Lisette Oropesa: ‘I’m glad I wasn’t thrust into superstardom’

American soprano talks of Vienna audiences and opera in a time of pandemic precautions

Opera is a glamorous undertaking, right? And opera singers lead a high-flying lifestyle. Not so fast. This is 2020. Everyone is affected by Covid-19. Even Lisette Oropesa, who garners glowing responses wherever she goes.

When I call the American soprano, she is in Vienna, singing Konstanze in Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail. Yes. There are countries working hard to keep the arts alive, desspite of the constraints of social distancing and the many other complications of keeping Covid-19 at bay.

What’s it like, then, working in a regular opera production during the world’s worst pandemic for over a century?

“The first thing is that we have to take a Covid test every couple of days,” Oropesa says. “That’s not much of a big deal. We come in and get a nasal swab or a throat swab and that’s it. No one is allowed inside the building if they are not staff and if they have not tested negative. I can’t bring a guest. I can’t bring my manager. I can’t bring my husband. If they’re not specifically approved. Because, within the building, we all wear masks and do our best to maintain social distancing.”


Those rules fall away once the rehearsal starts. “Then we take our masks off and don’t practise social distancing, because we’re doing a proper production, as in holding hands, standing and singing next to each other. For that reason we have to be very, very vigilant that everybody who is on stage with us is tested. But any other time we’re in the building we wear our masks and try to avoid contact.

“The other thing that we have to do is maintain a ledger of every person that we’ve been in contact with every day. If you spend more than 15 minutes with someone, you have to write their name down, just so that if there is a positive test, we have contacts who can be traced.”

Audiences must fill out contact-tracing details, too. “Every person who comes in and out of that building is being traced. Which I think is great. Because if and when we’ve had a positive case pop up, of which there have been a couple, they’re able to isolate those people. And anyone who was in contact with those people has to have a test, and if they’re positive they have to quarantine, so that there are no positive cases in the house. For that I feel very safe, I feel very appreciative.”

Even with the precautions, it's not all plain sailing

That thoroughness is why Oropesa hasn't been able to come here for her much-anticipated Irish debut in the closing concert of Wexford Festival Opera. She's replaced in Sunday 18th's online concert with orchestra by two singers, Irish soprano Claudia Boyle and Italian tenor Pietro Adaini, both of whom were in Wexford for the festival's opening concert of Rossini's Petite messe solennelle.

“The issue,” she says, “is that I can’t travel. I can’t really go outside of my designated rounds, especially now that Ireland is in the next stage. Even Austria has new measures every so often. Even people wanting to go to weddings are not allowed to leave the production until the production is over. Please and thank you! Unfortunately I’m bound right now to this job and the reason is so that we can do a proper production.

“I don’t want to put myself at risk. I don’t want to put my colleagues at risk. I certainly wouldn’t want to have done all this work and then not get to sing because I’ve brought a positive case to the house. That’s where we stand at the moment.”

Even with the precautions, it’s not all plain sailing. “Because once in a while there’s huge anxiety. That’s something singers have to deal with, even without Covid-19. A lot of singers are quite neurotic about getting sick. They hear a cough or a sneeze and right away go home and take vitamins. We were all kind of neurotic enough as it was.

“But, yes. The idea that now we are in close quarters, you just have to trust that you’re negative and everyone else around you is negative, and at the time it’s okay to touch and sing close to each other. But it’s still a tiny bit never-wracking. A few times I’ll be in rehearsal and I’ll feel fine, I’ll feel like we’re back in old times. And then, for a split second, I’ll remember, oh, yeah, wait, this is 2020, there’s a virus out there. Boom! Stand back! Get away!”

She gives the impression of leading a hermit-like existence, avoiding in-person get-togethers and restaurants. “There might be people having a great social life in Vienna. I’m not one of them. I’d rather be working for now and just wait until all this is over and move on from there.”

