Dazzling soprano Tamara Wilson makes her role debut as Tosca.
Puccini’s was the first opera of the 20th century, opening in early January of 1900, and it has been uniquely popular from that moment, long eclipsing the play.
Tosca was but one of Bernhardt’s iconic roles. Most famously, she played Marguerite in The Lady of the Camellias, whose story became the basis for Verdi’s La traviata, with the fallen one as Violetta, another of opera’s most coveted parts; it was later immortalized on film by Greta Garbo in Camille. Both Bernhardt and the younger firebrand actress, the Italian Eleanora Duse, performed as Marguerite, and in so doing changed the art of acting in ways that still resonate. Nothing in the art of acting was the same after Bernhardt and Duse publicly fought for the public’s affection.
What was the rivalry between Bernhardt and Duse? Its roots were essentially the same as the later Tosca-fueled rivalry between Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi, or to a lesser extent between Sutherland and Sills or Domingo and Pavarotti. Feuds may cause private egos to suffer, but they are generally good for art and great for stardom, and the public largely doesn’t care if they are real. Amadeus, for example, makes a great story because Salieri and Mozart are portrayed as rivals when in reality they weren’t, but the rivalry is the story. Sarah Bernhardt was an old school actress, which at that time meant learning postures and poses that had held dramatic meanings for audiences for over a century. Her performances employed heavy stage make-up and, like all of her era, were focused on a conscious lack of realism. Indeed, showing that you were acting was a hallmark of the Bernhardt era, and so was the upholding of long-standing traditions.
Duse, by contrast, was new, progressive, radical, and all about realism: she used very little make-up by the standards of the day, and portrayed real tears and emotions. She could mesmerize an audience by showing how similar she was to them, something that could never have been said about Bernhardt. In the rivalry between these two actresses, acting changed forever: traditionalists loved Bernhardt and loathed the emotion of Duse, whereas more forward-looking patrons found Bernhardt hopelessly old-fashioned. With the advent of film, realistic acting became a necessity for the camera. Duse lives on in our language to this day, where some will still describe a major event as a “doozie.”
Giacomo Puccini’s searing Tosca is the most purely Italian of the Italian operas, with its Roman setting, its mixture of the worlds of politics and religion, its intrigue, jealousy, and overt passions. Puccini’s score soars passionately, tunefully, and memorably; it does not have a single unrequired note.
Tosca has the most loathsome of villains in Scarpia, yet he is also creepily alluring. Cavaradossi is the most ardent of lovers, plus he’s a freedom fighter willing to die for his ideals. He’s given away as an atheist in a religious world by a single word uttered by the Sacristan, who calls him a “Voltarian!” Above all, this opera has the magnificent title character, ennobled by her chosen profession (she is a celebrated opera singer, of course!) and by her deep faith. The symbolism of Tosca is still potent because it is so clear: the title character as the suffering and generous religious figure vs. Cavaradossi the dangerously revolutionary atheist, with Scarpia as the corrupt power broker between church and state.
Tosca is a great star part, but what does stardom mean now here in the 21st century? We don’t do public rivalries like Bernhardt and Duse anymore, much less like Callas and Tebaldi. HGO’s Tosca this season, Tamara Wilson, is as great a singing artist as has ever been in any era. Yes, I mean exactly that. And so are Joyce DiDonato, Ailyn Perez, Jamie Barton, Michael Spyres, Matthew Polenzani, and a couple of dozen others currently working. I adore them, as do my colleagues all over the world. Audiences love them. They inspire us all, but they simply are not famous on the level of their contemporaries a half-century ago, for reasons that have nothing to do with their talent.
There is a stubborn belief, probably because we all so fervently want it to be true, that if someone gets enough publicity, they will become famous. Not only has this not been true for at least a generation, in any field, but today, in our relatively new internet era, people now become famous for no discernible reason. In the past, largely, accomplishment was the reason we knew someone’s name: Maria Callas, Beverly Sills, and Luciano Pavarotti were extremely famous, as were Grace Moore, Lily Pons, and Risë Stevens a generation before them—and their names were known to millions who had never attended an opera. This is virtually impossible in the 21st century, especially in professions like opera singing and ballet dancing, arts that require an enormous amount of legacy training and technique just to get to the starting point. Fame now follows those who are themselves followed, meaning they have to be sought out.
Setting fame aside, the 2020s pool of talent in opera is astonishing, which many will find surprising when so few people can name an opera star. And leading that talent, one artist continually dazzles her colleagues to a degree that is challenging to describe: the soprano Tamara Wilson.
Between various organizations, I have for decades heard between five to six hundred auditions a year, which add up to many thousands in my professional life. Though efficient, auditions are actually one of the worst ways to get to know a singer, which explains why most fade quickly into memory. Mercifully few stand out for being memorably bad, and a few joyous ones live forever for possessing that joyous moment of revelation that an important new voice is in the world. Tamara Wilson was one of those.
