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Cedar Rapids Opera bringing ‘Tosca’ to Paramount Theatre

Updated: Jan 19

By DIANA NOLLEN for The Gazette





CEDAR RAPIDS — Sometimes you just have to stick your head through a door to see what’s going on.


That worked for Maria Natale, who heard the music of “Tosca” from the next room in a New York rehearsal studio. She said she had “just gotten off the plane” from doing “Tosca,” when she heard the familiar strains from the Puccini opera. When her friend told her she was hearing “Tosca” auditions, Natale opened the door, said “knock, knock,” and Daniel Kleinknecht, Cedar Rapids Opera’s founder, welcomed her inside.


“I was finished,” Kleinknecht said, “and the room would have been gone, but we had just a few minutes. She was with her suitcase, popped herself in, and sang brilliantly.”


“I’d never met Daniel before, but it was great,” Natale said. “It was kismet — it all worked out.”


And now Cedar Rapids Opera audiences will hear what Kleinknecht heard, when one of his favorite operas comes to the Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids on Jan. 19 and 21. Just don’t be holding a glass in your hand when soprano Natale soars to the highest notes. If the theater had windows, she’d blow those out, too.


Plot

“Tosca” is an epic political thriller laced with passion and pathos. Set in June 1800, Rome is in an uproar. Napoleon’s French army invaded the city in 1796, and established a republic. The royalists, however, have overthrown that rule, and reclaimed power. to retaliate, the queen has given her chief of police, Baron Scarpia, free rein to arrest and execute those who oppose her.

Floria Tosca, every inch an operatic diva, is in love with an artist, Mario Cavaradossi, who opposes royal rule. When he comes to Scarpia’s attention, the drama rises to a fever pitch.


This is the third time Cedar Rapids Opera has staged the popular work, but it’s the first time it’s being given the royal treatment on the Paramount’s grand scale.


“The piece belongs in a big theater like this,” Kleinknecht said, “so it will be the first time that it's going to have a reading in a space in which it truly belongs.”


It’s also the right time to bring it back to life, with about 70 singers onstage, 20 of whom are children, and about 40 musicians from Orchestra Iowa, which Kleinknecht will conduct.


“It is what I might classify as an audience pleaser, but also an audience builder,” he said. “With COVID taking a gap in our time and our momentum, returning to this piece that just has everything, everything — I mean everything. This piece has so much drama. When people see it, hear it, when they see their child on stage in the children's chorus — I think this is a way to win over new audience members to opera, and to just reestablish with our community what grand, big grand opera can do. So the time was right.”


The plot points also leap over the centuries.


“It’s very contemporary,” he said. “There’s so many things that speak to you. Number one, love, that’s the easy one. (Also) suicide and the demonization of political opponents. You can ask, are we in 1800 Rome or are we in the United States in 2024? ... These stories are timeless. And without punching you in the face about the story, this is a political story that means something to anybody who is thoughtful and cares about democracy.”


And even though it’s sung in Italian, it speaks to the heart beyond language barriers.

“All of these things are our true emotions that just spill out from the story,” Kleinknecht said. “The (English) supertitles are there, but in this piece, the actions of the situation are so physical that even if you didn't have supertitles, you would know really what's going on. It's all spelled out in the physical gestures, the words and the music.”


Tosca

Physicality as an actor is another trait that sold Kleinknecht on casting Natale in the title role.

“She's got a lot of passion in her acting skill,” he said. “I think she's gonna be full of drama. She’s gonna be Tosca. And she looks the part. You audition many people who don't necessarily look like Tosca — they might be able to sing it — but Maria Natalia has the entire package.”

It also helps that her lineage is Italian and she grew up hearing her grandfather, an opera singer, blasting “Aida” and “Tosca” when she’d visit his dark, imposing home.


“When I was young, he said, ‘You're going to be an opera singer,’ and I was in love with opera from a very young age,” said Natale, 38, who grew up in Southern California and now lives in New Jersey, right outside New York City.


Knowing her career path “was kind of a blessing and a curse,” she said, “because at a very young age, I knew that I wanted to be an opera singer. And I didn’t realize how long the road really is to sing the roles that you're meant to sing. It takes even longer. So it's been a wild ride — a beautiful wild ride.”


It didn’t take long to get the role under her skin.


“I speak Italian, so Italian roles are very easy for me to get the words in my head,” she said. “I usually speak through the language and know exactly what we're saying back and forth to each other. And it usually takes me about a couple months to get feeling it in my body.


“Puccini always seems to be my musical language, and with every Puccini that role that I do, I feel like I understand his language more, so it becomes easier to learn every next role of his that I do. ... I don't know how it fits in my brain, I really don't. You do it, and you think, ‘I'm never gonna learn this,’ and then one day you wake up, and it's there.”


Natale relates to the character in most ways — “without the murder part,” she said.

“She’s a very devout Catholic (and) I come from a very devout Catholic family. I’m also Italian — my family's from Sicily. She’s Roman, but I lived in Rome for two years. So I feel like I was kind of destined to the synchronous role.


