Corrections or additions?

This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the October 22,

2003 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Boheme Opera’s `Carmen’

Mezzo-soprano Lori-Kaye Miller has so thoroughly

absorbed

the character she plays in the Bizet opera that sometimes she says

"I" when she means "Carmen." Moreover, she accounts

for Bizet’s torrid protagonist with an immediacy that even a Valley

Girl could understand.

"Carmen" opens the Boheme Opera Company’s 2003-’04 season,

its 15th, in the Patriot Theater of the Trenton War Memorial.

Performances

are Friday, October 24, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, October 26, at 3 p.m.

Appearing with Miller are tenor Thomas Roche as Don Jose, baritone

Daniel Sutin as Escamillo, and soprano Addina Aaron as Micaela. Miller

and Roche are making return appearances with the company. Reegan

McKenzie,

who made her directing debut with Boheme Opera last season, directs

"Carmen." McKenzie, a dramatic soprano, is also active as

a voice teacher and dramatic coach. Joseph R. Pucciatti, who was

present

at the creation of the opera company, conducts. The opera is sung

in French, and has English supertitles.

"Carmen is full of games," says Miller in a telephone

interview.

"She toys with people a lot. She knows what she wants and she

gets it. She’s been doing it for years. The poor soul who comes along

and doesn’t know her games gets sucked in."

"In her first aria, the `Habanera,’ she says, `If you love me,

I’m not interested, but if I love you, beware." Miller sings out

the relevant text into the telephone. "Carmen likes a challenge

and Don Jose is not paying attention to her. She thinks, `I don’t

really want him. But he is kind of cute." She underlines the word

"is" with her voice.

"Don Jose could have married a nice girl, Micaela," says

Miller,

"but he gets involved with this sorceress. Carmen keeps doing

her thing. Then Escamillo the toreador is her next victim. By the

third act Don Jose’s mother is dying and he decides to go home to

see her. Carmen thinks, `Good. I’m tired of you anyway.’ Don Jose

is saying, `But Carmen, I love you.’ I’m rolling my eyes, thinking,

`He’s going to whine for the next 15 minutes.’"

I imagine an impatient Miller-Carmen, tight-jawed, one hand on a hip,

looking upward. Her rejection of Don Jose clarifies his situation.

Poor fellow, he has a double motive for wishing the worst for Carmen.

By joining her and the smugglers, he has thrown away his chances for

success in the army. And, perhaps more important personally, Carmen

has abandoned him and is pursuing Escamillo.

Miller continues: "When Don Jose starts getting violent at the

bullfight in the final act, I tell him, `I’m not afraid of you. I

heard that you were here, and heard that you were thinking of taking

my life. I tell him, `I’m not yours. No one owns me.’ I say, `Go

away’."

Miller delivers these words in decisive staccato syllables. "I

don’t want you anymore." Here she sounds heartless. "But I’m

getting a little scared. I already know that something is not right

because I got the death card from the fortune telling cards. I take

off the ring that he gave me. I throw the ring at him. He calls me

a demon and stabs me."

"The way I want to play the final scene is: I cannot believe that

this is happening. Men are always in love with me. I’m invincible

and I have everything under control. How can a crybaby like you kill

me?"

Miller speaks the dialogue with passion. From time to time during

our conversation she sings musical excerpts to flesh out her summary

of the tragically familiar story line.

Born in 1971, Miller comes from a musical family. Her father, who

came from Tennessee, and her Mississippian mother met through church

choirs, and later moved to Chicago. When Lori-Kaye was growing up

the family lived two hours around the lake from Chicago, in South

Haven, Michigan. Her father sang spirituals in a quartet. Both parents

are now retired. Father Miller was a truck mechanic. Miller labels

her encouraging mother "a secretary-schoolteacher

extraordinaire."

Miller lived for a time in Manhattan, but moved to Atlanta in January.

"I needed a break from the pressure cooker of Manhattan and

settled

for more space and less money," she says. However, she keeps her

Manhattan address. "A singer has to have a presence in

Manhattan,"

she adds.

