Opera singer believes ‘if God brings you to it, he’ll bring you through it’
You might call Lisa Daltirus the Save-the-Day Queen.
The soprano, who stars in Seattle Opera’s upcoming “Tosca,” has made something of a specialty in rescuing opera companies in distress. But never was the drama higher than on the evening in 2003 when Daltirus was sitting in the audience at the Richard Tucker Foundation’s benefit gala in New York’s Avery Fisher Hall.
The soprano performing excerpts from Verdi’s “Aida,” Aprile Millo, was struggling with illness, and announced that she would be unable to continue. Suddenly Daltirus looked to the aisle by her seat in the audience and saw the foundation’s executive director beckoning to her. They knew she had just sung the title role in “Aida” in Delaware; could she step in? Right now?
Daltirus had five minutes to warm up. She went onstage to sing the Triumphal Scene, and the first person she saw in the audience was Leontyne Price — the retired super-diva who used to own the role of Aida.
“There was no time to be scared,” remembers Daltirus, chatting recently during a break in rehearsals at Seattle Opera’s offices. “I am a deeply spiritual person, and I always believe if God brings you to it, He’ll bring you through it.”
Afterward, the entire place “went up in a roar,” as Daltirus remembers, and Price blew kisses. Afterward, she told Daltirus she’d go far.
And she has — saving the day along the way. Daltirus also stepped in as a last-minute replacement for Carol Vaness in “Tosca” in Aspen, and in her own hometown, the Opera Company of Philadelphia called her to save the day as a last-minute Aida just after she had walked her kids to the school bus stop.
A healthy decision
Daltirus’ grace under pressure has helped advance her career, as has her decision about three years ago to change to a healthier lifestyle. She did so, and lost 75 pounds.
“I decided that if I’m going to go forward in this business, I have to sustain all the physicality I can, and that means looking good. I cut out the comfort foods — carbos, sugars, snacks, all those things you go to. It’s really an addiction. I was never tempted to have the gastric-bypass weight-loss surgery. I figure God made me this way; I’m not gonna mess with the plumbing.”
That doesn’t mean she won’t have a piece of chocolate now and then, but she is determined to stay healthy.
“There’s been a real shift in the opera world in the past few years,” Daltirus says.
“There’s so much emphasis on production values. Opera has really turned Hollywood, looking for that movie glamour to attract younger audiences. There is definitely more pressure to look good.”
Destined to sing
Daltirus was one of those kids who always knew she’d be on the stage one day. Her late mother always told about how she’d get up in front of anyone at age 2 or 3 and do a little act. Her family responded with piano and dance lessons, and plenty of opportunities to perform. In high school, Daltirus was the one who had the leads in the plays and who always sang.
At the end of high school, the guidance counselor asked what she wanted to be when she grew up. Daltirus replied, “I want to be a singer.” The response? “No, I mean what do you want as a career?”
She ended up at Westminster Choir College, and not long thereafter got married and had two children (now 14 and 12). It’s what she now describes as “a little pause in my pursuit of a career.” Once she returned to that pursuit in earnest, Daltirus shot quickly to the top of the U.S. opera scene, as a soprano who was not only great at saving the day, but convincing as both a Verdi heroine and a “verismo” star (that term applies to the gritty realism of operas such as “Tosca”).
And now that Daltirus does have a career, her kids are old enough to manage at home in the Philadelphia area with her husband, so she can be “away for a little” to perform opera.
“When I come home, the minute I hit baggage claim, the kids are saying, ‘In school this happened, that happened, I need money for this, I’m going to go here.’ And my husband is really glad I’m home.”
Occasionally, the whole family gets to go watch Daltirus perform, during school breaks and holidays. Last summer, the two youngsters were supernumeraries in a Cincinnati “Aida,” an experience they loved. Both of them are involved in drama productions, as well as sports and church activities, but Daltirus doesn’t think either will follow in her footsteps.
“They’re proud of their mom, and very supportive,” she beams. “I feel very blessed.”
The Tosca connection
With the ability to sing big Verdi roles (Daltirus also has sung Leonora in “Il Trovatore” to great acclaim), and the increasingly colorblind casting in opera, she is in wide demand now. She also loves Mozart and Strauss, and would like to try her wings with the latter’s “Ariadne auf Naxos” someday.
For now, she’s excited about the Seattle “Tosca,” a role she has often sung. But she’s always striving for another approach to this iconic character. The Seattle production is a traditional one, and Daltirus describes the costumes as “absolutely beautiful — very period, with reticules, gloves, trains and stoles. My Act II dress is to die for. I want to buy it!”
After this “Tosca,” she sings “Aida” in Portland, and will be back here next summer for Seattle Opera’s season-opening “Aida.” In the fall, the Chicago Lyric Opera has cast her as the lead in Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess,” another role Daltirus loves.
But Tosca, Puccini’s brave and devout diva, has a special pull for her.
“I made my professional debut in 2002 as Tosca in Central Park for the New York Grand Opera, and got a wonderful reception that really started my career. And since then, I’ve sung Tosca all over the place — Philadelphia, Boston, Minnesota, Michigan, South Carolina. I love that Tosca — she’s my girl.”