Giacomo Puccini's La Bohème opened this past weekend at Minnesota Opera, and it runs through May 21. There are two Mimis in this production — Nicole Cabell and Miriam Khalil — and Classical MPR's Julie Amacher recently sat down with them for a Perf Chat in the Maud Moon Weyerhauser Studio.
Julie Amacher: And I'd love to start by having you explain to me what exactly does [double cast] mean, Nicole?
Nicole Cabell: Well, this is a very good thing. Opera is sort of like the Olympics of singing. We put a lot of stress and strain on our voice — of course the healthiest way possible — but, like running a marathon you need a day of rest and it's truly not healthy to sing this two days in a row if you can help it. So a lot of companies that want to do shows back to back the double cast the lead roles. So you can have like maybe the smaller roles sing every day but our role is not small. So we we definitely need the rest. Yes. So, that's what it means.
JA: Now, Miriam, I know one of the unique things about the way the Minnesota Opera is doing this in the rehearsals is that you and Nicole have not had a chance to see or hear one another so you're really coming up with the character fully on your own, with no impressions from one another at least at this point. Is that unusual?
Miriam Khalil: It's unusual. I think in other companies we tend to have one cast watch the other do it and then you do that staging. And I think what's exciting about this is — maybe, I don't know, possibly we're doing the same staging? We have no idea. But you bring yourself into it rather than watching someone else's interpretation and trying to impose yours afterwards. So you're really coming up fresh with these new ideas and it's really all coming solely from you. And so really you're you're going to get two different completely different performances. And you do anyway, but this way there is not that kind of I don't want to call it baggage but there's not that baggage, but ... there is not that you're not saying, "OK this is where she sat down and this is where she got up." You're actually thinking, "This is the reason why I'm sitting down here ..." and you kind of come up with different things as the character and it's just a lot more exciting.
JA: Let's introduce our listeners to each of you. They may not be familiar with either of you so, Miriam start off and tell me a little bit about your background and what brought you to the Minnesota Opera company to do this production.
MK: I'm Lebanese-Canadian and I grew up in Syria — Damascus, Syria — and I moved to Canada when I was seven but my whole life I sang in church with my father and then I moved on. When I came to Canada my first tape was Whitney Houston. I wanted to be the next Whitney Houston, and my parents were a little worried about my voice because I screamed a lot in those days when I sang. And so they put me with a great voice teacher and she just was like, "You know, your voice is a little bit too big and your vibrato is ... you have vibrato at 14. That is not normal." And so she kind of started introducing me to sing art song and. And because of her I kind of went in the music route. The first opera I ever heard was La Bohème. And I wasn't completely taken by it but I was taken by the characters. And then I started listening to the music and then I would cry uncontrollably for reasons unknown. I didn't understand why I was being moved so much. So then I just knew I had to go on this path. I was a light lyric. Then I had my baby. My voice filled out a bit more and I sang an audition for Minnesota Opera and they liked my interpretation of Mimi and here I am. But it's kind of been a slow and steady climb.
JA: Miriam tell me a little bit about the difference between what a light lyric is and now you're a full lyric. And how did that change occur. Were you were you excited about it?
MK: I was very excited and terrified because it meant leaving everything I sort of knew and starting completely brand new in a whole other repertoire. A light lyric sings kind of a little bit higher sometimes. And the voice is a bit lighter, so you don't have to cut over as big orchestras, so I sang a lot of Mozart, I sang a lot of Handel. I still sing a lot of Handel, still sing a lot of Mozart. But my voice has filled out a lot more, so I'll maybe sing the more lyric ladies in those same productions. Once I moved into full lyric, now I'm singing with bigger orchestras and it means I have to cut more my middle range has to be a bit more filled out so that I can cut over the orchestra and be heard at the end of the hall. So that's what it kind of means and also means singing really increased beautiful and dramatic repertoire versus the kind of more chirpy repertoire.
