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San Diego Opera Presents 'Tosca'

The impressive Act Three set for San Diego Opera's "Tosca" featuring Alexia Voulgaridou in the title role.
Corey Weaver
The impressive Act Three set for San Diego Opera's "Tosca" featuring Alexia Voulgaridou in the title role.

Taking a leap of faith with Puccini's tale of love, murder and betrayal

San Diego Opera's 'Tosca'
San Diego Opera’s production of Tosca is winning high praise. KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando speaks with director Lesley Koenig [ko-nig] who decided on an opera career at the ripe age of eight.

San Diego Opera’s production of Tosca is winning high praise. KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando speaks with director Lesley Koenig [ko-nig] who decided on an opera career at the ripe age of eight. Lesley Koenig challenges expectations about opera both in terms of what she puts on the stage and how she talks about it. Just listen to her describe what happened with a previous Tosca and its famous suicide. LESLEY KOENIG: I restaged it just once. Luciano Pavarotti and (?) and it was quite hilarious because they couldn’t kiss because they couldn’t really reach each other because they were both kind of big and then at the very end she is supposed to jump and instead of jumping she hiked up her skirt and walked off stage left. And the audience went into an uproar it was so hilarious I did cry a little bit. Koenig has lived and breathed opera since she was a child. LESLEY KOENIG: When I was little maybe 6 --I decided to be an opera director when I was 8 -- I used to sit on the steps where no one in my family could see me and act out the agony of the thing not even knowing what it was about but I was acting it out when I was six and here I get to stage it. Puccini’s opera sometimes gets dismissed as a melodrama about a fiery black-eyed diva, her idealistic lover, and a sadistic police chief. LESLEY KOENIG: The challenge is not to fall into the clichés of melodrama, with someone throwing his forearm on his forehead and big eyes. Koenig didn’t want Tosca to be about a scary woman with a knife but rather to be about people dealing with real emotions. LESLEY KOENIG: I want all my pieces to be filled with a kind of wondrous humanity and no clichés. But that humanity can be on a larger than life scale, so that the villainous Scarpia can enter like Darth Vader and provide a character you love to hate. But scale presents a different kind of challenge for production carpenter and technical director John David Peters. JOHN DAVID PETERS: Tosca is one of those very challenging operas because you have to have a really big elegant set for the first act, and then you get into the second act and you have a murder on stage where one principle stabs the other so you have to make sure that trick doesn’t go awry. Okay, spoiler alert – we are going to talk about who dies but this opera’s been around for more than a century so revealing what happens is a bit like telling you Romeo and Juliet die at the end of Shakespeare’s play. Figuring prominently in the opera’s multiple deaths is Tosca herself. ALEXIA VOULGARIDOU: She’s a very passionate woman. Soprano Alexia Alexia Voulgaridou plays Tosca. ALEXIA VOULGARIDOU: In a few moments she loose everything… she loose the man she loves, she kills somebody, and she kill herself. Tosca’s fatal leap from the parapet is just one of the challenges of the role. ALEXIA VOULGARIDOU: You must do it really with a jump you cannot be there and oh, you must do it with impulse so that it can be true and that the public [gasps] they stay with you. JOHN DAVID PETERS: She’s one of the least timid Toscas that we have ever had. Again John David Peters. JOHN DAVID PETERS: We have to come up with a jump pad for her to leap into and we have to gain the confidence of the singer to get her to believe it’s an appropriate jump pad and we won’t NOT be there when she makes the leap. ALEXIA VOULGARIDOU: It takes courage to do it but it works fantastic Koenig says Tosca is a good starter opera because the narrative is very direct and the emotions are clear and vivid. LESLEY KOENIG: I really think this is one of the pieces that is so compact there’s not a lot of subplots going on there’s a little political intrigue going on underneath but it’s a piece that you could really see it without surtitles and you’d really understand everything that’s going on the whole time. And it helps to have a director with a clear vision and an ability to strip the opera down to very human emotions driving the story to its tragic end. Beth Accomando, KPBS News. There are three more performances of San Diego Opera’s Tosca this Tuesday, Friday, and Sunday at the Civic Theatre. You can hear the opera Saturday night at 8pm on KPBS FM.

Love, villainy, murder — that's right, it’s opera season and passions are running high in San Diego Opera’s "Tosca."

Lesley Koenig returns to San Diego Opera to direct "Tosca" and strip it down to its raw human emotions.

