Luiz Gazzola for Opera Lively – Aleko and Pagliacci premiered only two days apart, respectively on May 19 and 21, 1892. The plots are remarkably similar, and even some of the music; for example, the short, rhythmic overture in Pagliacci reminds me a bit of the "Men’s Dance" in Aleko, although of course they do belong to different stylistic schools, musically. Dramatically, the Russian opera also addresses commoners as characters, in a sort of Verismo approach as well, just like Pagliacci. So, it’s a very clever pairing for Opera Carolina, and it is remarkable that the company is doingAleko’ s US professional premiere. Please, let’s start by comparing and contrasting these two pieces. Tell us about your views on the music, the drama, and the characters in the two operas. The word harsh comes to mind when I think of Zemfira. Nedda does have melodious arias and duets.

Elizabeth Caballero – Musically, I find these two pieces very similar even though they are from very differently schools. Alekois very lush and so romantic and I wish the love duet between the tenor and soprano was as long as the Nedda/Silvio duet. This is the first time I'm singing in Russian and I am LOVING IT. It is such a juicy and sexy language to sing! I love all the open vowels.

Zemfira's aria is somewhat "harsher" than Nedda's aria but perhaps Zemfira is a bit harsher of a person because it's in her DNA to do what she is doing. As a matter of fact, her mother did the same to her father and all the gypsies know this and accept this. It is their life and they just live it. Even in the end when Aleko kills both Zemfira and her lover, they do not take revenge on him because it is not "in their ways" to do so. They accept the fate of all, do away with Aleko (banish him from their group) and move on with their lives.

I think the situation with Nedda is a little different. She is desperate to live another life and simply escape or "fly away". I feel that neither woman is truly in love but more in lust and just going with their flesh instinct. They are both very young and fearless. They both know how to protect themselves for as long as they did, up until the very end when fate sets in.

Elizabeth as Nedda – Photo J. David Levy

I love the role of Nedda. I don't think she is a bad person; she is just in a bad situation. None of the characters in Pagliacciare truly evil except for maybe Tonio, who is the true puppet-master in this horrible plot, and he loves it. That's why I love it when he says the final line how it's written: "La commedia è finita".

It took me a while to love Zemfira. I hated how she taunts Aleko in her aria and then later on with her lover. But while studying the role, the language and the poetry, and where the piece came from, I came to the conclusion that it's simply in her nature to do what she does. It is the way of the gypsy life. And perhaps Zemfira is tired that she "owes" something to Aleko because he left his life for the gypsy life. In her mind she owes nothing to no one. It is destiny, whatever happens in life. They just live day by day. In a way, it is a very carefree and somewhat refreshing way to think of life. I like it. Does it work for us? Perhaps not exactly but maybe a little bit of that we can choose to take. [smiles]

OL – In your first interview with Opera Lively in June of 2012 [see link above] you said you like to interpret fierce ladies, since you are a strong woman in real life. Nedda doesn’t hesitate in poking Tonio with a knife when he is crossing the line with her, and Zemfira mocks Aleko quite courageously. So there are similar in this way but like you’ve explained, their character arcs are indeed a bit different, right?

EC – Nedda whips Tonio when he tries to rape her. She is defending herself after her mocking ways lead her too far. But then again, Tonio was being Tonio and constantly watching and peeping her in yet another private moment. God knows how many times he has done that already. Nedda is exhausted with her life. All she wants now is to run away, escape, flee, fly away to a new life. Haven't we all been there once in our lives before? Isn't that easy to understand? Nedda is in a loveless marriage, constantly moving around, constantly being harassed by all the men in her life except for Beppe who is truly an innocent victim. His life will forever be changed after what he saw Canio do.

With Zemfira it's a little different. It's just in her way of life, her destiny, the only thing she knows. Aleko not being a real gypsy, he doesn't understand their ways; never did, never will. It's like Carmen and Jose. He never truly understood the gypsy life because he was not born in it. Gypsies are not bad people; they just live their lives buoyantly, moving from one place to another. Zemfira is not looking for an escape like Nedda; she simply wants a small change in her current life.

