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San Diego Opera's 'Puccini Duo' makes history

Karli Cadel
San Diego Opera
In this undated image, Stephanie Blythe is Gianni Schicchi in "Gianni Schicchi," part of "The Puccini Duo" presented by San Diego Opera in February 2023.

San Diego Opera's four performances of "The Puccini Duo" starting Saturday is making some opera history.

"The Puccini Duo," as the title implies, is not one opera but rather two short ones. The first opera is called "Suor Angelica," a serious drama, and the second is "Gianni Schicchi," a comedy.


Mezzo soprano Stephanie Blythe sings in both operas but in the second one she marks an opera first. She will become the first female opera singer to sing the male baritone title role in a professional production.

"Instead of me singing in my typical range, I'm singing an octave lower," Blythe said. "And so it means that they will hear me in the range of what we generally consider a man's voice. And it's different in that there are many roles in opera that are written specifically for a woman playing a man. This is not one of them. This is actually a role written for baritone and being sung for the first time by a woman as a man."

While this is an opera first and Blythe is grateful for the opportunity to expand her range, she admits it is difficult for her to sing as a baritone.

"This is a part of my voice that's been developing more and more," Blythe said. "I've always had a rather low voice, actually, in Europe, they don't call me mezzo soprano. They always call me contralto. I'm more or less a contralto profondo, to be honest, which is even lower. And as I've gotten older and certain hormonal changes have taken place, it just has gone a bit lower and I've just developed that voice."

Karli Cadel
In this undated image, Marina Costa-Jackson (Lauretta) and Stephanie Blythe (Gianni Schicchi) are shown in "Gianni Schicchi." It's part of "The Puccini Duo" presented by San Diego Opera in February 2023.

Blythe fell in love with opera when she was 13 — her mom had her watch a performance of "Tosca" on PBS. Like many people she had been exposed to opera through pop culture such as Bugs Bunny cartoons but this was the first time she watched a full opera production.

"And fell in love with it," Blythe said. "It's still my favorite opera. I asked my mother in the third act, 'What is the name of this beautiful song that he's singing? What is it?' And she told me it was 'E lucevan le stelle,' and I said, 'Will you please write it out for me, Mommy?' And she wrote it out and I taped it onto my note board and memorized it because I thought it was the most beautiful thing I'd ever heard in my life."

Although she took a detour to get an English degree, she has dedicated most of her life to singing. 

"I have to say I'm attracted to all vocal music," Blythe said. "I think the reason is that sometimes stories and emotions are too big to tell without music. And I think that's what really draws me to it. I'm drawn to the dramatic aspect of opera. I'm drawn to the collegial aspect of it, the ensemble aspect of it very much. I think it's a misnomer now to think of opera as just being this giant thing, because it's not. And I think as long as we continue seeing opera in that way, we're going to continue having to worry about it. But if we understand that opera encompasses an enormous variety of works, a variety of sizes and sounds and productions and numbers of people, and if we understand that the thing that makes opera really beautiful is the diversity of it, then it will continue to grow and people will become even more enamored with it. Because it all really does boil down to the idea of you have to sing it when words aren't enough."

Blythe will be singing in multiple octaves starting this Saturday at the Civic Theatre in downtown San Diego.