Sunday, May 1, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Opera Preview

Soprano Harolyn Blackwell sings the praises of her mentors

Seattle Times music critic

Coming up

"The Tales of Hoffmann" presented by the Seattle Opera, May 7-22, McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., Seattle; $49-$129 (206-389-7676 or 800-426-1619;

Who's who in the cast:

Hoffmann: Vinson Cole May 7, 11, 14, 18, 21); John Uhlenhopp (May 8, 13, 20, 22)

Olympia: Harolyn Blackwell/Julianne Gearhart

Antonia: Marie Plette/ Heather Parker

Giulietta: Nancy Fabiola Herrera (all performances)

Nicklausse/The Muse: Helene Schneiderman/Linda Pavelka

The Four Villains (Lindorf, Copplius, Dapertutto, Dr. Miracle): John Relyea/Dean Elzinga

In supporting roles: Doug Jones, Ann-Katrin Naidu, Steven Cole, Arthur Woodley, Leodigario del Rosario, Michael Todd Simpson, Scott Hogsed, Archie Drake and Carolyn Kahl.

Also: Dean Williamson conducts, with staging by Chris Alexander, sets by Robert A. Dahlstrom, costumes by Marie-Theresa Cramer and lighting by Robert Wierzel.

Running time: a little more than 3 hours (with two intermissions)

It takes no stretch of the imagination whatsoever to picture soprano Harolyn Blackwell as the "living doll" she will portray in "The Tales of Hoffmann." Tiny and delicate-looking, with huge doe eyes and more than a passing resemblance to actress Halle Berry, Blackwell also has the stratospheric soprano required by the role of Hoffmann's Olympia.

She's been a Seattle favorite since her debut here in 1990 (in "The Daughter of the Regiment"); she won the Artist of the Year award five years later as Gilda in Verdi's "Rigoletto" and also has sung title roles here in "Lakmé" and "Lucia di Lammermoor."

The first time Blackwell sang Olympia was in a Buenos Aires production, opposite the legendary tenor Alfredo Kraus — who was 60 at the time.

"He was still singing beautifully," Blackwell remembers.

"I learned so much from him. He was an incredibly generous colleague, and it was like a lesson watching and singing to him. He's a lot like Vinson (Cole, who sings Hoffmann in Seattle)."

Blackwell asked Kraus for advice, and he was extremely tactful, saying she "might try doing this, this and this," as she puts it. He instantly fixed a few things about voice production and presentation that fell into place when Blackwell applied his advice.

Now, Blackwell teaches others, at Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore (she has taught there for the past two years, between operatic engagements). It's a chance for her to give back to a profession that has nurtured her, she says. She had good advice early on from the legendary soprano Renata Tebaldi and coach Sylvia Barrachi, who took her aside and told her not to focus on heavier roles that would harm her voice. "They completely turned my life around," she remembers, "and it touched me deeply that they would take the time to advise me."

Blackwell's path to the opera stage is a rather unusual one. Her first big professional engagement was with "West Side Story," and she later returned to Broadway to star in a highly touted production of "Candide." After her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1987, however, doors began to open for her in the major international opera houses.

Her race has not been an obstacle, Blackwell feels. She told one interviewer, "I would say that race has been a positive thing for me. I have always said, 'This is who I am, an African-American artist,' and I bring that experience to my career in a positive way. There's prejudice in everyone in some subtle way, you know? Some people may not like large singers, some people may not like Asian singers, and so it's something that we all deal with. This is such a subjective business."

The new "Tales of Hoffmann," Blackwell says, is going to be "a lot of fun to see. For one thing, I get to wear long fingernails, a gold wig and a gold bustier — just like Madonna!"

A chat with the director

No Seattle Opera fan will soon forget last spring's "Ariadne Auf Naxos," in which a singer's last-minute cancellation thrust super-soprano Jane Eaglen into the title role with memorable results. Much of the show's success rested in the capable hands of stage director Chris Alexander, who later earned a Seattle Opera "Artist of the Year" award for his work.

Imaginative, funny and well-acquainted with the foibles of human nature, Alexander took a few minutes from his heavy rehearsal schedule to discuss his take on "Hoffmann."

"I've been waiting to do this one ever since I was a kid," he confesses.

"I'm fascinated with the fantasy elements in this opera. You'll see a lot of fun with props, stage sets and lots of tricks — and I'm not going to tell you about them now! Everyone should be totally surprised. I want the audience to react like young children at a magic show. I want to see big, gleaming eyes like kids watching a Disney movie."

Alexander has brought the action forward into the contemporary era (Olympia is a robot, not a mechanical doll), aided by what he calls "fantastic" Robert A. Dahlstrom sets. It's set "in our own time, but also in a fantasy world," as Alexander puts it.

Because all the theatrical elements are so important to Alexander, he has enhanced the look of the show by hiring German costume designer Marie-Theresa Cramer.

"She is well-known for the incredible beauty of her costumes," the director explains. "I think she has come up with a lot of really dazzling costumes for us." Olympia's look, for example, is inspired from a 1920s silent film, "Metropolis."

Operagoers also will see and hear two wonderful casts, the director says.

"Prepare yourself to have fun."

Melinda Bargreen:

"The Tales of Hoffmann": Three strikes, he's out

Based on the fairy tales of German writer E.T.A. Hoffmann, this opera tells the story of a poet (Hoffmann), an unsuccessful suitor who tells his friends the history of his three ill-fated love affairs. First, he is tricked into falling in love with a woman named Olympia who is really a mechanical doll. In the second tale, Hoffmann is in love with the frail Antonia, who overtaxes her strength and sings herself to death. The third inamorata, the courtesan Giulietta, steals Hoffmann's reflection with a magic mirror, then deserts him while he fights a duel with a rival.

After telling these tales, and drinking too much, Hoffmann passes out, and the woman he hopes to win — Stella, the opera diva — deserts him for another. Hoffmann is left with his muse, who (disguised as his friend Nicklausse) has been with him all along. In the opera, the four villains who defeat Hoffmann are usually portrayed by the same singer.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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