"You keep growing until you can't grow anymore--and that means you're dead."
So says Catherine Malfitano as she snuggles into the sofa at her latest home away from home, a guest apartment in downtown L.A. Her dark, waist-length hair spills over an elegantly embroidered Chinese jacket that tops chic black pants. She's a picture of thoughtfulness, imperturbability, calm--in a sea of chaos. Her suitcase lies open on the floor, its contents strewn about, stacks of leafy greens sit wilting in the galley kitchen along with cartons of softening sorbet. The refrigerator is on the blink. Malfitano simply ... concentrates.
"The whole life process is about that," says the sought-after singer, finishing her thought. "You keep growing until you die."
On Wednesday night, Malfitano will open as Los Angeles Opera's Tosca, a role that when she first tackled it, nearly a decade ago, was one of her growth projects. And she has not stopped adding to them. At 53, while most other established singers are hanging onto their diminished voices, doing old-standby roles or backpedaling to smaller ones, this overachiever, one of the most versatile sopranos around, is stepping up to new, make-or-break challenges.
Just last month she took on Emilia Marty, the femme fatale /deathless diva in Janacek's "Makropulos Case," the story of a woman who finds that endless longevity robs life of passion and that mortality, because of its temporary terms, is what provides meaning. The critical response to her performance was ecstatic.
"Even when she's pacing the stage in lingerie, throwing off vexation and contempt, or sprawling against an enormous theatrical sphinx, her singing is absolutely alert, agile, bright-toned and full," wrote the New York Times' Paul Griffiths. "She is bang on the note and stays thoroughly in control of pitch and color. Out of a sluttish persona comes the voice of a free and natural spirit."
But in the mid-'80s, naysayers had foretold a vocal breakdown as she ventured onto such weighty dramatic turf, taking on Puccini's Butterfly, Strauss' Salome and Berg's Lulu--heavier repertory than her lyric, then spinto soprano, might allow. More than a few light sopranos who went that way came back with their voices in tatters. Before tackling these weightier assignments, though, Malfitano sought out the late Henry Lewis for special vocal study.
"You need more than one set of instructions over a long career," she explains, mentioning that as the voice matures, changes and grows in heft, the methods for controlling it require additional knowledge. During the year they worked together she acquired a technique that is "about breath and about how words project the voice and how to sing through the words," she explains. "Henry helped me to grow to the next stage."
By and large, the work and the risk-taking paid off, although there are critics who think that in the process she traded tonal beauty for dramatic intensity--losing one to gain the other.
But this soprano doesn't look back. "Opera is more than singing," she points out. "It's not a matter of trading but embracing the whole challenge, striking that precarious balance, trying to find the truth between acting and singing." If there's some fallout between the two, it doesn't matter, she says, "because, while I strive for perfection every day, I'm not a perfectionist, just a person trying to get the most emotionally truthful characterizations I can.
"As I said then, I say now: I'm still here, they didn't kill me off. People's opinions do not run my life. Life is about the fact that it's over before you know it. We must taste it and embrace it as much as we can, while we have it."
To understand how Malfitano has strung her bets into a winning gambit is to understand the conviction behind them--and the lure of the challenge.
As an artist who has made a reputation on being smart and gutsy, she has neither followed the rules nor let rejections stop her. Nearly three decades ago, Juilliard did not accept the young New York applicant, so she enrolled at the Manhattan School of Music. After five seasons with New York City Opera (during which Los Angeles audiences became familiar with her as Mim and Manon), she stepped up to the Metropolitan Opera and major European houses--not just gaining in prominence but plunging into innovative stagings, like her 1984 Long Beach Opera Poppea, a ravishing sex kitten, and broadening her horizons across the board.
When Malfitano sang her first Tosca, for instance, in 1992, "everyone advised against it," she says. The circumstances around this experiment with Puccini's irresistible potboiler--a melodrama that pits the diva Floria Tosca against Scarpia, the sadistic chief of police who lusts after her--were grueling.
It was a real-time event, starting at 11 a.m. and ending at daybreak, televised live from all of the story's designated historic locales in Rome: the churchyard of Sant' Andrea della Valle, where Scarpia taunts Tosca with false clues of her lover Cavaradossi's faithlessness; Farnese Palace, where he tortures Cavaradossi in Tosca's presence; and Castel Sant' Angelo, the scene of final doom. Because the orchestra had to remain stationary, the conductor cued the singers via monitor and invisible earpiece.
