From the viewpoint of soprano Lorraine Ernest, singing Violetta, the tragic heroine of Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata” (“The Fallen Woman”), is the end of a logical development for a coloratura. Ernest, whose signature role is the Queen of the Night in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Magic Flute,” has moved on from playing Mozart’s steely Queen to depicting the crazed heroine of Gaetano Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lamermoor,” and then to portraying Verdi’s honor-bound victim, Violetta. “A lot of coloraturas who can do the Queen move into Lucia and Violetta,” she says in a telephone interview from her Clifton, New Jersey, home. “It’s a natural evolution. Singing the Queen is like the 100 yard dash; you have to sprint. Violetta is like running the marathon.” Ernest evolved through the Lucia phase with Boheme Opera in 2002 (U.S. 1, October 16, 2002).
Boheme Opera has cast Ernest as its Violetta in semi-staged performances of Verdi’s “Traviata” at 8 p.m., Friday, November 2 in Princeton University’s Richardson Auditorium and at 3 p.m., Sunday, November 4 in Trenton’s War Memorial, and Saturday, November 10 at the Marasco Performing Arts Center in Monroe Township.
Boheme, now in its 19th season, is overtly calling itself Boheme Opera New Jersey (BONJ) and has acquired a new logo. Founded by Artistic Director Joseph Pucciatti and his wife, Managing Director Sandra Milstein-Pucciatti in 1989, BONJ’s first presentation was “Traviata.” The company mounted the work again in 1995 and 2001. Joseph Pucciatti directs the latest “Traviata” and conducts the orchestra. Performances are in Italian, with English Supertitles.
“La Traviata” takes place in Paris around 1850. Violetta Valery, a courtesan, is disturbed to find that she experiences true love with Alfredo Germont, her fervent admirer. Violetta and Alfredo move to a country house and live happily. Giorgio Germont, Alfredo’s father, worried that his son’s relationship is ruining the family’s reputation, visits Violetta secretly and persuades her to leave Alfredo. Violetta lies to Alfredo, telling him that she loves another. Violetta, who suffers from tuberculosis, is on her deathbed. Before she dies, she is reunited with Alfredo.
Tenor Alfredo Germont sings Violetta’s lover, Alfredo Germont; last year he sang the role of Pang in Boheme’s production of “Turandot.” Baritone Kenneth Overton makes his Boheme debut as Giorgio Germont, Alfredo’s manipulative father.
Violetta is coloratura Ernest’s fourth major role with BONJ. She sings the part for the first time. “Violetta is the heaviest role vocally that I’ve done and the longest,” Ernest says. “It’s one of the longest operas for female voice.”
“It’s a funny thing,” Ernest continues. “Two days before the Pucciatis called me, my voice teacher, David Jones, said, ‘I think you’re ready for Violetta.’ When Sandy and Joe phoned two days later, they said `We’re putting on Traviata and can’t think of anyone else who could do Violetta.’ I said yes right away, even though I was wondering whether my voice could handle it. Then I thought, `What have I done? Can I handle the low sections?’”
Ernest is happy that she accepted the role. “Singing Violetta is a great opportunity. Preparing the part showed me what I can do. It helped my voice grow by leaps and bounds and pushed me to a place where I should be vocally. There’s no holding back on this one.”
Preparing the part for the first time is a major undertaking. For assistance Ernest has turned to William Hicks, pianist, voice coach, and conductor, who counts among his clients the late Luciano Pavarotti.
“When you’re preparing a traditional role like Violetta, you find someone who knows what they’re doing,” Ernest says. “It’s important to learn it the right way the first time around in case you have to do it again. You study with someone who knows the role, the opera, the composer, and the performance history.
‘I’ve had years of Italian and years of opera. So on my own, I learned the words and the notes. Otherwise, it would have been a waste of time to rehearse with a coach. Say I learned the first act. I would take it in to William. Together we would work on how my voice carries, and on dramatic aspects of the role. You work out ideas about the character and the tradition. Then comes the polishing, to get things the way you really want them and so the part sounds good for you. It’s a good idea to be with someone who knows you and knows your limits and your capabilities.
“Everybody has their strengths,” Ernest says. “Since I’m naturally a coloratura, I like the high E at the end of the first aria. It’s optional, but I think, `Yay!’ Some listeners wait and see if you’re going to take it. I worked on Violetta from a lyric perspective. As she’s dying, her voice goes through some changes.
