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Coloring 'Butterfly' From the Inside : In Costa Mesa, Soprano Elena Filipova Will Focus on Soul Rather Than Display


COSTA MESA — If things had gone as planned, Orange County opera audiences would have seen Elena Filipova last October singing Aida, the tortured flower of the Nile, for Opera Pacific.

But because of a series of casting dominoes involving two other sopranos singing for the company, Filipova agreed to delay her first local appearance until tonight, when she sings Cio-Cio San, the abandoned but faithful geisha in Puccini's irresistible "Madama Butterfly."

The switch, however, worked out fine.

"I needed 'Butterfly' a little bit more, because I sang 'Aida' very often," she said recently over lunch at her Costa Mesa hotel. "I hadn't sung 'Butterfly' for over two years, and I thought it would be a good idea to sing it. Sometimes one role comes very often, and another doesn't come for a couple of years."

Ironically, once she had agreed to the switch, other "Butterfly" offers suddenly popped up.

"I sang it in Berlin and in Seattle and in Mexico," she said, illustrating the jet-set life that is the burden or the joy of the modern international singer.

For Filipova, it's a joy.

"I enjoy airports. I know a lot of airports. It's a rough life, but it's interesting. We have time to have a boring life later. We're singers. We don't do it very long anyway."

The Bulgarian native, however, has a long way to go before worrying about the end of her career. She was born 35 years ago in Pazardzhik, a city about 45 miles southeast of Sofia, the capital.

"It's a pretty big city, but of course nobody knows it here," said the daughter of an Orthodox priest who studied voice and raised a singing and musical family, including Filipova's older sister, a professional pianist.

Filipova has never sung professionally in her native country. "It's a little sad," but the opportunities have conflicted with other obligations, she said.

She was drawn to opera as a child when she saw Mario del Monaco in the title role of a film version of Verdi's "Otello." But she was too young to study voice, so she studied oboe instead.

"It was a good bridge between being a child and growing up a little more," she said. "To start singing, the body needs to be a little maturer."

When she was ready, she started studying voice. Just shy of graduating from the Conservatory in Sofia, she auditioned for an agency in Frankfurt, Germany, for fun. ("Immediately they gave me a contract," she said. "That was destiny, I think.")

She went home, got her diploma and began her career in Karlsruhe, Germany.

"My first role was a big title role, (Smetana's) 'Bartered Bride,' and I was 21, and that is very, very young."

She continued with such essentially lyric roles as Mimi in Puccini's "La Boheme," Antonia in Offenbach's "Les Contes d'Hoffmann" and Micaela in Bizet's "Carmen."

"I worked a lot with Gian Carlo del Monaco, the stage director, son of (tenor) Mario. I did my first 'Traviata' with him, my first 'Simon Boccanegra' with him. And it was a very good experience."

Then her voice settled into more weighty soprano repertory and with it the meatier roles, such as Tatiana in Tchaikovsky's "Yevgeny Onegin," Desdemona in "Otello" and Cio-Cio San.

"This was a very normal development," she said. "I always had this dark color in my voice. We people from Southern Europe, we usually have a dark timbre, a dark color, which comes from our language, which is spoken with a very open throat--which is of course very good for singing."

Vocal color remains an important issue to her, especially in "Butterfly."

"(It) is fresh and interesting if we can put all our colors in our voice and make it come from the soul, from the character. If we start to sing with the same voice and the same color for the (tragic) second act as we do for the first act, we're dead!"

Color is not a matter of technique, however.

"Technically, we can sing very well or not, but the timbre--the color of the voice--is something we came by from birth, from our parents, from Jesus."

For those reasons, she is not concerned with vocal display. She is not likely to sing the optional high D in Butterfly's entrance aria, for instance.

"Well, that (note) is not written (by Puccini), and I don't think I'm going to take it," she said. "One tone doesn't make the opera. I did sing it last month in Seattle, in my last performance there, just to show people that I have it. But I don't think this is a point that makes somebody a good Butterfly or a bad Butterfly. Even the conductor here (John Mauceri) doesn't like it. I spoke already with him."

She also finds agreement with the other half of the production team, the stage director.

"Well, I like to act," she said. "Why not? Our business is not to stand there with wide outstretched arms like singers did 50 years ago, 'Now I have a big high note. Now I have to sing that.' That is a little bit primitive. We, the young generation, we're supposed to be more interesting."

Still, she is not a fan of radical opera stagings, especially of the classics.

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