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Lulu's Back in Town

[whitespace] Eilana Lappalainen Platinum Diva: Outfitted like Jean Harlow herself, soprano Eilana Lappalainen turns heads in 'Lulu.'

Former San Jose diva Eilana Lappalainen plays operatic femme fatale

By Michael J. Vaughn

THE ONE SINGER most likely to graduate from Opera San José's first decade to become an international star had to be soprano Eilana Lappalainen. Blessed with striking good looks, natural stage presence, a huge voice and a name better sung than spoken (ay-LAW-nah LOP-puh-LIE-nen, 3/4 time, allegro), the Finnish girl from Toronto was headed places from the beginning.

Lappalainen returns to the Bay Area this month as an officially proclaimed femme fatale, playing Alban Berg's Lulu in San Francisco Opera's Femmes Fatales Festival. The performance also marks her debut in the hallowed confines of the War Memorial Opera House, which was still being renovated when she appeared with San Francisco Opera in 1996, singing Rosalinda in Johann Strauss' Die Fledermaus at the Civic Auditorium.

"The Femmes Fatale thing is rather interesting," says Lappalainen, seated at the southernmost of a hundred tables in the War Memorial's cavernous buffet room. "I have Bob Mackie designing my costumes! I went down to the shop the other day for a fitting, and I came out as Jean Harlow."

When asked about her own femme fatale-ity, the former Miss Santa Clara County breaks into her running theme: It's all about the work. "People see something from a distance--and a lot of people never traveled anywhere in the world--so yes, being an international opera singer is a little exotic," she says. "I'm not going to change their perception for them. But I've never tried to be anything other than what I am. I focus on my work. If I didn't sing Lulu, then Bob Mackie wouldn't be making my dresses."

The story goes that sometime in the late '70s, mezzo-soprano Irene Dalis, recently retired from the Metropolitan Opera, was invited to a colleague's house to hear a pretty 16-year-old blonde from San Jose's Leland High School. The girl sang an aria from Saint-Saëns' Samson et Delila. Dalis immediately called voice teacher (and future Opera San José music director) David Rohrbaugh and said, "I want you to hear someone." So when did Dalis know that Lappalainen was going to be a star?

"Almost from day one," Dalis replies. "She had so many qualities that you can't teach. She's a singing actress; she has that innate ability to make direct contact with the audience. What she had besides was total commitment. She could make music out of anything, and she's the type that is never satisfied with herself."

Dalis' San Jose State University Opera Workshop evolved into Opera San José in 1984, and four years later, Lappalainen became, with baritone Douglas Nagel, one of Opera San José's first resident artists. During the next four seasons, the soprano sang a remarkable 16 roles, and became San Jose's second diva.

San Jose's first diva is careful not to take too much credit, however, for her student's subsequent success. "We sent her out into the world with a lot of tools," says Dalis. "She is, however, the kind of performer who was going to make it with us or without us. I've told her over and over, 'Eilana, you're going to be our claim to fame.' "

WHEN HER RESIDENCY ended in 1992, Lappalainen headed for Mexico City, where she played Cio-Cio-San in Puccini's Madama Butterfly and camped out in Maria Callas' old dressing room. The years since have included performances in the U.S., Canada, Finland, Poland and Germany, where she currently resides outside Berlin and performs with the Anhaltisches Theater Dessau.

For a hard-working, challenge-driven soprano, nothing could be finer than Lulu. Berg's opera is written with Arnold Schoenberg's infamous 12-tone row, which throws out standard scales, allows equal weight to all 12 tones within an octave--and gives singers migraines. The opera also demands that the prima donna remain onstage for most of its nearly four-hour length.

"I'll never sing anything more difficult than this," says Lappalainen, pulling a prerehearsal diet soda out of her bag and offering me half. Then she chuckles. "She sings duets with everyone, because they're all her lovers. And even when I have a break, it's not a break--it's a costume change. There are 10 to 11 costume changes."

The light at the end of Lappalainen's tunnel is Lulu herself, whom she calls the most developed character she's ever performed. "They often make femmes fatales into bad women, but really they're just women who gain attraction. Lulu was an orphan, rescued from the streets at age 13, and she survived through the help of men. She didn't know what right and wrong were. These men around me love me, but they don't love me--they see an image. It's interesting, too, that each of her lovers calls her by a different name, but only she called herself Lulu. So who really cared about Lulu?"

Eilana Lappalainen appears in Lulu June 6, 9, 19 and 23 at 7pm and June 28 at 1pm at the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$140. (415/864-3330)

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From the June 4-10, 1998 issue of Metro.

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