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This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the October 16, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

In Song, Creating a Brokenhearted Lucia

Soprano Lorraine Ernest has made herself a refined

picture of Lucia di Lammermoor. Imagining herself as the crazed woman

who has just killed her husband, she adds to the notion of simple

madness. "Here’s the way I’m going to play it," she says of

the challenging mad scene in Donizetti’s opera. "It’s my wedding

day and I don’t realize anything horrible is going on. There’s a gap

between what I’ve really done and what I think is going to happen.

I keep going in and out of reality. Mostly I’m out of reality in the

aria. Then I come to realize what I’ve done, and I die mad."

"The visual helps in the mad scene," Ernest says. "Lucia’s

all bloody when she comes out. What makes it dramatic is how sane

Lucia seems. She’s like a rubber band that can be wound too tight.

She has no escape. She gets wound tighter and tighter till she breaks.

You don’t know what caused her to be as she is. She’s fearful and

sensitive. In the first scene she’s the only one who sees the ghost.

Everything affects her greatly; everything goes to the heart."

Opening its 14th season, Boheme Opera stages Gaetano Donizetti’s opera

Friday, October 25, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, October 27, at 8 p.m. at

Patriots Theater of the Trenton War Memorial. The 1835 work is based

on Sir Walter Scott’s "The Bride of Lammermoor." Tenor Barton

Green, who sang Nemerino to soprano Ernest’s Adina in Boheme’s 1999

"L’Elisir d’Amore," appears as Lucia’s lover Edgardo. Baritone

Ed Huls is Enrico, Lucia’s unscrupulous brother; tenor Tyler Clark

sings Arturo, Lucia’s unfortunate husband; and bass Steven Fredericks

is the Lammermoor chaplain. Princeton native Reegan McKenzie directs.

The action takes place in 16th-century Scotland. Seeking to extricate

himself from political adventures and financial failures, Enrico Ashton

arranges for his sister Lucia to marry the well-situated Arturo. Lucia

is in love with Edgardo, an enemy of the Ashton family. After Enrico

shows Lucia a forged letter designed to show Edgardo’s infidelity,

Lucia agrees to marry Arturo. Edgardo appears at the wedding ceremony,

insults Lucia, and challenges Arturo to a duel. Overwrought, Lucia

kills Arturo, and dies overwhelmed by her sorrows. When Edgardo hears

of her death, he kills himself.

Playing Lucia requires both stamina and artistry. The ill-fated heroine

is on stage for almost the entire opera. "There’s one scene before

I come on and that’s it," says Ernest. "The others get to

warm up the audience and then I’m pretty much the heavy artillery

the whole way through."

One commentator calls Lucia’s mad scene in Act III "both inspiration

and incentive." The aria is transparent, with no place to hide.

The soprano sings along with a solo flute, sometimes following an

opposing melody line, sometimes in unison with the instrument. The

vocalist needs both power and flexibility.

Boheme’s "Lucia" is the traditional version, shorter than

Donizetti’s original, and, making peace with vocal reality, performed

lower than Donizetti’s pitch. "Lucia was originally written a

step higher," Ernest says. "I would love to sing it there."

To sing at dizzying altitudes comes natural to her.

She credits the upper limits of her voice with her success in competitions.

Having won the Sullivan Award, and placed in the Birgit Nilsson and

Liederkranz competitions, she says that "it’s very helpful to

have a freakishly high or low voice. I have high voice. That’s why

I don’t have a problem as the Queen of the Night."

Ernest downplays the importance of success in competitions.

"It doesn’t mean anything about what kind of career you’re going

to have," she says. "Some people are great competition singers.

You’re really competing against yourself. You don’t hear the other

singers. You don’t think `I have to sing better than that person.’

It’s like bungee jumping. You push yourself."

