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Cheryl North Interviews Mary Dunleavy

ANG Newspapers Classical Music Column for October 8, 2004

Julie Andrews or Dame Kiri te Kanawa?

As a teenager, Mary Dunleavy couldn't decide which one she wanted to be.

Dame Kiri and grand opera eventually won her dedication. The beautiful, vivacious Dunleavy now takes a well-earned place among the current roster of the world's fine sopranos. She can be heard at 8 p.m. tonight as the dazzling Violetta for the San Francisco Opera's final performance this season of Verdi's La Traviata."

When I met her for an interview earlier in the week at San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House, my first thoughts were how very much she looked like a perfect Violetta. Petite and shapely, her mannerisms were gracefully feminine and her big blue eyes, expressive. She has a shock of reddish brown hair and a broad, quite Irish-looking smile.

As it turns out, she is indeed about as Irish as she can be. All four of her grandparents immigrated from Ireland to New York City. Moreover, they all loved music. Full of fiddlers and good, albeit amateur, singers, nearly every gathering of the big Irish-American Dunleavy clan ended up with the whole bunch singing folk songs and Broadway tunes.

Although Mary was born in Saybrook, Connecticut, the family soon moved to a New Jersey town that served as a suburb to New York City. "Some of my happiest memories are of the times when my parents would pack up my two sisters and me and take us in to Manhattan to see a Broadway musical," she remembers. "Now, they're flying in from the East Coast to hear me sing Violetta."

It was after she sang her first lead role at age 12 in a school production of "Annie," that teachers and friends urged her parents to give her singing lessons. They did, and the budding diva spent some happy years in a New Jersey public high school singing the soprano leads in the school's productions of Oklahoma, Carousel and other Broadway musicals. She found it all pretty intoxicating. "It was pretty exciting kissing a big senior on stage when I was only 14!" she said.

When it was time to choose a university, she picked one that had a reputation for its theater and music departments -- Northwestern. It was there that she had her first introduction to real opera, singing in Tartuffe, a comic opera composed by the Bay Area's own Kirke Mechem. It was also at Northwestern that she met her future husband, Hal Williams. "He kept loitering outside my dorm," she chuckled. "And now we've been happily married for 12 years."

Perhaps her most famous role has been as the Queen of the Night in Mozart's The Magic Flute, a role she has sung at least 80 times. Although she swears that the role of the old queen is now "thoroughly retired," it is as an interpreter of that particular role that Dunleavy has reaped much of her most extravagant critical praise. One critic raved that she sang the major aria with "explosive hard-heartedness, her coloratura shooting like machine-gun fire." Another maintained that "few sopranos can articulate the coloratura fireworks so precisely or with a voice of such dramatic substance," while a Dutch critic from the Netherlands called her "a dream of a coloratura soprano" after her foray as the excitable Queen of the Night in Holland. And perhaps best of all, Anthony Tommasini, the peerless New York Times music critic, opined that "Mary Dunleavy was a terrifying Queen of the Night...when leaping about in her upper range, including those notorious high Fs, she was fearless and faultless."

La Traviata's Violetta, which Dunleavy she has sung at least 20 times, is another role with which she is exceedingly familiar. She told me that she has found it especially interesting to sing Violetta under so many different directors. Each, she says, seems to have a strong concept about how the role of the beautiful, doomed courtesan should be played. One of her favorite interpretations has been the one she sang under the direction of Renata Scotto, another great Violetta, for the New York City Opera a few years back. "I find it intriguing to bring out all the shadows, as well as the light, within each character I portray," she said.

The critics seem to be in unison lauding her moving musical essays as Violetta. After hearing a previous Violetta she sang in San Francisco a few years ago, a local critic wrote, "She dispatched the coloratura of 'Sempre libera' not only precisely but with dramatic insight...'Addio del passato' was a heartbreaker, culminating in a perfectly floated high A." The critic viewing her New York Violetta raved, "Cumulatively, she gave the sense of a flame burning within, which made the protracted carrying-ons of a dying consumptive seem plausible, fueled by sheer force of will and abundance of spirit."

Sounds like a Violetta we all can love, yes?

Dunleavy explained that she isn't likely to spend a great deal of time on the recital format in the near future. She prefers being able, as in opera, to totally inhabit and develop a single character, both with song and dramatic gesture, throughout a story. "Opera is really what makes me most excited," she said. "There are even exciting challenges in some Mozart arias where you have to sing the same two lines over and over again over six or more minutes of difficult music."

In December, she will unveil a just such a role: Giunia in Mozart's Lucio Silla, an opera he wrote at the age of 17, at De Nederlandse Opera in Amsterdam. " Lucio Silla happens to have some of those arias. Maybe Mozart didn't like the original soprano singing the role, because he wrote some impossibly long arias that make you wish for an oxygen tank to help you get through," she said. So far, her active repertoire includes Fiordiligi in Cosi fan tutte; Beatrice et Benedict; Carmen; Les Pecheurs de Perles; I Capuleti e I Montecchi; Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail; Mathis der Maler; Il viaggio a Reims; and more. "While Violetta and Lucia of Lucia di Lammermoor are probably my current favorite roles," she said, "I would like someday to sing a convincing Massenet 'Manon.' But then, I also love doing the lighter, more playful, things like Adina and Norina from the Donizetti operas." But before all of that, she will be making her San Francisco Symphony debut as a soloist, along with Susanne Mentzer and John Mark Ainsley, in the Symphony's performance of Britten's Spring Symphony under the direction of Robert Spano on October 13, 14, 15, and 16, 2004 at Davies Symphony Hall. For tonight's performance of La Traviata, Dunleavy's co-stars will be tenor Rollando Villazon as Alfredo; Zeljko Lucic in the role of Germont; along with Catherine Cook; Katherine Rohrer; Thomas Glenn; Ricardo Herrera; Joshua Bloom; and Stephen Bryant. Robert Wood will conduct, while John Copley serves as stage director.

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