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Whistling Sweetly in the Dark

Despite a string of successes, the young soprano Virginia Tola still battles her fears when she steps onstage.

January 06, 2002|DONNA PERLMUTTER

Some young singers with talent and the bookings to prove it luxuriate in confidence. Then there's Virginia Tola.

No matter that the budding Argentine soprano was picked by Frederica von Stade from a crowd of students, then handed over to Placido Domingo, who cleared her path to major opera stages. No matter that she has won some big competition prizes and captured wide attention. No matter that within two years she has gone from novice to sharing the spotlight with celebrated singers--notably making her American debut in Los Angeles Opera's just-ended "Merry Widow," and performing at last year's Kennedy Center Honors in a tribute number to Domingo.

"For me it's all very difficult," says the tall, runway-slender Tola in halting English, speaking about her secondary role as Valencienne in Franz Lehar's "Widow." "There was much worry for me about the debut and how to keep my mind on all these things: dance, sing, speak English dialogue, act.

"Also, I know that if I can't take this concentration I'll do something wrong. I have to work with every word so people will understand what I say and what I sing. You see, Virginia has many chances to err. But not Valencienne. So I must put the role in every part of my body. And if I do my job well, I protect Virginia. Only it's very hard to change back and forth between Valencienne and Virginia."

Tola, in a pink woolly turtleneck and slim beige pants, wears not a lick of makeup. She turns 26 in mid-January yet could easily pass for a college freshman. As she sits in an office of the Los Angeles Opera, her manner is earnest and animated, turning shy on occasion. A translator sits at the table assisting her now and then with a word or phrase.

She will add to her worries with appearances at tonight's pricey L.A. Opera gala fund-raiser and Tuesday's "Night of Zarzuela & Operetta With Placido Doming & Friends," although in both instances, the showcase format, rather than the full-on drama of a staged opera (especially one in English), eases her anxieties. For both events, Tola will contribute operetta arias and excerpts from zarzuelas, the Spanish-language music-theater form that is one of Domingo's passions. And in both cases, she will share the stage with the tenor, something she has been doing a lot of lately--and that, she says, all but cancels out qualms.

"He makes everything easy for those around him," she says. "In romantic duets he makes me feel that I am the love of his life. His commitment is so intense. He gives 100%. And that makes you know what you have to do: Give back at his level."

It all began for Virginia Tola on a farm in Santa Fe, Argentina, about an hour out of Buenos Aires.

"No one sings," she says of her engineer-agronomist father and teacher-administrator mother and two younger sisters--although a grandmother, who heads a piano conservatory, continually pushed her to practice as a child and "was my connection to music." Asked at what age she decided to be a singer, she replies, as though surprised that anyone would wonder, "when I was born, you know," but then she explains a philosophy that almost permits such hyperbole: "I had it very clear in my mind what I want to do. And that was important because it gave me more security. With a goal in mind you go and go and go. There's nothing to worry as long as you keep on."

At Buenos Aires' Colon Opera Institute, Tola was performing in an art song class when "Flicka" von Stade, appearing at the opera house in Debussy's "Pelleas et Melisande," stopped by to listen.

Tola sang an excerpt from Ravel's song cycle "Sheherazade." When she saw Von Stade among the observers, Tola's trademark worries leaped to the surface. She clasps both hands to her head at the memory. "'Oh, no,' I thought. 'She is the master. This is terrible.' But afterward she came to meet me and told me very nice things, how she liked what I did. A few days later, I opened the newspaper and saw an article about Frederica in which she said a lot about me."

Before the next "Pelleas" performance, the student singer came to the opera star's dressing room to say thanks "for her great generosity" and the two struck up an e-mail correspondence that included lots of mentoring, in the vein of "Dear Flicka, How do I do this? And that?"

Shortly thereafter, Tola entered Norway's Queen Sonja International Music Competition where, before a jury that included mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig and soprano Birgit Nilsson, she walked away with first prize. That was two years ago.

Von Stade took great delight in the win and, in a subsequent e-mail, quoted for Tola an Opera News interview with Ludwig in which the mezzo handed rave notices to the fledgling soprano.

And that's not the end of the Cinderella story. "At that same time of the article," Tola says, "Flicka was singing 'Merry Widow' with Placido at the Met. She showed him the interview and he became interested in me."

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