International opera star comes home for 'Cinderella'

She dropped the bag on a table, reached in, pulled out a plastic carton.

"Lemon pie," she said. "My guilty pleasure. I don't get to have this wherever I go."

She washed it down with a Coke.

Jennifer Larmore was home. The international opera star from Marietta was preparing for her first performance ever with the Atlanta Opera, in the title role of Rossini's "Cinderella."

The event, which opens Saturday, is at once a homecoming for Larmore and an affirmation of the Atlanta Opera's swelling profile. Having sung on 70 CDs, including this year's Grammy-winning "Hansel & Gretel," the celebrated mezzo soprano is the most recorded artist the Atlanta Opera has ever hired.

Her career is both acclaimed and colorful. She made her New York Metropolitan Opera debut in 1995, and The New York Times later said Larmore was "contending for status as the darling of the opera world, mezzo division."

The San Francisco Opera created a role in "The Barber of Seville" for her pet miniature schnauzer, which also performed on stages in New York, Paris and Berlin. A Chicago judge dismissed a traffic ticket after Larmore crooned parts from "The Barber of Seville," "Alcina" and "Cinderella." The courtroom erupted afterward in applause.

"The fact that she's singing here, the agents in New York and around the world are paying attention," said Dennis Hanthorn, Atlanta Opera's general director, who began talks with Larmore about performing here almost three years ago.

For Larmore, 50, performing in Atlanta, where she was born at Crawford Long Hospital, is a chance to play a role in her hometown opera's rise. It's also an extended stay rare enough to make even familiar ground seem exotic.

"When I come back down here, all of a sudden I get ravenous," she said. "I know my mother is going to fix black-eyed peas and cornbread and sweet potato souffle and fried okra — all the things I never get overseas."

She added: "It just feels comfortable."

Her parents still live in the Marietta split-level that Larmore and three older siblings moved to from Southeast Atlanta when she was 12.

It's a half block from her old junior high school. The piano she played as a kid still sits in the living room. Asked about her Grammy, Larmore's 91-year-old father, William Larmore, disappeared into a bedroom and returned moments later with it cradled in his hands.

The middle-class suburban setting might seem an unlikely hothouse for an opera singer, but it was ideal for the precocious Larmore: creative, nurturing, grounded.

Her father, an Iowa native who edited training manuals for Lockheed, had a theater lighting degree from the Pasadena Playhouse in California and sang light opera. He advised his daughter before singing competitions to "stand up tall, you're an Amazon queen. Be happy with your height."

Her mother Eloise, a registered nurse from Fitzgerald, Ga., who worked at Grady Hospital, prepped her daughter before those same competitions for the inevitability of losing.

"But she won everything," recalled Eloise Larmore, 83.

Raised singing in Baptist church choirs, Larmore always had an operatic voice. By her teens, it came out almost fully formed — not much different, she says, than it is now. Her choral director at Sprayberry High School heard in Larmore "a rich sound most girls don't have until they're 25 or 30."

"That's the gift of God," said Walter Michels, now retired from Sprayberry.

Her talent and drive were obvious. When she visited a Sandy Springs church to sing, a couple there offered to sponsor her music education.

"My wife and I thought she had the potential for greatness," said Gordon Dalrymple, retired owner of an engineering consulting company. "She was determined to become an opera star. I think that's what she said: 'I want to be a star performer.' "

Larmore went on to her choral director's alma mater: Westminster Choir College in New Jersey. The school pumped out music directors but not many opera singers. Larmore was encouraged by classmates to enroll in education classes so she'd have "something to fall back on."

"Fall back on?" Larmore said. "I didn't even know what that meant. I never questioned I would have the kind of career I have."

Larmore went on to study for three years outside Washington, D.C., with voice teacher John Bullock, father of actress Sandra Bullock. She also married William Powers, a professional bass baritone 17 years her senior.

She sang at the end of one of Powers' auditions for two small U.S. opera companies and one from Nice, France. The French company offered a contact, and for the next seven years Larmore sang all over Europe.

"There were opera houses on every corner," she said. "They were willing to take a chance on a young unknown."

Larmore's U.S. break came in the mid-'90s. After she performed with renowned soprano Renee Fleming in Geneva, Fleming recommended her to Eve Queler, the Opera Orchestra of New York conductor with a reputation for unearthing new talent.

Larmore's Carnegie Hall debut in 1994 was as Romeo in Bellini's "I Capuleti e i Montecchi." That night, the Met offered her the role of Rosina in "The Barber of Seville." She also won that year's Richard Tucker Award, a prestigious grant for promising singers.

"I'd sung in Europe for seven years, but here I was an overnight sensation," she said. "For some reason, people still want to hear me."

The shelf life of an opera singer varies widely, but Larmore hasn't slowed down.

She looks great. She's gone from being "a robust girl," as she put it, to practically skinny, the result of a three-year weight-loss regimen to improve her health and extend her career.

Her schedule remains full — she arrived for rehearsals here from Brussels, and leaves to perform next in Prague — while her personal life is in flux. She and Powers are divorcing, and she's moving from their Chicago home to a Paris apartment.

"I'm going through a lot of life changes," she said. "It takes a lot of focus. That's the biggest challenge — staying focused. I make a lot of lists.

"I don't have time to be a diva," she said, sitting inside her childhood home, seated beside the South Georgia mother who gave her a Southern accent that years of world traveling has yet to rub completely away.

"Being a diva takes a lot of energy and thought and planning. I just don't have the time for that."

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