Coloring 'Butterfly' From the Inside : In Costa Mesa, Soprano Elena Filipova Will Focus on Soul Rather Than Display


If things had gone as planned, Orange County opera audiences would have seen Elena Filipova last October singing Aida, the tortured flower of the Nile, for Opera Pacific.

But because of a series of casting dominoes involving two other sopranos singing for the company, Filipova agreed to delay her first local appearance until tonight, when she sings Cio-Cio San, the abandoned but faithful geisha in Puccini's irresistible "Madama Butterfly."

The switch, however, worked out fine.

"I needed 'Butterfly' a little bit more, because I sang 'Aida' very often," she said recently over lunch at her Costa Mesa hotel. "I hadn't sung 'Butterfly' for over two years, and I thought it would be a good idea to sing it. Sometimes one role comes very often, and another doesn't come for a couple of years."

Ironically, once she had agreed to the switch, other "Butterfly" offers suddenly popped up.

"I sang it in Berlin and in Seattle and in Mexico," she said, illustrating the jet-set life that is the burden or the joy of the modern international singer.

For Filipova, it's a joy.

"I enjoy airports. I know a lot of airports. It's a rough life, but it's interesting. We have time to have a boring life later. We're singers. We don't do it very long anyway."

The Bulgarian native, however, has a long way to go before worrying about the end of her career. She was born 35 years ago in Pazardzhik, a city about 45 miles southeast of Sofia, the capital.

"It's a pretty big city, but of course nobody knows it here," said the daughter of an Orthodox priest who studied voice and raised a singing and musical family, including Filipova's older sister, a professional pianist.

Filipova has never sung professionally in her native country. "It's a little sad," but the opportunities have conflicted with other obligations, she said.

She was drawn to opera as a child when she saw Mario del Monaco in the title role of a film version of Verdi's "Otello." But she was too young to study voice, so she studied oboe instead.

"It was a good bridge between being a child and growing up a little more," she said. "To start singing, the body needs to be a little maturer."

When she was ready, she started studying voice. Just shy of graduating from the Conservatory in Sofia, she auditioned for an agency in Frankfurt, Germany, for fun. ("Immediately they gave me a contract," she said. "That was destiny, I think.")

She went home, got her diploma and began her career in Karlsruhe, Germany.

"My first role was a big title role, (Smetana's) 'Bartered Bride,' and I was 21, and that is very, very young."

She continued with such essentially lyric roles as Mimi in Puccini's "La Boheme," Antonia in Offenbach's "Les Contes d'Hoffmann" and Micaela in Bizet's "Carmen."

"I worked a lot with Gian Carlo del Monaco, the stage director, son of (tenor) Mario. I did my first 'Traviata' with him, my first 'Simon Boccanegra' with him. And it was a very good experience."

Then her voice settled into more weighty soprano repertory and with it the meatier roles, such as Tatiana in Tchaikovsky's "Yevgeny Onegin," Desdemona in "Otello" and Cio-Cio San.

"This was a very normal development," she said. "I always had this dark color in my voice. We people from Southern Europe, we usually have a dark timbre, a dark color, which comes from our language, which is spoken with a very open throat--which is of course very good for singing."

Vocal color remains an important issue to her, especially in "Butterfly."

"(It) is fresh and interesting if we can put all our colors in our voice and make it come from the soul, from the character. If we start to sing with the same voice and the same color for the (tragic) second act as we do for the first act, we're dead!"

Color is not a matter of technique, however.

"Technically, we can sing very well or not, but the timbre--the color of the voice--is something we came by from birth, from our parents, from Jesus."

For those reasons, she is not concerned with vocal display. She is not likely to sing the optional high D in Butterfly's entrance aria, for instance.

"Well, that (note) is not written (by Puccini), and I don't think I'm going to take it," she said. "One tone doesn't make the opera. I did sing it last month in Seattle, in my last performance there, just to show people that I have it. But I don't think this is a point that makes somebody a good Butterfly or a bad Butterfly. Even the conductor here (John Mauceri) doesn't like it. I spoke already with him."

She also finds agreement with the other half of the production team, the stage director.

"Well, I like to act," she said. "Why not? Our business is not to stand there with wide outstretched arms like singers did 50 years ago, 'Now I have a big high note. Now I have to sing that.' That is a little bit primitive. We, the young generation, we're supposed to be more interesting."

Still, she is not a fan of radical opera stagings, especially of the classics.

"We have enough modern pieces, particularly pieces in the late verismo, for instance, to do it that way. So I'm a little conservative; I prefer a classical approach. Well, of course, I'm not too conservative. I'm open to do this kind of thing also. If I'm supposed to do it, I can do it very well. But it must be a genius of a stage director."

Geniuses are rare, as is the level of singing typically referred to as the "Golden Age" of opera. Filipova is one of the few current opera singers willing to say that, to some extent, this elusive age of singing has passed.

"Yes, because we have today television, newspapers, big public relations, movies and all this, a lot of people are recording pieces they never sing on stage, which is very bad. The generation of (Franco) Corelli, del Monaco, (Leontyne) Price--they recorded pieces they sang already on the stage many times. And if you listen to them, you can feel that. They sing with such interpretation.

"Otherwise, it's not lively, it's not juicy singing. It's not something that you can feel."

Vocal competitions, she says, have not helped matters.

"Because in every competition, 9 and 90% is politics," she said. "See, I'm a very honest person, and I'm not afraid. You can quote that. Years ago, when the East European countries were closed, maybe vocal competitions were a good way to get outside, to be listened to by people from the outside. But we don't have this problem any more.

"The best competition is onstage. If you have good partners around you, they automatically pull you up. If you have bad partners around, they pull you down. Good conductors, good stage directors, a good level of work in theater--that is the best competition."

* Elena Filipova will sing the title role of Puccini's "Madama Butterfly" for Opera Pacific today, March 15, 17 and 25 at 8 p.m. at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Guiping Deng will take over the role this Sunday and March 12 and 19 at 2 p.m. Richard di Renzi will be Pinkerton at all performances. John Mauceri will conduct. Ken Cazan is the stage director. $18 to $85. (714) 556-2787.

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