Being Romeo

It was a bold stroke for Bellini and his librettist to title their new opera I Capuleti e i Montecchi rather than go with the more popular blockbuster title, surely ensuring a sold out house: Romeo and Juliet. (They chose to mine more common Italian sources for the story rather than defer to that ol’ Englishman’s tale.)  However, it gives the perfect preview to what lay in store for the listener, for this is not, in reality, a love story.  This is a story of impossibility, of duty and fate, of desperation and futility. You will not find light breaking through yonder windows, nor a pining to transform oneself into gloves upon cheeks, for when we meet the two young lovers all the juicy parts have transpired already. We’re simply left with the mess. But oh what operatic bliss this mess doth be!

My first Romeo, courtesy of Zefferelli

As a woman of a certain age,  the prospect of portraying perhaps the most beloved, well-known young lover of all literature is unquestionably overwhelming.  (Oh how I LOVED my first visual introduction to the character, Leonard Whiting. As a 13 year old girl, I truly thought we were destined to be together!)  The first order of business was to erase any foolish attempts to compete with the great Romeos of the past – those icons of the stage, screen, and opera (not a small order by any stretch of the fertile imagination), and simply work to craft a portrayal which came from an organic place within me.  In fact, the very same process a singer must go through with any role.  Because singers work with the greatest masterpieces for a living, the temptation to exceedingly and obstinately revere the piece to a fault can be overwhelming and keep us from making it our own, from getting right into the bloody marrow of the piece and bring it to palpitating life.  I’ve learned, slowly and methodically over the years, to give myself permission to make these pieces my own for the time that I sing them. It’s the only way I think a performer can have true believability on the stage.  We must feel as if we are saying/singing/creating our lines for the very first time ~ thinking of them and uttering them on the spot, as if we are the composer in that moment.

We meet Bellini’s Romeo months after he first climbed that fated balcony and hours after just having killed the son of Capulet: he strides into the grieving enemy’s territory and audaciously proposes a peace settlement to them.  We see immediately how impulsive, passionate and stuck he is, for upon defiant resistance from his audience, he quickly shifts gears essentially lofting a curse on their house himself, saying “Fine – you want WAR? You’ve got it – but all the bloodshed will be on YOUR hands, not mine.”  He came to love and offer peace, and leaves distraught, for he knows he is an unwitting, inexorable part of the machinery of war that cannot be stopped.

Capuleti production by Vincent Boussard

It’s quite easy to find a modern context for Bellini’s approach to this piece:  imagine for a delicious moment Bin Laden’s oldest son falling hopelessly, completely, utterly in love with George Bush’s youngest daughter. And it’s mutual. Then imagine the son arriving in Washington, barging into the Oval Office to say to the President, “Sir, I’ve been thinking, and I’ve got it all figured out!  If you could just let your daughter marry me, we could solve all this unnecessary conflict. Trust me – it will totally work!”  Universal themes, once again, take center stage at the opera house!  Seriously.  Think about it.

Any time Giulietta and Romeo meet in this version, they are in conflict.  There is no love scene, no love duet, and no peace. Romeo continuously begs her to flee with him promising much happier days far from their troubles, yet she wails repeatedly that she cannot desert her father, as much as she may love him.  It is hopeless and seemingly impossible. Romeo feels utter despair at being torn in two and not being able to solve this conflict (what man doesn’t want to be the problem solver?).  The conflict lasts through the Act 1 Finale (“Come away with me” – “Are you not HEARING me?  I CAN’T!”), and even carries straight through to the infamous tomb scene.  Upon Giulietta’s awakening, again, they are in immediate conflict. (“Didn’t Lorenzo tell you?” “No. Tell me what?”)  The only moment of peace and resolution for the two of them ~ and in this production, the only loving embrace ~ happens in death.

Vincenzo Salvatore Carmelo Francesco Bellini

But even Bellini can’t let that stand, for he brings in the warring parties over their tombs and ends with the two sides continuing to face off and threaten revenge.  This most decidedly is not a love story, but much more a comment on war and ridiculous territorial rubbish.  You know, insanity is often defined as repeating the same things and expecting a different result.  Shakespeare penned his take on this old Italian story between 1591 and 1595. Yep.  Apparently we’re pretty insane.

With all this talk of war and enemies and lost peace, how fabulous is it that Bellini penned some of his most EXQUISITELY beautiful and tender music for this piece?  Tchaikovsky called it:

“I have always felt great sympathy towards Bellini. When I was still a child the emotions which his graceful melodies, always tinged with melancholy, awakened in me were so strong that they made me cry. And to this day, in spite of his many shortcomings—that is his vapid accompaniments, the vulgar and trivial strettas of his ensembles, the coarseness and banality of his recitatives—I have nonetheless retained my sympathy for his music.”

~ Letter 1987 to Nadezhda von Meck, 7/19 March 1882, from Naples

Indeed, he sculpted sublime melodies, arching phrases, haunting, tangled, tumbling duets and as a result paints the most tender, vulnerable sketch of two young lovers completely embroiled in society’s snare of greed, anger and hate. The juxtaposition of the sublime melody against the raw emotion makes the bittersweet story all the more potent.

