An interview with soprano Latonia Moore
L. Moore (Courtesy of SDO)
There may not be a hotter Aida onstage right now than American soprano Latonia Moore. She made her unscheduled Metropolitan Opera debut just over a year ago, subbing at the last minute for an indisposed Violetta Urmana. Her critically acclaimed performance was heard internationally as part of the Metís Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts. Her international slate of Aidas has taken her from Europe to Japan and now to San Diego with stops in between. Ms. Moore took some time to talk with us about Aida, her favorite singers, and what music she really loves. San Diego Operaís production of Verdiís Aida opens Saturday, April 20th.
ConcertoNet: How long have you been in San Diego?
Latonia Moore: Letís see, I got in here on Easter Sunday. I flew in from Tokyo, so Iím just starting to get used to the time change, a 15 hour difference. Iíve been here a little over a week. Itís beautiful here and itís just starting to warm up. Itís a really cool city for sure.
CN: What were you doing in Tokyo?
LM: Aida, the Zeffirelli production. It was kind of a last minute thing. The soprano pulled out of it so I got lucky. It was my first time in Tokyo.
CN: And now youíre doing Zandra Rhodes production in San Diego. Can you tell me about it?
LM: I find a lot of times with Aida, it always looks great, it looks grand, it looks royal and regal. This production is a little bit different. It does look royal, but it looks more wild, jungle-like. Itís got the bright colors, theyíre bold colors, but theyíre very bright. Zandra uses bright yellows and oranges and turquoises and it really catches your attention. And the thing about this production, especially in combination with the way the stage director, Andrew Sinclair, is playing it, the colors give it a lot of fire as well as all the tempos that the maestro, Daniele Callegari. Andrew is playing Aida a lot younger. Zandraís production really adds youth to it and shows how fragile the characters are, how young they really are, and how they think. These bright colors and patterns just add to the grandness of Aida.
CN: How do you like playing her as a younger character?
LM: I feel like because sheís played younger, itís much more of a challenge for her to hide her identity. The very first person you see on the stage is Aida, which is not usually how it goes, but you see her in the prelude. Sheís the princess of Ethiopia when you see her and suddenly she has to hide again and cowers into the slave of Amneris. Because sheís so young, you see the way she hides is more obvious than somebody whoís older. If Aidaís older, when you see her hide her identity itís more subtle because sheís older. She knows how to do it. Sheís been around longer. Itís more interesting to the audience [in this production].
CN: Does that help liven up the love relationship? Sometimes it can get a little static.
LM: Honestly, Iím not sure yet, because the tenor just got here yesterday. So Iím not really sure how our chemistry is going to be. The Amneris and I have been here for a week, weíve had a lot of time to do character study. My guess is thereís going to be a lot more love, more kissing, more physical affection when you actually see them together, especially alone. Thatís why itís so good that they show Aida in the prelude, because they also show Radames and they show them loving on each other and itís kind of hot to see! You never get that. Regardless of how the tenor wants to do it, Iím going to make him [laughter].
The Amneris is also playing up how much sheís in love with Radames and how much she wants him, really, physically wants him. Itíll be sexier. The costumes may help it, because the costumes are very sexy, theyíre very form-fitting. I think itís definitely going to liven up Aida. It makes it more human.
CN: Obviously, youíve been singing this role quite a bit, itís sort of your signature role in your relatively young career. Tell me about the legacy of Aida, the previous singers whoíve done it who really inspired you or youíve found helpful.
LM: Everybody knows that Leontyne Price is pretty much the definitive Aida for a lot of reasons, not only vocally, but how much the character is really her in a way. But Iíd say, throughout history, the Aidas that Iíve really appreciated, especially vocally, are those that have what it takes for both parts of the opera. The entire first half of the opera is very dramatic. It requires a dramatic soprano, and the entire second part of the opera requires a Verdi soprano, which is why you need, ideally, a spinto soprano to sing the role, a lyrico spinto. Itís really hard to find that perfect combination: someone who can really perform both halves of the opera well. I feel like the best one that I know of and thatís still alive today is Aprile Millo. And the reason is that she was able, in the first act, to come out very subdued, almost too calm, and then when she breaks out into ďRitorna vincitor,Ē itís so scary and thereís just so much torment, so much anima. Itís almost like sheís giving a verismo element to it, which some people believe is not in the character of Verdi, but I donít quite think that.