“She does everything she can do in her life to do everything in the right way,”accepting her gift for a life on the stage instead of in the convent. But eventually everything begins to work against her.


“I think in a certain way, we can all kind of relate to that, where we feel like we've done a lot of hard things in life, and we work really hard. And sometimes we feel like we can't catch a break,” Natale said.


She can’t wait to bring the role to life in her debut with Cedar Rapids Opera.


“I'm just looking forward to being on that stage and being on that stage with you, Chaz (Chaz'men Williams-Ali), screaming our guts out and doing real opera. I just love opera so much — the nitty-gritty of it and not ‘precious.’ I don't like precious opera. That’s why ‘Tosca’ is so great.”


Cavaradossi

Tenor Chaz'men Williams-Ali is returning to Cedar Rapids Opera in the role of Tosca’s love, the artist and political activist Mario Cavaradossi.


“Mario — he’s a plumber, he’s got a brother,” Williams-Ali quipped, referring to the Super Mario Bros. of arcade video game and movie fame.


“I like to think of Mario as a very a complicated person. He's active politically, obviously, but some people play him a little more uptight than I do. I think that he is the ice to Tosca’s fire. He’s like a lion tamer man.


“But that doesn't mean he doesn't have any fire in him. I think that’s where we get to see him with Scarpia with Angelotti. He's passionate about everything that he does. But with Tosca, he's more of a calming energy with her. He’s the calming force to Tosca’s blazing fire.”


Williams-Ali, 34, who grew up in St. Louis and has recently moved from Germany back to the United States with his young family, is currently living out of a suitcase, but will land in Milwaukee, where his wife will be head of music for the Florentine Opera in Milwaukee. He has performed in Cedar Rapids Opera’s productions of “Aida” in 2008 and “Madama Butterfly” in 2009, and most recently performed in the troupe’s fundraising Three Tenors Gala in August.

The University of Iowa graduate feels a kinship with Cavaradossi, citing they both are pretty calm characters, but also have “very bad tempers ... with a long fuse.”


“It takes a long time for us to blow up, but when we do, it’s ugly.” That will emerge in Act II, he said.


“But I cannot draw to save my life,” he said, “so Mario being a painter, I cannot relate. Can’t do it. When I was in elementary school, I was banned from drawing the tick-tack-toe games because you couldn’t see what was inside, because I was so bad at it. Oh, true story — I’m so bad.”


He’s embracing the “full-circle moment of being back in Cedar Rapids Opera as a principal,” and finally getting to perform at the Paramount, since his previous appearances came when that venue was closed by the flood of 2008. He’s also looking forward to performing with Orchestra Iowa.


“There is nothing quite like Puccini's orchestrations,” he said. “So many composers have their own style, their own fingerprint, if you will. And I think Puccini's is so unique and so intoxicating. To hear the colors that you get out of the orchestra ... you just can’t quite get anywhere else but with the orchestra.”


Scarpia

Baritone Norman Garrett, 42, also is making a return trip to Cedar Rapids Opera, where he made his professional debut as a herald in “Otello” in 2003, followed by the swashbuckling Pirate King in the Young Artist production of “Pirates of Penzance” in 2004. In 2022, the UI graduate performed in the Cedar Rapids Opera 25th season opening gala at CSPS Hall in Cedar Rapids.

“It feels good” to be back, he said. “I love Daniel (Kleinknecht). He still feels the same. He feels very chilled and he knows what he wants. He’s very clear as a conductor. ... He’s nice to follow.”

A Lubbock, Texas, native now living with his family in Philadelphia, Garrett is the menacing presence in “Tosca,” portraying the evil chief of police who wants the beautiful diva all to himself — at any cost.


“I don’t want to say I enjoy it too much. It’s different to play a guy who has zero redeeming qualities. I’ve played bad guys before, but ... this guy, he’s just nasty,” Garrett said with a laugh.

It’s the first time he’s stepped into this role, which he said features a lot of spoken recitatives.

“That’s basically just spoken Italian. That was a process to get that locked in, but once you get that locked in, the singing parts come much easier. You can get it together in a month if you don’t have anything else to do.”


In addition to his rumbling, resonant voice, at 6’5“, Garrett also brings an imposing visual nature to the role.


“I really want to get a couple of boos when I come out for my bows, and then I know I've done my job correctly.”


Kleinknecht is both thrilled and honored that Garrett would choose to debut his turn as Scarpia with Cedar Rapids Opera. And he’s equally happy to have Williams-Ali back, too.


“He and Norman both — you knew they had the gift. And then you come back to these people and you find the right time in their calendars, you find the right role. And if all of that aligns, then you know you have a great pairing. It just so happened that this time, they were both free, they were both available, they both wanted to do these roles. ...


“They sing everywhere. They sing at the Met. They sing in San Francisco. They sing in Germany. It's real honor to ring them back and work with them.”


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