TORONTO—If you have a conversation with a friend over dinner and talk about something meaningful going on in their life—perhaps about their significant other, their child, or someone else they love—you walk away feeling much closer to that person.
Singer Alice Coote likens opera to this kind of bonding experience. “You stay and actually commune with someone,” says the British-born mezzo-soprano.
“In arias onstage, you get one after another the experience of someone honestly telling you how they feel. It’s such a rewarding experience,” says Coote, who feels sad about the common misconception that opera is rigid and boring.
“I just wish we didn’t call it opera. It’s such a shame. We need to think of a different word to call it.”
Coote, who is currently performing in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Handel’s 18th-century masterpiece “Ariodante,” is one of today’s leading singers, having performed at some of the world’s most prestigious opera houses. Inspired by the art form’s great power to move the heart, she hopes more people will awaken to what it has to offer.
Connecting with the audience
Coote believes the communion between the singer and the audience is essential in opera. For this, both parties have to be willing to trust each other.
“Between the people onstage and the people in the audience, something really amazing can happen. It can really be like falling in love,” she says.
Coote says there are certain characteristics that allow performers to truly connect with an audience.
“There are very few people who have all of the characteristics, but the greatest ones would have a raw emotional honesty,” she says. “It would be somebody who’d be prepared to take risks and be quite brave emotionally.”
To make opera great, artists have to take their musical technique and acting experiences and make them meaningful for the audience, she explains.
“You have to be able to, in the moment, use all of your intelligence and all of your intuition and all of your generosity towards the audience, and all of your generosity towards the story you’re trying to tell to show your soul; to live absolutely in the moment as if it were the reality.”
On playing a man
Over the past two decades, the majority of the roles Coote has performed have been breeches roles—in other words, male characters. This is a staple part of the repertoire, as many male opera roles were written for mezzo-soprano and contralto voices. (Until the 19th century, many of these roles were played by castrati—male opera singers who were castrated before their voices changed during puberty.)
For Coote, this has been both a challenge and a gift, and one for which she has earned critical acclaim throughout her career.
As she gets older, the singer admits she finds it increasingly harder to play masculine roles, which demand a higher level of energy. Yet they remain fascinating to her.
“To play as far from yourself that you could possibly play is very interesting.”
Coote says these experiences have helped her discover the shared humanity in all of us. These common traits include the need for love, acceptance, and respect, the longing to find a place in the world, to build relationships, and the need to create.
The opportunity to play another person also allows the opera singer the privilege to enter another dimension of understanding. This is especially so with music, which heightens the emotions and helps the artist to express something that words can’t express, she says.
Coote feels that Handel’s “Ariodante,” although not as well known as some other operas, is a true masterpiece.
“I think it’s one of the greatest operas ever written and it’s certainly one of the greatest that Handel has ever written,” she says.
In the story, Ariodante is a prince deceived by a rival to believe that his beloved has betrayed him. Losing his mind, he attempts suicide, which leads to a turn of events that affects everyone involved, with almost tragic consequences.
Coote finds this to be both an incredible role and a demanding journey through extreme heights of emotions—all of them masterfully depicted through the music.
“There is something about the music that is amazing when you get to sing something that is clearly masculine and heroic, but it also has a beauty to it. It has this dark and light in it,” she says.
For Coote, this contrast in the voice is a gift of the mezzo-soprano, which she says has allowed her to go to deep places spiritually.
She has sung this role several times in her career, and while every time her experience changes, she can’t help feeling how real and timeless the characters are. For an opera written in the early 1700s, she finds it to be very contemporary, and this is the feeling that British director Richard Jones has tried to convey in the COC’s production.
“He wanted to it to be like an Ibsen play, apparently, so that it would be very realistic and stark and not necessarily particularly operatic; that it would be much more like actors, or just real human beings in a real-life situation, thrust together in a small community. … It’s quite fascinating,” Coote says.
The Canadian Opera Company’s production of “Ariodante” runs until Nov. 4 at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. For more information, visit: www.coc.ca