I remember the first moment I heard her, in 2005, as though it was this morning. She was a member of the Sarah and Ernest Butler Houston Grand Opera Studio from 2005-07. Back then we knew she was already an extraordinary singer, but little did we know what she would be capable of 2023: in the past year alone she has performed the incredibly demanding roles of Puccini’s Turandot (at HGO and Amsterdam), Wagner’s Isolde (at Santa Fe Opera), Elvira in Verdi’s Ernani (at Lyric Opera of Chicago), and now her first Tosca. These composers all have extremely specific stylistic, dramatic, and vocal demands, and very few singers can manage even one of them, much less all four. There have been very few singers in history with such a range of styles within their grasp.
Though Tamara, Tammy to all who know her, sings all over the world now, her range is evident in her history at HGO alone: in the fall following her Butler Studio years, an opportunity arose (via the last-minute cancellation of a “name”) to take on Amelia in Verdi’s A Masked Ball. Tammy winning the role caused some controversy at the time because she was so young, and there was still, at least at that moment, an open prejudice about Studio artists vs. “stars”—yet there was literally not a single artist in the world, then or now, who could sell out a performance of Verdi’s opera. Tammy pretty much wiped the floor with an experienced and fine cast in that Masked Ball. Ramon Vargas, starring in the opera with her, told me in the early rehearsals that Tammy had the greatest natural instrument he’d ever heard. Even Ewa Podles, not known for complimenting anyone’s singing but her own, was dumbstruck by her. We all were.
Local critics, flummoxed by not knowing her because of her age, had no idea how to react or write about her, but she took this in elegant stride. Tammy is one of the most self-aware and intelligent artists I’ve come across in a long career. There is nothing about herself of which she is unaware, nor is there anything she doesn’t accept and own. She knows her own talent, which is no small feat for an artist. It is a common coping mechanism of artistry to have a healthy dose of self-delusion. Not Tammy. She will almost always be the smartest person in the room, and she is unshakeable. But, like a few others I’ve known on her level, she is unassuming, humble, and seemingly unaware of the actual level of her gifts.
After the success of Ballo, she accepted another cancellation, the famously challenging Konstanze in Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio, making her the first and probably last singer since Maria Callas to perform Ballo and Abduction in the same year. She has performed several Verdi roles at HGO: Don Carlos’s Elizabeth, Trovatore’s Leonora, and the title role in Aida. An early foray into German music, which will become the focus of her vocal life now that she is in her full maturity, was as Chrysothemis to Christine Goerke’s Elektra in Strauss’s Elektra in our hurricane season at the Resilience Theater.
Beyond everything else about her, there is that voice. Tammy’s voice is rich, resonant, and effortlessly produced. The reason she can sing almost anything and sound idiomatic doing so is simple to describe but very hard to achieve: technique. Put simply, singing evenly over your whole vocal range, at a full range of dynamics, is full technical mastery of the voice. Yes, people are born with vocal capacities, some better than others, but it is technique, especially in opera, that allows you to become a full artist in the field. Acting in opera, ultimately, is only possible when vocal technique is within one’s full grasp, because you need technique to let yourself go as an actor, and in this, too, Tammy is exemplary— directors love her because she will probe as deeply as they do.
Last season, her Turandot in Robert Wilson’s gorgeous production had us all gasping for superlatives. Longtime members of the HGO Chorus were in tears in the rehearsal room just from witnessing the sheer vocal mastery and power of Tammy’s singing and the discipline of her acting performance. Robert Wilson was besotted with her, because she could fill his highly stylized vision with emotion. The natural next step of her artistic evolution was naturally Tosca, and how appropriate that she returns here to her home theater to debut it.
A complete list of Tamara Wilson’s appearances at Houston Grand Opera:
- Aida: Aida, winter 2020
- Amelia: A Masked Ball, fall 2007
- Bubikopf: The Kaiser from Atlantis, fall 2006
- Pásek’s Wife: The Cunning Little Vixen, spring 2007
- Countess Almaviva: The Marriage of Figaro, spring 2006
- Elisabeth de Valois: Don Carlos, spring 2012 (with Christine Goerke as Eboli)
- Turandot: Turandot, spring 2022 (with Eun Sun Kim conducting)
- Miss Jessel: The Turn of the Screw, winter 2010
- Priestess: Aida, spring 2007 (to Svetlina Vassileva’s Aida)
- Cupid: The Coronation of Poppea, spring 2006 (debut)
- Recital (digital): September 18, 2020 (the first of our pandemic digital recitals, with me on the piano)
- Konstanze: The Abduction from the Seraglio, winter 2008
- Clorinda: La Cenerentola (Cinderella), winter 2007 (with Joyce DiDonato)
- Leonora: Il trovatore, spring 2013
- Chrysothemis: Elektra, winter 2018 (with Christine Goerke as Elektra)