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Music Center Opera Fuels Migenes’ Career Obsession

The setting is Rehearsal Room 3 at the Music Center Pavilion. Dr. Miracle, the sinister, Mephistophelean figure, and Antonia, the consumptive ingenue languishing for her true love, are locked in a clinch. As the music soars passionately and its song throbs, she clings to and entwines him--like a thin wet leaf sticking to a pavement.

Seduction is the name of this game. Forget the usual encounter between these two characters in Offenbach’s “Les Contes d’Hoffmann.” For, with Julia Migenes singing the four soprano roles in the L.A. Music Center Opera production (opening Friday), one wouldn’t expect demure pathos--if her Gypsy in Francesco Rosi’s film “Carmen” is any guide.

And here, stage director Frank Corsaro backs up the singing actress. Agreed: The devil seduces the damsel. The stakes: her death. There will be no distracting fiddle-playing by Miracle, no matter the traditions. A meager protest from general director Peter Hemmings: “Can’t he just hold the violin?” No. End of rehearsal.

The tiny Migenes, barely 5-foot-2, now curled in a chair, says: “Moments like that are what make me obsessive about opera. But not single-minded.”

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She smooths her black sweater, straightens her leather pants and runs her fingers through a mountain of orangey-brown curls. “It’s thrilling to get into a scene like that. I can’t resist.

“But I can’t resist all the other things that I love to do, either. So it’s true: My career doesn’t follow the strict and narrow.”

By most estimates, it would seem that Migenes--an American-Hispanic version of a freckle-faced mini-Streisand, has resisted following the straight operatic path. Although the giant doors of the Met swung open for her--she covered for and then replaced Teresa Stratas in the title role of Berg’s “Lulu” in a 1981 telecast seen by millions--Migenes can’t seem to clear the way for more of the same.

“Maybe it takes a prima-donna vanity,” she muses, when asked why other singers can hold their larynxes sacrosanct and pursue opera above all.

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“But look at it this way. I came from Spanish Harlem, a rough life. It’s hard to care that much about two little membranes in your throat when you open the papers and read about the world’s daily tragedies.”

Nevertheless, Migenes admits that obsession creeps into some areas of her career--hosting European TV variety shows, for instance, which gained her celebrity in Paris, London and throughout Germany. These followed an apprenticeship with the Vienna Volksoper throughout the ‘70s, which came in the wake of Broadway success as Maria in “West Side Story” and in “Fiddler on the Roof” in the 1960s.

Ultimately, Migenes developed into the true American singer--able to perform opera (“because I study compulsively”) without slighting the musical vernacular of her origins. And she still hops around the Continent, where she is a popular celebrity working as variety show host-entertainer.

But when an important opportunity like “Lulu” or “Carmen” or the four roles in “Hoffmann” comes up, Migenes says her first question is: “Can I do it?” not “Will it take too much work?”

To prepare for the role of Lulu, for instance, she uprooted her family--with daughters who are now 11 and 14--and moved to Germany.

“I had a wonderful teacher in Koln,” she says. “We studied four hours every day for a year getting the role into me--just as a ‘cover’ and for two performances at the end of the run.” The telecast came as one of those chance sensational debuts.

It was the same with “Carmen.” Migenes says that “300 mezzos” had been auditioned by the time Rosi and Placido Domingo (the Don Jose of that film) saw her.

“Again I went to my teacher and asked if I had a chance of singing the role respectably. She opened the score and had me try two key parts. The answer was yes. But we worked for a year, building muscle to bring my voice down.”

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For “Hoffmann,” Migenes is on the road again--traveling this time to a teacher in San Diego twice a week. Her vocal difficulty, she says, comes with the terrain of the Olympia role, which, “because of its machine-like coloratura is hard for me to get even and clear.”

Curiously, it was this one among the four heroines of the opera that she sang in Vienna. “But that edition was a half-tone lower than the one we’re using here.” she says.

Domingo, who has made “Hoffmann” a staple of his career “has been enormously helpful,” she says. “He is, in every sense, a sweet, gentle man.” And right now she admits to being grateful.

“The way I come flying in here--we just moved, with our two kids, three dogs, two cats and a snake into a new house--is awful. With paint in my hair, sawdust on my clothes. One daughter didn’t want to go to school today so she could get acquainted with the house!”

And that’s not all. Migenes’ current (and fourth) marriage, to film director Peter Medak (“The Ruling Class”), is two-months recent, although the couple have lived in Los Angeles together for the past several years.

Indeed, her residence here has been a well-kept secret. “My life is really in Paris, Vienna and Salzburg,” says the multilingual singer.

After “Hoffmann,” she flies to Budapest to shoot a film of “Threepenny Opera” with Raul Julia for the Cannon Group, slips back in time for Christmas, then on to Minneapolis for “Salome,” with Medak making his operatic debut as her director. Then they’ll film “La Voix Humaine.”

Her compulsion to cover the widest territory of stage and screen has often left her open to some negative notices.

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“I’ve sacrificed something,” she says. “I’ve allowed critics to point the finger of blame. The only time they don’t scold me is when I’m vocally dead on.”


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