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Meet St. Pete Opera’s ‘Lucia di Lammermoor’

Bill DeYoung

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Soprano Chelsea Lehnea will sing the title role in St. Petersburg Opera Company's production of "Lucia di Lammermoor." Publicity photo.

What makes an opera singer?

In the case of Chelsea Lehnea – along with many others who sing the great classics as a profession – the gateway was musical theater.

The statuesque soprano makes her third career appearance with St. Petersburg Opera Company starting Friday. She’s the tragic title character in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, whose final descent into madness in the story’s final act is considered one of opera’s most chill-inducing moments.

“It’s the beauty that’s in the writing of the mad scene,” Lehnea declares. “She starts out mad, but she goes more crazy, and more crazy, so it’s an acting challenge, it’s a vocal challenge – and when all of the pieces come together, it’s a really thrilling theatrical experience. For both the performer and the audience.”

A preacher’s daughter from Chattanooga, Tennessee, Lehnea grew up singing. “I have been on stages from the time I was 3 years old,” she laughs. “They heard me screaming back in the nursery and they pulled me out, handed me a microphone and I sang ‘Jesus Loves Me’ for everyone at age 3. That was my grand theatrical debut.”

It was when she played Eliza Doolittle in a community theater production of My Fair Lady that the proverbial theater bug bit.

“I didn’t think I could sing opera until I was in college, because I very much wanted to be a musical theater singer. But my voice teacher at the time heard it the very first time I ever sang for her. And was I like ‘Nah, I couldn’t be that.’

“But the first lesson of my sophomore year, I finally said ‘All right … I pushed back my whole freshman year; let’s try it and see what happens.’ She showed me how to sing a G – which is not a super-duper high note, but it was high enough at the time – and the sound that came out of my face scared me. But she smiled.”

Just a few weeks later, she was cast in the school’s production of Mozart’s La notte di figaro. “So I had to learn real quick about opera. And I fell in love with it.”

Praised by the New York Times for her “mercurial colored, highly responsive instrument that flew seamlessly through its registers,” Lehnea – who was a Studio Artist with Sarasota Opera – has performed with opera companies all over the country. She sang Lucia’s mad scene, and more, as part of a Masterclass program with the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.

“I learned how to pace it, and how to get through it,” she says of the demanding role that requires floritura singing, very florid and necessitating the singer move – fast – between the high and low ends of her range. “And it was also fun just to get to do it at Lincoln Center.”

Lehnea’s first appearance with St. Pete opera was in the 2018 production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni (she sang Donna Anna); earlier in the current season, she sang Liù in Puccini’s Turandot.

Tragic Lucia, the singer says, is “one of the most pivotal ones that everybody wants a chance to do at least once.”

And she doesn’t do it alone. Lehnea is a big fan of St. Pete Opera.

“They’re a wonderful organization that I’ve enjoyed every single time,” she says. “The community is what makes this place so special. In that everybody believes in it so much.

“As an opera singer, everybody thinks it’s about the title characters, but it never is. Because what makes the mad scene as great as it is, is the reaction of people onstage – usually mirroring what the audience is experiencing themselves. It makes it so palpable. So incredible.

“And the same thing happened in Turandot. Some of my favorite singing was when the chorus was just hollering.”

Find details and tickets at the St. Petersburg Opera Company website.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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