Cover Story: Head Over Heals

Alexandra Coku finds a contemporary opera she can love

Kurt Strecker

Alexandra Coku plays the lead diva in Cincinnati Opera's Florencia en el Amazonas.

Although experience has taught her to be wary of contemporary opera, Alexandra Coku has fallen in love with Daniel Catan's Florencia en el Amazonas. She has the role of Florencia Grimaldi, the diva returning to her native South America after 20 years away.

(See more on Cincinnati Opera's production of Florencia en el Amazonas here.)

This is Coku's first time with the role. It's not, however, her first time with recent opera.

Last year the California-born soprano — who received her Master of Music degree and pursued doctoral studies at Indiana University — appeared in the world premiere of a new Faust commissioned by Toulouse's opera company from French composer Philippe Fenelon. During a recent interview between rehearsals for Florencia, she called her Faust experience "quite trying."

"I was really disappointed by the results because the music simply wasn't beautiful," she says. "As one colleague put it, it sounded like walking through the conservatory and listening to five or six pieces being played at same time. I don't understand how audience members could go away with anything other than a headache.

Also, the production was quite trying on eyes, let's put it that way. It wasn't something beautiful to look at."

(The Classical music blog Ionarts described Faust this way: "The singers battle it out with thickly scored, hyperactive music that shows off technical virtuosity but dulls the ear with unvarying dynamics." The site also posted a still from the production, the cast gathered around a giant white skull.)

So when Cincinnati Opera approached her about Florencia, she was nervous until she listened to a recording.

"It was obvious from the first listen that this was written with the intention of having a mainstream lyricism," Coku says. "It was like a beautiful surprise. It is not only gorgeous music start to finish, but it has something that speaks to the public. It enriches viewers rather than challenges them. I find it one of most rewarding things I've had the opportunity to sing."

Tall and youthful-looking with long dark hair, Coku has been singing professionally since the 1988-89 season when she appeared as Euridice in Christoph Willibald Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden. Much of her work has been in Europe, where she lives, and she's developed a reputation as a Mozart soprano and concert singer.

She has appeared with U.S. opera companies and finds them more audience-friendly in their productions than their European counterparts, in part because they often have much larger halls to fill and thus are more cautious about experiments with modernism. (Music Hall holds 3,400 and is the fourth-largest opera house in the U.S.)

"Here in the States, from my experience, operas are more singer-friendly," she says. "Productions tend to be more traditional. The stage direction that's the norm (in Europe) can be weird and trying on singers."

That might be because, she thinks, "since World War II, everyone in Europe thinks it has to be ugly to have meaning."

Europe, to be fair, has a lot of political ugliness — outright horrors, really — to come to terms with from the first half of the 20th century, which might explain some of the harsh experimentation in the arts that Coku complains about.

But with its New World aesthetic, Florencia is free of all that. Free as a butterfly, perhaps.

"It's just beautiful," Coku says of Catan's crowd-inspiring opera. "And why not enjoy something beautiful?"

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