As the plot thickens in Psycho, Norman Bates delivers a foreboding understatement: "We all go a little mad sometimes." It's meant as a general — albeit creepy, in context — assessment of life. But if you are an operatic soprano, going mad comes with the job.
The operatic repertoire features several mad scenes of note. The next two weekends, a pair of University of Kentucky sopranos will tackle one of opera's most iconic scenes of a woman going insane as they take on the title role in Gaetano Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor.
For Lucia, "the mad scene is a release for all the torments she's had to deal with the last several months," says Megan McCauley, one of the sopranos who will share the title role in the 1830s Italian opera.
Darla Diltz, the other Lucia, says, "It's finding a balance between being angry and delusional, which is really happy. I have to remind myself that if I was really crazy, I wouldn't always be mad."
Lucia is a victim of circumstances, forced to marry a man she does not love so that her family can maintain its home and position. To make that happen, Lucia's brother has tricked her and her true love, Edgardo, into believing that they have renounced each other. Lucia goes through with the marriage, but as soon as she gets in the bedroom after the wedding, she stabs her new husband to death. She comes back out to the wedding party, her dress and the knife bloody and her mind occupied by wild hallucinations.
It's 15 minutes that look ripe for theatrics. But the singers and director say they have to remember that this is opera. They have to be able to sing the soaring melody while moving erratically around the stage.
"The underlying current for the mad scene is cardio," Diltz says. "It's very difficult stamina-wise, because there's really not a break in it. So you really have to negotiate dramatically how much you're going to move so that the voice stays settled."
Director Richard Kagey says the key to succeeding in the scene is to plot major movements for times when Lucia is not singing, then confine movement when she is.
"Interestingly, both of these ladies move too much," he said. "I've had to come back to both of them and say, you're going to wear yourself out, girl."
Raising the degree of difficulty is that the scene is performed while ascending and descending a staircase.
And then there's the matter of the two high E-flats, which the singer is supposed to hit at the end of the two sections of the mad scene.
Diltz says the E-flats, which are at the top of a soprano's range, "go in and out of fashion every 20 years or so." He notes that some sopranos, including the legendary Maria Callas, have left them out and found other ways to dramatically punctuate the scene, be it vocally or through a physical action.
McCauley says that for her, the E-flats have become a natural part of the performance.
"I get really excited when we get to that part, because I know that it's there," she says.
Both singers say the biggest challenge it to avoid going too mad.
"You have to be careful not to do that on stage," Diltz says. "You have to do that in rehearsal, and I always try to find one rehearsal where I unleash a little bit more emotionally and see what happens to my voice. You have to know how far you can go, and it's more real that way."