For 11 years, off and on, soprano Tamara Wilson has sung the title role of Aida to no little acclaim. "It holds a special place for me. I started my career with this," she says as she prepares for what she believes will be one of the last times she sings it.
She first sang Aida when she was 27 in Sydney. At 38 she is poised to move on, she says. "This production and a production right after in Toronto will be my last Aida. So I'm kind of going full circle. Unless somebody gets really sick or they need somebody really fast I've been wanting to phase it out. There are a ton of other roles."
As she has started a move into more of the German composers — she'll do her first Tristan and Isolde this summer — she is giving Houston Grand Opera audiences a chance to hear what all the fuss has been about in her rendering of the classic story of the captured Ethiopian princess Aida who falls in love with an Egyptian military commander Radames (tenor Russell Thomas) and is forced to choose between loyalty to her country and love.
"She’s a princess who's been taken by an enemy country that has had the misfortune to fall in love with one of their main generals. She thinks she’s going to be there forever. Towards the middle of the opera her father comes in as a prisoner of war and then he hatches this plan to fight from within and she becomes torn between the love for her dad and the love for her country and her duty and the love for the man that she’s in love with. The mezzo part, the Amneris (Michaela Martens) is more friendly toward Aida at the beginning and then it becomes about [Amneris being] in love with the same guy. So we explore this love triangle a bit more. Usually they just make the mezzo a mean, bitchy woman."
By the way, this production will be different, Wilson says. "It's not your typical Aida. If you’re expecting camels and all that stuff it’s not going to happen. Our director wanted to make it more poignant in the fact that war has consequences. This one shows that there's always a human life expense."
Some of the less admirable traditions of opera — say the '60s style of standing around and not looking at others on stage — have been dispensed with as well, Wilson says. "We try to get a little bit more of intimate moments even within the crowd of people on stage."
"It's symbolic of Egypt but it's definitely not set back in ancient times. It's updated. Updated military uniforms. Parts of it are kind of ageless and timeless and parts of it are kind of in the now, warring countries."
Wilson, who is originally from outside Chicago and lives in Houston when she is not traveling to perform, says her perception of her character has changed somewhat over the years. "A lot of people play her as the oh-woe-to-me princess and it's hard because Verdi wrote her that way. But she does make major decisions. She does betray the man she loves. She does also betrays her father. The only way out is death. So she does make very very bad decisions. But when I was first starting I think I saw her more as the princess and the legend of Aida versus she’s just a woman like any other woman who happened to have feelings for somebody and then it ruined her life," she says laughing.
Why opera over musical theater? "My voice just was always a classically-based voice. It was always a little bigger than anybody else growing up. I'd always loved classical music. My mom was a singer and music educator so it was around, but I really didn’t have any inclination to do that job. I wanted to be a biochemist. But then music had a bigger scholarship for college so music won. Slowly but surely my kind of path was made for me.
"In school I was going to study to be a teacher and get my doctorate and then I did a random competition here and random competition there and doors just opened for me. I think it was because I wasn't desperate to do it; I was just going out and singing for fun. So I had more relaxed auditions than I think some other people had.
"In college I lived in a practice room and learned how to sing. I had very little performance practice in school. I learned how to work on my voice, teach voice and then when it came time to plugging in repertoire I got thrown in here at HGO (as a studio artist) and I had no idea. I didn’t know any operas. It was just a huge mountain of information that I had to go through. But it was great being here because I could sit in rehearsals and watch how an opera house worked, how singers performed, how they rehearsed. What not to do. A lot of valuable things."
Asked for some of her what-not-to-do lessons, Wilson says."Not being prepared. Talking back without having having your sources backed up. Not giving 100 percent to your colleagues, kind of just phoning it in." She recalls another opera she worked on with a fellow cast member whose approach was that they had three days to rehearse and he'd kiss her when they got on stage. "I had a tenor I only said three sentences to and we had to make out on stage.
"But in this one we're really delving into what us as humans would do in certain situations. I feel as an ensemble cast this will be one of the most cohesive Aidas I've ever been a part of."
Wilson's breakthrough performance in 2007 has become a legendary tale. She was part of the HGO Studio Artists program when HGO Artistic and Music Director Patrick Summers and other HGO leaders asked to meet with her. "I was like 'Am I fired? I know I don't know that much but what did I do?' They had a score and they pushed it over the table and they said 'We've had somebody drop out for the fall and we'd like to look at this over the Christmas break and tell us if you think you could sing it.' And I looked at the title and thought 'I've never heard of it.' I mean not even a little, not even an inclination."
"So I took it home and I listened to every recording I could find and I asked all my teachers I ever knew is this a bad decision or is this a good decision. Because it could have gone horribly. It could have been like 'Young singer crashes and burns on stage and embarrasses herself.' It was one of those choose the fork in the road moments."
The opera was Verdi's Un ballo in mashera and her performance was hailed by critics. "I was kind of blown away at the faith they had in me that young to do something that important as a season opener with a cast that was like 'star cast.'"
Asked why any one should attend this production of Aida, Wilson says: "It's hands down a really, really good cast. This is one of the best Radames I've heard in a long time. And Melody, she and I went to school together. And we haven't really seen each other since school. A lot of HGO Studio members and past Studio members are in it so it's kind of a family show for us.
"Verdi writes it in a way it sounds so pretty and happy but you're dying," she says. "I love Verdi. Musically it has some of the best tunes out there," she says, adding, "There's going to be 80 chorus members on stage. And if you want to experience what actual grand opera is like, Aida is one of the best ones to start with."
Performances are scheduled for January 31 through February 16 at 7:30 p.m. Fridays, Saturday and Tuesday and 2 p.m. on Sundays at the Wortham Center, 500 Texas. Sung in Italian with English projections. For information call 713-228-6737 or visit houstongrandopera.org. $25-$260.
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