NEW YORK, N.Y. – Yes, that really is a stratospheric A above high C that Audrey Luna sings the first time we hear her in “The Exterminating Angel.”
The American coloratura soprano, one of many stars in the cast of Thomas Ades’ new opera, recalled her reaction when the composer first broke the news of her daunting assignment.
“He shows me the score, and I say, ‘Does it really have to be the very first thing I sing?'” Luna said. “And he goes, ‘Oh, it’s just a laugh, you can do it!'”
Do it she does, along with many other notes nearly as dizzyingly high. (For comparison’s sake, the highest note for the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s “Magic Flute” is an F, two tones below A.) Luna’s performance can be seen and heard when the Metropolitan Opera’s production is broadcast live in HD to movie theatres worldwide on Saturday.
Luna is making a tiny bit of history with her A. According to The New York Times, it’s the first time in the Met’s 134 years that anyone has sung a note that high.
Her character in the opera, adapted from Luis Bunuel’s surrealistic 1962 film of the same name, is opera singer Leticia, a guest at a dinner party given by a wealthy couple who invites her back after a performance. Ades wrote the role with Luna in mind after hearing her perform the role of Ariel in his adaptation of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” at the Met in 2012.
Leticia and the other guests spend most of the opera’s three acts mysteriously trapped in the drawing room until she comes up with a plan for breaking the spell. She realizes all the guests have moved to the same spots they occupied in the first act when they asked her to sing and she refused.
This time she agrees, launching into a mystical, dreamlike aria that, in the libretto by Tom Cairns, includes lines like: “We, your scattered sheep, prisoners of desire/ From the four ends of the earth/ Our dreaming spirits yearn.” Once she’s done, the guests are able to leave the drawing room.
“The aria is crazy!” she said with a laugh. “There are no rests, no breath marks indicated. There are just periods at the ends of sentences. So when I got it I was like, ‘Help! I can’t do this.'” Ades assured her she could take a breath whenever she needed to.
Luna has her own theory as to why Leticia turns out to be the key to the guests’ escape. “I walk into this party as almost the help,” she said. “They have just seen me in a show. And now I’m there, like every opera singer, who maybe goes to a party afterward, you’re still on, still giving a performance in a way, and I feel like I’m almost on the same level as those servants. And so perhaps that’s why I see things coming. I’m not really one of the elites.”
LIFE IMITATING ART
Luna sang in the world premiere of the opera in Salzburg, Austria, in 2016 and again in London earlier this year. Nine of the 14 principals have been with the show since the beginning, and Luna said they spent so much time in rehearsal rooms that it sometimes felt as if they were living the story of the opera.
“We were together six days a week for six weeks in Salzburg, six weeks in London, about four or five here, in a room, for six hours a day,” she said. “The director’s off with a couple of people working out some staging, and we’re all sitting around, and sometimes you wonder, wait a minute, am I in rehearsal or am I in the movie, because you’re waiting until it’s your turn. … We were trapped, 100 per cent.”
ANIMALS ON PARADE
Before the opera opens, audiences may be surprised to see three sheep wander onstage. These are not the first sheep to appear at the Met — a previous production of Verdi’s “Falstaff” used them as well.
Many different animals have figured in Met productions over the years: a horse and donkey in Puccini’s “La Boheme,” dogs in Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier” and a goat and chickens in Prokofiev’s “War and Peace.” There was a camel in Samuel Barber’s “Antony and Cleopatra” and a flock of geese in Humperdinck’s “Koenigskinder.”
WHERE TO SEE IT
“The Exterminating Angel,” also starring sopranos Amanda Echalaz and Sally Matthews, mezzos Alice Coote and Christine Rice, and Canadian tenors Joseph Kaiser and Frederic Antoun, will be shown starting at 12:55 p.m. ET on Saturday with the composer conducting.
A list of Canadian theatres screening the performance: https://www.cineplex.com/Events/MetOpera