Four Ways of Performing a Mad Scene

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Mad scenes abound in opera. Tonight, the Met's Summer HD Festival continues with Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov, offering one of the meatiest manic moments for the bass-baritone (here, René Pape). Tomorrow, the granddaddy of all addled arias takes place, however, with Lucia di Lammermoor, starring Natalie Dessay and Joseph Calleja.

My love for Lucia is no secret. And one of the most amazing things about this opera is when it comes to a full stop for an ethereal scena that can be interpreted in so many ways, making it Exhibit A when people wonder why opera fans own so many different recordings of the same work. With that in mind, I tried my own crazy experiment, asking several sopranos what goes through their own heads as they come undone in the role of this Highland head case. Read on for their insights.

Wendy Baker

“Of all of the music I have been blessed to sing, performing the mad scene from Lucia is by far the most incredible musical experience I’ve ever had. As she walks on stage, the music that is played speaks to every part of my being. For that moment you are crazed, and all of the pressure from everyone is gone. You are now with your one true love. Everyone in the ballroom is staring at you and your audience becomes an extension of those watching you in the ballroom. If you let yourself go deeply enough, you are no longer in a performance but you are actually her for just a brief moment. I remember being so involved in the character that I forgot I was singing. My mind snapped back to reality and I realized, ‘Oh, you are in a performance…you should keep singing’ and I went on with the scene.”

Anna Netrebko

"When singing Lucia's mad scene, I prefer to concentrate more on the bel canto singing than on the acting. Therefore, my mad scene is actually quite steady. I think that too much crazy acting will distract the singer as well as the audience from the right effect." 

Lisette Oropesa

“There are some directors that believe she is mad from the beginning. There are others that say she suddenly snaps because of the severity of the circumstances. I tend to favor the latter. Though I do believe that she has a poetic mind, full of fantasy and is a free spirit, I don't think that makes her any different from many teenage girls of today... The fact is, this abuse from her brother and possibly others might have been going on for many years, and it might not have. We don't know. This is why we have to establish this relationship very clearly in the opera. For me, it's the buildup of events, of course culminating in Edgardo's sudden crash of her sad wedding that makes everything completely reach a breaking point… I believe the final snap actually happens during the finale at the wedding scene. There is a musical moment when everything just explodes and the chorus begins yelling at Edgardo to leave and there is basically a singing frenzy. Lucia is spouting "God-help-me" and it's very intense.

"For me, it's the hardest part to sing in the opera, as a matter of fact! It's often cut it quite short because it's just so taxing… So what's on my mind? It may sound boring but: Technique, breath and keeping my face involved. The goal is to be so vocally secure in the scene that you can pour the greatest part of your focus into your expression of the text and the music. One of the things I try to do is to concentrate on giving the audience my eyes as often as possible, letting them see my face. It puts me in a vulnerable position because it feels very exposed, but that's the case in any aria isn't it?” 

Lyubov Petrova

“Lucia is very much of a singing role so when I have it on my calendar I make sure I have time to review it vocally before rehearsals start. But not only music attracts me in this part, but the dramatic aspect of it as well: There is a young fragile girl who is full of hope who falls into madness. To show this change and make it believable dramatically is a fascinating and challenging journey and that's why I love it.

“This is a woman with a beautiful soul, who wants to love and to be loved, and the world she lives in will not let her do that. So she creates her own reality and in her madness finds happiness. As a part of this journey it is important for me to show this possible alter-reality from the very beginning of the opera though Lucia's vulnerability and vivid imagination. However, the mad scene is unquestionably my favorite part of the opera both vocally and dramatically.

“This is the scene for me when Lucia is finally free and happy and that is what is the most tragic about it. I try to keep it real and fresh every single time, and every time all the craziness has to make sense to me within itself. I incorporate all the vocal challenges into dramatic as Lucia's way of communicating with the world and those challenges help and support each other so I can enjoy every moment of it.”

What goes on in your head when you witness the mad scene from Lucia? Leave your thoughts and impressions in the comments below.