Aida was written so much later in Verdiís career than his other operas. Itís not bel canto like Ernani or Il trovatore. This is a different kind of opera. This is him delving further and further into a different genre of opera, a combination of his style of big bel canto and verismo. So Aprile Millo was able to [sing it that way] as well as Rosa Ponselle, who was so fantastic at it. She was really able to do that in the second act, and somehow miraculously able to make the third act so sensitive. The way she sang her lines was so incredible. But I think so oftentimes a role like Aida is very static just because acting wise thereís a tendency to just stand there and sing it. Thatís because itís hard as [hell] to sing, honestly [laughter]. Itís tough! People sacrifice a lot of the character and a lot of the acting so they can have good vocalism.
While I applaud that, at the same time I donít want to ever play it that way. I very much feel like you need to remember that youíre doing an opera and what that entails is the singing and the acting together. I feel like I gear a lot more towards the acting side of Aida just because there are so many facets to her character; sheís not one dimensional at all. You get some Verdi roles like in I due Foscari, where Lucrezia is always mad and freaking out and pretty much just talking about the situation at hand. A character like Aida talks about a lot of stuff, things that she has to hide, and finally comes out in this monologue. She talks about how she has this deep love for her enemy but she has to be faithful to her country, her father, who may be murdered in war by her enemy, who is her lover. There are so many different things digging at her. When her third act comes up, she has to betray her lover, her enemy, for her father, her king. Thereís a lot of stuff going on!
Her first aria, ďRitorna vincitor,Ē really is a monologue, itís not an aria at all. Itís her just going through her personal conflict, being a captured slave and a hidden princess. You donít get that so often in characters. So thatís one thing thatís kept me going in Aida, because I do a lot of them and it can easily get boring. The music is going to be the same but the character does change depending on who youíre doing it with.
Another stage director might play Aida in her mid-30ís. This one plays Aida as a 19, or 20 year old whoís only been captured for one year which makes it harder for her not to reveal who she is. Sheís so used to being a princess at this point that being a slave is even more difficult. There have been some times when Iíve played the character where the stage director said ďnoĒ you were captured maybe when you were very young, maybe six years old, and now youíre about 19 or 20 and youíve been here for 14 years, so youíve grown up with Amneris and Radames, so that adds a totally different dynamic. Then some people say youíve only been captured for 3 years, you and Amneris are good friends. From place to place the character is going to change a lot and thatís what I find the most exciting about a character like Aida. If you change the setting of some operas the character is pretty much stays the same, but with one like this thereís so many ways you can play it, so much turmoil. This person is just super torn. Aida and Madama Butterfly are my two favorite characters just because of the journey Butterfly takes and all of the conflicts Aida goes through, the high drama. For me, Iím much more of a character singer, more than just being a vocalist.
CN: How is Aida a challenge to you vocally?
LM: Itís a challenge especially because I feel like Iím doing Aida too soon. I learned it in a couple of weeks for an outdoor festival. My agent wanted me to get it under my belt and see how I felt about it because people had been offering it to me and Iíd been turning them down. I went ahead and did it for this festival and it was OK, but I basically sounded like a full lyric, like a Mimi, singing Aida. So after that I did another concert of it in Minnesota, and before I knew it, a full-blown new production in Hamburg and it kept going from there. Now I do believe that a big reason for it is because Iím black. A lot of people hate to say it like that, but thatís exactly it. The sound of my voice is really more for Desdemona or perhaps Simon Boccanegra.
For me, Aida is a challenge simply because, vocally, I feel like I havenít grown into it yet. Iím still learning here and there how I want to gauge the voice in certain places, how I want to be able to act and sing the role at the same time because Iím really taxing myself. As much as I do Aida, Iíve done it more than any role now, Iím still on the fence about whether or not Iím a true Aida. My personal preference is to hear an Aprile Millo, Tebaldi, or Leyla Gencer, those kind of singers. They really had the kind of voices, the size of voice, the color of voice, that Iíd prefer to hear in it. For me, Iím still a baby in it. I havenít quite grown into my full potential for the role, but I do believe that I bring a newness to it that people are not used to hearing.
