Those who correctly point out that drag – dressing and performing as the opposite sex – has been a part of theater for centuries will find a noble example in Fidelio, the one and only opera composed by Ludwig van Beethoven.
Starting Friday (March 24), St. Petersburg Opera has three fully-orchestrated productions of Fidelio at the Palladium Theater, sung in the original German, with projected English supertitles. The central character, as outlined in the libretto by Joseph Sonnleithner, is a woman named Leonore (in fact, the original 1814 title was Leonore, or The Triumph of Marital Love).
“The opera was supposedly inspired by the story of a real woman from the French Revolution,” explains soprano Kirsten Chambers, who sings the role of Leonore. “She disguises herself as a young man named Fidelio, and gets a job in a prison where her husband is secretly imprisoned.”
Chambers, based in New York City, has performed at the Metropolitan Opera, Carnegie Hall, Savonlinna Opera Festival, New York City Opera, Florida Grand Opera, Opera Hong Kong and many others.
“To me, Leonore’s one of the bravest characters I’ve ever portrayed,” Chambers proclaims. “And as an opera singer I’ve played a lot of suffering women, women who get killed, women who are the femme fatales. And she’s really a hero.
“She’s the hero of the whole opera, and she goes to great lengths to fight for justice. And she defies gender roles of the 19th century.”
Here’s the plot: Leonore’s husband, Florestan, has been secretly imprisoned by the villainous Don Pizarro. Determined to rescue him, Leonore-as-Fidelio hires up as a guard in the prison where Florestan is being held.
“The story’s a unique one – but the music, for me, is really the highlight of the whole show,” says Chambers..
“My favorite thing is when she comes out and she sings the quartet. It’s pretty famous, actually – ‘Mir ist so wunderbar.’ It’s so transcendental in its beauty you really feel the inner emotions of each character through the colors of the orchestra.
“You can kind of warm up, singing the role, because it starts very low in the soprano range, and it gets higher. And it gets higher as the character Leonore really develops the confidence in herself. She’s kind of trying to prove herself to the other characters.
“Through the music, you can see that she’s starting to believe in herself and trusting that she will achieve the goal of saving her husband. The range just keeps going higher and higher as the opera continues.”
SPO artistic director Mark Sforzini is conducting the orchestra. “The orchestration for this is amazing,” Chambers adds. “I just close my eyes, and I feel like I’m being bathed in gorgeous sound.”
Singing Beethoven, she admits, requires a specific musicality. “I’ve done some super-challenging roles like Salome; it’s not as physically demanding as that, or as musically demanding as a Schoenberg opera like Erwartung.
“Technically, vocally it’s really, really challenging because he writes it like your voice is an instrument. He writes it for different parts of the voice, which is super-challenging for any female singer, whether you’re mezzo or soprano. You have to feel like you’re an instrument.”
Chambers grew up near Pittsburgh and says she knew from an early age – from the first time a music teacher told her she had a “big” voice – that she would be an opera singer. In the 5th grade, she was invited into the Pittsburgh Opera Children’s Chorus.
A reasonably straightforward musical education followed. In high school, “I did Shakespeare, I did Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, I sang ‘Day By Day’ in Godspell. Then I studied acting at Carnegie-Mellon and I remember my teacher being really mad that I wasn’t going to go into theater. Then she heard me sing, and she was like ‘Ahh … OK.’”
She received degrees from Illinois Wesleyan University and the Moores School of Music at the University of Houston.
Fidelio marks the soprano’s first engagement with St. Pete Opera.
“When my career first started I kept getting cast in very cold places, like Finland,” Chambers says. “Places where it was kind of dreary and cold. And I was like ‘Please, can’t I have a gig where I can go swimming every day, and go to the beach? Can I have an opera vacation?’
“So I am thrilled. I’ll work here any time.”
Details and tickets are here.
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