassalo di Szigeth (1890), Herman Bemberg’s Elaine (1894, with a cast that included Dame Nellie Melba, Pol Plançon, and both Jean and Édouard de Reszke!), Luigi Mancinelli’s Ero e Leandro (1899), Isidore de Lara’s Messaline (1902), Ignacy Jan Panderewski’s Manru (1902), and Alfred Bruneau’s L’attaque du moulin (1910).
The rightly revered MET career of the great German soprano Lilli Lehmann, who respectively sang Isolde, Venus, and Brünnhilde in the company’s USA-première traversals of Tristan und Isolde (1886), the Paris edition of Tannhäuser (1889), Siegfried (1887), and Götterdämmerung (1888), encompassed not only these Wagnerian heroines but also the first performances in the USA of the title rôle in Carl Maria von Weber’s Euryanthe (1887) and Sulamith and Viviane in Carl Goldmark’s Die Königin von Saba (1885) and Merlin (1887).
This remarkable legacy notwithstanding, it was not until twenty-seven years after the company’s first performance that the MET staged a world première. On 10 December 1910, Emmy Destinn, Enrico Caruso, Pasquale Amato, and Arturo Toscanini transported the New York audience to the Polka Saloon in a rugged mining camp in California’s Sierra Nevada wilderness with the first performance of Giacomo Puccini’s La fanciulla del West. Based upon the 1905 play The Girl of the Golden West by David Belasco, whose theatrical adaptation of John Luther Long’s short story Madame Butterfly had earlier inspired Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, the Italian composer’s homage to the West was the first opera with an American subject seen at the MET. A native Californian whose life’s journey from San Francisco to Broadway led him throughout the West, including to Piper’s Opera House in Virginia City, Nevada, Belasco supervised Fanciulla’s world-première staging with the goal of ensuring the greatest possible degree of authenticity.
Puccini’s La bohème was first performed by Metropolitan Opera forces in Los Angeles on 9 November 1900, forging a relationship among Puccini, California, and the MET that would ultimately yield La fanciulla del West. [The first performance of La bohème in the MET’s New York City home followed on 26 December 1900.] 1901 saw the United States première of Tosca on the MET stage, the opera’s eponymous prima donna brought to life by Milka Ternina, who was also America’s first Kundry in Wagner’s Parsifal two years later. In 1907, MET stagings of Manon Lescaut and Madama Butterfly with Enrico Caruso’s des Grieux and Pinkerton and Antonio Scotti’s Lescaut and Sharpless partnering Lina Cavalieri’s Manon and Geraldine Farrar’s Cio-Cio San were supervised by the composer. The first performance of Puccini’s Le Villi in the USA followed in 1908. The successes of these productions prompted the MET’s management to commission Puccini to composer a new opera for the company. Globally, acclaim for Fanciulla did not equal appreciation of Puccini’s other operas, but the triumph of Fanciulla’s New York début was sufficient to secure for the company another Puccini world première, that of Il trittico in 1918.
Though the legacies of the rôle’s creator, the Prague-born Emmy Destinn, and notable Italian exponents of the part including Gilda dalla Rizza, Gigliola Frazzoni, Magda Olivero, and Renata Tebaldi continue to exert great influence on assessments and performances of Puccini’s music for Fanciulla’s heroine Minnie, memorable portraits of this most American of operatic leading ladies have also been drawn by American sopranos. Eleanor Steber’s Minnie in the 1954 Maggio Musicale Fiorentino production of Fanciulla established a high standard for American interpreters of the part, a standard that was later upheld by Maralin Niska, Linda Roark-Strummer, Barbara Daniels, and, in performances still extolled by aficionados as peaks in Fanciulla’s performance history, Dorothy Kirsten and Carol Neblett. Joining this illustrious sisterhood with her first portrayal of the captivating woman to whom Puccini affectionately referred as ‘la Girl’ in Opera Orlando’s Opera on the Town production of La fanciulla del West, staged in downtown Orlando’s Cheyenne Saloon and Ceviche Ballroom, soprano Amy Cofield brings to Minnie’s daunting music experience in repertoire ranging from Händel and Mozart to Ravel, Orff, and Deborah Mason.
