Hitched to opera, and each other

For Baltimore Opera's `Corinth,' husband conducts, wife sings


The Baltimore Opera Company's season-opening production of Rossini's rarely staged The Siege of Corinth is about to plunge audiences into anxious issues of love and duty amid a messy war between Greeks and Turks.

Pamira, daughter of the besieged Greek governor, will be torn between two ever-so-conflicting matrimonial prospects - a young Greek officer and the leader of the Turkish invaders. The poor dear won't know which way to turn for guidance and inspiration, but the soprano portraying her will.

If Elizabeth Futral needs any extra assistance as she burrows into Pamira's troubled character, producing drama-intensifying vocal flourishes as she goes, she has only to steal a glance at the orchestra pit. Her husband, Steven White, will be there, baton in hand, score in head, his wife's needs and best interests at heart.

"On those rare opportunities we get to work with each other, we bring out the best of each other - at least we like to think we do," Futral, 43, says during a rehearsal break.

The fashion model-svelte brunette and her equally trim husband are wearing similar shades of black and gray. Each clutches a can of Diet Coke as they talk.

In 2004, the couple put their talents - her silvery voice and eloquent phrasing, his sensitive, flexible conducting - to memorable use in Baltimore Opera's staging of Bellini's I Puritani.

"They had a great success with it," says company general director Michael Harrison. "They're both wonderful talents, highly professional and dedicated, great colleagues - no artifice or pretense. I'm very high on both of them, individually and together."

Harrison engaged White to conduct another Bellini masterwork, La Sonnambula, last season. Futral was not in that cast. "She's getting busier and busier, and it's more difficult for us to find time in her schedule," Harrison says.

But this season, the scheduling worked out, and the return dual engagement finds husband and wife once again deep in bel canto land, the 19th-century Italian repertoire known for long-breathed, often florid melodic lines.

Not produced in this country since 1975, when it served as a vehicle for Beverly Sills' debut at the Metropolitan Opera, The Siege of Corinth is a first for Futral and White. They have both enjoyed the experience of exploring one of Rossini's least familiar works.

"Those who know Rossini only by La Cenerentola or Barber of Seville know Rossini in a way that is so incomplete," says White, 44.

That could have described his wife up until about six years ago, when she recorded Rossini's Otello, an underappreciated opera that preceded Verdi's work of the same name by 81 years. (A colleague of Futral's in that recording, Rossini-specializing tenor Bruce Ford, sings the role of Pamira's father, Cleomene, in The Siege of Corinth.)

"I was not a Rossini-ite early in my career," Futral says. "The operas I knew were the comic ones. But when I did the Otello recording, I found the music stunning. ... I'm really pulled by the dramatic elements in the serious side of Rossini."

Today, the soprano enjoys wide praise for roles in both light and tragic operas, performed in major opera houses, including the Met, where she will create the role of Princess Yueyang opposite Placido Domingo in Tan Dun's The First Emperor in December.

Futral's just-completed triumph, the title role in Handel's Semele at New York City Opera, included comedy and drama. In this imaginatively updated production, Futral played the immortality-seeking Semele as Marilyn Monroe, complete with skirt-lifting puff of air and a pill-induced death on satin sheets.

(Her remarkable co-star in that production, mezzo Vivica Genaux, was done up as Jackie Kennedy. Genaux will switch to more masculine attire when she joins Futral for The Siege of Corinth, singing the role of Pamira's Greek boyfriend, Neocle.)

Total immersion into character, and firm grasp of the musical style, are typical of Futral's approach, whether in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor or The Elixir of Love, Richard Strauss' Daphne or Andre Previn's A Streetcar Named Desire (she created the Stella role in the 1998 premiere).

White, named general and artistic director of the Roanoke Opera two years ago, has been steadily adding to his own repertoire, from Mozart to Puccini, and his list of credits, from New York City Opera to Vancouver Opera.

It was in the mid-'90s, while working as associate conductor and chorus master at Florida Grand Opera in Miami, that he met Futral, who starred in several of that company's productions.

The two discovered common Carolinian roots - the soprano was born in North Carolina (raised in Louisiana from the age of 2), White in South Carolina. They married in 1998 and lived until recently in Chicago, where they also found common ground.

"We went to a Cubs game for part of our honeymoon," White says. "The daytime part," Futral quickly adds, with a laugh.

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