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This Quick Study Majored in Rossini

Make your Met debut on 48-hours' notice? No sweat for mezzo Vivica Genaux, who returns to San Diego this week.

January 18, 1998|Kenneth Herman | Kenneth Herman is a music writer based in San Diego

SAN DIEGO — "Oh, great, cadenzas from Crutchfield," bubbles Vivica Genaux as a San Diego Opera aide hands her a fax covered with tiny black dots. "This is my best Christmas present yet."

This past holiday season has indeed been generous to the 28-year-old mezzo-soprano from Fairbanks, Alaska, and a fresh supply of Rossini cadenzas from musicologist-conductor Will Crutchfield is not even half the story. A week before Christmas, Genaux made her unexpected Metropolitan Opera debut on a mere 48-hours' notice. And she was a hit.

Noting that the sold-out Met audience for the Dec. 17 performance of Rossini's "Il Barbiere di Siviglia" had come to hear another debut, that of much-heralded Bulgarian mezzo Vesselina Kasarova, New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini praised Genaux for winning over an initially disappointed audience.

"It was the poignancy of her singing and her affecting conception of the character that made her work memorable. Ms. Genaux's Rosina is a rosy-spirited yet romantic young woman," Tomasini wrote. "This was a confident and winning debut."

Genaux brings her Rosina to San Diego Opera's season-opening production of "Barbiere" on Saturday. The slender, raven-haired singer is no stranger to San Diego Opera audiences, who first saw her in a much-acclaimed outing as the title character in last season's "L'Italiana in Algeri" and then in the world premiere of Myron Fink's "The Conquistador" (she fared well in the reviews, but the opera overall did not). When she returned in October to sing an all-Rossini solo recital in La Jolla's 500-seat Sherwood Auditorium for San Diego Opera, patrons snatched up the tickets so quickly that General Director Ian Campbell decided to repeat her recital a second night, which also sold out.

"The vocal recital is a specialized market, and audiences are notoriously slow to buy tickets for them," Campbell notes. "But 1,000 people immediately wanted to hear her in recital. The audience is making a statement, and that statement is: 'We like this girl!' "

"Ian has been one of my strongest supporters," Genaux says. "He really believes in me. He was at my first leading-role debut [with Florentine Opera] in Milwaukee when I sang 'L'Italiana in Algeri.' "

After Campbell saw Genaux's 1993 Milwaukee performance, he immediately offered her contracts for three San Diego Opera productions.

"She has incredible stage instinct," Campbell says. "She's one of those singers who draws you in. I noticed that people at the Milwaukee performance were watching her all night. She was a magnet every time she walked on stage."

Campbell's behind-the-scenes advice also helped propel Genaux onto the stage at the Met. Conducting the Met's "Barbiere" was Edoardo Muller, who has been the most frequent conductor in the San Diego Opera pit since 1980.

"My name came up [as the fill-in], and because I had never worked with maestro Muller before, he asked San Diego for a recommendation," Genaux explains. "And on San Diego Opera's recommendation, maestro Muller guaranteed me to the Met. Now, I had auditioned for the Met before, but Muller himself had to say yes for me to perform."

Genaux happened to be at home in Pittsburgh when she got the call. Although the Met initially engaged her to sing just two performances as Kasarova's fill-in, after her smash debut, Genaux was asked to stay in New York for another four. She sang three more, and then had to leave for rehearsals in San Diego. And she politely turned down other Met offers to sing in the near future because the roles that are open are not exactly right for her voice. In short, if the part is not for coloratura mezzo, she's not interested.

"While it is flattering to have roles offered to you, I think it is very important to be choosy about what I take and what I do. My voice is still maturing," Genaux says. "This is the road that I'm on, and I'd like to do this for another 25 years, or as long as possible. With the spread of repertory you're asked to sing--everything from Verdi to Handel--it's easy to blow it, to get swept away with the wrong offer. I would rather wait and go with the right material, perhaps another 'Barbiere' in the future."

A singer who knows her mind as well as her scales, Genaux is not afraid of being labeled a specialist:

"I would rather specialize and do what I can do better than other mezzo sopranos. When good Rossini singers push themselves to do the heavier works, they often can't do Rossini anymore. Now they're singing Verdi and Puccini along with the others, but they're not at the forefront of the people singing Verdi and Puccini--where they were in Rossini."

Despite her allegiance to Rossini, Genaux will sing her first Handel opera, a new production of "Ariodante," later this year with Dallas Opera, and venture into Donizetti's "Lucrezia Borgia" (at a New York festival) as well as Johann Hasse's "Solimano" (at the Berlin Opera).

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