Special to the OC Register

March, 2004

Laura Claycomb still owns the little red shirt and hat that memorialize the loss the Bay Area’s tourist trade suffered when her just-launched opera career bagged its first big break.

Twenty-four and only a month out of the San Francisco Opera’s star-making Adler program, Claycomb had a week to kill before flying to New York to audition for roles. Why not, she thought, get into tip-top shape by wheeling tourists around Fisherman’s Wharf on a pedicab?

“I rode my bike all the time in San Francisco, so I was used to the hills,” the demonstrative diva explained over decaf tea last week at Opera Pacific’s offices. “I just wasn’t used to carrying two people behind me. . . . It was all uphill– and very fat tourists. I didn’t get that many people either. . . .and you had to rent out the bike for $30-$40 a day. I lost so much money!”

Fortunately for her and the tourist industry Claycomb was able to walk away from that gig and her New York tour when Switzerland’s Grand Théâtre de Genève offered her their indisposed star’s lead role as Giulietta in Bellini’s I Capuleti e I Montecchi. Claycomb exploited the break to the hilt, and, riding a tide of warm and sometimes ecstatic notices, was soon performing on Europe’s premiere venues, including La Scala, the Paris stages, and the Salzburg Festival.

Both the slightly uncanny pedicab story and the ebullient manner of its telling speak volumes about the soprano who will be bringing the same personality and gifted versatility to the role of Cunegonde in Opera Pacific’s production of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide next week.

In the decade since her aborted debut as a rickshaw driver, the Texas-born Claycomb has built a considerably more impressive career as one of the most promising coloratura sopranos of her generation. Critics have fallen over themselves praising not only her supremely sure, silvery tone (or as she memorably puts it, “I’m about floaty, floaty–and precision”)–but also the acting flair that brings alive roles too often and easily caricatured. And though Claycomb has risen to glory performing bel canto composers like Bellini and Donizetti, she has also built up an unusually broad repertoire in both the Baroque (Handel and Bach) and modern directions (Ligeti and Stravinsky), not to mention her adventurous recital catalog.

But despite occasional U.S. appearances, America remained mostly unconquered territory for Claycomb until 2001-2002 when she stole the show from Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky in Houston Grand Opera’s production of Verdi’s Rigoletto and then repeated the larceny by upstaging Deborah Voigt in San Francisco Opera’s Ariadne auf Naxos.

Now teetering expectantly between those past triumphs and present milestones – which include feature stories in two of the world’s biggest opera magazines and the CD release of the San Francisco Symphony’s Mahler Symphony No. 4 featuring her as soloist–Claycomb seems to sense that her career is at a crossroads. “I feel like I’ve done great things in my career and . . . worked with wonderful people, and I’ve done all the things that I could have dreamed of doing. . . . And yet, I’m still, ‘what is the next step?’ . .. This is the point in my life where I feel that I need to make a big step right now, and I’m not quite sure what that is.”

One big step is obviously Candide. In crafting his ambitious 1956 operetta about an eternal optimist tested by a flood of misfortunes, Bernstein tried to transform Voltaire’s original satire into a coherent musical drama by enlisting the help of such literary giants as Lillian Hellman and Richard Wilbur. After 40 years and seven different performing versions his success remains problematic.

One challenge that Candide poses for any company is segueing effectively between the operetta’s farflung scenes in Germany, Lisbon, Paris, and South America. Director Jeffrey Lentz has solved that by relying on a clever series of visual projections that allow rapid-fire scene changes. “It’s better than a music video,” Claycomb promises. “The production is really gorgeous. I’ve never seen anything like this.”

A second challenge is the role of Cunegonde itself, Candide’s lover. Often played one-dimensionally, Claycomb hopes to “develop her character a bit more out of the one-sided kind of “Funny Girl” that most people see her as, or the Airhead . . . which is hard because you’re playing against a long tradition of what a lot of people have done with the part.”

Another hurdle is the operatta’s spoken dialog, about which Claycomb admits some nervousness: “my challenge of the year.” Performing opposite Candide veteran Richard Troxell in the title role and under the baton of Bernstein protégé John DeMain will naturally help.

Then again, any challenges Claycomb faces in Candide will pale in comparison to hauling overnourished tourists up San Francisco’s hills. Tourism’s loss has been the opera world’s gain.