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Michelle DeYoung in HGO's The Rape of Lucretia

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If she had her druthers, mezzo soprano Michelle DeYoung wishes Benjamin Britten had chosen some other name than The Rape of Lucretia for a work with music she describes as "beautiful and lovely."

But what's done is done and what she tries to tell people who bring up the downbeat title is that "It's such an amazing piece." And, she adds, this Houston Grand Opera production has "an amazing cast."

Asked why she took the role, she said: "Vocally it's a beautiful thing; It kind of has everything in it. But it's really the acting challenge; it's so dramatic and really enriching to take on the whole character."

DeYoung, who sings the title role, grew up in a small town in Colorado where her dad was a minister. She and her three older sisters sang in church and played piano and other musical instruments. Despite this, "it never really occurred to me to do any of this professionally," she told Art Attack. "I really saw myself getting married and having six kids."

But while attending Calvin College in Michigan, DeYoung was told by the choir director there that she had an extraordinary voice. After transferring to Cal State Northridge in California, she decided to give opera a chance and took every single course she could find that involved music. "I turned the university into my own private conservatory."

Her voice teacher asked her to enter the Met competition and she won. "I won the district, won the region, won in New York and they asked me to be in the Young Artists program." That was really my most intense training. I did three years in the Metropolitan Opera's Young Artist program. They supplied two voice lessons a week, as well as sighting and acting lessons. "It was intense and wonderful." After that, "the doors just kept opening," she said.

Now she and her husband are based in Evergreen, Colorado, where they live in a log house when she's not traveling. She's done a lot of the German operas. "I'm a mezzo with good high notes." She splits her time about equally between operas and concert appearances.

The storyline of Lucretia is that while the Roman Army has been away, all of the men's wives have been unfaithful save Lucretia. But her husband's friend Tarquinius won't let things stay that way.

Rising American star Arin Arbus directs and Scottish conductor Rory Macdonald makes his HGO debut in this work, which is known as much for its lyricism as the searing story it tells. In her director's notes, Arvin writes: "The Rape of Lucretia was first performed in 1946 after World War II, after the Blitz, after over 300,000 Britons had died in the war. As his homeland was reeling from this devastation, Britten was working on Lucretia -- a chamber opera which attempts to 'harness song to human tragedy.'"

Michelle DeYoung has sung Lucretia before and says she appreciates this production, which takes a more traditional approach. "We're in a day when they do a lot of very modern productions. I really like productions that enhance the story and the music. I have an issue with productions that take away from the music because we are doing opera after all. This enhances the story; it enhances the music."

The Houston Grand Opera's production of The Rape of Lucretia runs February 3-11 at the Wortham Theater Center, Texas Avenue at Smith Street. Call 713-228-6737 for tickets or go to houstongrandopera.org.

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