Amid the chaos, other issues, such as contract fees, were not exactly satisfactory, says Malfitano. To make matters worse, rehearsals took place midday, outdoors, of course, in the intense Italian heat of summer.
"But because I had the right collaborators," she explains, referring to Placido Domingo, Ruggero Raimondi and Zubin Mehta, "and enough support and enough time to prepare, the rest didn't matter." (Malfitano won an Emmy for the telecast, seen by more than a billion people worldwide.)
In fact, Malfitano's major debuts have all been made not in safe, small houses, but in the most exposed venues: She sang all three roles in Offenbach's "Tales of Hoffmann" in Salzburg; the depraved, existential Lulu in Munich; and the innocently morbid princess Salome in Berlin, with TV cameras recording it all, including a totally nude finale to cap her Dance of the Seven Veils.
Malfitano claims to like the fear that results from her risky choices --especially with Salome, "because the television part made for an exciting kind of fear," she says, almost gleefully.
"That means living right there on the edge. You can't get a greater feeling of being alive and vital than when you put yourself out there. The thrill of it is to do your best. Like Michael Jordan when he had to go for the game-winning shot. Did he have fear in that moment? Sure. Did he have excitement about making it happen? You bet.
"Our whole lives we train, hoping to get the opportunity to use that training," Malfitano explains. "So when a choice offer comes along, it's what I've been waiting for."
Deciding on a new role, however, is more calculated than simple. "It's never on a whim," she says, "never just to test whether I can survive it" but only after in-depth study of the score and full emotional investment in the character.
Of course there are the inevitable losses, or toss-ups. Last February in Chicago, Malfitano's former home base (where, until last year, she lived with her husband and chief advisor, Stephen Holowid, and their teenage daughter, Daphne, before moving back to New York), she sang her first Senta, in Wagner's "The Flying Dutchman."
Of the performance, Opera News said: "She sang passages of ravishing, even girlish beauty, alongside passages of stridency and wide vibrato. There was no predicting which music would summon what sound. Sometimes she went rough or clangorous when singing softly; sometimes her sweetest notes sliced through the orchestra. The audience loved her anyway."
What seems to carry Malfitano over the rough passages is her ability to sell a role. The method is no mystery to her. It fits her artistic philosophy hand to glove: "Find a way into the heart of the audience and tell them the story," she says. "The more I can reveal the character, the more they'll empathize." That's always the mission, no matter how awful the heroine may be, say, in the case of Salome or Emilia Marty or Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth (in which, according to the San Francisco Chronicle's Octavio Roca, Malfitano "made horrifying sense of both the farce and the monumental tragedy of Soviet life ... she was monstrous, touching, unforgettable.")
"Take Tosca, as an example," she says. "Here's this woman--earthy and sensual, not some fictitious figure, but a real-life diva, whose second nature is to be in control, to plan the action. What happens? Scarpia throws a new script at her, an ugly one she's not familiar with. It pushes her beyond the boundary of what's acceptable. It's my task to make people empathize with her, feel her jealousy and possessiveness by seeing how vulnerable she is under it all."
And Malfitano does it her way. For instance, she doesn't fall to the ground as custom dictates for "Vissi d'arte," the big aria in which Tosca pleads for God's help in defending herself against Scarpia--"because it's only a parenthetic moment," she says, adding that it comes in the midst of "churning inevitability, it stops the action suddenly, as in a film's slow-motion segment before a murder."
Clearly, Tosca is a role Malfitano identifies with--especially when it comes to being in control. Directors, she says, know they can depend on her to think through and carry a character, "because I do everything for myself."
A case in point: Malfitano welcomes a visitor to peek in at rehearsals. But on hearing that the director, Ian Judge, prefers to keep the sessions closed, she laughingly confesses, "He probably doesn't want anyone to see me taking charge!"
With that, a knock sounds at the door, and Malfitano is reminded of other things that require her attention.
The new refrigerator she ordered earlier has arrived, and a maintenance man wheels it in and sets it up--in time to save the wilting vegetables. As for the melting sorbet, Malfitano opens the container and helps herself to a dish.
"Tosca," Los Angeles Opera, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A. Wednesday, Saturday, June 12, 15, 19, 22, 24, 27, 7:30 p.m.; June 17, 1 p.m. $28-$148. (213) 365-3500.