An imaginative artist whose performances exhibit musical and intellectual curiosity, Cofield is keenly aware of the formidable demands that Minnie makes on singers who portray her, but it is not the music that the soprano cites as the greatest test posed by the part. ‘I think the biggest challenge has been in preparing this rôle with this English translation,’ she recently shared, referring to the new translation by David Scott Marley that will be sung in Opera Orlando’s production of La fanciulla del West. ‘Unlike many opera singers,’ she continued, ‘I actually enjoy singing English translations and have performed several rôles in translations, as well as [rôles] originally composed in English. Since it is my native language, I feel I can communicate best in it.’
Proprietress of the Polka: soprano Amy Cofield, Minnie in Opera Orlando’s February 2020 Opera on the Town production of Giacomo Puccini’s La fanciulla del West
[Photograph © by Amy Cofield]
Using the text to communicate Minnie’s dramatic development is no less important than singing the music accurately, not least in Opera Orlando’s site-specific staging, Cofield feels. ‘In this production, we are performing in the Saloon, where supertitles would not be practical and where the intimacy of the space enhances the communication, so singing in the language of the audience is ideal,’ she reflected. ‘David Scott Marley’s libretto, which very closely follows Belasco’s story, is wonderful for this setting, and I think it will be very engaging for our audience.’ After a contemplative pause, Cofield added, ‘That said, singing Puccini’s music while portraying Minnie’s less-educated language has been a challenge for me; different than singing [Carlisle] Floyd’s Susannah, for example, which was composed in English with the dialect. As one who strives for my best diction, I find singing Minnie's lines with “ain’t” and “fer,” for example, while still maintaining Puccini’s beautiful legatos, a challenge. I am looking forward to working with Alan Bruun, our stage director, for input and guidance in that regard—and, though challenging, I am excited to put it all together and discover my most authentic portrayal of Minnie.’
For a singer who is often praised by audiences and critics for her dedication to bringing the characters she portrays to life with uncommon sincerity and specificity, meaningfully connecting with a rôle’s psychology is a crucial component of preparing for performances. This is particularly true of Cofield’s approach to portraying ‘la Girl.’ ‘Minnie has many qualities that endear her to me; most of all, her huge heart,’ the soprano confided. ‘She may not have had an education, but she loves fiercely, and she recognizes how important it is to give and receive that love.’ Minnie’s life is shaped by love, Cofield asserts. ‘When she reflects on her parents’ love for each other and tells Jack that she won’t marry a man “without a heap o’ love behind it,” we see her idealistic hopes and dreams. She is strong-willed but also very humble.’
It is this humility that inspires Cofield’s affection for Minnie. ‘My heart actually breaks for her when she says that she hasn’t had more than thirty dollars’ worth of an education and then says “I’ll never come to nothin’.” She is this incredible woman with a heart of gold—which Johnson sees, of course—and more emotional intelligence than most, yet she feels unworthy,’ the singer intimated. ‘I also find it interesting that, though she feels that she is not educated enough for a gentleman, she is the one who is teacher to the miners—perhaps because she has it in her heart to help and guide. She has the heart of a teacher, if not the education.’ Cofield also identifies Minnie’s humility as the catalyst for her transformation into the courageous heroine who risks her life to save the man who deceived her. ‘When she finds out that Johnson is Ramirez, she says, “I should have knowed it! Ain’t no gentleman would have me!” I am struck by that and also recognize how that conflict can exist within her,’ she mused. ‘I think [that] her inner strength, her pure heart, and her will to do right by all those she loves make her most endearing to me, and I hope to portray her many layers. I find that I really love Minnie and can relate to her in many ways, which makes this rôle all the more fulfilling for me to portray.’
As her acquaintance with the score has deepened, Cofield notes that she has grown ever more impressed by the musical and dramatic craftsmanship that produced Fanciulla. ‘From Minnie’s entrance to the final moments, I think Puccini’s music and the storyline fit so beautifully together to show how Minnie is beloved among the men, worthy of the respect and affection they show at her entrance and of the true love of friendship expressed at the end.’ Her admiration for Puccini’s theatrical astuteness heightens her commitment to limning Minnie’s emotional facets. ‘To me, [Minnie] is a maternal figure. She scolds the men and gives them the Bible lesson, and you can see they have a great deal of respect for her. But she is also kind and tender and possesses a rare innocence for one in her rôle as saloon owner. She is their trusted friend, sister, guide, and confidante. I will aim to bring forth each of her qualities that endear her [to them] as the story unfolds.’
