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MUSIC : 'Aida' Star Guleghina Tries to Look the Part

October 06, 1994|CHRIS PASLES | Chris Pasles covers classical music and dance for The Times Orange County Edition.

Two years ago, Maria Guleghina was shouldering a rifle to sing the role of Aida in a radical production of Verdi's work at the Hamburg State Opera. "There were no Egyptians," she recalled. "No Ethiopians. Aida was white. It was in contemporary dress. I sang in jeans because Aida was a military aide."

When she sings the role for Opera Pacific this weekend, however (alternating with Camellia Johnson), she will revert to the more traditional incarnation of the character.

"Here," she said, "I would like to be the 'Flower of the Nile.' I will try to be very soft and very feminine. I will try to change."

One of the more svelte and attractive young sopranos singing today, Guleghina will not have to try very hard. Two years ago, concerned about dramatic credibility and looking the part, she made a conscious decision to lose weight.

"I was big," she said, over coffee at a hotel restaurant, where she declined lunch. "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. I have respect for the audience. People go to the theater to hear something, yes, it's true, but also to see something. I do not want people to smile when I play Tosca or Aida!"

Born in the Ukrainian city of Odessa, Guleghina dreamed of being an opera singer from age 3. But whenever she sang, her friends laughed at her.

"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. His comforting words turned out to be sound.

The dramatic soprano made her La Scala Opera debut as Amelia in Verdi's "Un Ballo in Maschera" in 1987 opposite Luciano Pavarotti. She sang Floria Tosca opposite Placido Domingo last year and opposite Pavarotti last April, both at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

But when she recently sang Santuzza in Mascagni's "Cavalleria Rusticana" in Avignon, she particularly relished the part because for once the soprano was "not in love with the tenor!" she said.

Which usually means the soprano dies.

"Usually, I am Tosca, big trouble for me. I'm Leonora in 'Il Trovatore,' trouble. 'Ballo in Maschera,' trouble. Aida, trouble."

Besides the trouble in the plot, the role itself is vocally very difficult.

"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."

Guleghina's real husband, Mark Guleghin, a bass-baritone, is very much alive. The two met while they were music students at the local conservatory. 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 declines to give her age, although she says that from the age of their 14-year-old daughter, we can figure it out. "I'm old. Over 30."

Their daughter dreams of going to Hollywood to be an actress, she said, raising her eyebrows.

Besides changing her life, her marriage also changed her religion. She became a Baptist, converting from the Russian Orthodox faith because Guleghin 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. 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 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."

* What: Verdi's "Aida."

* When: Friday and Saturday, Oct. 7, 8, at 8 p.m, and Sunday, Oct. 9, at 2 p.m.

* Where: The Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

* Whereabouts: Take the San Diego (405) Freeway to Bristol Avenue and head north to Town Center Drive. Take a right.

* Wherewithal: $18 to $85.

* Where to call: (714) 740-2000 (Ticketmaster) or (714) 556-2787.

MORE FUN STUFF:

Teatro de Danza Espanola, the Spanish flamenco company, will dance "Luna de Sangre," "Romeo and Juliet" and "Cafe del Puerto" tonight, Oct. 6, at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, Costa Mesa. The event is co-sponsored by the Philharmonic Society and the center. (714) 556-2787.

Principal dancers from the New York City Ballet will appear in various works by William Forsythe, Peter Martins and younger NYCB choreographers Friday and Saturday, Oct. 7, 8, at 8 p.m., and Sunday, Oct. 9, at 3 p.m. at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts. (800) 300-4345.

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