Charlottean Melinda Whittington returns to her “home stage” to play the female lead in Eugene Onegin. She previously sang the Contessa Almaviva in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro and Lauretta in Gianni Schicchi.
She’s also played Juliette in Roméo et Juliette with Opera Birmingham, Donna Anna in Don Giovanni with Arizona Opera and Marie Antoinette in Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles and Micaëla in Carmen during her two summers at Wolf Trap Opera.
She and her husband, Phil, met while singing in the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra chorus.
You’ve been in Eugene Onegin before — at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Were you playing Tatyana then, too?
I was actually understudying the fabulous star Ana Maria Martinez in the role of Tatyana. Chicago Lyric does upwards of 10 to 12 performances of each show, but Ms. Martinez stayed healthy for all of them. So, this will actually be my first time performing the role on stage. I’m so excited to see all the study I’ve done come to fruition.
What appeals to you about this opera and about your character in particular?
First of all, is there any more luscious, expressive music than Tchaikovsky’s? I find it so easy to relate to Tatyana. Any girl (and probably boy, for that matter!) can remember being an insecure, hormonal teenager writing a letter (or email, text, tweet or whatever the kids are doing these days!) to their crush, and feeling like their whole existence hangs in the balance.
And then how crushing rejection is. I was also a lot like her when I was younger – a bit of an introspective bookworm.
Of course, there’s also Tatyana’s incredible character arc. When Onegin comes basically begging for her in the final scene, she isn’t that insecure teenager anymore. She has a relationship with Gremin that’s very solid in trust … and mutual respect, and she unwaveringly refuses to sacrifice that.
I know Opera Carolina is focusing this season around powerful women, and Tatyana definitely fits the bill. It’s so empowering to sing that final B flat on “Goodbye forever!” and run offstage!
You’re a new mom. How’s it going? Does your baby listen to opera music?
Yes, I am! I have a music-loving, active, alert, hilarious 3½ -month-old son named Isaac. I did a lot of gigs while he was in my tummy, and I can definitely tell he finds opera soothing. I think most babies would be frightened by the sheer volume and power of the operatic voice, especially live, in the same room, but he has always loved it. When he was really little, and very upset, I would actually sing ‘with my opera voice’ to calm him down.
I have an opera-loving friend who thinks Onegin is the saddest opera she’s ever seen. She loves the cathartic cry she gets in the end. Where does it rank for you on the tragedy scale?
I would be inclined to agree with her. Because what happens between Tatyana and Onegin is real-life tragedy. I mean, most of us can’t relate to killing our best friend in a duel. What happens between Onegin and Lensky is very tragic in the operatic sense of the word. And lots of operas involve that kind of tragedy.
But the tragedy of two people missing their soulmate because of timing … that’s more tragic, in a way.
How do you work up a good cry at every performance? (Or do you?)
No, I normally don’t try to ‘work up a cry’ when I perform. I had an acting teacher once who taught me that when we wallow in the emotion of a character on stage, we can actually steal that experience from the audience. As singing actors, we have to be careful that the physiology of the instrument isn’t negatively impacted by expression of emotion. Your larynx rises when you cry, which is not a great way to try and sing opera. If you’ve ever tried to sing through tears, you know this firsthand.
Now, this doesn’t mean I don’t experience the emotion deeply and fully while performing. Often it takes a while in the learning and rehearsing phase to not be overtaken by the emotion of a very powerful scene. But by the time I get to the stage with a role, that is embedded into my performance, my vocalism, and I can continue singing beautifully through it, so that I can give the listener that experience. Sometimes it also takes a while once I come off stage to recover from an emotional scene.
What should people who aren’t familiar with the story know about it? Or should they come in knowing as little as possible?
I think most audience members would benefit from at least reading a plot synopsis before coming to any opera. There will be an English translation running above the stage, but you don’t want to have to be constantly staring at it, as it can take you out of the visceral experience on stage. I know it can sort of spoil the ending if it’s a story you aren’t already familiar with, but I think it’s a worthwhile tradeoff.
What does it mean to perform on your home stage?
It is absolutely the best for so many reasons. First of all, I love Opera Carolina in a unique way. I have friendships with pretty much every person on the administrative and creative team, and it’s where I was nurtured and encouraged as a young artist. I’ve gone from singing in the chorus of Madame Butterfly in 2009 to debuting this leading role 10 years later. That’s a very satisfying experience.
Additionally, my friends, family, neighbors and students are all able to come and experience this mysterious thing that I’m always leaving for a month to go do! Sharing with my community is so rewarding. And lastly, being able to come home to my husband and son after each rehearsal and sleep in my own bed (even if there isn’t much sleep happening right now!) is much nicer than living in a hotel room alone.
What’s your dream role?
I’ve already gotten to perform at many of my dream roles, and I’m so grateful for that. The answer to this question changes frequently, but right now it’s Susannah from the Carlisle Floyd opera of the same name.
You earned your undergraduate degree at Chapel Hill. Are you a big Tar heel sports fan?
When I was a student at Chapel Hill, I actually rarely got to go to any games; there was always a rehearsal or performance that got in the way of waiting for hours for the lottery, and I have never been a big sports gal.
But I’m actually starting to be a bit more invested lately, especially in Tarheel basketball. It’s also a ton of fun to dress my teeny, tiny Tarheel up in really cute swag! My husband’s a huge Penn State guy, so I have to make sure I get a little influence of a lighter shade of blue in there.
Article written by Page Leggett