Catherine Malfitano: from diva to director

Are you sitting comfortably? Then we’ll begin. A diva and her artist-libertarian lover get caught in the machinations of a sadistic police chief who sexually harasses her while torturing the lover. He is about to force her into bed when, in a moment of desperation, she stabs him.

As she and her lover prepare to escape, the lover is assassinated. She jumps to her death.

No prizes for naming the opera. Tosca counts as one of the biggest audience-pleasers in the repertory – or, depending on your degree of cynicism, a “shabby little shocker” (as it was memorably dubbed by the opera writer Joseph Kerman). It is calculated to thrill, and does so with such sweeping turns of musical phrase that it is hard to resist. But Tosca is performed a lot – so often that we start to feel comfortable with its extremes. Its litany of love, hate, jealousy and torment becomes predictable.

“The minute the audience feels ‘we’ve been here before’, we’re in trouble,” says Catherine Malfitano, the American former prima donna who is directing English National Opera’s new production of Tosca. “This is one of the most ‘of the moment’ pieces in opera. It’s like [the Hitchcock film] Dial M for Murder: there’s a tension that keeps you on edge.”

Malfitano, 62, should know. She not only sang Tosca on stage during a long and hugely versatile career, she also starred with Plácido Domingo in the famous Tosca telecast (1992), which was filmed live at the locations and times of day specified by Puccini. That took Tosca far beyond the traditional opera audience and still packs a punch on DVD.

The short, stately figure standing before me at ENO’s rehearsal studios is hard to reconcile with the svelte soprano I remember radiating such vocal power and histrionic personality on stage. Malfitano today looks more earth-mother than diva, but she seems comfortable with the role-change – and there’s undiminished magnetism in those saucer-like eyes which, as Poppea and Lulu, Salome and Manon, she used to devour stage victims and audiences alike.

The leap from singing to directing is almost as big – and suicidal – as the jump Tosca takes at the final curtain. Few singers attempt it, and those who do usually dish up an amalgam of ideas they were fed as an interpreter. Singers tend to see an opera from the perspective of their own role. It’s not their job to have a director’s overview, or to devise the sort of creative-interpretative concepts the opera world now expects.

By crossing that divide, Malfitano has put her reputation on the line. Her challenge is to deliver something fresh to ENO audiences – to remove what she calls “the whiff of comfortability” that opera-goers bring to well-established pieces.

Traditionalists will be glad to know she has no intention of rewriting the plot – an accusation regularly made against David Alden, a fellow New Yorker who directed many of her stage triumphs, including ENO’s 2006 Jenufa (in which she sang the Kostelnicka). “Audiences come to Tosca expecting certain aspects,” she says, “and it’s my job not to jar that pleasure but to enhance it. What I’m fighting is comfortability. I want to ask questions, to make people think and, of course, to grab them emotionally. Tosca is a much deeper piece than we give it credit for.”

Deep? The word barely figures in most assessments of Tosca. Malfitano demurs. While Puccini’s music may be good enough to override any kind of production, “plebeian or brilliant”, she says this should not blind us to the themes of political repression and sexual harassment lying beneath its melodramatic surface. Nor does she want us to ignore the psychological dimension, another aspect of Tosca that is regularly glossed over.

“Maybe I can identify with Tosca in my life,” says Malfitano, who turned to directing in 2005. “An actor feels in control of the script and is taught to face the public and not be too sensitive to criticism, but in real life, sometimes a script comes along and we haven’t a clue what the next line is. That’s what happens to Tosca.”

Too true. But the more Malfitano talks, the further her life-story strays from Puccini’s prima donna. She says Tosca’s insecurity and need for love can be understood only in the context of the Sardou play on which the opera is based: that’s where we learn of Tosca’s origins as a country orphan. Malfitano, by contrast, grew up in Manhattan. Her father played violin in the Metropolitan Opera orchestra; her mother was an actress and dancer.

“Most of my life has been really secure. I’m a very happy woman.”

And unlike Tosca, a woman in the flush of new love, Malfitano has been married for 33 years to Stephen Holowid, who accompanies her everywhere and sits in the background during our interview. Their daughter Daphne has written the libretto for a new opera by Thomas Pasatieri, in which Malfitano will sing next year.

I express some surprise that she is still performing. “I’m happy to say I still can,” she smiles. “But when I’m asked what I do, I now say I’m a director. I also teach a lot.”

This is where Malfitano the earth mother comes in – the calm distiller of wisdom and experience. What she teaches goes well beyond the diet of voice and interpretation served up by most retired prima donnas. Her classes cover “the ‘it’ factor” – by which she means charisma. Malfitano had it on stage – but how do you teach it?

By developing techniques that enable singers to move out of their comfort zone, she replies. “That means exercises, reading texts, using the body, learning random expressions. A charismatic artist will throw a random thing each time they do a role, whereas most singers, when they learn a piece, immediately make decisions that become rut-like. They hang on to the things that make it work for them, and become afraid of upsetting their own applecart. They’ll say ‘If I upset my technique I can’t do anything’. That is partly true, but a technique is not a goal in itself. It’s a way of enhancing yourself to be artistically communicative and inventive.”

Malfitano’s credo implies a paradox – that spontaneity can be rehearsed. She maintains that unless singers constantly practise the balance between preparation and risk-taking, they cannot expect to be spontaneous in performance.

“If you learn to do it in rehearsal, you have the luxury in performance of being able to make different choices and respond to a moment of inspiration. The more prepared you are, the more you can afford to take risks. What a director has to do is increase the possibility of that happening. That is the part I like.”

‘Tosca’ opens at the London Coliseum on May 18.

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