Having sung there over 100 times, Lisette Oropesa is a regular on the stage of The Metropolitan Opera, but only made her Royal Opera debut last November in the first revival of Katie Mitchell’s controversial staging of Lucia di Lammermoor. Oropesa has a number of Donizetti heroines in her locker and we caught up in London during the run to pick apart these roles and the challenges they present.

Lisette Oropesa © Jason Homa
Lisette Oropesa
© Jason Homa

Bright-eyed and bouncy, Oropesa admits Mitchell’s production is demanding, especially as the ‘split screen’ set means she’s on stage the entire evening. “I’m exhausted before we’ve finished the first act. On the upside, I don’t get to go back to my dressing room and freak out waiting for the Mad Scene! Running has helped me a lot with breath control and stamina. I run a lot now… I’ve always been a goodie goodie! Sometimes directors will ask you to do something exhausting like climbing the stairs while singing a phrase, that makes your heart rate increase which, if you’re trying to sing at the same time, your breathing will be compromised. This is one reason why I’m so serious about exercise, so that I’m in good cardiovascular shape.

Her exercise regime was also part of a conscious effort to lose weight to combat problems getting cast. “People listen with their eyes,” Oropesa sighs. “If they see a young, gorgeous woman, they’re going to want her to sing those pretty bel canto roles even if the voice doesn’t match. I have such an issue with that. If they see someone is large, they assume he’s a Falstaff and not a Don Giovanni. If you listen to the voice, you might not hear that. That’s why I lost weight, because my voice sounded like an Adina or a Nannetta but I didn’t look like one. I was told that if you wanted to be cast with a voice type that is so competitive, you need to look the part or you’ll be disqualified before you get a chance to open your mouth.

Lisette Oropesa (Lucia) in <i>Lucia di Lammermoor</i> © ROH | Stephen Cummiskey
Lisette Oropesa (Lucia) in Lucia di Lammermoor
© ROH | Stephen Cummiskey

“If you’re singing repertoire that only two other people in the world sing, congratulations, you’ve won the voice lottery! You can sing anywhere you want, you can write your own checks. But there are a million Norinas and Adinas and Lucias, so it’s much more competitive. There are roles I wasn’t even considered for because of the way I looked. I thought that I’d worked way too hard and was singing far too well (I believed) to be stopped before I could even enter the room. Someone would look at my photograph and say, “No. Too fat!” It ain’t right, but it’s life.

“It’s not just casting directors, it’s critics and audience members too.” Oropesa warms to her theme. “Everyone’s a critic now. Anyone can write a blog. You don’t have to have any qualifications. And these reviews come up on Google as much as The Times or The Guardian, so this person has a certain level of authority. I can tell reading a review whether a person knows how to describe singing or not. It’s like a person who knows how to describe wine. ‘Oh it tastes really good, yeah. It tastes like grape juice. I like it.’ And another person who will say, ‘It smells like it has an oaky quality, or it’s buttery or it has a long finish. From the way a person describes voices, you know whether they know how to listen to voices.”

Christopher Maltman (Enrico) and Lisette Oropesa (Lucia) in <i>Lucia di Lammermoor</i> © ROH | Stephen Cummiskey
Christopher Maltman (Enrico) and Lisette Oropesa (Lucia) in Lucia di Lammermoor
© ROH | Stephen Cummiskey

Oropesa’s performances in Lucia attracted glowing reviews all round. Mitchell herself directed the revival and reworked several things, much for the better. “Katie was very clear that she wanted me to sing my Lucia, and not Diana Damrau’s,” explains Oropesa. “She wanted me to play someone my age, a woman who was past the marriage market and found Edgardo a little too late. She didn’t want me to play a victim or a stereotypical Lucia.” One of the things to disappear was the graveyard sex scene that saw Lucia and Edgardo grinding away to the rhythm of the cabaletta. “After the first day of rehearsals, Katie decided to scrap the sex scene as she didn’t feel it was necessary. It’s unusual for a director to return for a revival, but I guess she felt she wanted another go at this. Directors are like psychologists – she could tell what my strengths were, what my weaknesses were. The murder scene is a lot swifter this time. It’s a two-stab death. We drug his wine first, stab him, then put a pillow over his head. There’s a bit of bondage to seduce him first. Lucia’s not 16… she’s slept with Edgardo!

The famous Mad Scene is long, but Oropesa explains that it’s not the hardest part of the role. “Vocally, I find the first aria and duet the hardest because it’s the first thing you sing. It’s straight in, low at the beginning and high in the cabaletta and you have to set right from the start what sort of woman she is and how intense she is, how much she’s suffered and how much she wants to be happy.

