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Roland Wood as Scarpia and Sinéad Campbell-Wallace as Tosca in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Tosca.Michael Cooper/Canadian Opera Company

Tosca is one of the most cinematic of all operas, with a gripping plot and a fascinating cast of characters. Set in 19th-century Rome during the Napoleonic wars, the work has an emotional immediacy keenly reflected in Giacomo Puccini’s melodic, leitmotif-strewn score.

The title character is an actress who loves a painter, Cavaradossi. In the opening scene, he aids an escaped political prisoner, Angelotti, before they are forced to confront Baron Scarpia – the brutal chief of police who lusts after Tosca and tortures her beloved in an attempt to extort information.

Puccini’s work (inspired by Victorien Sardou’s play) premiered in 1900 and has since become one of the most regularly performed operas across the classical world. Musicologist Joseph Kerman snippily described it as a “shabby little shocker” in the 1950s, but as sopranos Sinéad Campbell-Wallace and Keri Alkema point out, there’s a myriad of rich material sitting beneath its melodramatic surface.

Campbell-Wallace and Alkema share the role of Tosca in the current Canadian Opera Company presentation, a revival of the 2008 Paul Curran production. The two singers have a long history with the work: Campbell-Wallace has sung the role in Dublin, London, Glasgow, and Regensburg (Germany); meanwhile, Alkema’s Tosca has graced the stages of Frankfurt, London, Washington, and the previous COC presentation in 2017 (she shared the role with Adrienne Pieczonka).

The opera is often presented as overwrought and cartoonish. But in an industry which has largely been untouched by the #MeToo movement, Campbell-Wallace and Alkema spoke with The Globe and Mail about whether it’s time to present Tosca in a more immediate – and human – light.

How have your perceptions of the character and the opera changed?

SCW: Every time I come back to this role it changes; I find something new in every production. I find that if I have a good director, they help me find something either through the language – discovering a nuance I hadn’t picked up on – or in their own perceptions of the character. I’ve found that my Tosca matures, psychologically and emotionally, from one production to the next.

KA: Before the coronavirus pandemic I was going non-stop; then the pandemic hit, and I didn’t sing. I did start a podcast, Screaming Divas, with Sondra Radvanovsky and did more talking than singing, but when I came back to Tosca, I realized I was nine years older than the first time I did it, and I was – and am – going through perimenopause and the music doesn’t sit the same way as it did prepandemic. So, I’ve had to retrain my voice and body.

#MeToo has given the behaviour of the villain, Baron Scarpia, a recognizable immediacy. How did the movement alter your approach to the material, and more broadly, the industry?

SCW: Certainly #MeToo changed how I view both Tosca and Scarpia. This piece is set over a century ago, but it’s so relevant. He’s anyone: a boss, a colleague, an artistic director … we have all encountered someone like him along the way through most industries. What that experience does is really imbue you as a performer with the reality of how up-to-date Puccini’s work is.

KA: There are still some conductor-tyrants even after #MeToo. I don’t see the purpose of having someone who doesn’t want to collaborate. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be doing, making music?

SCW: I’ve been lucky in that sense, but with directors, sometimes I’ve had to fight for my interpretation. This is my fifth Tosca production – I’ve only ever had male directors, and I would love to work with a female director on Tosca because I think … wait, Keri is saying, “No!”

KA: I always thought, “Females in the room, girl power, finally!” Once you reach a certain level it’s usually just you surrounded by men all the time and so when (there is a woman present), you think, “Oh great!” but … there have been issues with females.

SCW: Some male directors seem to want to give Tosca a victim complex. In the opera’s first scene with her, it was once said to me that she “has to come in absolutely hysterical, crazy, completely off the wall and unhinged,” and I said, “Hang on a second, why? She’s heard someone in the room with her lover; she’s not being hysterical or crazy, she’s being real.”

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Keri Alkema as Tosca and Stefano La Colla as Cavaradossi.Michael Cooper/Canadian Opera Company

Tosca has been described as rational. How do you balance that quality with Puccini’s passionate writing for her?

SCW: I’m a very passionate woman and I am a very rational woman; I live it every day! People are multidimensional; everything is possible. We need to start thinking of Tosca as a real person.

KA: I wonder how Judi Dench or Meryl Streep would carry themselves as Tosca. These are the women I think about when I walk onstage. Tosca knows how to play the game and really, that’s most women, isn’t it? We’ve had to play chess games around a million different people trying to get our clothes off. Tosca knows how to negotiate all of that.

So how do you transmit those inner ideas out to a large auditorium?

KA: The best thing a director ever told me is that stillness is my greatest power. I didn’t trust that when I was younger; I felt I always had to be busy and have people looking at me. I was told to sing and use my voice and face – that’s more vulnerable than flailing about.

SCW: I remember a piece of advice at college from someone who said, “Take the audience to you, don’t push yourself out to them.” That idea of being still and of making the audience lean in – there’s something in that.

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