Soprano Harolyn Blackwell believes in making her own opportunities
Seattle Times music critic
Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor," in Seattle Opera production; Opera House, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, and 7:30 p.m. Oct. 25-Nov. 4. Edoardo Muller conducts; staging by Stephen Terrell and new sets by Edie Whitsett; cast includes Harolyn Blackwell/Dominique Labelle (Labelle sings Sunday, Oct. 27 and Nov. 3) as Lucia, Paul Charles Clarke/Theodore Green (Green sings Sunday, Oct. 27 and Nov. 3) as Edgardo; Gordon Hawkins as Enrico, Raymond Aceto as Raimondo, Kenneth Gayle as Arturo, Joseph Frank as Normanno and Sarah Elouise Mattox as Alisa. Tickets are $31-$107, at 206-389-7676.
It was rehearsing the marriage scene in "Lucia di Lammermoor" that really brought home the central issues in the title role for soprano Harolyn Blackwell.
"Lucia is sitting at a desk, forced to sign a marriage contract with a wealthy man she doesn't love, even though she's in love with someone else," explains Blackwell of the role she will perform for the first time in Saturday's Seattle Opera production.
"Her brother and the captain of the guard have forged a letter to make her believe her own true love has abandoned her. They're telling her `Sign the contract with our guy. Now.' In the rehearsal, I am sitting at that table while those two men (baritone Gordon Hawkins and tenor Joseph Frank) are standing behind me, these two big guys sort of looming over me.
"And suddenly it's very clear why Lucia signs that marriage contract. She has absolutely no choice."
Blackwell, tiny and fragile-looking, may make a marvelous victim on the opera stage - but in real life she has no patience for victimhood. Optimistic and hard-working, Blackwell is quick to point out that no opera star makes it on victimhood: "Patience, perseverance and persistence are what pays off. I've never been a victim. I believe in making your own opportunities."
Her work ethic was learned as a youngster, when she was the oldest of five children in a Washington, D.C., family. Both parents were teachers; Blackwell takes her unusual name from her father, Harold, and has spent most of her life correcting the inevitable misspellings of the name (usually it's "Carolyn"). She had to send her high-school diploma back three times before it was printed correctly.
Long before high school, however, Blackwell loved to sing. Shy and quiet, she possessed a joyous voice that came to the attention of her fourth-grade teacher, who offered to give her voice lessons.
"That's pretty early," Blackwell says now.
"Your voice changes so much; it changes at 17 or 18, and again in your mid-20s and in your 30s. A voice is constantly changing and evolving. But this was the right time for me to learn the fundamentals of singing, and I loved learning. I was so lucky, too, because I was taught to breathe and to sing naturally and openly.
"God had given me this gift. I wanted to use it well."
At first, Blackwell tried out her vocal wings singing Motown classics with her family (the advantage of being the oldest is that you get to be Diana Ross, not just one of the backup Supremes). Later, her goal shifted to musical theater, and after her 1979 graduation from Catholic University, she was doing eight shows a week in "West Side Story" in New York. Touring with the Bernstein show to Modena, Italy, Blackwell decided to look up Pavarotti's teacher, Pola Arrigo; initially reluctant to hear her sing, Arrigo was persuaded by Blackwell's cab driver, and impressed enough to offer her a lesson the next day. Blackwell would return to Italy four years later, studying with other great teachers (including the renowned singer Carlo Bergonzi).
A taste of opera made the young soprano decide to audition for Chicago Lyric Opera's apprenticeship program, a time she recalls with mixed feelings.
"In many ways it was wonderful, because this was where I really knew I was an opera singer - learning such roles as Susanna (in Mozart's `The Marriage of Figaro').
"But I also remember how cold and windy it was. There's nothing worse than having to hang onto the bus stop because this icy wind is practically pushing you down the street."
Gradually, through competitions (she was a Metropolitan Opera Auditions winner in 1983) and auditions, Blackwell came to the attention of opera directors, who cast her in light soubrette roles. Seattle's Speight Jenkins has hired her for four important parts: the title roles in Donizetti's "Daughter of the Regiment," Gilda in Verdi's "Rigoletto" (for which she won the company's Artist of the Year award in 1995), the title role in Delibes' "Lakme," and the current "Lucia."
Her voice, which can float to the stratospheric heights required in the famous Mad Scene of "Lucia," originally was misdiagnosed as a mezzo-soprano (the voice range called "alto" in your church choir). One day at the university, however, she was vocalizing upward "to the point where the dogs started howling," Blackwell laughs.
"I asked my teacher how high I'd gotten."
It was a G, four ledger (extra) lines above the treble clef staff, higher than anything opera singers have to sing. And it was pretty clear that Blackwell wasn't a mezzo-soprano.
Singers can do terrible damage to their voices if they sing heavier roles than the voice can accommodate. Blackwell has been both lucky and smart, turning down heavier roles when her voice wasn't ready, no matter how much she wanted to sing them. For some time now, she's had her eye on "Lucia di Lammermoor," but it was only in the last few years that her voice has ripened sufficiently.
"Speight (Jenkins, Seattle Opera's general director) asked me three years ago to sing Lucia, and I finally thought, OK. There's a lot of middle-register singing, and my middle voice had finally developed a little more heft and presence. It was the right time.
"I knew that if I was going to sing Lucia, Seattle was the place where I wanted to try the role for the first time, and I wanted Edoardo Muller to conduct; he is so wonderfully supportive. I like testing the waters here. Seattle is kind of `back home' for me; I've done several roles for the first time here. It's a very nurturing, safe company, really because of Speight. The first time I came here, I knew I was in the right hands when another singer became ill and Speight said he was going along to the doctor. This is someone who really cares about his singers."
Now in her early 40s, Blackwell is entering what could be her finest decade as a singer. Married for the past nine years to businessman Peter Greer ("he is not a musician, but he has a real appreciation for music"), Blackwell has to work increasingly hard to set aside time for a vacation - but she is taking off several weeks following the Seattle "Lucia."
"This has been a very big year," she explains, "doing two major roles for the first time, recording the Brahms Requiem, learning the Mozart C Minor Mass (performed last summer with Gerard Schwarz and the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra), singing for the pope's 80th birthday."
All this, plus going off her rocker for the next two weeks in one of opera's most celebrated "mad scenes." No wonder Blackwell is ready for a rest.
(Based on Sir Walter Scott's "The Bride of Lammermoor")
In 18th-century Scotland, Lucia of Lammermoor and Edgardo of Ravenswood are star-crossed lovers from feuding families. They pledge vows of love before Edgardo leaves on a diplomatic mission. While he is gone, Lucia's brother Enrico tricks her (with a forged letter) into believing Edgardo is unfaithful, and Enrico forces Lucia to repair the family fortunes by marrying Arturo Bucklaw. Edgardo returns during the wedding; believing himself betrayed, he throws the ring Lucia gave him at her feet and curses her. Driven mad by her unhappiness, Lucia fatally stabs Arturo in their marriage bed, then descends to the wedding guests, horrifying them by her madness. Later, informed that she is near death, Edgardo stabs himself, declaring they will meet in heaven.
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