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Emotion and Stage Presence Meet Bel Canto Technique


In Boston Lyric Opera’s first production in nearly 40 years of Vincenzo Bellini’s 1831 masterwork, Norma, Elena Stikhina will attempt to summit this soprano Everest, playing a powerful Druid priestess whose affair with Pollione, the general of a warring Roman faction [spoiler alert] ends at the stake. The Russian-born soprano made her American debut in BLO’s 2017 production of Tosca. Her subsequent national and international acclaim includes a lauded 2018 Metropolitan Opera debut in Puccini’s Il Trittico. Best known for its star-making aria “Casta Diva,” BLO presents Bellini’s dramatic bel canto opera for five performances from March 13-22 at the Emerson Cutler Majestic Theater.

Sandra Piques-Eddy (BLO’s Werther, 2016 and Katya Kabanova, 2015) plays Norma’s priestess/confidante Adalgisa. Jonathan Burton, who had taken the role of Cavaradossi opposite Stikhina’s in BLO’s Tosca, returns as Pollione. Alfred Walker (who recently performed to critical acclaim as Crown in the Metropolitan Opera’s acclaimed Porgy and Bess, and sang in BLO’s 2013 The Flying Dutchman) is Oroveso. 

Stephanie Havey makes her directorial debut at BLO, and David Angus conducts the BLO Orchestra. Shura Baryshnikov, recognized for her work on BLO’s The Handmaid’s Tale last season, serves as Movement Director. 

BMInt conversed at some length with Elena Stikhina and Jonathan Burton

FLE: I gather BLO immediately invited the two of you back after a successful Tosca pairing.

ES: At the Tosca opening night party they came to me to ask if I would come back. I didn’t suggest anything other than I definitely wanted to come back to Boston…it’s great. But any opera in which I could work with Jonathan would be great, I said, so we decided to find something which we will be suitable.

Suddenly they asked what I thought about Norma. “Oh it’s the dream role for every soprano. And it’s the big title part… it’s not quite a monodrama, but it requires an amazing kind of soprano singing.”

You don’t have to be the coloratura soprano… you can be a dramatic soprano and you can be a mezzo… The thing is, it’s a bel canto role and in bel canto, you need to show the quality of the voice and the quality of their technique more than the color of the voice. But Norma can be played by many different types of sopranos.

I gather the company was enthusiastic once you suggested attempting your debut in this soprano summit.

ES: Norma was certainly on the list of operas I wanted to sing.

Do you like to collect title roles?

ES: And I am so grateful to the BLO for allowing me this complete immersion in something new and demanding, because it’s not being staged everywhere. To do it the first time is so exciting, especially with this lovely company. This Norma puts so much pressure on the soprano, and I’m so glad I don’t have to do it first in a big house.

It’s a big challenge to be to go on this stage of this role, and here in Boston everyone gives me such wonderful support.

You have a lot of warmth in your timber all the way up, and smoothness across the range, which is very nice. And how much of your part is overtly florid?

ES: But a true bel canto role requires you to show your full legato

I’ve heard singers say that all opera is bel canto.

ES: Of course, if you translated it literally, then yes all singing should be beautiful singing. But the rules and practices of the strict style apply mostly to Bellini and Donizetti.

Dramatic sopranos can’t always hack the details and lyric voices can’t always endure the demands for drama and endurance. Yet so many entirely different-sounding ladies have sung the role. What do Callas, Bartoli, Sutherland, Scotto, Sills, Caballé and Radvanovsky have in common?

JB: As for Callas and Sutherland, and I suppose Caballe and Sills, their voices aren’t at all similar in terms of color and line, but they’re not worlds apart in terms of weight class. Sondra Radvanovsky is a dramatic voice, different from the others. 

BLO nurtures young singers but also puts a lot of effort into stage drama.

Jonathan Burton and Elena Stikhina in BLO’s 2017 Tosca

ES: We have to sing, act, move and sometimes even dance, but everywhere dramatic effect is always married to the musical demands. It’s not just opera, but also opera theater, so we have to have both skills.

How much how much of Bellini’s music conveys the emotion and how much of it just drives the proceedings from scene to scene?

ES: All the music and all the recitative are full of emotion. Nowadays it’s a little bit different than it was, for example, one century ago…two centuries ago. We feel the music differently, and the singer has to project these emotions across the footlights with our singing and acting abilities, not just our faces, not just our gestures. But everything we do must characterize and advance the drama. Most importantly the audience must hear emotion in the voice.

