Soprano Lisette Oropesa portrays the tragic star of Gaetano Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lamermoor” on opening night for Opera New Jersey’s 2009 season at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre on Friday, July 10. But playing comic characters is also part of her background. The thoughtful, perky 25-year-old, simultaneously down-to-earth and insightful, reflects on the difference between tragic and comic roles in a telephone interview from her home in New Orleans.

“Comic characters don’t often deal with life and death,” Oropesa says. “When it’s comedy you have to make the audience love the character. Then you can sing them as character roles; you can make funny sounds, make funny faces, and move funny. In some ways comic roles are easier.

“With a tragic heroine you have to keep her plausible. Tragic heroines often do ridiculous things. You don’t want to make the audience think: `What an idiot to do those stupid things. I can’t believe that Gilda went banging on the door for that no-good duke.’” She refers to the moment in Verdi’s Rigoletto when the naive Gilda, blinded by love, is doomed to death because she knocks on the door of the inn where her lover, the shameless duke, is having a tryst with another woman.

Oropesa’s observation is a handy point of entry for Opera New Jersey’s current season, which consists of one tragedy and two comedies. Running from Friday, July 10, to Sunday, July 26, at McCarter, the productions consist of “Lucia” on July 10, 18, and 26 (matinee); Mozart’s “Abduction from the Seraglio” on July 11, 16, 19 (matinee), and 24; and Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado” on July 12 (matinee), 17, and 25. Matinee performances are at 2 p.m. Except for the July 16 performance of “Abduction,” which begins at 7:30 p.m., evening performances are at 8 p.m. Performances of “Lucia” and “Mikado” take place in the large Matthews Theater at McCarter. “Abduction” is presented in the 243-seat Berlind Theater.

“Lucia di Lamermoor” is based on Sir Walter Scott’s 1819 novel “The Bride of Lamermoor.” The opera premiered in 1835, within 20 years of the publication of the novel. The setting is 16th century Scotland. Lord Henry Ashton (Enrico) wishes his sister, Lucia, to marry Arthur Bucklaw (Arturo). She, however, loves Edgar of Ravenswood (Edgardo), an enemy of the family. Henry shows Lucia a forged letter which reveals Edgardo’s supposed commitment to another woman. Dismayed, Lucia agrees to marry Arturo. After the wedding ceremony, Lucia murders Arturo. She then goes mad and dies. Hearing about her death, Edgardo kills himself.

The “mad” scene is a high point of the opera dramatically and musically. A display of virtuoso vocalism, the solo segment requires Lucia to hold the attention of the audience for 20 minutes. For an extended period, Lucia sings with the accompaniment of a solo flute; sometimes instrument and voice are in unison.

I ask Oropesa how she prepares for the task. “It’s a challenge,” she says. “The ‘mad’ scene comes at the end of the opera, after you’ve already sung the rest of it. It follows lots of physical activity — throwing things, and being on the ground; you have to have stamina.

“Vocal preparation is basic. It’s not just a matter of psychological preparation. If you’re not there vocally, you’ll ruin your performance. You want your voice to be a palette; you want to use all the colors that God gave you. You want to give out emotion without hurting yourself vocally or doing anything weird. Technique is the foundation.

“I do warm-up exercises for building up my voice and keeping in shape,” Oropesa continues. “Besides that, there’s eating well, drinking a lot of water, getting exercise, and sleeping well. I don’t feel my best after a whole pizza. I feel best when I can be agile and have my voice do what I want.

‘I’ve spent a couple of years learning ‘Lucia’ and coaching for the role,” Oropesa says. “You’re doing psychological preparation all along, but you can overdo it. I tend to be too emotional and too involved. That can be dangerous. My goal is to be there emotionally and still have the space to feel comfortable in the role. I don’t want to hurt myself vocally. Still, it’s important to be in the moment for the performance, and not fake it emotionally.”

Donizetti’s writing helps convey the character of Lucia, Oropesa says. “It’s already there in the score. Luckily enough, a lot of sounds that a mad person makes are written into the music. There are passages where Lucia goes a long time without taking a breath; the phrases are extremely long. She’s not even conscious that she needs to breathe. Then, there are extremely high notes, extremely low notes, and lots of runs.

“In the mad scene, the text says one thing, and the vocalism says something else. In the section with the flute there are a couple of moments of complete insanity. People are scared of you when you sing that.

“I don’t have to add a whole lot to the mad scene,” Oropesa concludes. She has encountered a similar situation in Giacomo Puccini’s “La Rondine,” where she sings the comic role of the maid. “There, too, the interpretation was already written into the music. I never thought I had to ‘try’ [she underlines the word with her voice] to make it funny.”

