New York: It lasts just a split second, almost imperceptible in a two-hour score. It’s over too quickly to summon the dogs of the Upper West Side or to break any nearby windows.
But brief as it is, the A above high C that the soprano Audrey Luna reaches in Thomas Ades’ new opera, The Exterminating Angel, is so high, it has never been sung in the 137-year history of the Metropolitan Opera.
High C has been hit by the thousands. D’s and E’s, too, are rousing but not uncommon. F’s have been rarer, and G’s and A flats rarer still.
But a high A — a combination of genetic gifts, rigorous training and psychological discipline over two fragile vocal cords — is monumental, and unprecedented at the Met, according to its archivists.
“There’s a particular thrill about that high coloratura range,” Ades said in a phone interview. “When I hear the conventional high C of a soprano, I want to say, ‘Show us what else you’ve got.’”
As he planned the new opera, he approached Luna, who had already ventured to a high G as the sprite Ariel in Ades’ adaptation of The Tempest at the Met in 2012.
“I’ve practised up to a C above high C in the past,” she said in an interview in her dressing room. “So I know it’s in me. But it’s just nothing I’ve performed on any stage before.”
“When I saw Ariel the first time, it was like a dare,” she added, referring to the Tempest score. “And this is a double-dog dare.”
In The Exterminating Angel, based on the 1962 Luis Bunuel film, Luna plays Leticia, an opera diva who is part of a blue-bloods dinner party, the guests of which find themselves mysteriously unable to leave at the end of the evening. The vocal demands are a workout for almost every performer onstage.
“The note,” Ades said, “the range, the tessitura, is a metaphor for the ability to transcend these psychological and invisible boundaries that have grown up around them.”
Adding to the excitement of the high A is its placement in the score. Unlike in other highflying parts — the imperious Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute, the spunky Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos, the long-suffering title role in Lucia di Lammermoor — there’s little time for Luna to warm up: The A is her very first note, sung before she’s even visible onstage. (She sings it again a short time later, as the party guests, in a surreal portent, leave the stage and re-enter.)
“It’s a moment of arrival,” Ades said. “It had to be on this note.”
Ellen Beach Yaw, born near Buffalo, New York, in 1869, sang a G above C as Lucia in her single Met performance in 1908. The review in The New York Times praised her “flutelike Santos-Dumont notes,” comparing her to a Brazilian aviation pioneer, and added, in a reference to a Wild West gunslinger: “She hit that high G as promised, but it is like Bat Masterson hitting a tomato can with a .44 at four paces.”
The celebrated French soprano Lily Pons sustained a high F in the final mad scene from Lucia — sung, at her Met debut in 1931, “in legitimate note, not bird whistles or falsetto,” according to The New York Post. At the turn of the 20th century, Sibyl Sanderson, as Massenet’s Manon, hit a G, known as her “Eiffel Tower note.” Mado Robin, a French coloratura, was recorded shrilling up to a B flat, but she never sang at the Met.
More recently, Natalie Dessay was known in New York for her crystal-clear G’s as the mechanical doll Olympia in Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann. Just this fall, Erin Morley’s Olympia ornaments brought her up to A flat, a feat Rachele Gilmore achieved in the role at the Met in 2009.
The company admits it is possible that an even higher note could have slipped through the archival cracks. “There’s no record keeping of such things, especially of improvised stuff,” said Peter Clark, the Met’s archivist, who remembers hearing Pons’ F on a radio broadcast as a child. “So it’s not to say that in 1908, say, something higher didn’t happen. But I doubt that it wouldn’t be mentioned somewhere.”