When Women Sing More Than One Role in the Same Opera

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Regular readers of my articles on the Operavore blog over the past seventeen months will have noticed that I often praise Leonie Rysanek (1926-1998) and promise to discuss her in more detail. If you read Rysanek's obituary in The New York Times by Anthony Tommasini you will get some sense of who she was. I was particularly struck by James Levine’s observation that “She had a fire burning in her at all times...It's remarkable for someone to combine such intensity with a voice of such resiliency and range...Somehow there is a very womanly, soft-textured quality in Leonie's singing, even in its most forceful moments.''

For so many reasons, Leonie Rysanek really was one of a kind. If, in my previous article about singers who evolved to take on multiple roles in the same opera, my focus was on Plácido Domingo, in this case I could point to several great female singers who showed such versatility, but Rysanek will be the foremost example as I will discuss below in her assumption of three roles in Elektra. I promise you another article soon about Rysanek’s greatness in operas in which she only did one role.

Most singers who have done more than one important role in an opera usually specialized in operas by German and Austrian composers. There are more opportunities than in works by Italian composers. While Rysanek, early in her career, did a fair amount of Italian roles and Eva Marton balanced Italian and German parts for most of her career, artists such as Birgit Nilsson, Hildegard Behrens and Waltraud Meier did only a few roles that were not part of the central German canon.  

In many operas by Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti and Verdi, there is the prima donna soprano and, if there is another female role, she is usually a mezzo who is either the lady-in-waiting (to the likes of Lucia or Violetta) or the rival for the love of a man (Giovanna Seymour to Anna Bolena). There are few circumstances in which a singer could go from one role to the other in most operas by these composers. In Bellini’s Norma, the title character is a soprano while Adalgisa has been sung by mezzos (Shirley Verrett) or sopranos (Montserrat Caballé, who sang this role as well as Norma). In 1952, early in her career, Joan Sutherland was Clotilde, the servant to Maria Callas’s Norma, before singing the title role herself more than a decade later.

In Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore, the leading role of Adina and the supporting role Giannetta have been sung by the same soprano (Dawn Upshaw and Nicole Cabell, to name two), with the singer playing Giannetta often being the understudy for Adina.

The Verdian exception is in Aïda, where mezzos such as Verrett and Grace Bumbry have successfully gone from being memorable Amnerises to credible though incomplete Aïdas.  There are a couple of Verdi operas that have two distinct soprano roles though, in each, one is a star and the other is not even seen by the audience. In Aïda, many fine young voices have been heard as the Priestess and some of these went on to major careers. Lucine Amara sang the Priestess at the Met from 1951 to 1953 and then sang Aïda in 1959. Sondra Radvanovsky was the Priestess at the Met from 1997-1999 and finally sang one performance as Aïda there on February 28, 2012. Let us hope she is asked back to do many more.

With Rysanek singing Elisabetta in Don Carlo, on March 14, 1959, a 22-year-old Martina Arroyo made her Met debut in the heard-but-not-seen role of the Celestial Voice. This tiny part is often the launching pad for big careers. On September 20, 1971, Arroyo was Elisabetta on the Met’s opening night, with Domingo as Carlo.

Just as many bass-baritones in Mozart’s Don Giovanni have sung both the Don and Leporello, numerous sopranos, including Carol Vaness and Barbara Frittoli, have sung Donna Anna and Donna Elvira. The roles are both quite difficult and singers who can hit all of Anna’s notes are often asked to play her. Many sopranos find Elvira, with her comic potential, more interesting to play, and her music is very difficult too. Here is Vaness as Anna: 

And as Elvira:

Mozart wrote several other operas with two soprano roles, including Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail (Kostanze and Blondchen); Idomeneo (Elettra, Ilia); Le Nozze di Figaro (Susanna, Countess Almaviva); and La Clemenza di Tito (Vitellia, Servilia). This last opera also has two trouser roles for mezzo (Sesto, Annio) and many singers (Ann Murray, Sarah Connolly) have sung both, often in the same run of performances. Cosi fan tutte is unusual in that the two sisters are a soprano (Fiordiligi) and a mezzo (Dorabella) while their maid, Despina has been sung by sopranos (Dawn Upshaw) and mezzos (Cecilia Bartoli). This changes the tonal balance significantly and always in interesting ways.

In Die Zauberflöte at the Met, in November 2007, Diana Damrau achieved the rare feat of singing the Queen of the Night  and her daughter Pamina three days apart. 

Evelyn Lear, a great Pamina but no Queen of the Night, was unforgettable as Berg’s Lulu in the 1960s and, by 1980, was doing the Countess Geschwitz in the same opera at the Met as her voice lowered in range.

In Wagner, Waltraud Meier sang the mezzo Brangäne before later becoming a sublime Isolde in a role that lies higher. Rysanek was a heavenly Elsa in Lohengrin in 1958 opposite the evil Ortud of Astrid Varnay. Eva Marton was Elsa opposite Rysanek’s Ortrud at the Met in the 1980s and later took on the role of Ortrud.  I imagine that Karita Mattila and perhaps Deborah Voigt will leave Elsa behind one day and play Ortrud.

Channeling Mozart, Richard Strauss wrote several operas with more than one great female role, mostly for soprano. Even in operas, such as Der Rosenkavalier, in which one role (Octavian) is for mezzo, the other two roles are accessible to some singers in that the Marschallin is a lyric soprano role and the ingenue Sophie verges on the higher coloratura. This means that a soprano such as Helen Donath, who could sing Sophie in her youth, might go on to the more womanly role of the Marschallin. In other circumstances, certain Octavians can become a Marschallin. The great German mezzo Christa Ludwig was most famous as Octavian but also sang a beautiful Marschallin. I wonder if Joyce DiDonato might one day do the same.

Gwyneth Jones, who was once a formidable Salome, now occasionally performs the role of her mother Herodias. In Die Frau ohne Schatten, Rysanek often sang the Kaiserin opposite the Dyer’s Wife of either Nilsson or Ludwig. Later on, Marton sang the Kaiserin with Nilsson but went on the play the Dyer’s Wife. In Arabella there are two sopranos, the womanly title character and the more girlish-sounding Zdenka, her sister. While an example of a soprano who has done both roles does not immediately come to mind, I am sure there is one.

Strauss’s Elektra has three glorious female roles: the crazed and dramatic Elektra, her co-dependent sister Chrysothemis and their malevolent mother Klytemnestra. Rysanek was unforgettable as all three. Elektra is an incredibly hard role and she wisely never performed it live. She did, however, make a film that is an amazing document of what she could do with the role. Her Chrysothemis was phenomenal, especially with Nilsson as Elektra--only Voigt’s comes close. And Rysanek’s last-ever performance was an extraordinary Klytemnestra in Salzburg facing the Elektra of Behrens.

Here is a total immersion in Elektra with Rysanek in each role:

From the Met (1981) with Nilsson (age 63) in the title role, Rysanek as Chrysothemis and the wonderful Mignon Dunn as Klytemnestra. James Levine conducts.  

The entire 1981 Elektra film with Rysanek in the title role, Catarina Ligendza as Chrysothemis and Astrid Varnay as Klytemnestra. Karl Böhm conducts. 

The entire 1991 Elektra from Orange Festival in France, with Gwyneth Jones as Elektra, Rysanek as Klytemnestra and Elizabeth Connell as Chrysothemis. Marek Janowski conducts.  

Note: This is the second of two articles in a series. Fred Plotkin's related article about men who have played multiple roles in the same opera was published last week.