Romeo, as envisioned by Christian Lacroix

I can hardly describe what a joy it is to sing such divine music while portraying such a timeless story.  I do think this is as good as it gets.  But it’s an enormous challenge which demands a perilous range, fervent emotion, formidable vocality, and immense stamina. There is not a single moment to relax within this role ~ either vocally or dramatically ~ but, if I’ve done my job well, the payoff is tremendous.

I’m so happy and fortunate to be bringing this role to San Francisco with a divine cast and in a stunning production (not to mention costumes!)

 “For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.”

               ~ William Shakespeare



  1. Marguerite Foxon said…

    Thanks for the wonderful insights into this opera Joyce. Im excited to be attending on the Sunday afternoon show at the end of the season. Its so helpful to have a lead singer’s perspective on the story. Toi toi toi for a wonderful season of performances of this timeless story.

  2. Miryam Ramos said…

    Just read this – minutes before leaving the house for SF and the Opera, and for my birthday, no less.
    This blog is truly the icing on the cake – great perspective on the opera being presented.
    Joyce – everything I’ve heard you say in interviews, or read on your blogs shows that you are the consummate professional. You show such utter JOY in your work, and it brings much pleasure to your listeners.
    Thank you.

  3. Thank you so much for sharing these thoughts! I’d love to see this Romeo!

  4. Agnello Dei said…

    Vocally speaking, I LOVE your Romeo…when you sing that low G in your first aria…THE BEST!

  5. Pam Frame said…

    Thank you so much, Joyce, for your superb insights into this opera which is new to Tom and me. We look forward even more now to seeing it Wednesday night. I know you will be a powerful and stunning Romeo!

  6. Cristina G.N said…

    Dear Joyce

    Siempre he dicho y seguiré diciendo a cualquier persona que quiera escucharme que tu voz es increiblemente bella y dúctil,chispeante y agil hasta donde la imaginación pueda alcanzar,pero que también eres una grandísima artista,responsable y trabajadora que gracias a su empeño por alcanzar las máximas cotas de profesionalidad hace creibles los personajes que interpreta.
    Joyce tu tienes ¨ALMA¨,¨CHISPA¨ y por eso llegas hasta lo más profundo del corazón.Porque sin estas cualidades de nada sirve una voz bonita si no nos transmite sentimiento,vida…

    Espero y deseo leas mi comentário porque estoy muy emocionada y te he escrito sinceramente.

    Best wishes!


  7. Emily said…

    What a great post, Joyce, so full of wonderful insight.

  8. Sonja Wohlgemuth said…

    Joyce! Your performance on opening night was divine. It brought back wonderful memories of a time at WSU, in I believe a faculty/student recital, when there was this amazing voice from behind the wall. Once revealed, it was YOU. I still remember that day and being totally blown away from what I had heard. it is an amazing pleasure to see your career continue to expand and, to still be so moved by the your voice. Thank you so much! Sonja

  9. Sibyl said…

    Thank you a thousand times over for the incredible performance. I was there 10 /11 and I have been trying to figure out a way to thank you and Ms. Cabell since. I want to gush and gush, in a way my 16 year old would dub “creeper”, but I’ll just say this: The beauty and communication you created with Ms. Cabell, with the audience! Yowza! There are lots of good singers, but very few who communicate an inner state of being so intensely as you do. Add to that the way you make the sound you produce, the intricacies of the music, seem as natural as speech, or breath: double Yowza. Thank You.

  10. Chris said…

    Bellini and Chopin were, I have always thought, very similar composers. The melodic gifts of both were similar. Listen to a Bellini aria and then a Chopin nocturne and the similarity is striking. One might call Bellini the Chopin of opera and Chopin the Bellini of the piano.

  11. Maude Larke said…

    WONDERFUL to hear how you triumphed in SF! I still carry the memory and the tears of seeing you do it for the first time in Paris.
    Can hardly wait to see you over here again!

  12. Maude Larke said…

    I recommend to ALL OF YOU to see a DiDonato Romeo whenever possible! I saw her Paris one (her first!) and she kept knocking meout of my seat! the passion, the earnestness, the love, the conflict . . . and the heartbreaking tomb scene! You just HAVE to see it!

  13. Katherine said…

    The only Capuleti I have of yours is a bootleg from Opera Bastille, and it’s wonderful. Your Romeo is so brave and intrepid, to face that bunch of men alone. To see you and hear you first entreating them, then bracing yourself for vengeance, is a magnificent moment. Stalwart Romeo! And your rolled rrrrr’s and quick vibrato give me so much pleasure. Thank you. Regards, Katherine

  14. Ulla Tarras-Wahlberg said…

    This is not about I Capuleti e I Montecchi – but I loved your insight comments on the opera, and on singing it. Very instructive – I have read that you originally wanted to be a music teacher. You ARE a music teacher – thank you!
    Just now I have to exclaim “how is it possible??” – I have just listened to ‘Da torbida procetta’ where you sing, featherlike and quickly, WITH the string orchestra, almost dancing.
    Phenomenal. What a great way to start a new day. Thank you again, warmly.

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