'For a lot of American artists in particular, it's very, very, very scary'

After Vienna, the schedule on Oropesa’s website is blank until January. She’s lost “a ton” of work, but still regards herself as one of the lucky ones.

“I’m in a position where I had contracts going out five years. Not everybody is in that position. Some people are teaching, doing master classes with universities or online. I’ve done all of that myself. Some people are giving virtual concerts for free, and streaming, and working on their online presence. Some people are just doing different things altogether, side jobs, driving for Uber, delivering for UPS. Whatever.

“It’s a really scary time. I feel really bad for people, especially if they’re the only breadwinner and they have kids and are in the States, where there’s no socialised medicine so things are not paid for if you do get sick, and we don’t have any kind of a government stimulus that’s worth a damn, I’m sorry to say. For a lot of American artists in particular, it’s very, very, very scary.”

The picture I have of her career is that, from a pattern of steady rise, it suddenly rocketed. Is that how she sees it?

“Yes. I’m glad I wasn’t thrust into superstardom or anything like that at a very young or maybe immature stage of my career. I’m very happy there was a long, slow burn – a time to build up my repertoire, my languages, my stamina, and whatever form of routine you can possibly have before things started to really take off for me. I’m happy for that.”

Part of her current happiness comes from the experience of the Vienna audiences

The turning point was singing Lucia di Lammermoor at the Teatro Real in Madrid just three years ago. “The right artist needs to do the right role at the right time in their life, and happen to be heard by the right people. As they always say, preparation makes opportunity, and that’s the equation for success. You can prepare all your life and never have the opportunity for anyone to really hear what you’re doing and appreciate it. And then you can have lots of opportunities and never be prepared for them, and you won’t have the success either. You really need both.

“I felt like getting a chance to sing that Lucia . . . gave me a chance to express all the good things I had been building up, and it was the right people who had a chance to hear it, and I had the right reception. It became rather well known, because there was a broadcast. So not only was it received well in the house, it kind of became a global success for me.” (Oropesa’s  complete landmark performance is available on YouTube.)

I remind her of the title of an interview she gave – “You do get better at even the things you’re terrible at, if you practise” – and ask for an example from her own life. She offers athletics.

“I have always been a very poor athlete. I’m still a poor athlete. I’m just a stubborn athlete. I’m not a natural athlete by any means. When I decided that I was going to try and run regularly and find some exercise that was regular for me, I practised it and I became better at it. My body finally started to get used to the suffering, if you will. And now it’s something that I thoroughly enjoy.

“I don’t believe that just because you practise at something that you’re going to become great. But you become better. You might fulfil your own personal potential if you just work on it. Athletics is probably the thing I practise the hardest to not be terrible at.” Oropesa doesn’t mention the number of marathons she’s completed. But her description on her Twitter account is “Opera singer, Marathoner, vegan, happy!”

Part of her current happiness comes from the experience of the Vienna audiences. Social distancing limits their numbers but not their enthusiasm. “Everyone in the audience is there because they really want to be there. In a lot of ways they put themselves at risk to be there. They’re showing their support and their desire to still enjoy the artform.

“The Staatsoper normally sells out every night. It’s one of the most popular houses in Europe. The audiences go crazy with applause. You wouldn’t know it’s just 50 per cent. Each person counts for two.”

Claudia Boyle on Rossini’s Petite messe solennelle

“I sang in the festival’s opening performance of Rossini’s Petite messe solennelle. It was extremely emotional. Not just because the work is beautiful, but also the experience of being back in a rehearsal room, doing what you love, and because of it being dedicated to the victims of Covid in Ireland. It was a glimpse of normality and it made me realise what we’ve been missing. We’re all craving normality.

“I’m absolutely looking forward to Sunday’s concert. I’m determined more than ever to make music again. It’s like a drug. Now that I’ve had the first hit, I cannot wait. When Rosetta [Cucchi, the festival’s artistic director] asked me, I almost interrupted her to say yes. It’s a real treat, after being starved for so long.”

Waiting for Shakespeare . . . The Festival in the Air is online at