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High-Flying Adored


She’s made us weep, she’s made us sigh, and now she’ll make us laugh. Laura Claycomb talks to William V. Madison about her return to Houston as Marie in Donizetti’s comic gem The Daughter of the Regiment.

 

Corpus Christi–born, Dallas-reared soprano Laura Claycomb travels the world these days: when interviewed for Opera Cues, she was on her way to Kinshasa, Congo, following engagements in Moscow, London and Brussels, where she makes her home. But something special happens whenever she takes the Wortham stage. Since her company debut, as Gilda in Rigoletto in 2000, Houstonians have embraced her.

 “I don’t know what it is about the Houston audiences,” she muses. “Maybe it’s because I give off some different energy when I sing ‘close to home’ or something! They have been amazing in their support and hospitality. It’s probably a Texas thing…I think they just like to see one of their own doing well.”

Last seen at HGO in Mozart’s Idomeneo and at the company’s golden-anniversary gala, the SMU alumna (“Go, ADPi!”) returns to the Wortham as Marie, the heroine of Donizetti’s La Fille du régiment (The Daughter of the Regiment).

It’s a comic role that has brought Claycomb accolades from Rome to San Francisco. A foundling brought up by an entire army regiment (she calls everyone “father”), Marie falls for a country boy, Tonio—only to discover that she’s of noble birth, and expected to marry within her class.

“Marie’s lots of fun,” Claycomb says. “She runs the gamut from gangly mascot to damsel-in-distress to heroine, so it’s a pretty satisfying role.” Although she concedes that Daughter is widely perceived as a soprano vehicle, she’s quick to point out that Marie doesn’t “go on and on about something by herself all the time,” but interacts constantly with the other characters. “I have a great time playing her, because she’s allowed to be funny, she’s quick-witted, and she’s a fighter—a girl with guts.”

She recommends Daughter to first-time operagoers. “It has a great pace,” she says. “You won’t be bored for a second.” Among her favorite moments in the show are “some fabulously catchy tunes,” the high comedy of Marie’s music-lesson scene, her Act II aria, the tenor’s “Ah! Mes amis,” and “because there are lots of ‘military marches’ in the score, it’s something to which you can tap your foot. (Albeit not too loudly….)”

“And I get to be FUNNY!” Claycomb enthuses. “Everyone always talks about how funny I can be—usually with faces I pull—but I normally play dramatic roles. So I’ll be happy to stretch my comic muscles, for a change! I have to admit, too, that I’m a sucker for a show where there’s just a men’s chorus,” she adds, citing also the male-dominated choruses of Verdi’s Rigoletto and Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi. “Maybe I just feel most comfortable when surrounded by men!” she jokes.

Despite the fun and games, composer Donizetti wrote many of the most demanding operas in the bel canto repertory (including Lucia di Lammermoor, which Claycomb brought to HGO in 2003), and he pulled out all the stops when writing Daughter. Marie’s music “has all the brilliant stuff you’d expect in such a tour-de-force role, but also the plangent moments when she gets to be soulful and soar over the chorus,” Claycomb says. The role has been associated with some of opera’s brightest stars, including Lily Pons, Joan Sutherland, and Beverly Sills.

Sills, who died in July, was HGO’s first Marie, in the 1972–73 season. The upcoming performances of The Daughter of the Regiment are dedicated to her memory. And that’s not all.

“My favorite coach in London, Gerald Martin Moore, did the last interview with Beverly Sills last year,” Claycomb says. “She gave him her [vocal] ornaments for Marie, and told him to please share them with other artists. So in tribute to the great Beverly Sills, I will be using some of her fabulous ornaments in HGO’s Daughter of the Regiment. I can’t think of a more apt way to pay tribute to one of our greatest Maries. I’ve always been a huge fan, and perform many of her key roles. She’s always been an idol of mine, not only for her voice and expression but also her personality.”

Claycomb looks forward to working with her leading man, Barry Banks, the British tenor who’s acclaimed for his intense acting and singing. (For once, principal interest in Tonio’s performance won’t be whether he hits all the high Cs in “Ah! mes amis.”) Daughter will mark Banks’s HGO debut, and the first collaboration between these exciting artists.

“In an onstage partner, I look for someone who’s easygoing, who’s comfortable enough in his own shoes to risk doing things with me, and who gives as much as I do onstage,” Claycomb says. “I want someone who questions why the character’s doing something, who’s interested in the whole show, who will try anything in rehearsal, and who won’t get all persnickety about moving, trying, exploring, etc. And someone who isn’t shy about kissing me onstage or doing any of the physical bits, either. I am not a big ‘stand and deliver’ opera singer, and I’m not very fond of those who think that’s enough. …I can’t wait to meet Barry!”

And she’s looking forward, also, to working again with maestro Patrick Summers, HGO’s music director, with whom she’s sung around the world. In Moscow for a concert Lucia last winter, Claycomb fell ill. “If Patrick hadn’t been conducting, I would never have made it through the opera. He’s so zen when things start to go crazy. I knew I could just put myself in his hands.”

Other recent career highlights include creating the role of Queen Wealtheow in the world premiere of Elliot Goldenthal’s Grendel in Los Angeles; three recordings; a new production of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress in Brussels and Lyon; and mentoring Serge Kakudji, a self-taught, teenaged countertenor from the Congo. And she’s gotten engaged—to Jan Goossens, artistic director of the Royal Flemish Theater in Brussels.

When asked what she’s been up to since the last time she sang in Houston, “I had to open up my diary to remember,” she says. “I sometimes wake up not just wondering where I am, but what season it is—I can’t remember the month. If you think about it, I’m changing places all the time, and the weather in each place is variable, so I don’t have four stable seasons by which to run my clock…and what with the weather so unseasonable all the time, I don’t know which end is up!”

But when she returns to the Wortham, she’ll know where she is: exactly where Houston wants her.

William V. Madison launched his journalism career by interviewing Beverly Sills for his high-school newspaper in Richardson, Texas, in 1976.

 

 
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