In real life, death isn't sexy. It's a very dull, dreary affair, so said Somerset Maugham. Crossing over to the hereafter isn't the apex of our existence nor the pinnacle of our accomplishments. It's the end of the road and we hope it happens quick, without pain and awareness.
Heck, if I had a choice, it would ensue while sleeping.
Where death can be deliciously sultry, even over-the-top orgasmic, is on the opera stage. Think the four-hour fornication fest that is Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, the lunacy of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor or Puccini's Suor Angelica.
It's one of the art form's strongest suits — that ability to halt time dead in its tracks and expose visceral struggles, those too dark to disclose to anyone but a licensed therapist.
A classy novela perhaps?
Amid a big week for opera junkies in the Bayou City — Houston Grand Opera is putting final preparations for Verdi's La Traviata, University of Houston's Moores Opera House is running Daron Hagen's Amelia and Kirke Mechem's Tartuffe — Opera in the Heights (Oh!) is opening Donizetti's Anna Bolena Thursday at Lambert Hall, a tall bel canto order for any opera company, requiring a wicked lead soprano taking on one of the most gut-wrenching, mad execution scenes ever.
Could it be Oh's most ambitious undertaking?
"Anna Bolena is different. She's intelligent but dealing with the consequences of her own flirtations, her sexual ploys."
I would argue so. Not to dismiss the small company's recent productions of Mozart's Così fan tutte or Donizetti's La fille du régiment, but fatal drama within a regal setting is too hot to pass up.
The work has experienced a resurrection in opera circles. It kicked off The Metropolitan Opera's 2011-12 season with Anna Netrebko — who recorded the role on DVD with the Vienna State Opera last year — as the beloved queen with Ekaterina Gubanova playing Jane Seymour, her arch nemesis.
Moreover, it was The Met's first ever production of this Henry VIII castle opera, the title character dubbed one of the "Three Donizetti Queens" alongside the protagonists of Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux.
The queens at Opera in the Heights
Lake Jackson native soprano Emily Newton, who has sung on The Met's stage — and also Opera New Jersey, Spoleto USA and Bronx Opera — is one of the divas who will embody the demanding persona of the historic English character. Yet offstage, dressed down in comfy study clothes, she's grounded, unassumingly beautiful with a type of humility one doesn't associate with singers about to personify a complicated tenacious woman.
Read that, no scarf, no water bottle, no vocalizing hello.
"That big warm, tender scene? It doesn't exist in Anna Bolena. It's what makes the opera so tense. Think love triangles, a struggle to remain in power and a journey to accept fate."
"I don't think Anna Bolena is a likeable person," Newton tells CultureMap. "I can sympathize with her. I've been fortunate to play other Tudor queens in grad school so in my research process to prepare for those roles, I learned about regal family politics.
"But Anna Bolena is different. She's intelligent but dealing with the consequences of her own flirtations, her sexual ploys. On stage, you never see her at her best or what she's like during her ascent to power. The action begins during her downfall, and that's the challenge of the part."
Newton will share the lead with Houston-born Camille Zamora, who's esteemed in the community through her Sing for Hope initiative, which raised $250,000 at last year's social musicale. Zamora made CNN's Most Intriguing People in 2010 list and has appeared with the Auckland Opera, Boston Lyric Opera, Los Angeles Opera and HGO.
"The passionate love moments in her life precede the timeline of the opera," Zamora says. "That big warm, tender scene? It doesn't exist in Anna Bolena. It's what makes the opera so tense. Think love triangles, a struggle to remain in power and a journey to accept fate."
At the helm of Oh's ambitious programming is artistic director Enrique Carreón-Robledo. He took over the baton this season from William Weibel, after an 11-year tenure nurturing emerging talent.
"Donizetti's opera represents a definite and pure bel canto style where flexibility and theatricality is needed," Carreón-Robledo says. "Emily and Camille are what the composer had in mind when he wrote those notes, that specific tessitura combined with the era's performance practice. It's a big risk, a leap of faith, though the writing lies naturally in their voice types."
Such performance practice involves a free rewriting of the melody by superimposing florid embellishments. Those depend in the portrayal of the character, layering emotional meaning to details like tremolos, arpeggios and swooping cadenzas. Nothing is predictable, the music flows naturally and doesn't stick to conventional eight-measure phrases.
"We are just two hometown girls making our Anna Bolena debuts," she continues. "Who knew Texas water was good for sopranos?"
"As a listener, this asymmetrical structure doesn't appear odd," Zamora says. "It's perfectly designed so that it captures the magic of responses to heartbreaking circumstances. We see the human condition written in large boldface type. That's why people love opera."
It may be tricky to learn and taxing to execute. The 17-minute duet with Giovanna (Jane Seymour) is one of the longest in the repertoire and the final scene, and the most tempestuous, is nearly half-an-hour.
"I am loving trying on her character, " Newton jokes. "Anna Bolena isn't very much like me at all, but it's fun to find those parts of myself and relish in anger, sorrow and fear. It's opera two notches turned up, so that the range of emotions within five layers of subtext is a getaway from my happy, gentle life."
Newton's family lives in San Leon.
"We are just two hometown girls making our Anna Bolena debuts," she says. "Who knew Texas water was good for sopranos?"
Two hometown girls? Maybe. Two Texas-sized talents? Most definitely.
Opera in the Heights' Anna Bolena opens Thursday night and runs through Feb. 5. Single ticket prices are $20-$55, senior tickets are $15-$41, and student tickets are $10. Tickets can be purchased online or by calling 713-861-5303.
Enrique Carreón-Robledo, artistic director; Brian Byrnes, stage director; C. Vincent Fuller, chorus master; Rachel Smith, set design; Dena Scheh, costume design; Kevin Taylor, lighting.