maria stuarda
In University Opera’s production of the bel canto opera “Maria Stuarda,” Celeste Fraser (far left) plays Queen Elizabeth, who becomes jealous of Maria Stuarda (Emily Birsan, seated) over the love of Leicester (J. Adam Shelton, right). Brent Nicastro photo

‘Bel canto" might be nicknamed "opera for divas." The Italian phrase means "beautiful singing," and it's designed to show off the best trills, frills and ornamentations a singer can produce.

"It would not be possible to do this opera if it were not for the extraordinary singers that will be performing in it," said William Farlow, director of University Opera. The university will produce Gaetano Donizetti's "Maria Stuarda" on Friday, Sunday, April 25, and April 27 in Mills Hall.

Farlow has produced several bel canto operas at UW-Madison, works by Vincenzo Bellini and Gioacchino Rossini as well as Donizetti. He was first drawn to them as a young man for their technically flashy vocal parts.

"To hear voices, mostly sopranos, do these technically difficult instrumental-like things, like trills and very fast notes and cadenzas, I thought was extremely impressive," Farlow said. "Then as I began to mature and have a wider perspective on opera as a whole, I also found they were extraordinarily powerful music dramas. It was not just about vocal display.

"In fact, all of the flashy writing for the voice in these really first-rate bel canto operas is always at the service of what the text is expressing and the dramatic situation," Farlow added.

"Maria Stuarda" is at once a contrast to the weighty, powerful Wagnerian style and an example of what Richard Wagner started out aiming for. (Wagner was a big fan of Bellini's "Norma," Farlow said, a tragedy that is often considered the height of bel canto opera). Written in 1835, "Maria" was Donizetti's fictitious account of a meeting between Maria Stuarda (Mary, Queen of Scots) and Queen Elizabeth I, her cousin (two women will play her in this production).

Donizetti inserts a love triangle into the story, with Leicester (played at the university by J. Adam Shelton) serving as a catalyst of jealous feelings between the two. Hurled insults lead to one queen ordering the execution of the other.

"This kind of opera ... is based on virtuosity. We highlight things we can do really well with our voice," said Jennifer Sams, a doctoral student and a mezzo soprano who is playing Queen Elizabeth at the Sunday performance. "For instance, there are measures written in the music that we're allowed to take out in order to prep for a high note. That's just part of the style."

Though a mezzo, Sams will be singing a soprano part, sharing the role with Celeste Fraser, who is in the other two performances.

"At the end of the finale, in the confrontation scene, both Emily Birsan (playing Maria Stuarda) and I opt for a high D," Sams said, "which Bill really, really loves, because two soprano voices in a finale singing a very high note can be a very powerful thing. And it's not something that can happen in every opera."

Birsan, who played the lead in "Thaïs" last fall, said the part of Maria is well-suited to her voice and her personal style of performance.

"I wear my heart on my sleeve," Birsan said. "It works for my voice and the way that I sing, and it's easier than anything I've ever done. It's so much about emoting in the present. It's great, because you can just sing exactly what's in your heart."

The "bel canto" style is a pleasure "for any singer," Birsan said, because it's designed above all else to spotlight the singer and his or her interaction with the orchestra. Recurring musical themes, dramatic storytelling, integrated sets, costumes and poetic language - all of this takes a backseat to the vocalist.

"It's all about the singer, and the beauty of the voice," Birsan said. "The conductor's listening for what makes my voice sound the best ... where to move forward and where to pull back. That's quite fun, but challenging. It takes a lot of work between the singer and conductor, who has to control his orchestra."