Lisette Oropesa: ‘We must not cancel classic operas. They're our history'

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Having a moment: Lisette Oropesa – Rii Schroer

Last month, as the Royal Opera House mounted its first major production since the pandemic, Rigoletto, all eyes were
on its female lead. Lisette Oropesa, the Cuban-American soprano playing Gilda, did not disappoint, with the Telegraph critic Nicholas Kenyon describing “a wonderfully complete piece of singing, her ‘Caro nome’ precise and emotional in every detail”.

It is clear that the 38-year-old Oropesa is having a moment, after a decade which has seen her steadily grow in stature, with standout roles at the New York Met as Manon and at Glyndebourne in Don Pasquale.

This week, she will be playing Violetta in the Royal Opera House’s acclaimed version of La traviata, directed by Richard Eyre. The production, first staged in 1994, has been a calling card for many (notably Angela Gheorghiu) and made an initially sceptical Eyre fall in love with opera. For Oropesa, Eyre’s direction, unlike most, doesn’t put the tragic courtesan (used, abused and ultimately consumptive) on stage throughout.

Oropesa approves – it makes performing Violetta less exhausting – yet it is not an easy role for her. “It is hard for me because I had such a religiously conservative upbringing. I didn’t know about sex. I didn’t know what a period was. I mean, I am the furthest thing from a prostitute. For some singers, playing the hottest girl in the room is easy, but not for me. That is when I have to act and pretend that the sun shines out of my a–.

“I grew up looking very different, had body image issues which I carry around with me and which will always be there. But when I am Violetta, I have to pretend that they are not.”

Oropesa doesn’t strike you as having any such insecurities; she radiates clear intelligence and a relaxed volubility, chatting to me within the Royal Opera House while her husband (childhood sweetheart Steven Harris, originally from
Canada, with whom she reunited via Facebook – “before it became the devil incarnate”) listens politely. The pair are avowed Anglophiles, fans of The Crown, members of English Heritage and lovers of the English accent. “Even the trashiest ones sound elegant to me,” she says.

Tragic victim: Oropesa as Gilda in the ROH’s recent Rigoletto, directed by Oliver Mears – Ellie Kurttz

She tells me she has a love of literature (the Brontës are an obsession), and I wonder whether that is why she has such a close, intellectually driven understanding of the text which brings out Violetta’s struggle with the divine.
“For a courtesan, she talks a heck of a lot about God,” says Oropesa. “When she leaves her past life behind she talks about God’s forgiveness, about repentance. You know, ‘God forgives me because that is what God does.’

“And when she doesn’t get better, she gets angry, because she feels the trust she put in Him has been betrayed. He has let her die young.”

Oropesa’s churchgoing in Louisiana may have been restrictive, but her upbringing appears to have been very happy – and musical. She and her sisters and her aunts all sang and harmonised, while her grandfather recorded it all. The best voice, she tells me, belonged to her mother, “the greatest singer in the universe”, who was crucial in persuading the young Oropesa to pursue opera (among many other things, she wanted to be a flautist and an animator).

“It was my mum’s dream for herself but she gave it up to have kids. She tells me that she is happier that the dream came true for me, and that is a mother’s love. I know she doesn’t resent me.”

Her mother now must be incredibly proud, her daughter rising further up what she describes as a “pyramid” with stars such as Jonas Kaufmann at the top. Oropesa tells me that she has never needed to be at the apex. “I just needed to be happy.”
I ask her to explain. “As you creep up the pyramid, the pressure mounts and that life comes with a lot of baggage.

“If Jonas Kaufmann has an infection, the whole world knows about it.” And of course, the fans are left bitterly disappointed, I suggest. Oropesa nods. “Oh yeah. ‘How dare you cancel on me.’ ”

Opera to many seems glamorous, and Oropesa is honest enough to state that it sometimes is. And yet, she is also keen to point out its precariousness. She has been one of several performers trying to effect change by pushing the American Guild of Musical Artists to provide healthcare for soloists, and stresses that when Covid caused many of her engagements to be cancelled, she got nothing from the American institutions that had booked her. (The UK and Europe at least had policies in place to pay her a small amount.)

She is also an adviser for the Met’s National Council, and advocates that talented young singers should not have any financial barrier. Oropesa reels off a list of expenses – flights to New York, hotel rooms, dresses, accompanists, professional photographs, language lessons, admission fees.

“It is not cheap, and often the people who are successful very young are those who have money behind them. When I won a competition, I didn’t even have a gown, so two ladies from my church bought me clothes and shoes so I wouldn’t show up in New York looking haggard!”

Oropesa has already sung many of the great roles in the repertoire, and her future schedule looks set to build on this success. Before the year is out, she will play the lead in Handel’s Theodora at La Scala in Milan and another title role, Lucia di Lammermoor at Vienna’s Staatsoper (her performance as Lucia at the Royal Opera House in 2017 is now widely regarded as a game-changer, both in terms of her career, and what she brought to the role of the emotionally fragile heroine who is caught in a family feud).

But it is a hard time to take on roles from the 18th and 19th centuries when current concerns label certain operas such as Madama Butterfly and indeed Rigoletto as “problematic”. Last week, the Royal Opera House said it would be assessing certain works for cultural sensitivities. Oropesa’s attitude is simple.

“We should be putting them through a different lens in order to change the story’s perspective, but we shouldn’t be cancelling the story.

“Cancelling anything from the standard repertoire because of perceived notions that it is racist or sexist is like cancelling books. We need to keep these works alive because they are part of our musical history.”

In many ways, Oropesa believes the art form is on robust turf because women have much more agency than in other forms. “Opera is more feminist than people give it credit for,” she says. “The female protagonist is often the title of the work, they are given great music to sing, and the very notion of the diva – well, that is a feminist idea. If we see the female characters as victims, we are looking at them through the wrong lens. A lot of the time, these characters are making very deliberate choices. Like in [Donizetti’s] La fille du régiment. I mean, that’s about gender identity. These stories are progressive.”

I ask about her ambitions and her response is typical – enthusiastic but with a wry edge. “Every dream has come true for me – there is nothing left that I want to sing.” Really?

“Yeah, I screamed so much until they finally picked up the phone.”

Lisette Oropesa is in La traviata at the Royal Opera House on Oct 27 and 30, Nov 2, 6 and 9
Subscribers can save 50 per cent on tickets to Verdi’s timeless classic, La traviata, at the Royal Opera House this autumn

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