March 30, 2006

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Today's opera getting a sexy makeover

Robin Follman.

Opera is going Hollywood. The fat lady has sung her last, according to American soprano Robin Follman, who says the opera stars of the future will have more in common with Brad Pitt and Catherine Zeta-Jones than Luciano Pavarotti and Jessye Norman.

"Opera isn't park and bark anymore," Follman laughs during a mid-rehearsal break for Falstaff, Opera Lyra's latest production, opening at the National Arts Centre on April 8.

"It's not enough to plant yourself on centre stage and sing. Now you have to look just right for the part, and look like an actor, physically fit and attractive. Audiences don't want to see a plain-looking singer. They want to see a good actor with a lot of stage presence and a singing voice that will carry over an orchestra."

Fortunately for Follman, she has what it takes for the new generation of opera divas -- great looks, strong acting skills and a voice as big as Southam Hall.

While the trend these days is for singers to become better actors, or at least just better looking, composers are looking for edgier material and finding it in literary works. Recent operatic adaptations of Dead Man Walking, Diary of Anne Frank and Sophie's Choice are drawing new fans, many seeing opera for the first time.

"The audience for opera is bigger now than it was 10 years ago," Follman says, adding singers such as Charlotte Church and Il Divo are helping to make opera sexy. "You have to work harder these days. The audience is getting more talented too. That's something you don't hear often, but the reality is that they're more sophisticated, even a little more demanding."

Now at the peak of her career, Follman is playing the big glamour roles of Tosca, Mimi and Butterfly. But getting to where she is wasn't easy. The native of Santa Ana, Calif., spent the first 10 years on the road with tours of Kismet, Peter Pan and Camelot in such exotic destinations as Milwaukee and Baltimore. While it wasn't the glamorous life of a diva she had dreamed about, it was where she learned how to act -- and look like a star.

"Things I wouldn't have learned if I had just concentrated on my voice," she says. "You have to physically perform. Opera traditionally was more forgiving. But those days are over because opera is becoming more like Broadway."

Falstaff, Verdi's last opera, is a fun cat-and-mouse game of wits as Sir John Falstaff uses love and false promises to dupe women out of their money until his female prey, led by the scheming Alice Ford, give the fat knight a taste of his own medicine.

It's one of Follman's favourites, a role she calls "very close to my own personality."

"Like me, Alice is ambitious and very determined. They aren't my best qualities and playing her makes me feel a little uncomfortable at times because we are so much alike, I feel like I'm playing myself."

As well as opening April 8, Falstaff plays April 10, 12 and 15. Tickets are $47-$252 at the NAC box-office and through Ticketmaster at 755-1111.

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