Oropesa sings each day, but guards against overstressing her voice. She limits the amount of time she spends singing aloud; and she limits her vocal volume. “I do a lot in my head,” she says. “Once I know the entire role, I start making a sound. I can sight read pretty well, but if I’m in my room, learning a role, I’m not going to sing. You can understand a role without making any sound. I believe in conserving my voice. I want to practice efficiently. You can sing a lot, a lot, a lot, and tire yourself out. If I’m going to exert myself two hours a day, I want to practice the hard parts and the transitions, not work on the parts that I sing very well.”

“On the other hand, you have to be able to sing the entire role,” Oropesa says. “I don’t believe in ‘marking’ — singing down an octave or singing softly. With colleagues, I believe in singing out. It’s like lifting weights. ‘Marking’ the whole time and singing out for the first time at the performance is not wise. It’s like not rehearsing at all.

“Of course, if have to rehearse a scene three or four times in a row, I will not sing full voice. Or take the ‘mad’ scene. You can’t sing it six times in a row without ‘marking.’”

Oropesa was born in New Orleans and raised in Baton Rouge. Her mother, a singer, has a degree in vocal performance. “She’s one of the greatest singers I ever heard,” Oropesa says. “After my sister and I were born, she decided she needed a regular gig; now she teaches public school in Baton Rouge. I’m the oldest of three. Both of my sisters are musical, but they don’t admit it. We used to harmonize, and do karaoke. My dad has had muscular dystrophy for as long as I can remember. He couldn’t walk well, and cooked for us when we were young.

“I played flute for about 12 years because I didn’t want to copy my mother. When I was finishing high school, my mom said, ‘You would like opera; you like reading and there’s a lot of literature in opera. I auditioned for Robert Grayson at Louisiana State University. He wanted me to be part of the vocal program. For a while, I did flute and vocal, but I realized that I couldn’t keep up.

“If not for the flute, I would have missed out on several advantages that I have,” Oropesa says. “The flute has the same range as my voice. By studying flute I learned to sight read well, I learned scales, and developed a good sense of theory. I could take musical dictation, or analyze chords.

“Even now, I finger through vocal parts as if I were playing them on the flute. I know what different pitches feel like. I play piano by ear, and am able to listen. A lot of singers get by on how pretty their voices are.”

Oropesa was a winner in the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, a four-tier nationwide search for talented young singers. The entry level of the competition takes place in 45 districts. District winners compete in 15 regions. The regional winners earn a trip to New York for the semi-finals, where approximately 10 competitors are selected for the finals. Finalists compete in a public concert accompanied by the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. Five of the finalists are chosen as Grand Winners.

“It was like American Idol,” Oropesa says. “I couldn’t believe that I kept going on to the next round. They spend a lot of time preparing you for the finals with orchestra. You get to know what coaching is like at the Met. You sit in the cafeteria and see famous artists walk by.

‘Then I was in the Met’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program,” Oropesa says. “It was like three years more of the finals. It was like grad school.” The Lindeman program offers rigorous, comprehensive training to prepare young artists for major careers in opera.

In 2007, while Oropesa was in the Lindemann program, the Met called her on short notice to substitute as Susanna in Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro.” “It was a blur,” she says. “I was asked to cover the role because the person singing Susanna was very pregnant. The night before the final dress rehearsal, they said they wanted to put me on for that and for the first and second performances.

“I rehearsed for six hours the day of the dress rehearsal,” Oropesa says. “Luckily for me, I had sung the role before. My colleagues helped. My Figaro [Erwin Schrott] was very physical and improvisational. We just went with the flow. The ‘Marriage of Figaro’ is all in the text: ‘Come over here.’ ‘Go fetch something there.’ It’s not like filling time as in ‘bel canto.’ It’s a perfect opera. I felt scared, but I felt wonderful. Susanna is a chance to be serious and funny at the same time.”

In contrast to being catapulted into “Figaro,” Oropesa’s participation in “Lucia” is leisurely. She sings the role for the first time in a fully-staged performance with Opera New Jersey on Friday, July 10, after rehearsals over a period of more than three weeks. “I’m glad it’s a traditional version of the opera,” she says.

Lucia di Lammermoor, Opera New Jersey, McCarter Theater. Friday, July 10, 8 p.m.; Saturday, July 18, 8 p.m.; and Sunday, July 26, 2 p.m. Donizetti opera. $15 to $110. 609-258-2787.

Abduction from the Seraglio, Opera New Jersey, Berlind at McCarter Theater. Saturday, July 11, 8 p.m.; Thursday, July 16, 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, July 19, 2 p.m.; and Friday, July 24, 8 p.m. Mozart opera. $59 to $90.

The Mikado, Opera New Jersey, McCarter Theater. Sunday, July 12, 2 p.m.; Friday, July 17, 8 p.m.; and Saturday, July 25, 8 p.m. Gilbert & Sullivan. $15 to $110.

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