Newly celebrated soprano has patience in her repertoire BSO 75th Season


HAROLYN BLACKWELL, a Washington-raised soprano who became an overnight sensation by first grinding out 15 unsensational but productive years building her craft, helps the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra mark its 75th birthday Monday.

In fact, some Baltimore music fans with sharp memories may remember her as a young soprano singing "After the Ball," "Summertime" and "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" with a former area choral group, The Young Columbians, from 1976 to 1977.

"I'm happy to sing in Baltimore with the orchestra, because I started in the Baltimore-Washington area with Toby Orenstein's group," Blackwell said. "I learned a great deal there about stage presence and performing."

Last fall, Blackwell lit quite a fire at the Metropolitan Opera in New York by turning her relatively minor role as the page Oscar in Verdi's "A Masked Ball" into what one New York Times reviewer called "a model of agility, spunk, charm and silvery tone". Local opera fans who missed the 5 feet, 1 inch dynamo at the Met can see the public television telecast April 10.

Blackwell was such a perpetual motion machine in the trouser role, a woman singing a male character, that she did aerobics exercises before each performance to maintain her energetic character, "a non-stop chatterbox, running around and being the life of the party".

But, Blackwell said laughing, "I'm hanging up the trouser roles" for awhile. Actually one of the two arias she will sing for the BSO's 75th party is the shepherd king, Aminta, doing "L'amero saro costante" in Mozart's early opera "Il re Pastore" (1775). It's a love song for Elisa, whom Aminta eventually wins along with the throne of Sidon during the time of Alexander the Great.

"It's an interesting combination," Blackwell said of the two arias. "L'amero" is very lyrical while the other is very vibrant and brilliant, 'The Bell Song' from 'Lakme.'" That opera by Leo Delibes features the love story of Lakme, daughter of a Brahmin priest, and a British officer, Gerald. The setting is India under British rule.

Interestingly, Blackwell's arias were sung on the original Feb. 11, 1916, program by Mabel Garrison, a Marylander who developed quite a career herself at the Met in New York.

The BSO, under the direction of David Zinman, will repeat that first program at 7:30 p.m. Monday at Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. The program includes Beethoven's Eighth Symphony, Saint-Saens' Le Rouet d'Omphale, Wagner's Overture to Tannhauser and some promised surprises.

The way Blackwell attacked her debut appearance with the BSO is not unlike most opera singers. She's been working on the two arias for months.

"I went to my voice teacher Shirley Emmons for technique. I went to my voice coach Neal Goren for technique, language and interpretation. I saw my drama coach Leyna Gabrielli for interpretation. Every note has a reason, every note is a note not wasted by the composer. I ask 'Why is it there?' Try this, if it doesn't work, try that. Then, 'yes, that works.'"

Blackwell, who is engaged to Peter Greer, a Hyundai official, lives two months of the year in the Caribbean; otherwise she's on the road performing. She's the only musician among four girls and a boy raised in the Washington home of Harold and Elaine Blackwell, Morgan State University graduates who met in college and remain active in alumni affairs. They will be cheering at the Meyerhoff Monday.

Harolyn, who was named after her father -- "They wanted a boy. Then later a boy came and he became Harold Jr. Things get confusing now when all three Harolds are home." -- praises her parents for their complete support, but they don't take all the credit.

"They each had help from mentors and friends in the right place at the right time. Harolyn's big booster was Aunt Mary. We're proud of all the children, we're a team in this family," said Elaine Blackwell, who was raised in Brandywine, Md.

After Harolyn's piano study came voice lessons with Nancy Notargiacomo. Then she majored in education at the Catholic University of America in Washington and taught for a year. As a musician she first aimed for show music.

She hit the big time on Broadway in 1980 by singing in "West

Side Story," a job that lasted 2 1/2 years on tours in the United States and abroad. An audition with the Lyric Opera Company of Chicago turned her toward opera, and it's been one role after another since. She sang at the Grammy Awards ceremony last year and as Clara has recorded Porgy and Bess with Simon Rattle.

She's moving fast. "After Baltimore, I jump on the train back to New York for Handel and Bach at the 92nd Street Y, then a Brahms Requiem at Carnegie Hall, then other oratorios, and then Susanna in 'The Marriage of Figaro' at the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto in May."

Her voice, a lyric coloratura, has grown lighter in the past two years and is constantly changing. For now, she's interested in Mozart, bel canto, light Verdi, oratorios. For younger singers with less experience, Blackwell has one word of advice: patience.

"It's the most difficult thing for young singers. One thing I learned from Pavarotti is it doesn't happen overnight. Go step by step. There will be wonderful moments and also setbacks. But keep going, go to the next level. Work at it, day after day. I did three Oscars before the Met. So, patience."

The BSO 75th anniversary concert at Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall begins at 8 p.m. Tickets are $7.50-$17.50, $27.50 for box seats, and 75 cents for patrons 75 and older. Call 783-8000.

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