Defusing a brawl in the saloon with a gunshot and the force of her presence, Minnie makes one of the most exhilarating entrances in opera. Some singers struggle to sustain the energy of that entrance until the end of the opera. Unsurprisingly, Cofield derives her motivation from the score. ‘I think the music and the libretto maintain the dramatic momentum,’ she professed. ‘As the love story develops between Minnie and Johnson, we see Minnie’s innocence and faith; and her jealousy overcome by that faith and by genuine love.’ The pangs and pleasures of love are not the exclusive property of Minnie and Johnson, however. ‘Of course, I can’t leave out Jack Rance,’ this Minnie conceded. ‘He clearly loves Minnie, and it tortures him, yet even he relents. Does he know she cheated in their poker game? Perhaps.’
The fateful contest between Rance’s passion for Minnie and Minnie’s love for Johnson provides Fanciulla’s thrilling apotheosis, but Cofield proposes another love as the opera’s soul. ‘[Minnie] has won all of their hearts,’ she theorized, ‘but I think the truest love story is that between Minnie and the miners.’ Cognizance of this relationship will pervade Cofield’s portrayal of Minnie. ‘I will do my best to express each of those moments which lead to the heart-wrenching and heart-warming conclusion, as Minnie recalls the earlier times and they are moved to express their love and genuine desire for her happiness, even as they know they will lose her,’ she vowed.
Despite its happy ending, a vein of sadness circulates through Fanciulla. ‘I agree that this is perhaps the saddest of Puccini’s operas—and that is saying something as one who has sung both Mimì and Musetta in La bohème!’ Cofield said. ‘As I have been rehearsing the final act, it has taken me some time to be able to sing through it without getting too choked up to sing.’ This response is stimulated, Cofield suggests, by the cumulative sense of a community on the brink of dissolution. ‘There is the great loss they all experience, but there are also the great beauty and depth of friendship and love,’ she averred. ‘When Minnie reminds each of the men how they have been like brothers to her and recalls their specific acts of kindness, it touches me very deeply. They make the ultimate sacrifice to give her what she wants, to love her, and to let her go. It is both heartbreaking and beautiful—a powerful example of faith and redemption as taught by Minnie in Act One. She certainly shows herself to be deserving of their act of pure love.’ The earnestness of Minnie’s character appeals strongly to Cofield as both an artist and an individual. ‘Her deep faiths in God and in humanity, [her capacities] to love and forgive and strive for greatness, are perhaps what move me most about her. She is so pure and she loves so fiercely,’ the artist divulged.
Like many operas, Fanciulla leaves some questions unanswered. Does Rance return to his wife in New Orleans? Does Nick continue to operate the Polka after Minnie’s departure? Cofield has an optimistic but clear-sighted notion of Minnie’s future after the opera’s curtain falls. ‘I suspect [that] Minnie is one who would bloom where she is planted,’ she postulated. ‘I could imagine her having another saloon. The romantic view would be that she and Johnson are living happily together, maybe running a saloon together, as her parents did. I see Minnie as being very independent and capable, whether or not she and Johnson are together. Without a doubt, I see her as having many friends and admirers.’ There is no doubt that, like all of her operatic depictions, Amy Cofield’s Minnie will also earn many admirers.
For more information about Amy Cofield’s career and future engagements, please visit her website.
Performances of Opera Orlando’s Opera on the Town production of La fanciulla del West, which also features tenor Ben Gulley as Dick Johnson and baritone Daniel Scofield as Jack Rance, are scheduled for Friday, 7 February, and Sunday, 9 February 2020. To learn more and to purchase tickets, please visit Opera Orlando’s website.
Sincerest thanks to Ms. Cofield for her time and the thoughtfulness and frankness with which she responded to questions for this profile.