MUSIC : At Home With Tosca's Jealousy : A Previous Marriage Taught Carol Neblett About the Green-Eyed Monster

Soprano Carol Neblett knows all about the kind of jealousy that precipitates tragedy in Puccini's "Tosca."

"I have experienced that," Neblett said in a recent interview at a local eatery. "It's a very awful emotion, really. It sort of eats away at you."

Neblett, 45, will sing Puccini's heroine for Opera Pacific on Sunday and Jan. 24 and 26 at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa. She was talking about her former marriage to conductor Kenneth Schemerhorn.

"He was very good-looking, and women were throwing themselves all over him all the time," she said. "That was a long time ago, when I lived in Milwaukee and he was head of the Milwaukee Symphony.

"And yeah, I did have flashes of anger and say things like, 'Why were you talking to her?' I realized it was a destructive characteristic. . . . I have been married now almost 11 years to a doctor (San Diego cardiologist Philip Akre) who is wonderful, and neither one of us is jealous of each other's activities."

Although Neblett was singing her first Aida in her only other appearance with Opera Pacific in 1988, she has sung Tosca "umpteen" times. This production was created for the Dallas Opera.

"I've sung it for 16 years," she said. "I've sung maybe 100 performances of 'Tosca.' " Her first, in 1976 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, was opposite Luciano Pavarotti.

"I walk on the stage, and I become Tosca, and I can't explain that in any way other than I understand her," Neblett said. "I always find my character from the music. The music really establishes the libretto for me. The drama is very clear. It is really nothing about politics. The drama is about three people--the hero, the heroine and the villain."

She added: "At Tosca's entrance, you must see this woman is going to be causing herself a lot of trouble by the way she acts in public. Her emotions just burst."

Neblett, who was born in Modesto and raised in Redondo Beach, made her professional debut when she was 19, singing Ottorino Respighi's "Laud to the Nativity," with Roger Wagner and the Los Angeles Master Chorale. She remained a soloist with the chorale for four years and went on to join the New York City Opera and to sing in major opera houses in Europe, South America and the United States.

She admitted that a fast-track career path led to overwork and stress that resulted in some vocal problems.

"It was mixture of things," she said. "I sang a lot of tough roles real early on, and I sang a lot and I was pushed hard and I was getting a divorce. . . .

"I also got fearful--fearful of the stage, fearful of how I was going to sing that (high) note. It was like I forgot things."

Was she ever tempted to give up?

"Oh yes, because I didn't like the feeling to go on the stage and sing badly or think I was singing badly or without ease or without joy."

But then Neblett remarried, moved to San Diego, "started practicing again" and worked for a short time with a new coach, Jane Randolph, who "had very good ears. She got me to loosen things up again.

Neblett recently sang Didon in Francesca Zambello's controversial staging of Berlioz's "Les Troyens" by the Los Angeles Music Center Opera. In that production, Neblett first appeared dressed in a khaki uniform and later donned an outlandish purplish off-the-shoulder gown.

But she took Bruno Schwengl's costumes in stride.

"I'm really a cooperative actress," she said. "(If) you want me to wear a burlap sack or blue jeans, and I feel that I can still portray the character, then I don't fuss with things like that. . . . Everyone says I have a great sense of humor."

After the Costa Mesa dates, Neblett will travel to Miami to sing in the U.S. premiere of Alberto Franchetti's "Cristoforo Colombo".

"Franchetti's music is Puccini-esque, but not as good," Neblett said.

Roles Neblett would like to portray someday include the Marschallin in Strauss' "Der Rosenkavalier," Leonora in Beethoven's "Fidelio" (she has sung the role in concert) and, "maybe, if I feel I can sustain it, which at this age I believe I could, Isolde (in Wagner's 'Tristan und Isolde')--but in an Italian style, which is what I think he really wanted."

Neblett said that--unlike other singers--she has "no superstitions"--except that "when I leave home, I take everything with me.

"When people tell me they can travel on one or two suitcases, I say, 'How?' I take pictures and books, all my own shoes and gloves for the theater," she said with a laugh. "My motto is: 'Have gloves, will travel; Have tiara, will travel.' "

* Opera Pacific presents Puccini's "Tosca" Friday through Jan. 26 at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Diana Soviero will sing the title role on Friday, Jan. 23 and 25. Carol Neblett will sing Tosca on Sunday, Jan. 24 and 26. Tickets: $20 to $75. Information: (714) 979-7000 or (714) 556-2787.

ST. CLAIR SCORE CARD: The review is in on Pacific Symphony music director Carl St. Clair, who made his debut as an opera conductor over the weekend in his home state of Texas, leading Austin Lyric Opera's production of "La Boheme."

Writing for the Austin American-Statesman, critic Jerry Young said: "The orchestra was eloquent under guest conductor Carl St. Clair and more than did its part in conveying how Puccini interrupts boisterousness with bittersweet sorrow. But while the orchestra played assertively, there was not always a good sense of ensemble between the orchestra and the singers. But it was only a small blemish on an otherwise effective performance."

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