Is every diva doomed?
The question has vexed Kathleen Cahill since she was a little girl listening to Metropolitan Opera broadcasts on the car radio.
"Why is the death of a female character the recurring dramatic focus in opera?" Cahill asked recently, pointing out that male characters don't perish at nearly the same rate. Whether she coughs her life away in a chilly garret, gets stabbed by a jealous boyfriend, inadvertently drinks poison or jumps off the Castel Sant'Angelo, the odds aren't good for the leading lady.
Cahill eventually turned her question into "Fatal Song," an evening of theater that throws together nearly 20 characters played by five female and two male singers in what conductor Jerry Steichen calls "a dressing room in purgatory." The playwright fashioned a plot that strings together some of the most popular arias in opera history, from Carmen's "Habanera" to Cunegonde's "Glitter and Be Gay," as the characters try to figure out who is killing them off and why. Some of them, aware of what's about to happen, try to warn the others of their fates.
"They think singing is the thing that kills them," said Cahill, who is Salt Lake Acting Company's playwright in residence. "But music is like a drug that they want and need." Mimì, for example, could escape and set up a gift shop in the south of France but would it be worth giving up her celebrated death scene?
Utah-based sopranos Celena Shafer and Jennifer Welch-Babidge agreed that keeping all the characters straight is a challenge, albeit a fun one. There were some comical moments in the early rehearsals as singers tried to remember which of their colleagues was playing which character. But the singers promised they'll make it easy for the audience to keep up. And costume designer Patti Campbell explained that while the women will be dressed in nondescript, off-white skirts and bodices, they'll have iconic costume pieces and props, such as Desdemona's handkerchief and Lucia's tartan, to help differentiate the characters.
"People who see opera all the time will get the in-jokes, and people who are new to it will get a splash of some of the best tunes," Welch-Babidge said.
"It's a smorgasbord of different, wonderful arias," Shafer said.
Steichen cited a scene that captures "Fatal Song's" tone: The heroine of Puccini's "Manon Lescaut" goes off to die in the desert at which point Massenet's version of the character turns up. Then Des Grieux, the "typically clueless" tenor character who is the love interest for both Manons, "shrugs his shoulders and says, 'All right, we've got another Manon,' " Steichen said.
"Fatal Song" will be staged in the Jeanné Wagner Theatre at the Rose Wagner Center; an extensive renovation project necessitated the change in venue from the opera company's usual home, the Capitol Theatre. The audience will be seated onstage, cabaret style, and Steichen will accompany the singers on piano in lieu of an orchestra.
The arias will be sung in their original languages. Steichen said the company toyed with the idea of supertitles, but opted not to use them. "The lyrics are peripheral" to this story, he said. "To go old-school and enjoy the music for itself is really more the point."
Singing for their lives
Utah Opera presents Kathleen Cahill's "Fatal Song," a theatrical piece incorporating several popular opera arias.
When • Thursday through Saturday, Nov. 14-16, 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, Nov. 17, 4 p.m.
Where • Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, 138 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City; the audience will be seated onstage.
Dinner • Two dinner options are available for $20 each; call 801-533-NOTE.
Tickets • General admission from $35, cabaret seating from $50; visit bit.ly/17IzD6J