Opera Star, But No Diva, Elizabeth Futral

Outside of the mad scene in “Lucia Di Lammermoor” or climbing Mount Everest every year to sing your favorite aria, there are few bigger challenges in opera for a singer than singing and acting Violetta in the last act of Verdi’s “La Traviata”— okay, the whole opera, but definitely the last act.

The noted American coloratura soprano Elizabeth Futral, she of the pitch-black locks and voice rich with rangy emotions does it on a regular basis almost every year, it’s like a yearly to-do list that includes “sing Violetta somewhere in the world.”

If Futral doesn’t own what is a legendary part — Maria Callas was famous for it — lock, stock and legend, she is at least a major, controlling shareholder in the lore and history of the part. She was here at the Washington National Opera four years ago and held her audiences spellbound in the famous last act in which the consumptive consort Violetta sings her way through nearly an hour-long death scene and commands the stage with a powerful voice and a frail but unforgettable beauty and shimmering physicality. It’s like watching a butterfly expiring in a burst of musical longing.

“Obviously, the part doesn’t get old for me,” Futral said during a telephone interview. “I find something new, some additional challenge, a feeling in her as does my voice. And it’s gratifying that people remember it so.”

But now she’s back at the WNO, opening the second half of the season performing as Fiordiligi in director Jonathan Miller’s production of Mozart’s stylish, sophisticated “Cosi Fan Tutte.” Unlike the long-standing relationship with “La Traviata,” this is a first for Futral. “I don’t know, I’ve never quite felt right for the part or I wasn’t ready for it,” she said. “But I think it’s time now. And I love the setting for this, the contemporary outlook. Mozart, to me, his music always looks to the future, it’s so rich with so many layers.”

On the surface, “Cosi” would look to be one of those oh-so-clever and funny opera romcoms, full of game-playing, deception, implausible and romantically dangerous and opportunities for intricate singing and arias. I mean the plot alone is enough to make you dizzy: two soldier buddies, married to two sisters, always a little competitive with each other, get into a discussion about women (the title is a variant on the theme of men’s inability to understand them after they get them). Each feels his own wife is rock-solid faithful and true. So, fools that they are, they make a bet that each can seduce the other’s wife. First one to seduce wins the bet.

“It sounds a little silly and light, and it is very comic on the whole,” Futral said. “But with Mozart, musically, nothing is simple. It’s almost as if some of the arias and the music undermines the plot, it’s layered, beautiful, rich but complicated, sometimes at odds with what’s going on. And the arias are a real challenge to sing because Fiordiligi is a complicated woman. She’s the older sister, and she is formidable.”

You can be pretty sure that the complications of the role will shine through, because Futral, a wonderful singer, is also noted for her acting ability, not always a top priority among divas and stars.

She’s also up to a challenge. She likes contemporary opera and new classical music, and she’s performed in an opera version of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” directed by Andre Previn. “I love new music,” she said. “You have to find a way to live in the present professionally.”

In the opera world, she is something of a rock star, although she hardly behaves like one — no diva doings to report here. She and her husband Steven White, a conductor, live in a secluded house in Roanake, Va., although they don’t spend as much time together as they like.

“Roanake is just far enough away from here that I don’t go home,” she said. “And besides, Steven is conducting for the New York City Opera right now.”

That would be a production of “La Traviata.”

“We have similar careers,” she continued. “We live professionally in the same world. So, that’s rather nice. You don’t have to explain things when you talk about what happened during a performance. Not that we always agree about things. But we’re both successful, both passionate about what we do.”

Traviata. Check. Lucia. Check. Cosi, check.

Mt. Everest.


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