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Vocal Ugly Duckling Now a Swan : Opera: Soprano Maria Guleghina, who will sing the title role in 'Aida' in Costa Mesa, recalls early doubts about her voice.


From the age of 3, Maria Guleghina dreamed of being an opera singer. But as a child living in Odessa, Ukraine, her dream didn't bring her much joy. "Every time I sang, my friends laughed at me," Guleghina remembered over coffee recently. "I had such a large voice. They said, 'You sing like an elephant,' and I always cried."

Her father would soothe her and tell her not to worry.

"My father (a factory worker who died 12 years ago) had a beautiful voice," she recalled. "And my mother (a microbiology professor) also had a voice, but not big like mine. They always sang around the house. When I was ill, he would take me in his arms and sing Armenian songs for me, and my mother would take me in her arms and sing Ukrainian songs."

Her father's comforting words about her own singing turned out to be sound advice.

The soprano made her La Scala Opera debut as Amelia in Verdi's "Un Ballo in Maschera" in 1987 opposite Luciano Pavarotti. She sang Tosca opposite Placido Domingo last year and opposite Pavarotti in April, both at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Beginning Saturday, she sings the title role in Verdi's "Aida" for Opera Pacific (alternating with Camellia Johnson).

And if Guleghina had doubts about making opera her career, her mother didn't. "One night, my mom had a dream and she said, 'Maria, in my dream, you made your debut at La Scala.' " So one day she marched the self-conscious teen-ager into the local conservatory for an audition.

"The teacher asked me, 'What do you want to sing?' I said, 'I don't know.' And she said, 'Why do you come here?' I said, 'I don't know!' "

She sang "Edelweiss" and a Russian song "so loud, (the teacher) said, 'She can drink milk.' You know, in Russia, when people work in a very dangerous factory, the factory gives them milk, for their health. She said, 'Somebody will give you milk to help your voice.' "

Guleghina was enrolled in the conservatory, where she met her husband, Mark Guleghin, a bass-baritone. They got married when she was 15 and he was 17. "We were too young," she said. "Two children in the conservatory. But it's OK. In Russia, it's OK. We finish at school usually at 16 or 17, and after that, we're free."

Guleghina declined to give her age, although she said that from the age of their 14-year-old daughter, "you can calculate it. I'm old. Over 30." Their daughter dreams of going to Hollywood to be an actress, she said, raising her eyebrows.

Although she and her husband sang the major roles together in Tchaikovsky's "Yevgeny Onegin" at the conservatory, basically it has been her career that has taken off and he now takes the role of her beloved "teacher and coach," she said, beaming.


Marrying Guleghin, she became a Baptist, converting from the Russian Orthodox faith, because he and his family are Baptists. In doing so, she learned how his family suffered persecution because of their beliefs.

"My husband's grandfather was sent to Siberia for this, for 10 years," she said. "At that time, around 1933-35, someone came to the house and asked him, 'Do you read the Bible with your children?' He said, 'Yes.' 'Do you sing hymns with your children?' 'Yes.' 'OK. Ten years.' It was terrible. When he came out, 'rehabilitated,' he was a broken man. He died soon after. That is why I love America. America saved our family. We came to California as refugees."

But California is not yet exactly "home" yet. "My home? Oh, I don't know," Guleghina said. "It's a very difficult question. It depends on my work. I have a house in Russia. I have a new house in Hamburg. I have a house in Sacramento, where the parents of my husband live, but they're my parents also. I don't know. Maybe, when I will be old, I don't know, I will live only in America."

She has sung Aida before, but in a radical production at the Hamburg State Opera. "There were no Egyptians," she said. "No Ethiopians. Aida was white (not black). It was in contemporary dress. I sang in jeans because Aida was a military aide. It was a completely different character.

"Here I would like to be the (traditional) 'flower of the Nile.' I will try to be very soft and very feminine. I will try to change. Two years, I sang Aida like this," she said, aiming an imaginary rifle.

Vocally, she said, the role is "very hard because Verdi wrote the first and second acts for a dramatic soprano and the third and fourth acts for a very light soprano, really for a different type of voice. But I don't need to change my voice."

Concerned about dramatic credibility, Guleghina, who is one of the more svelte and attractive young sopranos singing today, made a conscious decision to lose weight. "I was big two years ago," she said. "Not big like some sopranos, but I was bigger than I am now. One day I looked intensely in the mirror and I understood, it's not me. I decided to change completely. I lost about 30 pounds."

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