Arriving a few minutes early for my interview with the young soprano Rachele Gilmore, I readily accepted the offer to sit in on the end of the day's rehearsals for Knoxville Opera's upcoming production of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor. In the rehearsal underway, Gilmore, in the title role of Lucia, was singing the Act I, Scene 3 aria "Regnava nel silenzio." I had barely slumped into a chair in the back of the rehearsal hall when I sat back up, somewhat surprised that the voice I was hearing was perhaps even more special than I had suspected.
Before December, all I really knew of the 28-year-old Gilmore was a bit of biographical information—her role in Lucia had just been announced—and reports of her high-end vocal range. The Atlanta native had received a bachelor's of music from Indiana University's School of Music and had had career-beginning roles of Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos with Indianapolis Opera and Blondchen in Mozart's Die entführung aus dem Serail with Deutsche Oper am Rhein, among a few others.
Then, on Dec. 23, on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera, her career—and notoriety—took one of those sudden, out-of-the-blue upswings that is the stuff of show-biz legends. Gilmore had been on the Metropolitan Opera roster this season as a cover for Kathleen Kim in the role of Olympia, the mechanical doll, in Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann. Kim's Olympia had already seen five performances of the opera in December, but on this night she was forced to withdraw because of illness. On a few hours notice, Gilmore stepped into the role and electrified the Met audience with her coloratura vocal acrobatics in the "Doll Song," which included an amazing high A-flat. And a subsequent YouTube video of the performance captivated viewers and opera fans around the world.
The dynamics of such sudden notoriety can often be a bit perilous for a singer at the beginning of a career. Traditional career paths are usually quite a bit different.
"You go to school, you start auditioning for young artist programs," says Gilmore, describing the process. "You see if you can get into some of those, then if you do, you try to build contacts through them."
Overnight success can be a long time in the making. Gilmore spent two years with the Glimmerglass Opera, a summer company in upstate New York, and then joined the Florida Grand Opera Young Artist program. In 2005, she moved to New York.
"I started auditioning, doing as many auditions as I could," Gilmore says. "I think I was there for two years before I found management and was able to break into the professional aspect of things. The first job I got through my manager was with Orlando Opera singing Zerlina [from Don Giovanni]. Hopefully, someone puts their stamp on you, saying ‘She's done this, so let's give her a chance at that.' Then it starts. It's a very slow process."
And Lucia, one of the great plum roles for lyric coloratura sopranos, is a great next step for Gilmore. Until the 1950s, though, the opera itself had acquired a reputation as little more than a bel canto showcase for light, chirpy sopranos with little interest in drama. Maria Callas changed all that in the mid-1950s with strongly dramatic performances. Joan Sutherland sang the role at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in 1959 and then later in 1961 as her debut at the Met. Since then, successful Lucias have had that combination of coloratura fireworks and dramatic heat, notably for the opera's "Mad Scene."
"I respect and observe as much of the dramatic intention as possible," Gilmore says. "But at the same time, I have to be realistic about my voice, its limitations. And I know why people will come to see me at the opera, just for high notes, basically. It's a balance between the dramatic aspect and the vocal fireworks."