Can the Diva Who Once Ruled the Met Make a Comeback? | Modern Society of USA

Can the Diva Who Once Ruled the Met Make a Comeback?

Can the Diva Who Once Ruled the Met Make a Comeback?

“It’s so perfect, it makes you want to cry,” the soprano Aprile Millo said, her eyes getting moist just thinking about it.

She was sitting in a rehearsal room last week, talking about a song she was about to practice. It is on the program of her recital on Wednesday at Zankel Hall, her first in New York in 10 years.

But Ms. Millo could also have been describing her voice: an instrument of easy, opulent power and fiery yet sumptuous phrasing, a moving recollection of the great Italian singers who ruled 60 or 70 years ago.

It was a voice that thrilled the Metropolitan Opera through the 1980s and ’90s, when Ms. Millo was among the house’s reigning divas: the grandly emoting star of new productions, opening nights and TV broadcasts opposite Plácido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti.

Then, at what should have been the height of her career, things petered out. Her Met performances grew less frequent; she hasn’t appeared with the company since 2007. Over the past decade, she has barely sung in public at all.

“There was a general feeling that her career had wound down at that point,” Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manger, said of her last performances.

But it hadn’t, and hasn’t — at least not if Ms. Millo has something to say about it. At 60, she has her heart set on returning to the Met.

“It’s not about voice; the voice has been functioning,” she insisted in an interview after the rehearsal. “But when you go through a lack of confidence, you’re not going to want to be anywhere.”

So the audience on Wednesday will be listening closely: to hear the singer still treasured as among the most authentic contemporary exponents of the great Verdian tradition, and to hear whether she still has what it takes to command the Met. Ms. Millo says her instrument is ready; it’s her nerves and her appearance — a bit more ample than in her heyday — that she feels still need work.

“I want it,” she said. “But I want to actually show up looking correct. I don’t want to offer excuses. My time will either come or it won’t. But I think God is moving me toward it.”

Born to a pair of singers in New York in 1958, Ms. Millo was that rarity: an operatic prodigy, her sound alarmingly mature when she was still in elementary school. The art form in her household was always wrapped up in transformation.

“They did the ‘Cavalleria Rusticana’ duet,” Ms. Millo said, “and they were no longer Mom and Dad.”

Both parents and child embraced reinvention: Hamill was changed to Millo before she was born, and she turned April into Aprile, pronounced a-PREE-lay. She came of age on the West Coast, starring in musicals at Hollywood High School, then went on the classical competition circuit. She flourished.

Auditioning when she was barely in her 20s for the New York City Opera, where her father had sung in the 1940s (and which is presenting her recital on Wednesday), she was offered major contracts. Big roles beckoned in Europe, too. Ms. Millo instead chose to enter the young artist program at the Met, where she studied, bided her time and found a champion in James Levine.

A few outdoor performances of Verdi’s “Ernani” in the summer of 1984 excited connoisseurs, and her New York career was ready to ignite that December when she made an unexpected house debut — three weeks ahead of schedule — replacing a colleague in Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra.”

“It was like she came out of nowhere,” Michael Capasso, City Opera’s general director, recalled. “She sang that ‘Boccanegra’ — she was the cover — and the world was talking about her, literally overnight: ‘You’ve got to hear this woman.’”

Not everyone was on board. “Some operagoers,” the critic Susan Elliott wrote in 1990, “are still debating whether Millo is the real thing, or merely a collection of diva mannerisms.”

But those “mannerisms,” vocal and physical gestures that might have seemed hopelessly old-fashioned coming from others, seemed, when Ms. Millo did them, the very embodiment of opera’s origins. This gave her performances an uncanny, seance-like aspect, even as they also felt wholly fresh — the voice healthy and secure — and deeply felt.

“There was a ‘Tosca’ performance,” Ms. Millo recalled, “and I left the stage, and I fully expected to see the Palazzo Farnese when I went through the door. I was truly there.”

“She is like every gifted artist: full of issues, full of fears,” Mr. Epstein said. “Aprile is gripped by fear, and it is very hard for her to get past it.”

Which is not to say she has been silent. She has given master classes and been generous with guidance for young singers, and has appeared in concert here and there. Mr. Gelb, who started at the Met in 2006, said, “Over the course of my tenure, I’ve received an occasional email from her, that she’s working toward getting back to singing and she’ll let me know when she’s ready.”

Is she?

“I feel that there’s still opera in her,” said Robert Lombardo, a veteran artist manager. “I don’t think she’s going to go out there and sing Giselda” — in “I Lombardi” — “but there are roles she can certainly get into the voice, and it depends on her will and how much she wants to do.”

He mentioned Cilea’s “L’Arlesiana,” and “Andrea Chénier.” “I think she still has a couple of miles left in her to do it the right way,” he said.

Mr. Gelb is more doubtful. “I think it’s unlikely,” he said, “given the length of time she’s been away and that she hasn’t been singing on major stages. But nothing’s impossible.”

“If she were to suddenly have the goods vocally to sing on the stage of the Met,” he added, “we would put her on the stage of the Met.”

And that is where Ms. Millo wants to be. “I would like to salute that house one more time,” she said. “Because it has great spirits and a need for something that is a little bit demented.”

“I don’t want it to end with: ‘She was great and she was on the scene; where’d she go?’” she added. “I want to end nicely. I want to have a good last act. The first act was so good; it would be nice to have a good last act.”

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