Q&A: Tosca's Tosca

The soprano playing the title role in Portland Opera's new production talks Puccini and Pok Pok.

By Jonathan Frochtzwajg January 29, 2013

Kara Shay Thomson has leapt to her death a number of times. She has been extorted from repeatedly. World-historical events have frequently served as a dramatic backdrop for her love life. But the Cincinnati-based soprano, whose turn as the title character in Portland Opera’s Tosca will be her third since last summer, says she’s not bored yet. “As I keep growing into her,” Thomson says, “I just keep discovering new things.”

In Puccini’s masterpiece, Tosca is a beautiful, tempestuous opera singer who is being blackmailed for her love by Rome’s police chief—with Napoleon’s troops marching on the Eternal City all the while. We talked with Thomson about why not just any opera singer can play this opera singer; how Portland Opera’s traditional staging is actually, among recent productions, nontraditional; and the gasping, picture-taking, and Pok Pok–sampling she’s been doing around Portland.

Kara Shay Thomson

Tosca marks your first time performing with the Portland Opera. What’s different about this company?
I have not one bad thing to say—not that I would in an interview anyway, but a lot of times, singers talk among themselves and say, “Oh my gosh, wait ‘til you get there, make sure you do this or don’t do this.” And I have to say, everyone is so friendly—even the security guy! It’s obvious that everyone just really digs opera, that it’s not just everybody’s job.

What have you been doing during your time in Portland? I went to the coast and did 101. It was cold, but it was beautiful! The last day off, my colleague and I did the “Fruit Loop”—they call it the Fruit Loop because it goes up through Hood River and through all of the vineyards. I’ve done a lot of gasping and picture-taking; it’s quite beautiful. Yesterday, we went antiquing around to vintage stores and getting the feel for different areas of Portland. Oh, and I went to Pok Pok. It was hot! I was like, “Wow, this is spicy!” But it was really, really good.

What kinds of things do you do to take care of your voice?
Probably the most important thing is, make sure I get enough sleep, because sleep is healing as well as restorative. And, especially with the flu scare that’s happening, I wash my hands…I don’t know how many times a day! That, and not being around a lot of people. It’s not a great idea to go to a big movie theater and be around a bunch of people. People think that we’re very social, kind of bigger-than-life personalities, and in some ways we are, because that’s what it takes to be on stage, but in your daily life, you kind of have to work against that and be protective.

This is not your first time playing Tosca—in fact, you’re on something of a Tosca streak, performing the role here as well as in Santa Fe, Kentucky, and Pensacola.
I have three more that I can’t list because the contracts aren’t executed completely! There are a handful of us right now that [play Tosca] all over the United States, and I’ll be like, “Oh, is Jill doing that one?” You kind of know who the Toscas are. The role requires you to jump at the end, and I don’t know if everybody is into that. At the end, Tosca jumps to her death—that’s the spoiler. I think this jump is six feet onto a crash pad at the back. I think what happens is you become known and reliable in the role, which is difficult and requires a certain skill set—just as if you were the kicker for a football team. 

What, besides the jump, does the role demand?
I mean, there are six high C’s in it, and it sits in the middle voice, and Act Two requires a pretty powerhouse, as well as lyrical, sound. In the first act, the sound and color of the voice needs to be very young- and playful-sounding, and then in the second and third act, the color needs to change and be much more dramatic. That’s something that I personally love about the role, is that she requires you to not just be kind of a black-and-white character. I have to say, I feel like Tosca shows off all the things that I think I do really well—like long legato lines, and soaring high notes, and dramatic inflections. I think all of that is a part of me, and then I get to put it into Tosca.

Well, good thing you’re playing her, like, five times. Be honest, though: Are you sick of the story by now? I love it. It was the first full role I ever learned and covered as a young artist, and I have not gotten tired of it yet. You know why? Because every time you show up, you have a new conductor, you have new colleagues. Each situation is different, and you get a chance to grow. And this time, the conductor [Joseph Colaneri] and I have explored more things that I can do with [the role]. As I keep growing into her, I just keep discovering new things.”

Being so familiar with Tosca, what stands out to you as different about Portland Opera’s staging? It’s very traditional. I’ve done a lot of them where people wanted to put their own twist on the show. Puccini was very clear in his score about what he wanted, not only in the written instructions, but also in the music. But a lot of people want to try and update it, make it more contemporary, or not follow those [instructions] and go against it because that creates tension. It’s really refreshing to get to do it traditional. Both David [Kneuss], the director, and Joe, the conductor, are seasoned veterans of the Met, so they’ve seen many, many, many productions of Tosca, and it’s been really great to have them pipe up and tell stories about people who’d sung it, and what happened, and furniture flying, and then bringing it back and saying, let’s make it ours within the traditional guidelines of what was originally meant for the piece. This is like, old-school, traditional grand opera. It doesn’t get any more old school than this—in a really great way. I think it’s a great balance for Portland to do this within their season.

Tosca runs February 1–9. Let’s say I’ve never been to the opera. Tell me why Tosca should be my first.
I could tell you, on one hand, the operas I think should be your first, and Tosca is on my list. I just think it’s so great because it’s very traditional. The acts are not long. It’s all just long enough for your attention span. The costuming and the set, it’s all very luscious and big and very showy, and it’s in period costume, so you can see it as it was envisioned by Puccini. It’s also a very small cast to keep track of. Mozart always has multiple subplots going on, but there’s one plot here, and three main characters. It’s a verisimo opera, so it’s very much like real life. I think it’s kind of like watching a great show on HBO. And the music is so beautiful. Even if you close your eyes, you should come. But I’d rather you watch me! 

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