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For just about nine minutes the Pasha’s favorite Egyptian singer, Samira, takes the stage in The Ghosts of Versailles and vamps and camps it up in a show-stopping cameo. Marilyn Horne memorably originated the part in the Met’s 1991 premiere, but when consulted about the current L.A. Opera revival through March 1, only one name came to the mind of composer John Corigliano — Patti LuPone. One small hitch, LuPone doesn’t do opera. You could say she’s dabbled, playing the part of the cynical Madam Begbick in the company’s 2007 production of Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, but back then she had her old Julliard classmate, James Conlon, to help her out.
“I took special care of her. It is not her world,” he tells The Hollywood Reporter about their collaboration then and now. “The kind of energy and presence that she brings on the stage, you can’t buy it.”
According to LuPone, the role isn’t really an opera role; it’s more based on Egyptian singer Oum Kalthoum, whose vocal acrobatics glide up and down the scale. “I don’t think they want me to sort of imitate opera singers,” LuPone says about her mezzo-soprano part. “She has a very deep voice, but it’s a kind of Middle Eastern singing, not that it’s written that way.”
Part of L.A. Opera’s celebration, Figaro Unbound, featuring the characters created by French playwright Pierre Beaumarchais, The Ghosts of Versailles was commissioned by the Met to open their 1983 season but wasn’t ready until 1991 when it premiered with a cast including Renee Fleming in addition to the aforementioned Horne. Idling away in the afterlife, Marie Antoinette is depressed about losing her head. In order to cheer her up, Beaumarchais dreams up an opera using his characters from The Marriage of Figaro. In the opera within an opera, Count Almaviva aims to secure Antoinette’s freedom by selling a bejeweled bracelet to the British ambassador during a celebration at the Turkish embassy. There, during Samira’s big number, Figaro tries to steal the bracelet.
Conlon was conducting The Flying Dutchman at the Met in 1991 and would stop in to watch rehearsals for Ghosts, as it was simultaneously being mounted. “I remember Marilyn Horne arriving in this enormous contraption and stealing the show, came in, did it and left and unforgettable,” recalls Conlon who, along with the composer, lobbied for LuPone for the part. “For me, Samira’s got to be unforgettable, whoever it is.”
It helps that LuPone is working with Darko Tresnjak, Tony winner for A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, who, like LuPone, is relatively new in the opera spotlight. But what’s mainly kept her grounded is her old friend Conlon. “He’s totally my conductor, he’s got my back,” she explains. “I’m in a world that I’m rarely in and it’s a completely different animal. I love it but I’m scared. Why wouldn’t I be?” The answer is because she’s one of the most decorated vocalists of our time.
When Ghosts closes a month from now don’t expect LuPone to suddenly make a late career swing into opera. She’s currently workshopping the new musical, War Paint, by composer Scott Frankel, lyricist Michael Korie and book by Doug Wright, based on the rivalry between Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden, (no word on whether Donna Murphy is still set to co-star), and next month she goes into rehearsals for a new autobiographical play by Douglas Carter Beane, Shows for Days. And while she’s happy to be returning to Broadway, she’s hardly sanguine about its future.
“I think Wall Street has hijacked Broadway. I just wish they’d buy a baseball team and leave Broadway alone. I’m of the school that a producer has grown up in the theater and they love the theater. And so they are very wise and judicious in their choice of material to put money behind and they trust their creative staff,” she says, adding although the same thing happened to movies years ago, she thinks Broadway will endure. “I don’t think it will ever die. There are too many people that have their kids in dance school all across this country, and so many people want to be on Broadway in a musical. I don’t think it’s going to die.”
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