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By Chase Kamp
Caroline Whisnant is an attractive woman. Tall, well-proportioned, nice smile. Easy on the eyes, as it were.
Not when you consider that Whisnant performs opera and makes a career of playing beautiful, alluring women in various stages of duress. The soprano appeared as Freia, the Goddess of Youth and Beauty, in Arizona Opera's production of Richard Wagner's Ring cycle last year, and currently plays a lovelorn young princess in the title role of Ariadne auf Naxos, which runs through the weekend at Symphony Hall. (Whisnant plays the prima donna on Friday and Sunday; mezzo-soprano Carmella Jones takes the role at the Thursday and Saturday performances.)
For years, opera has emphasized the aural over the visual, allowing aging, overweight and, at times, alarmingly unattractive performers to waddle around onstage pretending to be youngsters belting out love songs to each other. And for years, opera audiences have gone along with it. If a rotund, bearded, 50-year-old tenor wants to play a heartsick adolescent brooding over his "girl," who cares as long as he can sing?
But times are changing at the concert hall. Younger, hipper audiences are showing an increasing interest in opera. For them, the opera can still be over when the fat lady sings, but only if the part calls for a fat lady.
"As with everything in America, opera is becoming a more visual medium," Whisnant says from Tucson, where Arizona Opera's production of Ariadne played January 16 to 19. Choosing her words carefully, she adds, "Opera companies are trying to make beautiful-looking productions by using singers who look more characteristic of the part they're playing."
In other words, no more portly paramours screaming sweet nothings across the stage.
"Exactly," Whisnant says. "There are certain singers who transcend the weight issue. They have such an incredible, gorgeous voice that they can sing anywhere, no matter what they look like. But nowadays, opera companies are looking to get better 'packages,' so to speak, and they're getting serious about it. I've actually gone to auditions where I was told I was too tall before I even opened my mouth."
Whisnant speaks with a slight Southern twang, her words often mixed with an easy laugh. She was born and raised in Lenoir, North Carolina, a small town about an hour outside Asheville. ("I usually say I'm from Blowing Rock, which is close by. It sounds more exotic.") Whisnant comes from a musical family. Her mother was an organist and a piano teacher, her aunt composed music, and her older sister took part in a nearby music camp that put on operas every summer in the mountains. Whisnant remembers watching those summer-camp productions as a preschooler, idolizing her sister, absorbing the atmosphere. She'd go back home and tell her little friends she was going to grow up to be an opera singer. "I was a strange child," she says.
Whisnant became more "normal" as she got older, hanging out with friends, listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd, AC/DC, ZZ Top, KISS and other teenage rock standards of the '70s. It was the cool thing to do, but she never gave up her diva dreams. "None of my friends were interested in what I wanted to do, so the peer pressure wasn't too bad," she says with a laugh.
Whisnant eventually succeeded in making a career on stage. She's performed from Kansas City to Carnegie Hall, doing Tosca, La Boheme and, most often, the role of Ariadne, which she also performed in England at the celebrated Broomhill Festival.
Ariadne auf Naxos, by Richard Strauss, is considered a comic opera, a farce. It involves a boorish Viennese patron of the arts who commissions a serious opera, then decides he also wants the evening to include a goofball, comedic dancing troupe. When he realizes that he won't have time for both productions, he tells the opera composer to put the clowns in the opera. Friction between the stuffy opera singers and the earthy clowns ensues, with enough snippy asides to fill a highbrow Mystery Science Theater 3000 script. The beleaguered composer's resulting production--the opera within the opera--follows with its mix of serious actors and clowns, most of whom eventually get along just fine. Some critics see Ariadne as an acerbic, class-conscious satire, with Strauss, one of the more financially secure of classical composers, taking subtle swipes at arts benefactors and the strings they attach to their money. Whisnant's not buying it.
"Not really. If anything, our director [Nando Schellen] describes it as a study of taste. You have the good taste of the opera, the lavish, nouveau riche taste of the patron, and you have the more normal comedic troupe, with their feet on the ground. It's really just a fun night out."
There weren't a lot of yuks written into Whisnant's previous work with the Arizona Opera. Last year's Ring cycle in Flagstaff successfully staged Wagner's gargantuan and exceedingly dark set of four mythic operas. The Ring's power-hungry, gold-chasing gods, dwarfs, giants and dragons playing out story lines that dramatize greed, incest and, ultimately, the end of the world can make for an exhausting venture, especially when the cycle is performed repeatedly over the course of a month. But Whisnant says she didn't let all the Teutonic tumult mess with her mind offstage.
"It was my first time in Flagstaff," she says. "So I got to do a lot of tourist-type things, which was great. Doing Freia, it wasn't that hard to get in and out of character. She's basically kidnaped by the giants, and she's scared of the giants, and our giants wore pretty scary-looking costumes, so it wasn't hard at all. But I'm sure if I'd been doing BrYnnhilde, that's such a huge role, you spend more time working and thinking about your character."
Whisnant adds that the Ring job was a career highlight.
"I absolutely loved it," she says. "It was my first Wagner opera. I always felt that I'd sing Wagner, that it was something I'd do in my future. I was able to absorb so much and learn, and it was a big-time addition to my resume. To put down that I've already performed in a complete Ring cycle is incredible."
Whisnant feels her career is progressing well--"I'm still fairly young and working on getting known," she says. "I remember in the eighth grade, in an English class, we had to look into the future and write our own obituary--very strange--and I remember writing that at the age of 21 I had made my Met debut singing both Santuzza (from Cavalleria rusticana) and Pagliacci. When I actually got to be 20, I realized I probably wasn't going to debut at the Met the following year. So my goals kinda changed. I decided what I really wanted was to make my living singing--to perform in excellent productions, to travel and enjoy life. And that's what I'm doing."
Arizona Opera's production of Ariadne auf Naxos opens Thursday, January 23, and continues through Sunday, January 26, at Symphony Hall. Showtime for the Thursday, Friday and Saturday performances is 7:30 p.m. The Sunday matinee begins at 2 p.m.
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