Koenig challenges expectations about opera both in terms of what she puts on the stage and how she talks about it. She expresses both passion and a lack of pretension, which can make opera seem far more accessible to a more mainstream audience.

She can even look back with humor on what happened with a previous "Tosca" and its famous suicide.

"I restaged it with Luciano Pavarotti and Montserrat Caballé. And it was quite hilarious because they couldn’t kiss forward and they couldn't kiss sideways because they couldn’t really reach each other because they were both kind of big. And then at the very end she is supposed to jump and instead of jumping she hiked up her skirts and walked off stage left. And the audience went into an uproar. It was so hilarious. I did cry a little bit," Koenig said.

Koenig has lived and breathed opera since she was a child. She directed her first opera at The Met at the age of 23.

"When I was little, maybe 6 — I decided to be an opera director when I was 8 — I used to sit on the steps where no one in my family could see me and act out the agony of the thing, not even knowing what it was about," Koenig recalled. "But I was acting it out when I was six and here I get to stage it."

San Diego Opera's 'Tosca'

Puccini’s opera sometimes gets dismissed as a melodrama about a fiery black-eyed diva, her idealistic lover and a sadistic police chief.

"The challenge is not to fall into the clichés of melodrama, with someone throwing his forearm on his forehead and big eyes," Koenig said.

She didn’t want "Tosca" to be about a scary woman with a knife but rather to be about people dealing with real emotions.

"I want all my pieces to be filled with a kind of wondrous humanity and no clichés," the director added.

But that humanity can be on a larger than life scale, so that the villainous Scarpia (sung by bass-baritone Greer Grimsley) can enter like Darth Vader and provide a character you love to hate.

But scale presents a different kind of challenge for production carpenter and technical director John David Peters.

"'Tosca' is one of those very challenging operas because you have to have a really big elegant set for the first act, and then you get into the second act and you have a murder on stage where one principle stabs the other so you have to make sure that trick doesn’t go awry," Peters said.

Spoiler alert!

Bass-baritone Greer Grimsley is Scarpia and soprano Alexia Voulgaridou is Tosca in the new San Diego Opera production of Puccini's "Tosca."
Corey Weaver
Bass-baritone Greer Grimsley is Scarpia and soprano Alexia Voulgaridou is Tosca in the new San Diego Opera production of Puccini's "Tosca."

I am going to talk about who dies but this opera’s been around for more than a century so revealing what happens is a bit like telling you Romeo and Juliet die at the end of Shakespeare’s play. Figuring prominently in the opera’s multiple deaths is Tosca herself. Soprano Alexia Alexia Voulgaridou plays Tosca in San Diego Opera's production.

"Tosca is a passionate woman," the Greek singer said. "In a few moments she loses everything. She loses the man she loves, she kills somebody, and she kills herself."

Tosca’s fatal leap from the parapet is just one of the challenges of the role.

"You must do it really with a jump. You cannot be there and oh, you must do it with impulse so that it can be true and that the public they stay with you," Voulgaridou said.

Peters describes Voulgaridou as "one of the least timid Toscas that we have ever had."

Peters is the one responsible for making sure that Tosca's leap looks good on stage and is safe for the singer.

He recalled that in the past, "we stacked cardboard boxes for the jump and it’s an old stuntman trick and they’d jump into the cardboard boxes and they’d collapse. We got better and now we use a pole vault pad. We have to come up with a jump pad for her to leap into and we have to gain the confidence of the singer to get her to believe it’s an appropriate jump pad and we won’t not be there when she makes the leap."

Peters has worked on quite a few productions of "Tosca" and revealed a secret: "I can generally get the singers to go along with the jump by setting it just a little bit lower than they really want to have it and then when they ask, then when I say, 'Would you like me to bring it up a little bit?' And I bring it up a little bit then it's 'Oh I like that.'"

Koenig's "Tosca" is a good starter opera because the narrative is direct and the emotions are clear and vivid.

"I really think this is one of the pieces that is so compact. There’s not a lot of subplots going on. There’s a little political intrigue going on underneath. But it’s a piece that you could really see it without surtitles and you’d really understand everything that’s going on the whole time," Koenig said.

It helps to have a director with a clear vision and an ability to strip the opera down to very human emotions driving the story to its tragic end.

Director Lesley Koenig will be the guest on Midday Edition today at noon on KPBS-FM.

There are three remaining performances of San Diego Opera’s "Tosca" — Tuesday, Friday, and Sunday at the Civic Theatre. You can hear the opera Saturday night at 8 p.m. on KPBS-FM.