Katie Van Kooten says she usually plays "the whimpering, dying person no one loves." So she jumped at the chance to portray Queen Elizabeth I -- "someone who has power and destiny" -- in Houston Grand Opera's upcoming production of Maria Stuarda with music by Gaetano Donizetti.
American soprano Van Kooten (last seen in Houston as Ellen Orford in Peter Grimes) says she really likes the character of Elisabetta (whom, according to legend, the Scots still don't recognize, calling the present-day Queen Elizabeth the first, not the second) even though she calls for the execution of her cousin Maria Stuarda (Mary Stuart).
"Too often the easy way out is to portray her as the villain," Van Kooten said. "She felt so strongly her commitment to the people of England and peace in the nation. In this production it's not clear who's the good girl, who's the bad girl. It makes you think instead of telling you what to think."
Van Kooten, recently married and back in Washington State after living in England for seven years, says she did a lot of research for the role. That was another reason she likes playing Elisabetta. "It's based on a real person rather than a fictional character; we have so much historical documentation."
Of course, as she points out, the opera includes a scene of the two queens meeting and there's no historial evidence that ever happened. But it does give her the chance to sing with opera star Joyce DiDonato, who plays the title role.
Growing up, however, being an opera singer was the farthest thing from Van Kooten's thoughts. "I actually wanted to be a pop star like Whitney Houston," she says. "I went to college as a music major. My parents sat me down and talked me into double majoring -- in English. I considered teaching, which would have been a terrible idea because I have no patience." After the first semester, her voice teacher said yes, she could sing, and she was involved in a production of The Marriage of Figaro where she fell in love with opera.
She graduated from Biola University and then got a scholarship to go to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. Van Kooten has done most of her work in Europe -- she's sung at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden -- and says it was difficult at first when she returned to the United States, where she wasn't as well known.
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Now, she says, "I'm kind of getting into my routine and getting comfortable with the great companies in this country."
Audiences should come see Maria Stuarda, she says, because the singing is "amazing," and for the story.
"I wouldn't say it is sad. I think I'd call it dramatic. I think the ending is sad because we all kind of know it," Van Kooten says. "The story of the opera that Donizetti is telling is not focusing on the end; it's focusing on the journey getting there. There's moments of drama and moments of great heartbreak. Singing these characters' journey and their struggles is what makes it exciting."
Performances of Maria Stuarda are scheduled for 7:30 p.m. on April 21 and 27, May 2 and 4, and 2 p.m. April 29 at the Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. For ticket information, go to the opera's Web site or call 713-228-6737.