Rutland native Suzanne Kantorski is taking time from her busy performance schedule to return home to play one of the greatest soprano heroines in all of opera, Tosca.
“This is the very first time I’ve sung this role. I’m kind of glad I get to do it at home,” Kantorski says.
Kantorski will sing the title role when Opera Company of Middlebury presents Giacomo Puccini’s “Tosca,” staged with orchestra and English supertitles, Oct. 9-13 at Town Hall Theater.
Accompanied by piano and string quartet, the production will tour to Hubbard Hall in Cambridge, New York Oct. 17; Spruce Peak Performing Arts Center in Stowe Oct. 19; and Woodstock Town Hall Theatre Oct. 20. Local singers will join the professional cast in each of the towns on the tour, creating a large chorus for the famous “Te Deum” that brings Act One to a thundering close.
The three-act “Tosca,” with Italian libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, based on the French play “Victorien Sardou,” premiered in 1900. Set in an 1800 Rome threatened by Napoleon’s invasion, it tells of the opera diva Tosca, her revolutionary lover Mario Cavaradossi and their nemesis Baron Scarpia. The dark opera has scenes of torture, murder and suicide — and some of opera’s most glorious music.
Puccini’s score, with its arching melodies and lush orchestration, contains three particularly famous arias, one in each act. In Act One, the artist Cavaradossi sings “Recondita Armonia,” reflecting on his deep love for Tosca. In Act Two, when the villain Scarpia is striking a terrible bargain with Tosca, she sings the haunting “Vissi d’arte.” In the final act, while awaiting execution, Cavaradossi sings “E lucevan le stella” to a striking melody that captures his profound despair.
“It’s also surprisingly and sadly relevant,” says Opera Company of Middlebury Artistic Director Douglas Anderson, who is stage directing. “This is a nation in the middle of a bloody uprising, and the battle has unleashed the worst in some human beings. We’ve seen in countries around the world how basic human morality withers as the body count grows.”
“I feel a deep responsibility with this piece,” Kantorski said by phone from her Danby home. She has played more leading roles than any singer in OCM’s 16-year history.
“Puccini always wrote parts for strong women,” she said. “It was quite shocking at the time for her to say and do what she did in this. For me ‘Tosca’ is about loyalty and it’s about passion and it’s about adjusting yourself to circumstances you never could foresee.”
Kantorski describes performing the role of Tosca as something of a marathon.
“She has roughly 60 whole minutes of singing in this whole show, and it’s driven,” the soprano said. “You have to be really flexible in your expression from really frenetic, being able to drive that sound the way you want to give those moments of fear and sadness. And you have to be able to flip that. You have to be able to arc that with your sound with deep tenderness and humor. For me, that’s a challenge in the voice to project those.
“Because sometimes I hear singers that sing the role really well, but don’t act it very well,” Kantorski said. “And then there’s the opposite, where they act it really well, but you don’t get those colors in the sound with it. It takes a little bit of bravery.
“Not everything in life is neat and tidy — and I don’t think everything about singing is neat and tidy,” she said. “Sometimes shading a note, or coloring a note so that it’s not beautiful can be very moving.”
Kantorski cites as an example the legendary Greek-American soprano Maria Callas.
“She was one of the great Toscas,” Kantorski said. “That’s what made her a really effective storyteller.”
The tessitura, the vocal range, is also a big challenge.
“You have really, really low notes and you have four or five high Cs that you have to navigate through the show,” Kantorski said. “So it’s been challenging in all the right ways for me. It’s all in my ‘wheelhouse’ — it was just getting over my fear of presenting that iconic character.”
Kantorski was born and grew up in Rutland. She loved singing and took voice lessons, winning All-State Competitions in high school.
“I was successful at those kinds of things, but it wasn’t really clear that was something I was going to do for a living, because everybody talks you out of it,” she said. “I just didn’t even know that was an option.”
Still, Kantorski enrolled as a choir student at Westminster Choir College in New Jersey. Her New York voice teacher didn’t think it was right for her, though.
“I had a couple of opera luminaries I was coaching with at the time and they ended up securing me a place at Manhattan School of Music,” Kantorski said. “And doors sort of just kept opening. I did the work, I did what I was told. Things were hard, hard.”
She didn’t have the money of a lot of her fellow students, but doors kept opening.
“I kept walking through,” Kantorski said. “You know, I think what has made me a successful singer is just that I learned early on how to listen — to listen, and not just to other singers, but to listen to people when they guide you.”
And listen to things that she didn’t want to hear.
“To create a filter,” Kantorski said. “That filter creates armor, and that armor makes you resilient, and that resilience keeps you in a career as long as I’ve had.
“I had wonderful teachers, and the doors just keep opening,” she said.
Kantorski’s first big break, she said, was when she was 21 and sang at Carnegie Hall with Eve Queler and the Opera Orchestra of New York, with soprano Aprille Millo and tenor Marcello Giordani.
“I had a small role in ‘Adriana Lecouvreur,’ Kantorski said. “I was covering someone and wound up singing it. That was a turning point for me — an unexpected debut.”
Kantorski didn’t know she would be singing but she had to be prepared, so she was “practicing like crazy.”
“I had to be prepared because I was trusted — just in case,” she said. “Boy, was I glad that I did that. I was ready.”
The rest, as they say, is history, and her career continues to grow. In December, Kantorski will be singing alongside Renée Fleming in Adam Guettel’s “A Light in the Piazza” at Lyric Opera of Chicago. Still, she’s always happy to return home to Vermont.
“As long as I’m near an airport or train station I can do my job,” Kantorski said of living in Danby. “I live in a terrific community and love the fact I can give back. This is my favorite vacation spot.”