Opera and gay men? Big-time buddies (there’s even a website, barihunks.blogspot.com, devoted to photos of and gossip about the art form’s sexiest baritones). Opera and lesbians? Not so much. Maybe they don’t stand out as visibly as gay men do in the opera-going crowd, or maybe all those hoary plots about women dying or killing themselves or being murdered for the love of some guy just don’t make it as date-night material.
When it comes to singers, though, gay men and lesbians are on more equal ground – we don’t seem to make it to the highest echelons. David Daniels, one of the world’s leading countertenors, is very public about his sexuality. That’s one. There are American soprano Patricia Racette and her partner, Beth Clayton, also an opera singer (Racette in particular is top tier, with a career that takes her in lead roles to every major house in Europe and America). That’s three. There were rumours about Jessye Norman, the superb African-American soprano. And now, there’s Adrianne Pieczonka.
She laughed and said, “I love it!” when I told her that I intended to refer to her as Canada’s Superstar Sapphic Soprano. Superstar is a term so overused that it’s next to meaningless, but if it includes appearing before enraptured audiences in every major opera house on the planet and waking up to bouquets of critical acclaim, Pieczonka has a right to the title.
She sang a radiant Ariadne here in Strauss’s opera last year, and Toronto audiences are in the fortunate position this month of hearing her as Tosca, the ultimate diva role in Puccini’s crackling melodrama of the same name (the opera takes place in Rome in the Napoleonic period, and puts Tosca in the position of having to barter her body for the life of her revolutionary lover, a prisoner of the corrupt head of the Roman secret police. There’s love, jealousy, attempted rape, murder, a firing squad, suicide and a lot of good tunes – you can’t do better).
Born in the States but raised in Burlington, Pieczonka was a classic tomboy, more interested in sports than artistic pursuits. It became clear in high school, though, that she had remarkable vocal powers, and she decided to pursue a career in music. Coming out as gay was not particularly stressful – she had a supportive family, had no problem finding dates but perhaps feels a tiny bit guilty that the demands of building a career in the highly competitive world of opera didn’t leave any time for gay political engagement (she says that she’d be happy to make an It Gets Better video should anyone ask).
She built her career in Europe (some 18 years in Vienna and London) but lives in Toronto now, partly because she cherishes this country’s liberal values, particularly on gay issues. It doesn’t hurt that she married another singer, Canadian mezzo Laura Tucker (whom she met in 2004 while both were performing here in Die Walküre) and that they have a six-year-old daughter, Grace. For all the glamorous travel and the ovations, she remains something of a down-home gal: loves to cook, is level-headed, practical, thinks ahead to the hopefully long-distant day when she realizes it’s time to leave the stage and concentrate on teaching.
In the meantime, it’s great to add her to the very, very short list of out gay and lesbian opera singers. Her commitment to this city and this country’s values means that she’ll be a regular performer in upcoming seasons at the Canadian Opera Company (next year, she’ll be appearing in Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites, a 20th-century masterpiece set among Carmelite nuns at the time of the French Revolution). This year, grab a ticket for Tosca. She’ll knock you out when she sings “Vissi d’arte”: “I lived for art; I lived for love.” It’s Tosca’s great second-act aria, and though Pieczonka will have a version of love in mind different from Tosca’s, you’ll know she means every word of it.
Below are video excerpts of Gerald Hannon’s interview with Pieczonka and clips from the dress rehearsal of the COC’s Tosca.
Canadian Opera Company’s Tosca
Runs till Sun, Feb 26 (Pieczonka alternates performances with Julie Makerov)
Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
145 Queen St W
145 Queen St W