Mirella Freni glides into the sun-drenched suite of her Washington hotel like an early and welcome breath of spring.
Stylishly attired in a lime-green jacket set off against a simple black top, slacks, and low-cut (and undoubtedly Italian) boots, the legendary soprano is in town to launch the second half of the Washington National Opera’s season. She is starring in her first-ever U.S. performances of Tchaikovsky’s seldom seen “The Maid of Orleans.” This production, in fact, was tailor-made for Miss Freni, who first sang the strenuous role of Joan of Arc at Turin’s Teatro Regio.
“Orleans” was not my decision,” she says. “The director of the Turin Opera convinced me to do it. But first I did not say yes. No one does this opera anymore. It’s too difficult, is written in a very ancient form of Russian, and I don’t look like a ‘Maid,’” she says with a laugh, having just turned a youthful 70. “Also, the score is difficult, with a big orchestra. It makes singing a challenge — very different from Tatiana in Tchaikovsky’s ‘Onegin’ which is more lyrical,” she says.
Born in Modena, Italy, in 1935, Mirella Fregni made her singing debut on the radio when she was 10, putting off more serious study until she was 17. Simplifying the spelling of her last name to Freni, she made her professional opera debut in her hometown 50 years ago last month, singing Micaela in Bizet’s “Carmen” in 1955. Ironically, her mother and Luciano Pavarotti’s mother worked together in a cigarette factory, just like Micaela and Carmen.
Not long after her debut, Miss Freni took a break in her budding career to marry her teacher. She gave birth, in 1956, to a daughter she christened Micaela, commemorating her first role. Unfortunately, the marriage did not endure, and Miss Freni resumed her career in 1958.
She met the love of her life, Bulgarian bass Nicolai Ghiaurov, and they eventually married in 1981. (Tragically, Mr. Ghiaurov succumbed to a heart attack last year at the age of 74.)
Miss Freni initially specialized in lyric roles such as Susanna in Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro” (“The Marriage of Figaro”). Her breakthrough role was Mimi in Puccini’s “La Boheme,” which she sang to great acclaim at La Scala in the now-famous Zefirelli production under the baton of Herbert von Karajan.
This led to her 1965 Metropolitan Opera debut as Mimi, beginning a lifelong mutual love affair with that company. She will celebrate her 40th anniversary with a Met gala May 15, which also coincides with the golden jubilee of her storied career.
Over the ensuing decades, Miss Freni has been lauded for her uncanny ability to maintain her elegant approach and elastic legato, stretching her favored bel canto style of singing and adapting it to dramatic operas such as Verdi’s “Don Carlo” and “Otello” as well as Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” and “Queen of Spades.” Her recordings became best sellers, and she was for years a favorite of the temperamental Mr. von Karajan.
More than a decade ago, Miss Freni revived Umberto’s neglected “Fedora” to great acclaim, memorably performing it here with the Washington National Opera in 1998 opposite her good friend, Placido Domingo.
This same adventurous spirit is no doubt what compelled her to accept Turin’s offer to create a new production of “The Maid of Orleans” for her. No mere cameo for a famous singer, the work crackles with high drama and religious ecstasy —including an angelic chorus in the opera’s concluding moments. Miss Freni worked for more than a year to overcome the score’s myriad difficulties.
Although her public appearances are less frequent now, Miss Freni gives no hint of considering retirement. “Ah, you know, they call me ‘Crazy Freni,’” she says with a laugh. “But it’s true I am not singing as much as I used to.”
She devotes increasing amounts of time to taking new students under her wing near her home base of Modena. “I try to be a mother to my children,” she says. “Young people want to be a diva, a divo. But besides the singing, Placido and I both want to teach young students to respect everyone who works onstage. As Placido says, everyone is necessary. And you need stage experience to sing a role.”
Miss Freni confirmed she will return to the nation’s capital next season to sing the second act of “Fedora” with Mr. Domingo in the Washington National Opera’s “triple bill” performances. This event will help celebrate the company’s 50th anniversary.
“Placido says, to me, ‘Now Mirella, you must do all the performances,’ and so I told him that I will.”
WHAT: Washington National Opera’s production of Tchaikovsky’s “The Maid of Orleans”
WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House
WHEN: March 26 and April 11 at 7 p.m.; March 31, April 5 and 8 at 7:30 p.m.; April 3 at 2 p.m.
TICKETS: $45 to $290
WEB SITE: www.dc-opera.org