Call her the diva from Dixie.
"I'm from the sand hills in the Piedmont -- near the pines," says Nova Thomas in a wickedly sweet, slow drawl that makes Delta Burke sound almost like Meryl Streep. "That's in Lisleville, North Carolina -- it's the southern part."
She looks like the sort of young woman who was the favorite little sister of a lot of fraternity boys at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and she probably was. Appropriately enough, she's starring as Marie, in the Baltimore Opera Company's forthcoming production of Donizetti's "The Daughter of the Regiment," as the girl who turns every head in every battalion.
It should be a role to which the 33-year-old soprano brings special authority. She is a protege of both Dame Joan Sutherland, the greatest Marie of modern times, and Sutherland's husband, the conductor Richard Bonynge, who taught his wife the coloratura roles that made her famous.
Her connection with Sutherland and Bonynge began in 1985, shortly after she had won the Metropolitan Opera National Auditions.
She flew out to Chicago for a single night -- "I hada date," she says -- to hear Sutherland sing Donizetti's "Anna Bolena." At a cocktail party after the performance she heard Ardis Krainik, the managing director of the Chicago Lyric Opera, worry out loud to an official from the Met that Sutherland did not have a cover because no one else knew the opera.
"Why, I heard a little girl sing the mad scene beautifully just the other night, and she's standing right there," the Met official said. When Thomas got home to New York, she found a message on her answering machine asking her to return to Chicago to audition as Sutherland's cover.
It was lucky that Thomas happened to have a date in Chicago that night.
"It was, it was," she says.
During the time she covered, Thomas says she never sang for Sutherland and Bonynge and that she "sat in the corner for seven weeks and never said a word." Though the first statement is believable, it is hard to imagine Thomas as a wallflower.
"Not a word, darling," she insists. Then, weakening, she admits, "Well, I did go up to Mr. Bonynge on the last night."
Whatever transpired between them was apparently enough for him to invite her to Houston to cover Sutherland's performances there. The great soprano finally came over to her and said, "I hear you have a voice like an angel."
"I thanked her, but told her that I was just there to learn," Thomas says.
"Then she asked, 'Do you know this role?'
"I said, 'Yes, ma'am' -- I always call people ma'am -- 'I do.'
"She asked, 'Do you feel good today?'
"I said, 'Yes, ma'am.'
"She said, 'You'll be doing the first dress rehearsal.' My life went before my eyes."
When the rehearsal ended, an excited Bonynge -- who had been conducting -- banged on the prompter's box and shouted, "Young lady, what do you have to say for yourself?"
Thomas, ever the brazen Southern woman, replied, "From up here you look a lot like Richard Bonynge."
That rehearsal led to an ongoing relationship with Sutherland and Bonynge -- Thomas sang the Adalgisa to Sutherland's Norma in the great diva's farewell tour three years ago, and she has just made her first, about-to-be-released recording with Bonynge conducting. She has yet to sing at the Met, La Scala or Covent Garden, but she has sung at other major houses all over Europe and the United States. Her roles include not only the bel canto heroines of Donizetti and Rossini, but also many of the dramatic ones of Puccini and Verdi.
She apparently has a voice strong enough to prevail over the stresses of Verdi's thick textures and flexible enough to negotiate the thickets of notes in Rossini and Donizetti's coloratura roulades -- a voice, in other words, with some of the same qualities the young Sutherland's had.
But Thomas also has attributes that "La Stupenda" -- as Italian opera lovers call Sutherland -- doesn't have.
"She actually has a waist!" John Lehmeyer, the director of the BOC's "Daughter," reportedly said when he saw a full-length photograph of Thomas. She's also got a sloe-eyed, heart-shaped face and a figure to match. And there's that honeyed drawl that can make anybody wonder what it might be like to be reincarnated as a Southern woman.
"We're the closest thing we have to royalty, darling," Thomas purrs. "I'm the closest thing to a princess you'll ever see."
When she went off to the University of North Carolina, Thomas did not intend to become a singer.
"My momma says I sang before I could talk," she says. "But I wanted to be an attorney like my daddy."
When the 18-year-old Thomas heard that the university's choir was to tour Europe, however, she immediately tried out for it and was accepted. She was steered into a career as a singer when the choir's director showed her the score of Verdi's "Aida." Though she had never heard an opera, much less seen one, she knew immediately, she says, "that here was stuff that was bigger than life."