Gaetano Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor is a harrowing tale of passion, betrayal and murder. For the late University of Kentucky voice professor Gail Robinson, it also was a Cinderella story.
Lucia, whose dreams of true love are destroyed by a brother who married her off to a man she does not love, was not necessarily Robinson's favorite role. That honor could go to Gilda in Rigoletto, another coloratura soprano showcase, or Gretel in Hansel and Gretel.
But Lucia was a key role for Robinson in launching her career on the Metropolitan Opera stage and around the world.
Robinson died Oct. 19 after a long battle with rheumatoid arthritis. After retiring from the stage, she became the director of the Metropolitan Opera's Young Artist Development Program and National Council Auditions before she took a distinguished chair in voice at UK in 1999.
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Last year, she was forced to retire from teaching because of her illness, and a gala performance was planned for March in her honor. That gala eventually became a full-scale production of Lucia, which opens Friday for a two-weekend run at Lexington Opera House.
"Without this breakthrough, this Cinderella role, she probably still would have had a fine career, but maybe not at the level she did," says Robinson's widower, Henno Lohmeyer.
Lucia is a famously demanding role, in both stamina and range.
That, Lohmeyer says, made it particularly impressive when Robinson came out of nowhere and nailed it.
She did it twice.
The first time was in 1969, when the Jackson, Tenn., native made her professional operatic debut as Lucia at Louisville's Brown Theatre.
Lohmeyer quotes a review in The Courier-Journal of that performance: "Seldom have I heard such a spontaneous ovation. ... It is a tribute to the Brown Theatre's solid construction that the roof did not fall in."
Then, in spring 1970, Robinson was understudying Lucia for Roberta Peters on the Metropolitan Opera's annual spring tour. On May 27, Peters called in ill, and the company called on Robinson.
The Detroit Free Press, Lohmeyer says, declared, "a star is born," and shortly after that, Robinson was signed to a leading-lady contract at the Met.
"She always talked to us about being prepared," says Darla Diltz, a former Robinson student, who will share the role of Lucia with Megan McCauley (Diltz will sing the Friday performances and McCauley will sing Saturdays). "So many careers are made from moments like that."
Diltz had performed Lucia in Knoxville before coming to UK, and she had questions for Robinson about whether she should have done it so early in her career.
But those conversations, Diltz says, focused on her, not Robinson.
"She really didn't talk about herself a lot," Diltz says. "She was modest. You could look around the room and see pictures of her with (soprano Montserrat) Cabelle, (soprano Joan) Sutherland, (tenor Luciano) Pavoratti, (Met general director Rudolf) Bing, and a beautiful framed invitation from (President Richard M.) Nixon to sing at the White House. Gail had a quiet confidence that only comes from experience."
That experience showed Robinson how to approach her own interpretation of the role.
"During the time Gail was singing Lucia, Joan Sutherland dominated the role," says Tedrin Blair Lindsay, a musicologist and vocal coach at UK. "She was a technical wizard who could bring her technical virtuosity to the role in a stunning way."
Lindsay also has heard recordings of Robinson's Lucia.
"It was stunningly rendered," he says. "She understood the heartbreak of this woman, and that was the underpinning of her entire performance."
Lohmeyer says an element of that is that Robinson understood what it was like to live in pain. Her illness started earlier in her life, and "this lady was never without pain."
The other key to Robinson's interpretation, Lohmeyer says, was that she never tried to dress up the role with a lot of histrionic gestures and movement the way some singers do.
"She always followed the composer," Lohmeyer says. "She always said everything you need is there in the music."
Looking ahead to her own performance, Diltz says she knows she has to come with her own interpretation.
"There may be one or two things in there she might not like," Diltz says. "But overall, I think she would enjoy it.
"The main reason I did this is I would not pass up an opportunity to honor Gail."