Lisette Oropesa © Jason Homa
Lisette Oropesa
© Jason Homa

The conductor, Michele Mariotti, decided not to use a glass harmonica for the Mad Scene, opting instead for the flute. Oropesa, a flautist herself, was fine with this decision. “You have a lot more liberty with the flute than with the glass harmonica, which is slower to respond. Our flautist is fabulous – she breathes with me. Mariotti rearranged the orchestra so she could see me when I’m on stage; however much you practise, I’m not a machine and it can be different night after night, so she has to be able to see me.

Covent Garden has seen some great Lucias over the years, notably the great Joan Sutherland, and Oropesa was philosophical when I wondered if she was conscious of the ghosts of these great singers. “It doesn’t weigh on me in a negative way but I respect it greatly. I feel the privilege and the honour to follow their line. I don’t believe singers belong in a pool of comparison. How can you possibly compare a Sutherland Lucia to a Callas Lucia? They were both incredible for different reasons and they’re two of my idols. We get compared to dead singers all the time!

Oropesa does make a point of listening to recordings, though. “When you’re studying a role that has traditions associated with it, you really should listen to recordings so you know what those traditions are. But I never learn a role with a recording, I always learn from the score first, otherwise there is a danger of imitating.” Recordings give you a sense of history though? “Absolutely. Fashions change. Even Renata Scotto, who basically taught me Lucia, would admit that she’d have used portamento a lot more back then, but now purists want less, or that some cadenzas are considered old-fashioned now.

Lisette Oropesa (Norina) and Renato Girolami (Don Pasquale) in <i>Don Pasquale</i> © Bill Cooper | Glyndebourne Festival Opera
Lisette Oropesa (Norina) and Renato Girolami (Don Pasquale) in Don Pasquale
© Bill Cooper | Glyndebourne Festival Opera

Among her other Donizetti roles is Norina in Don Pasquale, which she sang at Glyndebourne last summer in another controversial production. I confess that I’ve always found Pasquale a mean opera and Oropesa agrees. “So is Falstaff. It’s always in a comedy. Back then, it was funny. Today’s it’s not so funny laughing at the fat guy. You have to make the fat guy a bit of a jerk so that it’s easier to make fun of him. Falstaff is a self-assuming, Donald Trump type. At least at the end he can laugh at himself and say ‘If it wasn’t for me, your lives would be boring’. But what are Don Pasquale’s redeeming qualities? I had this discussion with our director at Glyndebourne (Mariame Clément) because she wanted me to play it quite mean.

“I can give you a specific example. It’s the bit where Norina slaps Pasquale. In every other production I’ve seen, Norina feels bad when she does that. She realises this is not who she is and the love of Ernesto is not worth hurting another human being. I believe she has a heart, I really do. In the blocking at Glyndebourne, I slap Pasquale and turn upstage and sit in the corner, but my instinct was to turn around but was told “No, no, stay with your back to the audience.” Mariame wanted Norina to show no remorse – “Why should she feel sorry for him? Are you afraid the audience won’t like you?” Yes! This is the moment where you have a chance to show that Norina is pretending to be this way.”

Lisette Oropesa (Marie) Kevin Burdette (Sulpice) Lawrence Brownlee (Tonio) in <i>La Fille du régiment</i> © Scott Suchman for Washington National Opera
Lisette Oropesa (Marie) Kevin Burdette (Sulpice) Lawrence Brownlee (Tonio) in La Fille du régiment
© Scott Suchman for Washington National Opera

I remark that Marie in La Fille du regiment is at least straight comedy. “But I think that opera is very deep,” Oropesa explains. “I think it’s about gender identity. Marie has spent her entire life around men. She’s been taught to be a man. Her ways, her mannerisms, the ways she expresses herself are extremely masculine, and then she gets taken away to this house and told that everything she’s learnt is wrong, every way she expresses herself is wrong. She needs to learn to be a female, in a dress and singing these ridiculous songs, so she doesn’t really know who she is. She doesn’t want these soft, silky things surrounding her, she wants to be out with her regiment out on the grass getting dirty. In the end, the regiment comes to save her and she gets to marry who she wants and to be who she wants. She has a noble heart – what a great character!

“It’s beautiful to sing,” she confesses, “one of my favourite roles. Marie’s true to herself. They’re wonderful characters, all these Donizetti heroines! I love them, I don’t feel they get enough respect. They’re not victims!”

Watch out for another Donizetti heroine later. Adina in L’elisir d’amore is already in the pipeline, but not before she revisits Lucia, this time in David Alden’s production, familiar to ENO audiences, in Madrid.