From Oklahoma to Opera: Alice Baker's musical career hits high note

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From Oklahoma to Opera: Alice Baker's musical career hits high note


From 'Oklahoma' to OperaMezzo-soprano Alice Baker, has climbed from beginnings as a jazz singer to growing fame in the heady world of Grand Opera

Mezzo-soprano Alice Baker has climbed from beginnings as a jazz singer to growing fame in the heady world of Grand Opera

Alice Baker's musical career
hits high note

By Tom Walker
Times Herald

Alice Baker never dreamed when she starred in a high school production of Oklahoma that one day she would be singing opera in Rome.

It was there [in January 1987] at Rome’s Teatro dell’Opera, that the Detroit born mezzo soprano stepped in with just a few hours' notice to sing the title role in Bizet’s Carmen opposite Josè Carreras. "The greatest moment of my life at that moment was to sing that role opposite Carreras", Baker said of the tenor regarded as the world’s best Don Josè. I remember saying "My God, I can’t believe this is happening", she said. Baker was called in to take over with no rehearsal from Elena Obrastova, who became ill. She later sang a second performance, both to critical acclaim. Ten days later she made her official European debut, as Isabella in Rossini's L'Italiana in Algeri, the role which brought her to Rome in the first place, and which she was rehearsing when opportunity knocked twice for her.

Baker isn’t surprised by her success. She knew she belonged on stage after being paid to sing at a wedding when she was just 15.

"It felt like home", she said. But Baker thought her fame would come as a jazz singer. That was her intention when she moved to Los Angeles with a performing arts degree from Oakland University.

"I don't think my parents were pleased with that", Baker said. She was right.

"Those smoke filled rooms were bad for her voice", her father, James Baker said. Baker eventually arrived at the same conclusion. "I realised I could never be a Carmen MacRae or an Ella Fitzgerald." But the lessons she learned were valuable.

"That was a really rich period" she said. "Jazz and classical music are both very structured. But in jazz you're free to improvise within that structure. That helped me learn how classical music is put together."

Even then Baker didn't bounce immediately from intimate jazz clubs to grand opera stages.

While studying for a master's degree at California State University, a friend talked Baker into auditioning for the lead in the opera Cinderella, by Rossini. She won the part, and three weeks later found herself on a stage and her life was changing again. "I found it was an extraordinary art form", she said. "Opera is both great music and great theatre".

After competing against 2,000 applicants for 10 positions, she won a contract with the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and served an apprenticeship in 1983. In 1985, Baker was invited to audition for the newly formed La Opera. It was there she met tenor Plàcido Domingo, the company's Artistic Advisor.

Baker's father tells one version of the encounter. "He listened to Alice audition and he turned around to someone and said 'now that's a voice!', James Baker said.

Alice's version is slightly different. "He did say that, but he also said there were things that needed improvement." She was hired, and alternated the roles of Emilia with Domingo in Verdi's Otello, and Suzuki in Puccini's Madama Butterfly in the company's inaugural season.

Baker has been touring for the last two years. She currently is singing in Ireland in the Wexford Festival's revival of the 19th century opera Elisa e Claudio by Mercadante. She will recreate her role later this month in London before heading off to Italy.

Baker is enchanted by her living quarters in White's Hotel, a picturesque 200 year old bed and breakfast, and Wexford's scenic old world setting. But Ireland's damp climate has stricken her with maladies ranging from a sore throat to laryngitis. In November she will be featured in a production of Donizetti's La favorita, the latest of ten 350 page operas she has had to memoirze this year. The Teatro la Fenice (Venice) production also reunited Baker with Luciano Pavarotti, who made his debut as stage director in this production. Baker understudied the great American soprano Shirley Verrett in the role of Leonora, and was scheduled to sing the final two performances, something she adamantly approves of, saying it is the best way for young singers to polish their craft. "I am curious to see whether he will remember me or not", said Baker, who first met the tenor during her apprentice days at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Baker hopes to become known for her work in the more dramatic mezzo repertoire. Because their voices occupy the lower range of sopranos, mezzos often play supporting roles, but she seems surely headed to play the more dominant parts, like Carmen.

David DiChiera, the Detroit Opera's general director, believes Baker will succeed. Baker appeared as Nancy in their 1985 production of Von Flotow's Martha.

"Not only does she have a voice which will give her a major career, she has a beautiful communicative quality and a strong stage presence that creates an excitement the audience relates to," he said.

Copyright © 1988 -2003 Times Herald. All rights reserved.

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