Death and Tosca
New Times spoke on the phone last week with the dusky-voiced Elizabeth Blancke-Biggs, who will be portraying Floria Tosca through the majority of Florida Grand Opera's upcoming production of Giacomo Puccini's Tosca. One of the most psychologically dramatic operas — its plot bursts with torture, murder, attempted rape, and suicide — the repertoire staple debuts at the Adrienne Arsht Center this Saturday. Blancke-Biggs has been preparing in South Florida for weeks. When we spoke, she had just returned from sightseeing around South Beach with costars Roger Honeywell and David Pittsinger.
New Times: Have you seen your outfit yet?
Elizabeth Blancke-Biggs: Oh, yeah! We had fittings the first week we got here. They're beautiful costumes — they're from the Baltimore Opera.
How many rehearsals will you get with the orchestra?
We get a zitsproba — which is essentially an orchestra rehearsal where you just stand and sing, and don't do any staging — and then we get a couple of orchestra dresses.
I guess Angela Brown and the other cast members, when they come in, won't get many of those.
I don't think she'll get any orchestra rehearsals at all.
Must be stressful. For the second cast, not for you.
It can be stressful, but it's also fairly common. When I made my Met debut, I'd rehearsed it, but I'd never been on the set for that, for the Zeffirelli Traviata. It's always a little stressful — they walk you around the set before each act, show you where you can die, what not to do and where not to step. But it's really common practice, especially in other houses where they have multiple casts, like the Met, San Francisco, Vienna. It's very common to have multiple casts, though it's unusual that they've started it here; when I sang Fanciulla here, there was no other cast. But I think it's to do with the scheduling. ... they want to have more shows back to back.
Because they're doing so well.
Yeah — you know, this is one of the greatest communities to come back and work in. Every year I come here, I see things are improving. It's really exciting to see — it's a really vibrant arts community.
How many Toscas is this for you? Where were the others?
This is my fourth production. City Opera [in New York], a tour — mostly just, you know, places you've never heard of. Oh — and I did Omaha Opera. I did it with Stewart Robinson [the principal conductor of Florida Grand Opera]. That's his other company.
Has your approach to Tosca changed from when you started?
Oh! It changes every time you do it. Because you've got different people and different situations, different chemistries with cast members, so it's always fresh. You know, it's always a different take.
Do you have a fairly easy time getting inside Floria Tosca's head?
Yeah. I really love her. I think she's a straightforward, honest, decent character — quite lovable and quite likable. Which is very nice. Oftentimes there are characters you're playing that aren't quite as lovable, and that's always more difficult for a human being to try to pull off.
She seems like a good fit for you. I was listening to some of your performances on YouTube, Nabucco in particular, and you have such a dark, mournful timbre.
Yeah! It's funny — even though I play a big repertoire, the places where people always comment, it's always, 'Oh, I really like your death scene.' It's funny — it's always been my sort of basis of power, the fact that even though it's a big, powerful-sounding voice that I guess could be intimidating, I always manage to keep enough of that fragility, and, you know, honesty in it. So I take that as a compliment. It's something I've worked very hard to do.
But does your voice have a naturally darker color?
I think when I was younger, people tried to artificially brighten it — and, you know, that's a very typical thing: "Oh, that couldn't possibly be your natural sound." And you come around to a happy medium between your natural sound and your trained sound.
What previous Toscas do you like?
Well, I love [Maria] Callas. Obviously she's the touchstone for everybody —
The Fifties or the Sixties Callas?
Oh, I don't know. I listen to them all for different reasons. I listen to the younger Callas to hear the fresher sound, and I listen to the older Callas for an interesting, clever, artistic woman. You know — it's just an interesting thing to listen to someone who is perhaps not at their vocal peak, trying to make choices, dramatic choices, based on some kind of vocal weakness, and make it an absolute success. And I listen to [Montserrat] Caballe for pure beauty and sound; she's one of my real idols, because she sang so many different kinds of repertoire, and I do that as well. I try to keep the [Vincenzo] Bellinis — I sing Norma, I try to keep all of these things moving at the same time. I don't like to sing too much of one kind of music. I find it just a little frustrating.
What's something people should bear in mind when going to see Tosca?
I just think they should enjoy it. It's one of the most perfectly written pieces of musical theater. It's not a stand-and-sing kind of piece — there are arias, but they're more in the style of a dramatic monologue. It's not about staid musical numbers. It's very active, and things flow perfectly from one thing to the next. Really, I think it's the beginning of opera as musical theater. And it's beautiful from the very first minute to the last.
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