For her, opera performance, with its emotional and physical demands

is more demanding than competing. "Opera is larger than life,"

Ernest says. "You’re singing all your emotions. Technically, you

need a lot of practice for the hard spots. When I have difficult phrases,

I practice every day. I practice until it feels natural. Anytime you

have the emotion behind what you’re singing, the body follows. Suppose

something scares you and you scream really loud. The body supports

the scream, rather than trying to suppress it. That’s what learning

to sing is about: how to support that emotion."

"What opera singers do isn’t normal," she says. "We sing

over orchestras and choruses. We’re wearing costumes that are corseted,

and we’re wearing wigs. And, ordinarily, there’s no amplification."

"We’ve become a very visual society," Ernest says, responding

to a question about the stereotype of overweight singers playing romantic

heroines on the stage. "We want opera to be somewhat believable,"

she says. "But once I hear someone who’s great, I couldn’t care

less about their weight. Then you realize that opera’s about the singing."

About herself she says, "I’m on the chunky side, but I’m not fat."

Ernest grew up in Norman, Oklahoma. "I’m a huge Oklahoma University

fan," she says. "It’s almost a religion." She played softball

through college, and enjoys sports both as a participant and as a

spectator. If her cramped schedule allowed it, she would play golf.

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 the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia.

She is presently a master’s candidate in voice pedagogy at Westminster

Choir College of Rider University.

Comparing opera in Oklahoma with opera on the Atlantic seaboard, Ernest

says, "There are amazing singers in Oklahoma, and great teachers.

Oklahomans have really good ears. But there aren’t tons of voice teachers.

There’s more going on on the east coast. That’s why I’m here."

She left Oklahoma 12 years ago. "When I get on the phone, I fall

back into that accent."

"Everybody sings in my family," says Ernest. "My parents

do the solos in church, but they’re not classically trained. They’re

in their mid 50s. They have high voices, soprano and tenor. I guess

I inherited that." Ernest declines to tell her age.

When she was in junior high school, Ernest knew that she wanted to

sing professionally. She keeps in shape vocally with fortnightly lessons

in New York. Joan Lader, her teacher, for the past two years, was

originally a speech pathologist. "She’s great technically,"

Ernest adds. "She’s helped me understand how to make the body

work better."

Ernest chose to study at Westminster after looking over a number of

other schools offering graduate work in voice pedagogy. Preparing

for her teaching career, she has several private students. Meanwhile,

her income from performing keeps her financially solvent.

Ernest coaches at Westminster with J.J. Penna. "It’s like being

in a bubble," she says. "He’s a genius. He knows repertoire,

and he knows languages. He’s a great listener. He works with you,

and tells you what you don’t know. If it’s a matter of artistic ideas,

we work together."

She commutes to Princeton from her home in Clifton and has discovered

shortcuts that cut the trip to 70 minutes. "That’s great for learning

an opera," she says. "I learn the words by keeping the book

in front of me on the steering wheel." She’s not sure how the

hazardousness of this form of study compares with talking on a cell

phone while driving.

Ernest considers Boheme Opera Company an exemplary organization. "Boheme

has given me opportunities to do things I haven’t done before. There’s

such a difference between performing a whole opera and just learning

an aria. When you do the whole opera you get a strong grasp of the

material. Every town should have a company like Boheme. That’s common

in Europe."

Ernest overflows with praise, also, for Boheme’s artistic director

Joseph Pucciatti, and managing director Sandra Pucciatti, his wife,

co-founders of the company. "Joe hires really good singers,"

she says. "He has a good ear." Most importantly, it’s the

warm atmosphere at Boheme that she finds winning. "Opera companies

need to make money to keep going," she observes, "but the

Pucciattis are in it because they love it."

— Elaine Strauss

Lucia di Lammermoor, Boheme Opera, Patriots Theater

at the War Memorial, Trenton, 609-581-7200. Pre-curtain talk in theater

1 hour and 15 minutes before performance. $20 to $55. Friday, October

25, 8 p.m. Sunday, October 27, 3 p.m.

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