OL – You’ve sung Nedda several times but it is the first time you sing Zemfira. The latter is a shorter sing but does sound difficult to me – not only because it is in Russian, but also because it seems more forceful, although Nedda has her very shouty moments as well. Please tell me about the musical side of these two ladies. What are the difficulties in going from one to the other, and what are the possible pitfalls or challenges for the singer, in each role?

EC – I find Nedda much more difficult to sing than Zemfira; not vocally but physically. It's mostly the commedia part that is more physically exhausting since you are in this little box and in an unnatural way of acting during this part. Also before that, you have a long aria, followed by a violent confrontation, then a LONG love duet and then another violent confrontation. Immediately after that, you run off stage, quick change into Colombina and then you're in your little box to act the 'play' and then to be tossed around stage by a jealous husband. IT IS TRULY EXHAUSTING. After every Pagliacciproduction I always go home with a couple of bruises and bumps as souvenirs that remind me of the show for another week or so. [laughs] Thankfully it is not a very long opera but it is exhausting nonetheless. Vocally I've learned to pace myself with her. She's taught me a lot.

Elizabeth as Nedda – photo Hawaii Opera Theatre, 2014

Elizabeth as Nedda – photo Hawaii Opera Theatre, 2014

Zemfira is much MUCH shorter both vocally and physically. She has many more breaks. The role also sits a little lower too. Nedda is a tiny bit higher but not lighter. Nedda is not a light role at all. It is quite dramatic and the aria alone can be challenging with the way it continues to go up and up and up. It can really ride up on you, vocally. Honestly if this was the first time I was singing both roles, this would be a big challenge but thankfully I know Nedda very well so I just focused on learning Zemfira and figure her out vocally, emotionally and physically. I'm pleased to figure out for me that Nedda (being more my comfort zone because I've done it many times before) is the more difficult role.

OL – In Aleko, the music for the men seems meatier and more melodious than the one for Zemfira. Would you agree?

EC – I do agree that in Aleko, the music for the men is, as you say, "meatier". Towards the end, after her lover is killed, Zemfira has a lovely and lush line but it is cut short because she is killed by Aleko soon after.

Rachmaninoff was only 19 when he composed this piece and while musically it is so gorgeous, dramatically I find it a bit short. The drama in Pagliacci is more complete but the music in Aleko more satisfying. This is really a wonderful pairing of two different composers taking on, more or less, the same story.

OL – A standard-bearer for Nedda in my opinion is the spectacular performance by Stratas with Domingo in the famous Zeffirelli film. Did she serve as inspiration for you? I know Aleko considerably less well, having only heard it once, with Zemfira interpreted by Maria Gavrilova in Paris in 2006. In your research for your role, did you listen to anybody that you felt had something to contribute to your preparation?

EC – I have watched Stratas as Nedda. She is one of my favorites and I do love that Zefirelli production. For Aleko I listened to several recordings that I found to get an idea but soon after I had to put the recordings down and focused on learning the role properly with my coach. I was getting into the habit of trying to sound "Russian" instead of singing the language properly. I had to stop listening and start focusing on what works for me. I also went on YouTube and tried to find a production of Aleko and found a couple of clips that helped me see the action. YouTube is truly an amazing tool we have in our fingertips today. We are very lucky.

OL – What can we expect from this Opera Carolina double bill? Any hints about directorial concepts?

EC – Rehearsals begin in a week. Right now I'm simply looking forward to this great pairing & singing my first Russian opera.

OL – Almost four years ago you were interviewed by Opera Lively (although a mishap made us lose the second part of your interview – only the first part got published). At the time you mentioned your dream of one day portraying Manon Lescaut, and Tosca, although you did say that particularly the latter wouldn’t be suitable to your voice type. How is your voice evolving, and are you closer to fulfilling your dream?

EC – I'd actually love to move in a different direction. I'd love to be able to sing more Belcanto and Verdi. Zemfira is a far cry away from Tosca. The role of Zemfira is very short in comparison and much lower too.

Click here to read full interview at Opera Lively