CN: Is there a concern about being black and continually pushed to do this role?
LM: Itís definitely a worry. I think other black sopranos refuse to take Aida for this very reason, or refuse to take Bess for the same reason, getting stuck, getting pigeonholed. At this point I donít take every Aida thatís offered. Iím starting to have to turn some of them down, just so that I can make room for other things. Iím more along the lines of Stiffelio, my first Forza, things like that, but Iím having to say ďnoĒ to Aidas so I can do this other stuff. Iím shocked at how many times Iíve done Aida. I used to do so much Mimž, and Liý, and Micaela, but Iíve jumped from doing those things to only doing Aida. Itís been a little scary. I definitely donít want to burn out, but Iím very mindful and very smart about when I need to take time off. I have gaps in my schedule where I do not accept jobs just so I can stay home and relax and not burn out.
Basically any soprano who feels like they are in danger of being pigeonholed will get stuck only if they want to, only if they donít have the [guts] to say no. Itís hard. People are offering you a lot of money or a new production and you want to say ďyesĒ to everything, but you canít, not if you want longevity, especially not if you feel like youíre too young to be singing the role in the first place. Itís about picking and choosing where you want to do something and not making a completely steady diet of it. br />
This season I have five productions of Aida, and thatís not really including the summer stuff that Iím doing. Five productions of Aida is quite a bit, but at the same time Iíve had big gaps in the schedule. Taking time is really important; being smart about how busy or what opera you chose is very important. Your career is ultimately in your hands. Nobody will force you to continue to take things that will pigeonhole you. At this point, luckily, I havenít been doing it even long enough to say thatís all I really do, because I still have other things in the mix. Next season is much more varied.
CN: When youíre in these prolonged stretches of Aida is there a particular repertoire or composer you come back to to make sure things are on the correct track?
LM: Well one thing Iíve done for a lot of years, when Iím warming up, even when Iím doing a performance of Aida, I always sing bel canto arias: Sonnambula, Puritani, Lucia, arias like that. Bel canto keeps the flexibility in the voice, keeps the ease in the throat. You never push, you want it to come out like butter. These things are what help me really keep vocally healthy and young and in check. I think singing bel canto is the healthiest thing that any opera singer can do for their throat. If theyíre on a steady diet of singing the Ring cycle or lots of Wagner, itís excellent to go back to singing these nice long lines to keep their chords vibrating properly, to keep the youth in the throat. Thatís what I really like to do.
CN: If you can take a peek into your crystal ball, do you see yourself sticking with the Verdi, Puccini kind of repertoire? Is there something youíre burning to get thatís a bit different?
LM: Iím thinking yes. I will definitely still be singing Verdi and Puccini, especially five years from now. Iíll still be doing these things but maybe a little heavier by then. Perhaps by then Iíll have sung my first Tosca. Perhaps Gioconda, Andrea Chenier, in the future and maybe some lighter Wagner. I really want Der fliegende Hollšnder. Man, I would LOVE to do that or maybe some of the really big French repertoire, which is kind of obscure, Le Cid, something like that. I feel like Iím definitely still going to stick along the lines of Verdi. I see myself still singing Aidas for the next, I mean forever, and also maybe finally getting into Trovatore, which is typically not as heavy as Aida. Thereís still a lot more Verdi to be done, more Puccini to be done.
Verismo is really what I want to get into. Thatís where my heart lies as far as singing is concerned. Even when I first started doing Aida, there was one guest conductor for one performance, and after the performance we all went out to dinner together, and he said, ďYou were singing Manon Lescaut tonight. It was not Aida! That was too verismo. This is not Tosca, this is not Manon Lescaut!Ē But, he was right. Thatís what I love [laughter]! Thatís what my temperament, my voice goes to. I just want to pour it all out, and with Aida you canít go [all out] the whole time. Unlike singing verismo, where if you donít, itís not verismo [laughter]. Iím hoping to get to do a little more of that music as the years go on. Thatís the juicy stuff to me.
CN: Whoís your favorite verismo soprano?