JA: Now that's interesting that you use that word chirpy because, Nicole, I think that is sort of your definition of what you had to do when you played Musetta in La Bohème. I know that that's actually not unusual to be Musetta and then to move into a role like Mimi as your voice develops, as you were just mentioning, Miriam. So Nicole, tell me a little bit about that playing the two different roles and what's what's been most rewarding for you now that you've transitioned to Mimi.
NC: Yes, and like Miriam I started out singing lighter repertoire, and it took a long time for my voice to mature into the bigger repertoire. It was always a question of middle voice singing for me because ... What that means is that most of your lines are not super high or not super low, but they kind of lie in the middle of the voice and that's where the orchestration doubles you — meaning they play the same lines you do, a big orchestra and Mimi. And if you're not really confident in your ability to vocally cut over that orchestration you'll get covered. So it took a long time for me to say yes to Mimi. Prior to that — I think 2005 was my first Musetta, and I sang it everywhere. It really was ... people knew me as Musetta. And I can't even count how many productions I did of this role. And some were successful and some weren't because my voice was light. Musetta is a role that needs a little bit of steel in the voice. "Chirpy" is a way to describe it. But if you don't have that cut, that steel, what we might call a little "spinto" — that's a term that we use for that kind of steely quality — to cut over the orchestration, you'll get drowned out even more. And I didn't know that really at the time. Musetta also is a personality that's the exact opposite of my personality onstage. I'm a Southern Californian so I'm very ... I think, I at least strive to be, but I consider myself to be pretty chilled out and that kind of comes across on stage. Sometimes I wish I had a little bit more fire. But it really works well for Mimi. The sweetness ,that that kind of laid back wonder at her new relationships in the world and this new love. I find this very easy in the character. So my first Mimi was in 2014 and it really it's become my favorite role to sing. So I'm very lucky to be here singing this.
JA: And what is it about this role? I mean I know it's the character as you just mentioned, but it's the beautiful lines isn't it? I mean, Puccini is writing music that you may have no idea what this piece of music means and you will find yourself weeping. I mean do you find that to be true?
NC: Yes, and the first Puccini I ever heard was in the house. My mother would play Madame Butterfly. We didn't have opera in the house, but it was the only opera she listened to because of that because she didn't know it was you know what they were saying really she knew the story but she just loved the music. The music was so lush and beautiful the chord structure, the incredible soaring orchestrations it just ... Puccini really know how to write emotion into the music. And so like Miriam I didn't sort of take to La Bohème at first because I listened as a teenager to this music and I was all angsty. And the first thing I wanted to sing was Tosca (which I'll never sing) but this music is so heavy and it's just so dramatic. And Bohème is a little bit ... it has definitely has dramatic moments, but it's simpler. It's like the people. It's simple and it's almost provincial in a way. And so it kind of sneaks up on you. And that's what it did. I didn't really like Boheme until many years later. And again now I say it's one of my favorite operas. Just takes time.
JA: We're going to hear you sing an aria that occurs at the very beginning of the opera when Mimi is just introducing herself to Rodolfo. Would you introduce this for us please. And tell me what it is you love about this piece.
NC: Yes. This aria is called "Si, mi chiamano Mimi," and this means, "Yes. My name is Mimi." And then she says promptly after, "But my real name is Lucia. They call me (mi chiamano) or they call me Mimi." So who's "they"? "Non so," she says, "I don't know why." She does know why. I believe she's sort of flirting with him through this aria. It's a wonderful introduction to her character. She just explains very simply what she does for a living and she embroiders flowers and she doesn't always go to church but she prays. And you get a window into her soul in the middle of the area where she says, when spring comes the first rays of the sun are hers. She sings this with 100 percent of her heart. This is who she actually is. And she gets caught up in the emotion of explaining why this is so precious to her. And she realizes in embarrassment that she's kind of giving away too much. Oh! she doesn't want him to see how passionate and vulnerable she is just yet. And so at the end she says, "I've intruded on your space a little bit so I'm just going to leave," and of course she has no intention of leaving. So yes I hope you I hope you hear in this aria really about five minutes of complete characterization of this wonderful wonderful character, Mimi.