Do you sing differently when you’re being recorded for a video broadcast when they’re going be lots of close ups of your face?

ES: I’ve never done an HD production, so I don’t know, but I don’t think it will be a big difference, because I always try to do everything in my power.

And how often have you needed to have stage chemistry with a tenor whom you couldn’t abide off stage.

ES: [laughs] I’m lucky person. I’ve always had good partners on the stage, and they’re all professional and good people. We have to do our best. If we have no chemistry as individuals, the music always helps us convey the emotion.

JB: We have so many things to worry about: our voice, the conductor, what’s going on stage, our props falling apart, are we with the orchestra?… we don’t have time up there to worry about maybe not liking a person. The machine just clicks on, hopefully. But it is nice when we like each other.

Is it hard being the tenor in this opera? You have Norma, and Adalgisa as a girlfriend. But you don’t get either one at the end…

JB: Well, I get one of them, kind of, but we die immediately. We get on the pyre together.

Have you ever experienced real stage fire?

JB: Hmm. No. No. I don’t think we’re gonna have it. Usually the unions of the houses won’t let the directors play with matches.

The Met will.

JB: Well they’re a big powerhouse

ES: Salzburg will do real fire…When I did an Il Trovatore production in Erfurt there was fire, but that’s an open-air festival on the steps of a big church … they use a lot of fire there. Everywhere.

Are you going to object having the orchestra on stage with you?

ES: I started serious singing in Moscow in a famous big concert hall without a pit

So that’s why you learned to sing so loudly. Russian singers are the loudest.

ES: [laughs] No, I don’t think so. I know a lot of Bulgarians who are much louder than the Russians. Sonya Yoncheva has a huge, beautiful, amazing voice; I saw her for the first time last year in La Traviata at the Met. [Her Casta diva, the opera’s most famous aria, is below.]

You say drama is essential, so now how much in character are you? I once saw Vickers and Verett do a Samson and Delilah at the Met. He took his curtain call blind and had to be led out on stage to do his curtain call. I’d never seen anything that emotional before. Typically, the curtain is all smiling and grinning and throwing roses. But Vickers just couldn’t abandon Samson.

JB: He was known for that…To me a curtain call is about the artist communing with the audience about the performance, so to stay in character for a curtain call, to me, would feel odd.

What about stepping out of character if your aria is applauded? How much clapping would you require to get out of character?

JB: Anything past 60 seconds.

ES: [laughs] I’m always saying, don’t forget to leave the character in the theater, because otherwise the stage character changes your own character. Once the applause starts, it’s necessary to leave the character.

So, what is it like to be to have your stage movement choreographed by a modern dancer like Shura Barishnikov, as opposed to a stage director? Is she asking your bodies to do things they normally don’t?

ES: Last season I did a Butterfly staged by Rob Wilson in Amsterdam, and a choreographer directed every movement. Every movement.

Are you expected to have that fluidity of motion?

ES: Choreography is another language in addition to the singing and the acting. During the training, I thought I would die. But finally, I understood that it’s a great experience; I love it very much. So sometimes to add movements, something that’s a stretch for you, is great. It adds to your communicative language and you can always use it later.

In the case of this production, it’s much more than simply going to your mark and singing.

Can you explain some of the things that Shura asked of you?

ES: She’s great about explaining everything.

Sura Baryshnikov emotes (Anna M. Maynard photo)

JB: She hasn’t asked for anything I would call extra or extraneous or out of place. There are some dance elements in the show, but she is doing so much more than just dance. In my work with her, we’re not really doing anything dance-related, it’s more about how all of the motions become part of the character. Everything we’re doing I feel like I might normally do.

Shura can show you the best way to make that happen, to put you in your best light and make what you’re trying to do read, physically, to an audience. She’s helping us find the most beautiful and efficient way to make it happen. And somehow, she amplifies our intentions.

Do you think that it’s more highly evolved than it would be in a stage play? These movements relate you to the other characters as much as telegraphing to the audience?

JS: I don’t think it’s as on-the-nose as that. For the Druids in this show, Shura has pulled a lot of different influences from various faiths and practices…things like holding lights, doing blessings ceremonies, things like that, so a few of those things are choreographed.

And those will be choristers who know the dance?

JB: I honestly think if the audience weren’t told about choreography, they wouldn’t feel that anything is being laid over top of the show. It’s natural movement. Shura also is helping us think through staging movement… it looks best if you hold the knife at such an angle. She’s also helping with fight choreography.

