Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Futral Is Now

Elizabeth Futral Recital: Cleopatra Sings
January 10, 2009
Miller Theater, Columbia University
2690 Broadway at 116th Street

Soprano Elizabeth Futral
(photo: Christian Steiner)
The highlight of New York City Opera’s truncated season is a concert performance of one of the truly great—and greatly neglected—American operas, Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra, at Carnegie Hall. Actually, it’s two performances: January 15 and 16, with City Opera veteran Lauren Flanigan singing the Queen of the Nile, Teddy Tahu Rhodes playing Marc Antony and City Opera music director George Manahan conducting.

Before that, however, the company presents a symposium, What Becomes a Legend Most?, at Columbia University’s Miller Theater from 12-5 PM on Saturday, January 10. The symposium includes discussions of Barber’s opera and its larger-than-life heroine, and concludes with a recital by another City Opera favorite, soprano Elizabeth Futral. Her hour-long program with pianist Susan Caldwell, Cleopatra Sings, includes familiar arias by Handel and Massenet, alongside more recent songs by the Rolling Stones, Pam Tillis and composer Justine Chen.

The 45-year-old Louisiana-born singer recently spoke from her rural Virginia home about the recital and her long association with New York City Opera.

Kevin Filipski: How did this recital based on Cleopatra come about?
Elizabeth Futral: (New York City Opera dramaturg) Cori Ellison and I are good friends and she asked me last summer if I would do it. I said sure, and I’m glad it’s worked out. It’s also a good reason for me to come to New York for a fun event and to have a voice lesson or two. (laughs)

KF: Did you work out the eclectic program–arias from Handel’s Giulio Cesare and Massenet’s Cléopâtre, and songs by Pam Tillis and the Rolling Stones–together?
EF: Yes. We talked about a lot of things, including how much music there is about Cleopatra, maybe the most famous being Handel’s Giulio Cesare. Since I’ve sung that opera, we decided to start with a big chunk of those arias. Cori also introduced me to the two Massenet arias from Cléopâtre–they are very beautiful to sing, and I’m a Massenet fan anyway: I’ll be doing Thaïs in Athens in March. It was Cori’s idea to do something contemporary to show how iconic Cleopatra continues to be in our culture today. We found the Pam Tillis country song (1992’s “Cleopatra, Queen of Denial”) and a Rolling Stones song (1989’s “Blinded by Love”).

KF: Talk about the new piece you’re singing by composer Justine Chen, who is part of City Opera’s VOX (an opera program that showcases works by emerging and established composers).
EF: Cori also had the idea of commissioning a song based on (Russian poet) Anna Akhmatova’s poem on Cleopatra: she sent the poem to me, I liked it and she translated it. We chose Justine Chen from several VOX composers, and she wrote a beautiful song, “Cleopatra,” that I’m enjoying learning– it’s very different for me.

KF: Have you sung any country or rock tunes in public?
EF: (laughs) No, no, no, no–oh, years and years ago when I was in high school, I sang a bit of country music, but not anything recently. However, the music is not terribly foreign to me. The Stones song is a ballad–I don’t think I could pull off a crazy rock’n’roll song, and I don’t know how these songs are going to go over at the recital, but we’ll see. I think it’ll be fun to do.

KF: Are you familiar with Barber’s opera, Antony and Cleopatra?
EF: I’ve never sung Antony and Cleopatra, but I have seen it performed and I do like it, so I’m very excited that they’re doing it.

KF: Talk about your long-standing relationship with City Opera.
EF: Well, they gave me my start in New York in the early 90’s. My first role there was Gilda in Rigoletto, and that same season I jumped in for somebody who got pregnant to sing Pamina in The Magic Flute and Alexandra in Regina. I did those three in my first season and it was terribly exciting for me–I was so happy to have those opportunities, it went really well and it sent me on my way. It’s been fun doing non-traditional roles there over the years (Lakmé, The Ballad of Baby Doe, Daphne, Semele, The Midsummer Marriage), but my career’s always been that way. I’m willing to try new and different things. I’m not just a Lucia or whatever–I love to branch out.

KF: What else are you working on?
EF: After doing Thaïs in Athens, I’ll be doing the world premiere of Andre Previn’s new opera, Brief Encounter, based on the classic David Lean-Noel Coward movie, with Nathan Gunn. I’m working feverishly on that now, since it starts in Houston in May, and it should be interesting and a lot of fun.

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