Ernest is also intrigued by the emotional requirements of the role. “Violetta is so dramatic. There’s emotion in every scene. In the first aria she’s happy, sad, and contemplative almost all at once. She wonders whether being in love and having it last could really be possible for her. Then she thinks `Forget about it. That is not my life.’ She’s torn. She tries to convince herself that being in love and having it last cannot happen to her.
“You’re under extra pressure when you’re doing a role for the first time,” Ernest says. “You hope do a good enough job so you get the opportunity to do it again. When you’re performing, you get ideas about how to change things next time.
“It’s different every night and a singer feels the difference,” Ernest continues. “The audience is different. The space is different. The orchestra sounds different in a different place. One night the winds sound strong; another night, the strings sound strong. You think, ‘How loud can I sing? How soft can I sing?’”
With Boheme’s “Traviata” there is a special problem. “The first performance is in Richardson, then we go to the War Memorial,” Ernest says. “There’s no time to try out the War Memorial. I’ll probably go to the War Memorial early and warm up on the stage to get an idea of how it feels again. I did Lucia there. Hopefully, how to use the space will come back to me. The first act will show us what we can do. I’ll try not to think too much and just go with it.”
Ernest grew up in Norman, Oklahoma. “Everybody sings in my family,” she says. “Southern Baptist. Gospel.” Although her parents were not classically trained they sang the solos in church. “Both of my parents were teachers, so we kind of grew up in a house of theater. My parents could hold the attention of their students.” Ernest’s younger brother lives in Texas. “He’s musical, but he sells insurance. I consider selling insurance being a great actor. He’s fabulous at it.”
Ernest started singing in a church choir as a child and studied piano on and off from age six through high school. “My junior and senior high schools had really good music programs,” she says. “The teachers saw my talent and did as much as they could. I sang lots of solos and entered competitions.”
She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music from Oklahoma City University. Her training includes an apprenticeship program at the Tulsa Opera, and two years at Philadelphia’s Academy of Vocal Arts. She has earned a master’s degree in voice pedagogy at Westminster Choir College of Rider University.
She played softball and golf through her college years.
Ernest was captivated by opera after seeing the operetta “Naughty Marietta” during her freshman year in college. “There was a lot of coloratura,” she says. “It was the first time I saw that much vocal acrobatics. And I thought, ‘I could do that.’ Singing is another form of being an athlete.”
To keep her voice in shape, Ernest says, “I teach a lot. You get a lot of strength by teaching. When I hear people say, `I’m so tired from teaching’ I think, `I wouldn’t want to study with them.’”
Ernest likes challenges. That’s why she branched out from Queen of the Night, her signature role, which she has performed 15 times since 1995, in venues ranging from New York’s Metropolitan Opera and New York City Opera to Vienna’s Volksoper, with stops in Pittsburgh, Washington, DC, Florida, and Massachusetts. “I sing Queen of the Night very dramatically. In a way, my Violetta incorporates the Queen, the way I sing it. I know a lot of people who have stopped doing the Queen,” Ernest says. “You can get pigeonholed.”
Ernest doesn’t get pigeonholed; she lets one aspect of her life flow into another. When I mention the frequency with which she laughs, she says “I use that laugh as Violetta, pretty much unadulterated. Violetta has to be endearing. Otherwise we wouldn’t be sorry for her.”
Ernest doesn’t worry about being frozen at one step on the evolutionary ladder that runs from Queen of the Night through Lucia to Violetta. She intends to keep all three roles active. After her New Jersey Violetta she has scheduled two performances as the Queen, this time in the Midwest — first with the Cedar Rapids Opera Company in Iowa, then again in Kansas City.
La Traviata, Friday, November 2, 8 p.m., Richardson Auditorium, Princeton University; Sunday, November 4, 3 p.m., Patriots Theater, War Memorial, Trenton; and Saturday, November 10, 7:30 p.m., Marasco Center for the Performing Arts, Monroe Township High School, 1629 Perrineville Rd., Monroe Township. Boheme Opera’s semi-staged performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera, featuring soprano Lorraine Ernest as Violetta Valery. Pre-curtain talks on Friday, November 2 at 7 p.m., and Sunday, November 4 at 1:45 p.m. $28 to $68. 609-581-7200.
Tickets for the Monroe performance may be purchased at the Monroe Township Senior Center , 732 521-6111; the Monroe Township Community Center, 721-723-5000, or at the door.