To American soprano Marilyn Zschau, it's no mystery that "The Fiery Angel" is staged so rarely.
"It's exceedingly difficult on the voice," she said the other day, backstage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
"I wouldn't recommend this part to anyone who doesn't know exactly what she's doing technically."
Zschau refers to the leading role of Renata in Sergei Prokofiev's daunting opera of demons and black magic, which opens tonight.
The Los Angeles Music Center Opera production is being shared with the Geneva and English National Operas. Directed by Andrei Serban and sung in English, this staging is only the opera's third in the United States. The others were presented by New York City Opera (the U.S. premiere) in 1965, and by Chicago Lyric Opera in 1966.
Nor have many foreign companies attempted it. "The Fiery Angel" was staged for the first time at the Venice Festival in 1955, nearly 30 years after Prokofiev completed it. Sporadic European performances followed, at La Scala in 1956, then in Basel, Spoleto, Cologne, Brno and London.
As Renata, an enigmatic temptress possessed by dark forces beyond her control, Zschau is on stage for all but one of the opera's seven scenes. In all, she sings for about 45 minutes, often in long stretches.
"It's going to be a spectacular show," Zschau said with a smile. "There's a lot of dashing around in all the scenes." The bandage she was wearing on her wrist over a "bad scratch" received during a staging rehearsal would seem to testify to that.
But according to Zschau, a veteran of international opera houses, what really makes Renata so challenging is not the physical and emotional demands of the role, but the music Prokofiev gives her to sing.
"The problem is that the vocal range is very uncomfortable," she said. "A lot of Renata's music lies in the transitional area of the voice, around E, F and F-sharp--between the soprano's middle voice and head voice.
"One false move and you've had it."
Although she didn't know "The Fiery Angel" before Peter Hemmings, general director of Music Center Opera, asked her to sing Renata, Zschau had heard horror stories about the role.
"It's sort of famous in singers' circles as a voice-wrecker," she said. "Most people will just not attempt it--and I must say, now I can see why."
Set in 16th-century Germany at the time of the Inquisition, "The Fiery Angel" is based on a historical novel of mystical inclinations by the Russian symbolist Valery Bryusov.
While rehearsing, Zschau says she and the other cast members have "gotten in touch with a darker side of ourselves. The piece seems to put everyone a little on edge."
Offstage, the Chicago-born soprano's sunny, pragmatic disposition reveals no trace of fanaticism. In fact, her own personality seems very much like that of one of her favorite characters: Minnie, the good-hearted and eminently sane hostess in Puccini's "La Fanciulla del West."
Another Puccini opera--"Tosca"--is one of her favorites. She sang the leading role before the multitudes in New York's Central Park this summer. Last winter, she made her Metropolitan debut in that same vehicle, filling in at the last moment for Montserrat Caballe.
A heavy performing schedule keeps Zschau on the road (or in the air) most of the time. After "Fiery Angel," she has one month off before begining a year of back-to-back engagements all over the globe.
For the moment, however, almost all her energy is being poured into Renata and "The Fiery Angel." She finds the rehearsals so draining that "when I get home, I just want to tune out. I can't even read, because I just don't want to think about anything. At 11, I watch 'Star Trek' instead of the news."