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Photo by Srdjan SimonivicFor the role of Delilah in French composer Camille Saint-Saëns' Samson & Delilah, opera companies need a first-class mezzo-soprano who can really strut her stuff—at least they do if they want the celebrated Old Testament tale of war, lust, betrayal and long hair to work.
Fortunately for Opera Pacific, which brings Samson & Delilah to the Orange County Performing Arts Center for a four-date run beginning Tuesday, they have cast one of the international opera world's most radiant figures. And fortunately for Milena Kitic, she does not have to worry about the rigors of the road taking its toll on her voice: she lives right here, dividing her time between homes in Pasadena and Newport Beach that she shares with her husband, entrepreneur (and former Yugoslavian prime minister) Milan Panic.
Having sung professionally since 1989, the Belgrade-born Kitic has earned accolades for her rich, versatile pipes and impassioned stage demeanor, especially as the title character in Bizet's Carmen (she garnered raves for the role with the Los Angeles Opera last fall). Kitic made her U.S. debut in 1998, playing Eboli in Verdi's Don Carlo, and her repertoire now includes more than two dozen roles. Although she sang "Samson, recherchant ma présence" (from Act 2 of Samson) on her 2002 album, Great Arias for Mezzo-Soprano, her Opera Pacific performance actually marks her stage debut as Delilah.
"I'm really looking forward to it because I think that, like Carmen, this will become one of my signature roles," Kitic says during a brief break from an eight-hour rehearsal. "I've been told that French repertoire really suits my voice, so I think this will be good."
For all of the critical darts that have been thrown at Samson over the years—the libretto is poorly written and disregards crucial elements of the story, the orchestral score lacks truly thrilling melodies—the arias are undeniably among the most beautiful and transcendent you'll ever encounter. Delilah's are particularly lovely and demanding: it takes an able singer such as Kitic, whose delivery is bright and robust in the upper registers and captivatingly sultry in the lower ones, to really make them shine. It also helps when you're playing one of the ultimate temptresses to have the looks to pull it off. Strikingly gorgeous, elegant and lithe, Kitic's physical presence assures she won't have to ham up the seduction of Samson.
"Yeah, I really don't think I'll need to overdo it," she says and laughs, somewhat bashfully. But while she's blessed to have the voice and the beauty, Kitic says that there's so much more that goes into making this performance a success.
"Delilah's emotions are different from act to act. She starts out subtle and lyrical, then grows into the hate and the fury of her revenge. There is a lot of passion, so I need to do a lot of research, getting the videos and the recordings and studying them, and if it's a biblical story like this one, I go back and read it and try to get as much information as I can. You have to be able to find those emotions inside yourself and know the reasons why that character behaves that way, why they sing that way. Otherwise the performance will be superficial."
While revisiting the story, Kitic was struck by the irony that Samson & Delilah, backdropped by the war between the Hebrews and the Philistines of ancient Gaza, bears a strong resemblance to the current conflict between Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East.
"Nothing changes," she says and chuckles, noting the correlation probably won't be lost to many in the audience. "Every single head is different, but some might come with that knowledge and perspective. Some will learn; some will reconfirm what they already think. Our mission is certainly not to sway people one way or the other—it's to present the artistic tradition and let people take away from it what they will."
What Kitic hopes for most, though, is the audience leaving with either a new or re-ignited love of opera. She and her husband have been extremely active in promoting opera throughout OC; the power couple has donated time and money to youth arts groups to help stave off the extinction of the form, especially as its core "mature" audience grays and dies.
"There are a lot of opera fans in Orange County, but if we don't draw in younger people and get them interested when they are just starting to form their tastes and love for the arts, then there's no way opera can survive," she says. "But I see teenagers coming to shows, and I give classes at USC, and I see an enormous amount of college students studying to become opera singers, so there's got to be some interest."
There's no doubting the local interest in Samson & Delilah—all four performances are nearly sold out.
"It's important that even once in a while, people come to the opera and see what it is all about," Kitic says. "It's an event: the singing, the production, the music—it's all so magical, and I know when people experience it, no matter what they think coming in, they usually walk away in love with opera. And both for Americans and people of European origin, like myself, who live in this country and have always had opera as a part of their culture, it's very important to continue the tradition here."
OPERA PACIFIC PRESENTS SAMSON & DELILAH AT THE ORANGE COUNTY PERFORMING ARTS CENTER, 600 TOWN CENTER DR., COSTA MESA, (714) 556-2787. OPENS TUES. THURSDAY, FEB. 24 & FEB. 26, 7:30 P.M.; Feb. 27, 2 & 7:30 P.M. $35-$145.