Might as well ask how many girls Mozart's Don Giovanni has in his little black book. "I couldn't tell you how many," says Amara, soprano emeritus at the Metropolitan Opera, and artistic director of New Jersey Association of Verismo Opera in Fort Lee.
Rather than enumerate them, as Mozart does in his famous "catalog aria," it might be easier just to name them.
"Well listen, I had to have 'Aida,' 'Tosca,' 'Forza,' " she says, thinking. "Also 'Trovatore,' 'Marriage of Figaro,' 'Così Fan Tutte,' 'Pagliacci,' 'Cavelleria Rusticana,' 'Butterfly'..."
That's one reason Amara, celebrating her 90th birthday today, and her 20th anniversary with Verismo this year, became — sometimes to her annoyance — the Met's reliable pinch-hitter. When this or that diva had a last-minute cancellation, it was often Amara to the rescue. "They would say, 'Lucine can sing it,' " she recalls.
Not that Amara wasn't a Met star in her own right. She made a sensational debut in 1950 as the offstage Celestial Voice in Verdi's "Don Carlo," and she played many of the great lead and supporting roles during her 41-year career there: Aida, Cio-Cio San in "Madama Butterfly," Mimi in "La Bohème," Donna Elvira in "Don Giovanni," Micaëla in "Carmen." She logged 882 Met performances, 57 radio broadcasts, and recordings ranging from "Pagliacci" (twice) to "Lohengrin."
But she has other memories, too. Of being roused from her sickbed with a fever of 102 to play in "Die Meistersinger" because no one else could. Of subbing midperformance for the star of "La Forza del Destino" (she had had a coughing fit) so abruptly that Amara went on in her patent leather boots because she didn't have time to change into sandals. Of playing a last-minute "Manon Lescaut" and suddenly forgetting the next line. "I went blank," she recalls. "Harry Theyard was my tenor. I asked him quietly, 'You wouldn't happen to know what my next line is?' He said, 'I don't know, babe. But I think it starts with quì (here).' ''
All of which may explain why, unlike many professional metro-area musicians, Amara never made her home in North Jersey. "I always had to live in Manhattan because I had to be no further than 10 minutes from the opera house," she says.
Her role with Verismo, the North Jersey opera society founded in 1989, has been in large part to vet (along with her daughter, singer Evelyn La Quaif, manager/director of the company) the singers who appear in their twice-yearly productions. Their "Carmen" can be seen at the Bergen Performing Arts Center, Englewood at 3 p.m. on April 26.
"We're helping young artists get started," Amara says. "They're singing principal roles in an opera company, fully staged and with orchestra."
She also gives the up-and-comers the benefit of her long stage experience — something that goes beyond mere voice technique. "Verismo" — "truth" — is the late-19th-century opera school that stressed authentic emotions and believable (often working-class, sometimes sordid) situations. What Amara discovered is that many young opera singers have superb vocal training, but little acting sense.
"Their hands are at their sides, and they're standing there like a statue singing," Amara says. "I say to them, 'Why aren't you the character, in the aria you're singing?' " She blames the conservatories. "If you make a gesture, they knock your hands down," Amara says.
Met debut in 1950
Her own musical training began with violin, which she took up at age 10, and her singing in Armenian churches in San Francisco, where Amara (born Armaganian in Hartford, Conn.) moved when she was 12. Amara is a first-generation American — her mother and aunt both survived the Armenian Genocide of 1915, which marks its 100th anniversary this April. "They were put on the march through the desert," she says. "It was bad times."
Amara was an instant hit when she debuted with the Met in November 1950 — she came in the same year as its storied general manager, Sir Rudolf Bing.
"The greatest lyric soprano of our time," The New York Times called her at one point. Within a year, she was acting in Hollywood's "The Great Caruso" (1951) with Mario Lanza — though her comments about the superstar tenor, in interviews, have irked diehard Lanza fans.
Sure, Lanza had a great voice, Amara says. But he had a great ego to match.
"We had to record first, before we filmed," she recalls. "We recorded the whole 'Miserere' scene [from 'Il Trovatore'], and after we went into the listening room to listen. And I must tell you — this was so upsetting to me — he sat there and said, 'Caruso never sounded that good.' Can you believe that?"
From N.Y.C. to N.C.
Outsiders might assume that professional opera, being so grandiose, would be ordered, methodical, a well-oiled machine. But there were also times when it could be seat-of-the-pants crazy. Amara remembers getting a late afternoon phone call in New York — it must have been mid-1980s — begging her to appear that night in "Tosca" in Charlotte, N.C. It was a special anniversary performance; the management was desperate.
"So I got into a cab, got to the Metropolitan so I could get my Tosca costume, got back in the cab, and we got stuck in Friday rush-hour traffic trying to get to JFK," she recalls. "Well, the flight left at 4:10, and we arrived at 4:20. So what do I do? I call to get a [chartered] plane. But the plane is taking off from La Guardia. So … we get the last two seats in a helicopter from JFK to La Guardia. Then we got on the plane, and we sat because it's Friday and all the big planes have to go up before us. Our flight finally took off at 7 o'clock. The performance is at 8. We got there at 9:30, a Volkswagen met us at the airport, and we had a motorcycle police escort to the theater. The curtain went up at 10 o'clock."
Another thing outsiders might assume about opera: Age is no barrier. Hollywood stars may be over-the-hill at 30, but the stout baritone and the matronly soprano are a cliché. It ain't over until you-know-who sings.
Well, Amara is here to tell you that opera is as ageist as anything else. At the age of 50, she found that the Met was easing her into retirement. "I said, 'Is it my voice?,' they said no," she recalls. "I said, 'You're treating me like a football player, you're putting me on the sidelines.' "
Which is how she ended up, in the late 1970s, suing the Met for age discrimination. And winning. She sang there until 1991.
"Everything has to be young, young, young," she says. "Well, you can't have a 21-year-old singing Aida at the Metropolitan. The older you get the more mature your voice is. And then you can do the role of Aida."
"The Record," March 1, 2015