“Dying is easy. Comedy is hard,” or so the famous last words ascribed to English actor Edmund Kean tell us.
Making audiences laugh has certainly never been easy, but making them laugh while hitting nine high C’s in a row is just one of the extraordinary challenges of performing in a production of Gaetano Donizetti’s bel canto comedy “The Daughter of the Regiment.”
“I’ve been working on this role for more than a year because it’s a challenging one,” says tenor Santiago Ballerini, who will be tasked with singing those nine high C’s (and keeping it funny) as he makes his role debut as Tonio in the upcoming Atlanta Opera production at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, opening Feb. 24.
“Many operas may have high C’s but not nine at the same time,” he says. “It’s like being an athlete, knowing what you have to do with your muscles. You have to know how not to get tired on the third one. At the same time, you have to look funny and fresh, and you are concentrating so hard. It’s really challenging, that part.”
Audiences may remember Ballerini from his unexpected triumph when he substituted at the last minute for a sick tenor in another Atlanta Opera production of a comic Donizetti opera, last May’s “Don Pasquale.” At the time, Ballerini was participating with other emerging singers in the Atlanta Opera’s professional development program, The Atlanta Opera Studio. On the afternoon of opening night, he got the call that he would have to go on in the lead role.
“I sang it through one time with the orchestra,” he recalls. “With the cast, we had a 45-minute rehearsal of the staging. I think it went well. I think it was the best performance I ever sang.”
Following his success, Ballerini went on to cover the roles of Don Ottavio in “Don Giovanni” and Count Almaviva in “The Barber of Seville” at the Metropolitan Opera, sang in “Der Rosenkavalier” at Tetaro Colón in Buenos Aires, and made his debut at Caramoor Summer Music Festival. He credits his time with the Atlanta Opera Studio program and that last-minute opportunity as having helped put him on a great career track.
In “The Daughter of the Regiment,” Ballerini and his castmates will share the stage with none other than Metropolitan Opera star mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe. Though Blythe is one of the most famous names in opera and has performed in a wide variety of roles in a long and distinguished career, she will actually be making her role debut as the Marquise of Birkenfeld.
“Stephanie Blythe is a force of nature,” says soprano Andriana Chuchman, who will make her Atlanta Opera debut as Marie, the tomboyish young woman raised by a regiment of French soldiers. She first worked with Blythe on a production of “The Mikado” at Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2011. Chuchman says she was “starstruck” by the power of Blythe’s performance. “She’s really incredible,” she says.
Blythe and Atlanta Opera Artistic Director Tomer Zvulun have worked together extensively at the Seattle Opera and at the Met.
“I’ve been dying to get her to Atlanta for years,” says Zvulun. “She’s one of my absolute favorite singers.”
Blythe says the supporting role, full of dialogue and opportunities to show her comic side, makes for a fun and challenging change.
“I find comedy refreshing,” she says. “There’s so much tragedy in the world. When you do pieces that have a lot of tragedy in them — and let’s face it, a lot of opera is that way — there’s a distance between you and the audience. Comedy draws in the audience in a different way. Comedy is something people live for. They want to get close to it.”
Chuchman agrees that performing in this particular comic opera can be a fun challenge.
“As a soprano, I usually play feminine women,” she says. “The most interesting thing about Marie is that she was raised by a regiment of soldiers. She has this innate tomboy quality to her because that’s what her surroundings have been. It provides a chance to strip away the grace and femininity.”
The upcoming production marks the debut of “The Daughter of the Regiment” at the Cobb Energy Centre, and the first presentation in Atlanta since 1985. Italian bass Stefano de Peppo, who performed as Dr. Bartolo in the Atlanta Opera’s production of “The Marriage of Figaro” in 2015, sings the role of Sulpice.
The production will be directed by E. Loren Meeke and conducted by Christopher Allen, both of whom will be making their Atlanta Opera debuts. The opera will be performed in French with English supertitles.