At one point I go to my knees to beg Norma and Shura will say, “You know what? Why don’t you do that on just one knee instead of both” or “face a little more this way than that way.”

And you’ll have no trouble remembering all that on the next rehearsal?

JB: No, honestly, when you can get some specific touchstones like that, it really helps with the memory. I personally find memorization of words and notes on a page to be very difficult until we’re in the room and we can put something concrete along with it.


Were the famous Polliones different than those of today?

JB: Corelli and Del Monaco seemed to own it on the Italian side. Vickers did well with it. I think those are probably my big favorites. John Alexander was fantastic at Pollione; those lighter guys did a fantastic job with it.

The very first Pollione sang in falsetto at about G. There are letters he wrote with Bellini where he says, well I can sing up to G in full voice but then after that it’s falsetto.

Today tenors never admit to singing falsetto. They call it head voice or something else

The Italians talked about il falcetone, which is not a true correlation to falsetto, it’s what Gigli would use if you’re listening to him back in the day, when he would use that lighter mechanism. That’s not truly falsetto.

What did Vickers do when he floated those very, very light soft high notes.

JB: That would be more of an actual reinforced kind of head voice; unless you’re trying to sound like a little girl, that would be true falsetto.

Elena, you have mastered your break. Your instrument is seamless from top to bottom and what I can hear and it’s wonderful chocolate at the bottom….

ES: Women have no falsetto, that’s the thing, we have the head of the mix and the mezzo soprano uses chest voice. Sopranos and mezzos really have entirely different machines.

So, will the two of you crank up your machines and do Samson and Delilah together some time?

JB: I’d love to do something with it.

ES: For me, it’s too low. Get Sandra Piques Eddy to do it. Sandy has an amazing low voice.

JB: Oh man, she can sing as low as I can. She has three octaves, easy…


The action takes place in Gaul under the Roman occupation, and exposes the love affair between Pollione, Roman proconsul, Norma, his former companion, and the young Adalgisa. The background is the uprising of the Gallic people against the occupier, led by the druid Oroveso.

Norma, high priestess of the druidic temple who had two children of Pollione (breaking her chastity vows) Roman proconsul, discovers that her lover is in love with her friend a young priestess Adalgisa. Norma tries to convince him to give up Adalgisa and return to her, but he refuses. Norma then publicly confesses her fault and is sentenced to death. Pollione is convicted for pursuing Adalgisa in the temple and goes to the stake with Norma.

Elena Stkhina

Following spectacular debuts at the Paris and Metropolitan Operas and thé Salzburg Festival, young Lirico-spinto soprano Elena Stikhina is making waves in the opera world. Recent engagements have seen her triumph at the Bayerische Staatsoper, the Berlin Staatsoper, Dresden Semperoper, Baden Baden Festspielhaus and in concert with the Concertgebouw Amsterdam, the Munich Philharmonic and at the Philharmonie Paris,. Elena has attracted press reviews describing her singing as both miraculous and luminous, her presence as magnetic and her technique as superlative. Summer 2019 saw her make  her British Debut at the BBC Proms singing Tatyana’s letter scene from Eugene Onegin.  

The 2018/19 season also saw her make her Dutch Opera debut singing Cio-Cio San (Madama Butterfly). Performances as Tosca and Leonora (La Forza del Destino) followed at the Paris Opera, where she returns in this autumn to sing a new production of Prince Igor. Other engagements in the 19/20 season include her debut in Geneva as Aida, her return to the Boston Lyric Opera as Norma and more returns to the Paris Opera for Adriana Lecouvreur and La Bohème.  She also also returns to the Bayerischer Staatsoper for their summer festival and is invited once again to Salzburg.  She returns to the Berlin Staatsoper for their New Years Eve celebrations.

The 18/19 season was also marked by her singing Tosca and Leonora (Il Trovatore) in Berlin and Dresden, Senta (Der fliegende Holländer) in Baden Baden and Munich and Suor Angelica in New York. Elena appears as guest soloist at the famed Mariinsky Theatre Saint Petersburg after developing her repertoire at the New Primorsky Stage of the Mariinsky Theatre in Vladivostock. Elena completed her studies at the Moscow State Conservatory in 2012 and gained international attention when she won first prize at the Competizione dell’Opera Linz in 2014 and then in 2016 by winning the Audience and Culturarte Prizes at Placido Domingo’s Competition ‘Operalia’.