LM: Claudia Muzio. Oh my God sheís my favorite. A friend and I used to sit around when we were younger, have a glass of wine, and just listen to her sing verismo and just laugh our asses off because she was so melodramatic! I have a recording of her singing ďLíaltra notteĒ from Mefistofele. Oh my God! I also love Magda Olivero, who is still alive! She is 103, but she was also just fabulous. She was a singer who some people absolutely hated because she would get up there and not care if she cracked, had vocal fry, or if something happened to her notes. She made every sacrifice possible to get her character across. Because of that, Iíll just always be in love with her and Claudia Muzio. They just kill me. They were the true verismo divas, if you ask me, those were a couple of the best.
CN: I think a lot of the expressional techniques they used would be frowned upon today. Do you think thatís the case?
LM: It depends on the country. Not in Italy, thatís certainly not the case. Even the conductor here doing Aida in San Diego, there are some parts of Aida where I put in a bit of that vocal cry in it. A lot of conductors tell me, ďNo, donít do that. Thatís not the right style. Thatís Manon Lescaut or Tosca.Ē Well this conductor, Daniele Callegari, is Italian and in those parts I wanted to hold back a bit, he says, ďI feel like you want to do it. Go ahead and do it. I love it!Ē In his homeland, thatís just the way it is. The more dramatic the better.
I always feel like you can hear when the singers are holding back for the sake of being correct. When everything is so vocally right itís boring. Sometimes you have to take risks, and it wonít sound perfect, and you might [mess] it up, but it will be worth it, because youíre getting the audience to feel something. Youíre getting them into the soap opera of it. You canít forget that youíre playing a character. Youíre not only an instrument. If that was the case, people could sit around listening to recordings, or get a violin to play your part. Why even bother singing? Some of those old school things, yes, modern day opera houses and casting directors frown upon it, especially in America. But thatís not the case in Italy or in Germany. You have to find the right places. There are some places that are still into the old school way of singing.
I have not been hired for some things. I canít say specifically what, but there was a conductor, a very famous one, who heard me and said, ďItís too old school the way she sings it and I cannot hire her.Ē Iíll go to the company where they like that old school tradition. Thatís how I feel the music, very much how they did it in the beginning, a long time ago in the 1920ís and 30ís.
CN: One more question, a bit on the lighter side, what do you listen to when youíre not listening to Magda Olivero or Claudia Muzio?
LM: I really donít listen to opera much anymore. I listen to BjŲrk. I like to listen to The Asteroids Galaxy Tour all of the time. I love my band Of Montreal, Passion Pit, more of the alternative electronic, new age funk sort of music. Thatís what I really like. I love Guns Ní Roses, and The Beatles, Iíve recently really gotten into The Clash. Along those lines as far as modern bands that perform like that old school punk rockish sound I like The Kills. Oh, man I love them! Theyíre so awesome.
Opera isnít the only great music, of course. There is so much more to music than just opera. Now a lot of people say that all of that music stems from opera and classical music, which it did. Itís all coming from the same place essentially. You can find good music in every genre. Thereís amazing country music out there, thereís amazing electronic music, amazing classic rock. The reason why Iím able to go sing opera is because thatís the kind of performance art I do. I think it helps to listen to different genres of music, to listen to different colors, different ways of hearing things opens up your ears, which opens up your imagination which adds more to your character, each time you sing. I mean how boring would it be if you only listened to one type of music all of the time? Youíd get sick of it for sure. You have to broaden your horizons, you have to feed your brain, your ears, your heart. The only way to grow is to change and welcome new things. Thatís what keeps things fresh.
Itís just like I was saying how if you go from production to production of Aida with one concept in your mind about how you want to do Aida then it will be the same thing all the time. Youíll do your one version of Aida everywhere and ďbasta.Ē Nobody will want to hear anything more than Aida. They wonít be interested because theyíll think you canít do anything more than that. But if you go to these different companies and you bring your own mark, but change it up here and there, people will be more interested in hiring you for things besides Aida and bringing you back. I always feel like listening to this other music keeps it fresh, keeps it exciting, keeps me on my toes, breaks the monotony of life.
Matthew Richard Martinez