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Just Don't Call Her 'Aria Jordan'

Catherine Malfitano, who will appear at the Music Center this week, explains why she sings like a Butterfly and thinks like da Bulls.

May 19, 1996|John Henken | John Henken is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles

There are indications that maybe the interview comes at an inopportune moment. Not that Catherine Malfitano--in town for the first time in more than 10 years to sing the title role in L.A. Opera's "Madama Butterfly"--is ever less than gracious and engaging, as she demonstrates generously. Nor is it the prolonged bout with costume fitting, problems meeting her daily running requirements, or her desire to confer with her director before rehearsals start.

But there is the not-so-little matter of the second game of the Chicago Bulls-New York Knicks second round NBA playoff series. Malfitano, 48, a native of New York, has residences in both cities, but rooting in this series is an easy call.

"Wouldn't you rather be watching the Bulls-Knicks game?" she asks. "I'm a big, big Bulls fan. I just think they're fabulous." There's Michael Jordan, of course, and she even has kind words for Dennis Rodman. But beyond Malfitano's enthusiasm for the Bulls' performances is her respect for their coach.

"I'm in love with Phil Jackson and his philosophy, having read his 'Sacred Hoops' book," she says. "It's so closely aligned with my thinking about opera and with the goals I strive for. It's always interesting to have a cross-reference in another area of life and see those same attitudes and goals expressed."

The aspects of Jackson's philosophy that Malfitano cites are his emphasis on process over product, focus on the moment and integrating stars into an ensemble or team. Jackson describes himself as a "Zen Christian," and Malfitano has long been fascinated by Zen, yoga and meditation--and she finds a sort of higher communion in performance.

"It is spiritual for me," she says. "I have found my perfect way of being in touch with the divine in all of us and being its servant. It's my church, my religion, those moments in the theater."

Such a church seems hardly Calvinist, but there is something predestinate about Malfitano's membership in it. Her father was a violinist in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and her mother was a dancer, and the combination of those two influences--music made physical--proved crucial.

"I respond to music like a dancer; I feel compelled to react with my body to the music," Malfitano says. "I remember seeing Carla Fracci's Giselle and my heart breaking open with exquisite pain, so human. It was a transformation, a journey to the depths of the soul. I knew that was what I wanted to do, to touch other people as deeply as she touched me."

Since she sang constantly from an early age and loved the attention she got for it, opera pulled it all together for Malfitano. Her early career included an important body of work for New York City Opera, featuring roles such as Manon, Mimi and Susanna. More recently, however, she has moved on to heavier roles, and it was Butterfly that made it possible. Beverly Sills had proposed the role to her at New York City Opera in 1979, but Malfitano did not feel ready then. When she finally did try the part, in Berlin in 1987 under Giuseppe Sinopoli, it came after the birth of her daughter, and Malfitano found motherhood a key to her understanding of the character.

"The fact that I was still heavily breast-feeding at the time, that attachment to my child and all those emotions, created an incredible pull to the role that I could not have imagined in its detail and richness," Malfitano says.

She had a major success in the role, and has since sung Butterfly at Covent Garden in London, the Teatro Communale in Florence, Hamburg, Barcelona, Marseille, La Scala, the Vienna State Opera, the Chicago Lyric Opera and at the Met in New York. In October 1995, she added San Francisco to her list of Butterfly conquests.

"There's always a kind of basic nut, a core to the character that stays constant, with growth on top of it--layers added like rings of a tree. The more you do it, the more you discover," Malfitano says. "I like to do it every night as if it were the first time, but discovery rests on a firm foundation--I'm very prepared, with a lot of work in rehearsal. You can block out all the movement in rehearsals but, like in basketball, an improvisational element comes to the fore in performance, when you're living through the character."

Through Butterfly, Malfitano was able to find a greater scope and range for her voice. It led in the direction she wanted to go, to roles such as Leonora, Cleopatra (in Barber's "Antony and Cleopatra"), and, most famously perhaps, Salome. Her first Salome was in 1990, again in Berlin under Sinopoli. The opening night was televised live--to compound the pressure, she had decided in rehearsal to dispense with the body stocking for Salome's dance, which meant she would be exposed in more ways than one--and her incandescent performance has been preserved on videotape and laser disc.

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