Jonathan Burton

American tenor Jonathan Burton has been praised for having “thrilling power and beauty” (Baltimore Sun) and for being “an engaging all-around singer with a powerful, full-bodied sound.” (Opera News) For his recent turn as Calaf in Turandot, (Opera News) proclaimed that he “produced a wonderfully shaded ‘Nessun Dorma’ that included brilliant top notes” and the (Herald Tribune) raved “a tenor who can add substantial flesh to Calaf as well as deliver the most famous aria of Italian grand opera to satisfaction is a rare find…Burton hit the jackpot with his delivery of ‘Nessun dorma’ that could stand confidently next to our worn recordings of Corelli, Domingo and Pavarotti.” 

Burton begins the 2018-2019 season with his role debut as Bacchus in Ariadne auf Naxos with Austin Opera. Other performances include Calaf in Turandot with Knoxville Opera, Tulsa Opera, and Dayton Opera, Sarasota Opera, Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly with Welsh National Opera, Manrico in Il Trovatore with Central City Opera, Dick Johnson in La Fanciulla del West with Maryland Lyric Opera, and Canio in Pagliacci with Opera Omaha. He then performs on a double bill of Il Tabarro and Pagliacci as Canio and Luigi with Maryland Lyric Opera before he takes on Maurizio in Adriana Lecouvreur with Knoxville Opera. Mr. Burton will be singing the role of Turiddu from Cavalleria Rusticana in concert with Knoxville Opera after performing with the Shreveport Symphony Orchestra for their Look at the World concert, as well as a concert with the Rhode Island Philharmonic.

During the 2016-2017 season the tenor bowed as Cavaradossi in Tosca with Central City Opera, and as Dick Johnson in La Fanciulla del West with Opera Colorado, where “he proved once again his credentials as a Puccini tenor.  Johnson is not the easiest character to love, but Burton imbued him with sympathy, and his long scene with Citro in Act II is easily the high point of the evening.” (Daily Camera). Additionally, he took the stage as Riccardo in Un Ballo in Maschera with Florida Grand Opera, as Calaf in Turandot with Des Moines Metro Opera, Dick Johnson in La Fanciulla del West with New York City Opera, Cavaradossi in Tosca with Boston Lyric Opera and Opera Omaha, and as Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly with Welsh National Opera.  

He took the role of Turiddu in Cavalleria Rusticana with Opera Steamboat for concert performances, and joined the Dayton Opera and Opera Louisianne in concert performances.    Highlights from the 2015-2016 season include his performances of Calaf in Turandot with Nashville Opera, Cavaradossi in Tosca with Knoxville Opera and Radamès in Aida with Sarasota Opera where he “showed his heroic bona fides in the opera’s opening minutes tackling “Celeste Aida”–one of the most tortuous arias in the repertoire–with clarion tone, easy projection and ringing top notes. . . Burton sang strongly and passionately throughout in an arduous role.” (The Classical Review)  During the 2014-2015 season Mr. Burton took the stage as Dick Johnson in La Fanciulla del West with Des Moines Metro Opera where (Opera Today) raved “Jonathan Burton poured out impassioned, emotionally generous phrases as Dick Johnson (Ramerrez). Mr. Burton has an exciting squillo in his full-bodied tenor that is riveting. But Mr. Burton can also exude a persuasive charm as he croons gentler phrases and caresses them with a knowing legato.”  Additional engagements during the season included Manrico in Il Trovatore with Knoxville Opera, the title role in Don Carlos with Sarasota Opera, and both Dick Johnson in La Fanciulla del West and Florestan in Fidelio with Kentucky Opera. Past highlights have included appearances at Dayton Opera, Utah Opera, Opera Naples, Castleton Festival, Sinfónica de Galicia under the baton of Lorin Maazel, Kentucky Opera, Royal Opera House Muscat in Oman, Annapolis Opera, Opera New Jersey, Utah Festival Opera, Opera on the James, Central City Opera, Lyric Opera of Virginia, Palm Beach Opera, Florida Grand Opera, Palm Beach Opera, Southern Ohio Light Opera Company, Kentucky Symphony Orchestra, Lexington Philharmonic, Southern Ohio Symphony.

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  1. Speaking of last season’s Butterfly, Elena, thank you for obliging your choreographer. It was a feast for the ears AND for the eyes!

    Comment by Victor Khatutsky — March 5, 2020 at 3:50 pm

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