SAN DIEGO — Dutch soprano Cristina Deutekom planned her operatic investment portfolio to return long-term dividends. Although it's fairly common to exploit young singers, push them too quickly into demanding roles, and then discard them when their voices are frayed, Deutekom knew better.
"I was very lucky to have a man in our opera house in Holland who told me, 'Be patient! For a woman, the best time to sing is the time between (age) 45 and 55.' So today, for many people you may be old ," Deutekom playfully exaggerated the epithet with mock horror, "when you are 50. (Deutekom was born in 1935.) But I had learned that, in that time, your voice is in its best shape, although not if you are foolish enough to sing 38 premieres or feel you must perform every night!"
Deutekom has returned to the San Diego Opera to sing the title role in Bellini's "Norma," which opens Saturday at Civic Theatre. Acclaimed for her interpretation of this classic bel canto role, this is her first "Norma" with the local company.
She is remembered, however, for her brilliant singing in San Diego Opera's Verdi Festival productions of "Nabucco" in 1981 and "I Lombardi" in 1979. Adding these roles to her repertory was not merely a labor of love or a penchant for singing obscure operas.
"I have sung Abigaille in 'Nabucco' at least 25 times after I sang it here," she said. "I sang 'I Lombardi' for a production in New Orleans and several times in concert." Deutekom's recording of "I Lombardi," made in 1974 with tenor Placido Domingo, was the first complete recording of Verdi's little-known fourth opera.
Over lunch early in the rehearsal schedule for "Norma," she listed some of her concerns about contemporary opera production.
"A lot of people don't know what bel canto means," she said. "They are spoiled, especially by recordings where they are constantly turning up the volume. They think that if the singer doesn't have quantity of sound, that's not good." Unlike the more popular verismo operas and late dramatic works of Verdi, which rely on the power of a singer's voice, bel canto singing is unforced, stressing florid embellishment and the delicacy of its extended vocal lines.
"When I sing, I want to have all of the attention of the audience so they are sitting on the edge of their seats," she explained.
For some two decades Deutekom has been keeping audiences at the edge of their seats, if not always on their feet. Since her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1967 as Queen of the Night in Mozart's "The Magic Flute," she has sung the gamut of bel canto heroines for Chicago's, San Francisco's and other major American companies. In 1982, Deutekom's countrymen celebrated her 20th year of singing on the Dutch stage with a gala concert in Amsterdam that was made into a two-disc recording. And Queen Juliana of the Netherlands awarded her the title "Knight in the Order of Oranje-Nassau."
What has changed most since she began her singing career?
"The position of the singer," she answered emphatically. "When you look outside on the theater marquee, many times you won't find the names of the singers, but rather the names of the conductor and the stage director. That's not an improvement--it's very wrong. It's hard today to find a conductor or stage director who likes to talk to the singers, to find out what we think about a part.
"If we go back to the time of Verdi, he was used to speaking with the singers about things. Of course, they did not have stage directors in Verdi's time. Either he staged the opera or the conductors staged the operas."
While it would be easy to deduce from her laundry list of criticisms that Deutekom takes opera and singing a bit too seriously, she revealed her sense of proportion in humorous anecdotes about her career. When her daughter was 6 years old, she took her to see a performance of Wagner's "Das Rheingold," in which Deutekom sang one of the Norns. "Rheingold" is known for its long orchestral prelude, and when her daughter came backstage at intermission, she blurted out, "It was so beautiful, mommy, beautiful. It was really a pity they started singing."
Singing opposite Deutekom as Pollione in San Diego's "Norma" will be Puerto Rican tenor Antonio Barasorda, whose first San Diego Opera role was Alfredo in "La Traviata" two years ago.
The role of Adalgisa will be sung by the young American mezzo-soprano Delores Ziegler, in her San Diego debut. Bulgarian bass Nicola Ghiuselev will sing the role of Oroveso. Edoardo Mueller will conduct the orchestra, and noted German director Bernd Benthaak will direct the production. Additional performances at Civic Theatre will be Tuesday, next Friday, and a matinee on Nov. 2.