JA: And here is Nicole Cabell singing "Si, mi chiamano Mimi" from the opera La Bohème on Classical Minnesota Public Radio.
JA: Si, mi chiamano Mimi, sung by Nicole Cabell, one of the Mimis starring in Minnesota Opera's production of La Bohème. Accompanist Jessica Hall here as well, joining us so that we can hear from both of the Mimis and have an opportunity to talk about the opera, and what makes it so special. Miriam, I know that this opera is unique in that it's about real people. It's not just about a princess or something. These are real people dealing with real issues. And that's probably one of the things that makes it so heartfelt.
MK: Exactly. So the characters in this opera are all buddies. You see these guys that are artists ,they're students and they're hungry and they're literally selling off their things to go buy food. They share this apartment. And this is what you see at the beginning of the opera and I think we've all kind of ... I don't know, I've never sold anything to buy food ... but we've all been students, we've all been kind of in that place where, "Am I going to make it? How am I going to make it til the end of the month, til the next paycheck?" So these are the people that you're kind of encountering right at the beginning of the opera. And then you meet the ladies and Mimi: same thing. She's a seamstress. She makes flowers. These are just regular people just trying to survive. And then they fall in love. And this is the thing. It's a classic story about love and it will reach you because it's an opera where you're watching these people just sort of live and have these huge moments in their life, and you're watching it. And then on top of that, the music! I think La Bohème is like one of the most perfect operas to see as the first opera that you see. It's an opera that you just return to because you've lived with it. But the first time you hear it you're just like, "Oh! These are my buddies, these are my friends in university. You see yourself in each character and that's the really really special thing about this opera.
JA: Miriam, you'll sing a beautiful aria for us next which comes later in Act 3. And at this point Mimi and Rodolfo are going their separate ways. Set this up for us.
MK: So right before I sing this aria, I go to see my friend Marcello who is Rodolfo's best friend (Rodolfo is my boyfriend) and I tell him, "I don't know what's wrong with Rodolfo, but he's acting really strangely. He's being very jealous and he's yelling at me and he's being really quite hostile toward me," and Marcello just says, "OK. Well, here comes Rodolfo. You go home, don't make a scene, and I will talk to him." And instead of going home she listens. She spies to see what Rodolfo will say to Marcello. He starts off by saying, "You know, she's she's very flirty ..." and then Marcello says, "You know that's not true." And then Rodolfo opens his soul and says, "Well, I have to confess, I have to tell you: Mimi is very sick and she's dying."
And Mimi hears this. And this she knows she's sick. I don't think it's a mystery, like she's been coughing, and it's getting worse. But I don't think she knows she's dying. And it's really difficult because not only does she have to be strong in this moment where Rodolfo finds her because she has a coughing fit and is crying. She has to be strong to break up with him because he's not going to be able to do it.
So she says, "To the home that I left at the voice of my lover, I return there alone. To be by myself and to die alone," and it's so incredible. But then I think that statement can be done to him. But I like doing it to myself like it's a realization. And then she goes back to herself, "OK, hey listen I left my prayer book and and my gold cross and I left all those things in the drawer. Can you please pack them up so someone can pick them up? But I also left my cuffietta — my pink hat — I left it on the pillow. Please keep it to remind you of our love."
JA: And that is the hat that he has given to her at the very beginning of the opera.
MK: Yeah. So she's sort of like a beacon of strength in this scene. She is doing what he can't do. She's dying. She knows this but it's like she has to just find this in herself to do this for him. And that's what's amazing about this aria. Because although she feels, obviously very sorry for herself, she loves him so much that she doesn't want him to be sad. She just doesn't want him to watch her die. And that's that's what kills me.
JA: Well, Nicole and Miriam, thank you so much for joining me here in the Maud Moon Weyerhauser Studio on Classical Minnesota Public Radio. Lets go out with this beautiful aria sung by Miriam Khalil. It's titled "D'onde lieta."
La Bohème runs through Sunday, May 21, at Minnesota Opera.