Preparing for an Electra-fying Performance

I discovered opera in 1996,” read a letter Classical Singer received recently, “when I watched the Three Sopranos on PBS. It was a perfect blend of opera and lighter bits… I spend a lot of time with my webpages (which started out only as a Three Sopranos site), and somehow the Three Sopranos found out about the page and got in touch with me. They were very nice, and I’m still in communication with them.”

What this excerpt leaves out is the correspondent’s age: 15 years old. Opera, and specifically the singing of sopranos Cynthia Lawrence, Kathleen Cassello, and Kallen Esperian, clearly made a huge impression on this teenager. Something important happened: communication.

Recently we spoke with Cynthia Lawrence about her approach to communication, and what goes into preparing a role. As we go to press Lawrence is rehearsing for the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s new production of Mar- vin David Levy’s updated Mourning Becomes Electra, premiering October 6, 1998. This controversial, disturbing opera was originally composed to commemorate the Metropolitan’s first season at Lincoln Center in 1967. Based on Eugene O’Neill’s play, which was itself based on Aeschylus’ Orestes, Mourning Becomes Electra centers around the doomed Mannon family: Christine Mannon, in love with Adam Brant, the bastard son of her husband, General Ezra Mannon; and Lavinia Mannon, courted by Adam and young Peter Niles, but torn by the rather undaughterly love she has for her father.

Getting ready for a role like that of Lavinia is daunting work. “Preparation is key. You have to know your music and the character, and that involves research and coaching and acting classes–a very broad spectrum of work. I stress eye contact, and making the character believable, both in her interaction with other characters and with the audience. For every action there’s a reaction; it’s your natural response as a human being, with lots of variables.

“In order to reach the audience, there must be an immediacy of vocal quality, of text, perfectly clear. If it’s in English, we can’t assume everyone will understand us.” When asked if singing this particular opera in English made it easier to interpret, Lawrence laughed. “It’s more of a challenge singing in English, not less. I have to make sure not to fall into old bad habits, with shorter vowels, clipping to consonants. One has to compensate, consciously, and occasionally record coaching sessions to check up on yourself.”

In playing a character as full of conflicting emotions as Lavinia Mannon, Lawrence found the work even more intensive. “I’ve had to dig down and find any part in my past that could be used to draw on for new characters. For the play, however, we have to bring it across as reality. The director (Liviu Ciulei) is trying to bring out in his work that we don’t make this melodramatic; everything is based in reality.”

Is a role as emotional as Lavinia difficult to sing? How did Lawrence learn to pace herself vocally through this tremendously taxing character? “Emotion…That is the trick: I have to find that emotional threshold. I take myself to the limits, in rehearsal and find my edge–before the performance. I believe a singer really can’t be uninvolved onstage, but it is a balance between that and being too involved, and letting it affect the voice. ”

All other questions aside, however, the real test is an audience. “I do know that the audience is there,” Lawrence says reflectively. “I’m always aware of them reacting, their applause or silences. It’s always fun to feel the silences and give them more. I don’t always see past the first or second row, because of the stage lighting, but an audience is a palpable unit–I’ve done a lot of concerts in huge venues, but you still feel the same unit reaction.

“Ultimately what I want to say about the piece is that it’s extremely important and exciting, and I think the audience will have the same reaction.”

Ms. Lawrence will perform in Mourning Becomes Electra Oct. 6, 9, 12, 18, 22, 26 and 30, and Nov. 4 and 7.