Life in the lyrico-spinto zone: Victoria Litherland makes Seattle Opera debut as Manon

Victoria Litherland is more than just another pretty voice.

The lyrico-spinto soprano is girding herself to sing the title role in Seattle Opera's alternate cast for its upcoming production of Giacomo Puccini's "Manon Lescaut."

"This is a honker," said Litherland, who is making her Seattle Opera debut. "This is like a marathon in a way, both in Manon's role and Des Grieux'. As [Seattle Opera's general director] Speight Jenkins said, he can't find people to sing this thing."

Manon is a strenuous role, both vocally and dramatically, that requires the voice of a lyrico-spinto, which has the youthful delicacy and agility of a lyric soprano backed by the power of a dramatic soprano.

"A lyrico-spinto's voice is less than a dramatic soprano and more than a lyric soprano," Litherland said. "Our voices have the ability to float or sound dramatic."

Although Litherland notes that lyric sopranos are often cast in lyrico-spinto roles these days, she says she doesn't "think lyrics are strong enough for spinto roles."

The role of Manon, for example, cannot be effectively sung by a lyric soprano. With the orchestra often playing what the voice is singing, the muscle of a lyrico-spinto is required for Manon to be heard above the instruments. From the snippet of song that escaped Litherland as she illustrated a point during this interview, she has a lovely lyrico-spinto voice that does indeed hover with seeming effortlessness while still packing the requisite punch to cleave through an orchestra.

Part of what makes singing the role of the beautiful, young Manon a challenge dramatically is getting us to like her as a person. Manon initially casts aside Des Grieux, the good-looking but poor man she loves, in favor of a life of luxury with a rich man.

"I had trouble with her at first because she looks to be a gold digger and artificial," Litherland said, "but she's absolutely sincere. She means every word she says in every second. She loves Des Grieux passionately. She loves the things riches give her passionately. She's in the moment."

Reading the novel on which the opera "Manon Lescaut" is based offered further insights. "She's certainly afraid of not having money, and who isn't? [Her leaving] Des Grieux [isn't] because she doesn't love him. In the novel, it talks about not being able to survive, and she likes what jewels bring her: dancing parties and really pretty things."

One of the keys to Manon's character is understanding the limited options for women in those days. "We live in a time when women can take care of ourselves. Manon didn't have any means except her beauty."

In Litherland's opinion, Manon shouldn't be that foreign to today's audiences. "I knew a Manon in college. She was very cute and had every man wrapped around her finger. She had an older man buying her things. Manon is not so rare."

Litherland has a wealth of expe-rience with Puccini, particularly reprising the title role of "Tosca" for opera companies ranging from Teatro Lirico d'Europa to the Dallas Opera.

"My husband says I am Tosca, and I am sometimes a passionate, jealous woman," Litherland admitted.

The soprano sees several traits in common between the characters of Tosca and Manon:."Like Tosca, Manon believes she can manipulate everyone. Both have a feeling of invincibility, but both turn out to be vulnerable. Both are so sincere."

In order to carry the audience beyond the personal failings of Tosca and Manon, Litherland maintains both women must be so incredibly charming that there is no choice but to fall in love with them. Litherland says Puccini does 90 percent of that work for her in "Manon Lescaut": "If I just do what he says and do it with joy, you can't help but fall in love her."

Litherland loves singing Puccini both because of his stunning music and the way he portrayed his hero-ines. "He really did give them strength. He was kind to them, and they're so accessible."

Freelance writer Maggie Larrick is the former editor of the News.

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