Miller is the youngest of seven children, all of whom,

as she puts it "did something in music." Among the siblings

were three pianists, a clarinetist, a percussionist, and two

violinists.

Miller and her next older sibling performed as "The Wilson

Sisters,"

duo-violinists.

At age 13 Miller heard a Leontyne Price recording of George Gershwin’s

"Summertime" from "Porgy and Bess" and was captivated.

"Hearing that recording made me decide to take voice lessons,"

she says. Her first voice teacher, Sally Wheeler of South Haven, has

stayed solidly in her memory. "When I was 15," Miller says

"the Michigan Opera tour of `La Boheme’ came to my school. That

solidified it. I cried at the end when Mimi was dying."

Still, Miller continued with her violin. After attending the

well-known

Interlochen, Michigan, summer music camp as a violinist, she

auditioned

for the camp’s Blue Lake International Orchestra. She also auditioned

as a vocalist. The orchestra toured in Germany, Belgium, and the

Netherlands.

At the University of Akron Miller trained as a soprano, but found

the soprano vocal register limiting. "I knew I had low notes,"

she says. "I did competitions as a soprano, but toward the end

of my sophomore year, my wins were dwindling. When judges talked to

me after the competitions they would tell me that there was more voice

there."

"My real training was at the Tri-Cities Opera Company in

Binghamton

[in upstate New York], where I became a mezzo overnight. I married.

My husband was a tenor. He auditioned and got into the training

program

at Tri-Cities. I followed him. My voice teacher still teases me. `You

walked into the audition with a soprano aria,’ he says, `and you

sounded

just like a mosquito.’ To break the barrier he assigned me the role

of Tituba in Robert Ward’s `The Crucible.’ It’s really a contralto

role."

Miller’s repertoire includes two famous trouser roles: Cherubino,

in Mozart’s "Marriage of Figaro," which she has performed

with Opera Carolina, and Octavian in Strauss’ "Der

Rosenkavalier,"

a part for which she has high hopes. Comparing the trouser roles and

her female parts she says, "It’s like night and day. I like being

versatile. People find me convincing in all sorts of roles.

"Sopranos are always nice. Mezzos are the witch, the bitch, the

pants role, or the maid," she says with relish.

"Octavian is the meat of my voice. But there’s never been a black

Octavian as far as I know," says Miller. "I would like to

become known for the role. I came close when I was covering Octavian

at the Minnesota Opera. The mezzo got sick, but decided to go on,

so I didn’t get to sing."

"There are a lot of things that black singers haven’t done,"

Miller says. "Normally, we don’t sing the leading pants roles.

There’s no black Figaro. I’m really not sure why. Perhaps it’s hard

to accept a black man playing a romantic role opposite a white woman.

A recent article in a Dallas newspaper about discrimination in opera

mentions this."

"I’m not conscious of my color when I’m singing," Miller says.

"But when I go to the opera and see no blacks, I think `Why not

blacks?’ It makes it seem as if there are no black opera singers out

there. There are a lot of us. We have so many good singers. But blacks

don’t go to hear opera because of the lack of black singers."

Miller describes yet another worry. Speaking from experience, she

says, "When ethnic children see their own kind on stage, their

faces light up. They think, `This is something I could do.’ But in

the real world, this may not be true. In the colleges they would do

OK, but in the professional world it could be different. I try to

be optimistic that things will change."

Without fanfare, Boheme Opera has incorporated blacks and Asians into

its casts and major roles, and won critical acclaim. However, the

majority of Boheme performers are white, just as they are in other

mainstream opera companies.

"Opera is predominantly white," Miller says. "But what

would happen if all the cast were ethnic? Would you not go to opera

because of that? Obese opera singers play romantically attractive

roles. Why not open all roles to blacks and Asians?"

— Elaine Strauss

Carmen, Boheme Opera, Patriots Theater at the War

Memorial, Trenton, 609-581-7200. Directed by Reegan McKenzie, with

music direction by Joseph Pucciatti. Sung in French with English

supertitles.

Pre-curtain talk 75 minutes before each performance. $20 to $55.

Friday,

October 24, 8 p.m. and Sunday, October 26, 3 p.m.


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