A Pop Star Goes Puccini

I think this is impossible to do," says Linda Ronstadt. "I don't know why I'm doing this. I want to go home." What the gifted pop star is doing is singing the part of Mimi in Joseph Papp's production of "La Boheme" at the Public Theater in New York. Ronstadt was nervous four years ago when she made her leap into musical theater in Papp's production of Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Pirates of Penzance," but what she's feeling now is something close to terror. "Pirates" was a huge hit; "La Boheme" may not be. But Ronstadt isn't going home. She's going to keep stretching her big, ever-expanding talent by attacking a role that few pop singers would dare to even contemplate.
Caption: Morris, Ronstadt in 'Boheme': Fragile minx

Her performance as Puccini's doomed heroine is a profile in courage as well as an episode in the ongoing movement toward synthesis between "high" and "low" in America's musical culture. Recently Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd" was performed by the New York City Opera; the nonoperatic cast of "Boheme" is returning the favor. The results in both cases are mixed, but the exchange of energies between the pop and opera worlds will continue. As for Ronstadt, her Mimi has the sweetness and delicate simplicity of Puccini's fragile minx. Of course she'd be more comfortable at the Grand Ole Opry than at the opera, but there is a grave dignity and haunted sensuousness in her Mimi that is not always encountered in opera houses.

Tainted Innocence: Ronstadt's singing has always pivoted on the shifting fortunes of love, notably in her beautiful last two albums, "What's New" and "Lush Life," in which with arranger Nelson Riddle she's gone back to the classic pop tunes of the pre-rock age. Her Mimi has the nuance of tainted innocence that we hear in those albums. In fact, this "Boheme" has an ardent sensual quality that comes through its youthful cast, notably David Carroll, who alternates with Gary Morris as Rodolfo, and Howard McGillin as his buddy Marcel. But Ronstadt (who alternates with Patti Cohenour and Caroline Peyton) and her colleagues are not well served by director Wilford Leach, who did such a brilliant job with "Pirates." He has found no real shape or pulse for the action. What's more, he has introduced into the English adaptation such jarring touches as some modern jargon and has permitted the talented Cass Morgan to sing Musette with the farcical fervor of Dorothy Loudon. William Elliott. conducts forcefully, but the orchestration for 12 musicians by Michael Starobin strips Puccini's score of most of its luscious lyricism.

Linda Ronstadt

But of course this "La Boheme" centers on Ronstadt. Her candid anxiety is the measure of her determination. "The other night," she says, "I felt something slip down my throat and I forgot to take my breath. I had to breathe in the middle of a word and it was like looking at your subway stop go by." Breathing is not the only problem. "We have these microphone packs wired to us and I stood up and felt it start down my leg and I thought 'This damn thing is going to fall out of my skirt onto my feet in the middle of my aria,' so I just kept getting up and sitting down."

'Free Form': Ronstadt has wanted to sing "La Boheme" for years. She learned Italian by going to the Berlitz school and listened constantly to recordings, especially, her favorite "Boheme," the great '50s version with Jussi Bjoerling as Rodolfo and Victoria de Los Angeles as Mimi. "I made the mistake of thinking I could learn the opera that way," she says, "but I couldn't. It's so free-form you have to learn it exactly." Ronstadt, who doesn't read music, was taken through the opera's score by composer Allen Shawn. "He's one of my real guiding heroes," she says. "He taught me all that music by rote. He tried to teach me to read music, too," she adds with her rueful laugh. "Impossible. Lots of pop singers are great readers. I think my brain simply doesn't work that way."

Her vocal problems center not on the operatic heights but in the tough middle register, where most of Mimi is sung: "High C is easy for me," she says. "I look forward to it every night. I can sing real high and I can sing on the bottom. But shifting gears from low to high is the hard thing. No wonder singers call that middle break the Devil's Canyon." Ronstadt did not want to "cheat" by using her chest tones. But tenor Placido Domingo, who came to hear her one night, told her that it wasn't cheating. "He said opera singers do that all the time."

Latin Music: Ronstadt resents the stories that say she's worn out her rock singing. "I am not trying to start a career as an opera singer," she says fiercely. "I'm not trying to pave the way to the future so I won't be this aged rock-and-roll singer. I can sing rock as long as I bloody well want to. And I can certainly sing the old songs until I'm 97." She wants to do another pop-classic album, perhaps of Cole Porter; she wants to do an album with Smokey Robinson; she wants to get into the Latin music that she grew up hearing from her parents of Mexican-German descent. But right now she's focusing ferociously on Mimi. When she strained her throat her doctor told her she was killing her voice, that she was not prepared to do this kind of thing. "He'd given me an open door," she says, "and I thought I can go through it. But I can't. This is the most crippling thing I've ever experienced. But for me it's the best thing I've ever done because of the distance I've had to cover." At 38, Ronstadt may have arrived at a new and exciting beginning.

                                          J A C K    K R O L L

This article originally appeared in Newsweek Magazine, December 10, 1984
Thanks to Dr. Brian Krachman for providing this copy.

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