Jill Gardner knows Floria Tosca.
When the accomplished soprano takes the Saroyan Theatre stage for Fresno Grand Opera Thursday, May 7, she will be performing the title role in “Tosca” in her 13th production, more than any other in her career . (That’s counting this co-production with Modesto’s Townsend Opera under a new partnership arrangement as one production.) The role clearly is special to her.
And don’t count her as one of those “melodrama naysayers” who roll their eyes at Tosca’s dramatic tendencies.
“For me, Floria Tosca is not a bitchy, controlling diva,” says the North Carolina resident. “She is a beautiful, warm, talented and loving woman who will not back down when faced with injustice, evil ulterior motives and hate. She will always fight for what she believes in.”
I caught up with Gardner for an email interview while she was rehearsing in Modesto, where “Tosca” is finishing up its run today (Sunday, May 3) at the Gallo Center before heading to Fresno.
Question: Think back to your first “Tosca” you sang in 2010. Set the scene for us.
Answer: I first sang the role of Floria Tosca for Mercury Opera in Rochester, N.Y. in January of 2010. Benton Hess conducted and David Bartholomew directed what was a very traditional production. Following immediately on the heels of this production was my second portrayal of Boston Lyric Opera in October 2010 in which Andrew Bisantz conducted and David Lefkowich directed a revival of Scottish Opera’s production which was set in 1940s Fascist Italy (like this current production of Fresno Grand Opera).
Thus, I had the opportunity in my first 10 performances of this role with both these companies to discover the music and character of Floria Tosca specifically as Puccini conceived her during the politically tumultuous times in Rome in June 1800 and in a creative reinterpretation during the Fascist times of Rome in the 1940s.
This juxtaposition really allowed me to discover her — Floria, the woman — and not just the typical controlling, over-the-top diva which is often portrayed in traditional productions. By the time these two productions were over, I knew the character of Floria Tosca was very much akin to my own personality and soul. A perfect fit vocally, dramatically and temperamentally.
If we compared that first performance to the one in Fresno, what would we notice as different in your portrayal of Floria Tosca in terms of the way you present the character?
Floria Tosca is now what some would call a “signature role” for me as I will have sung the role 35 times upon the completion of this Fresno Grand Opera performance. Some people in our business say you really don’t even begin to truly know a role until you have at least sung her 25 times! So, truth be told, having lived with this role for over five years now, she feels like my twin sister.
Like me, she is a woman deeply in love with an artist who is her equal, a rural woman with a God-given gift of voice that allows her the opportunity to serve God and her country. She is strong, defiant in the face of evil and injustice, and lives by the principles of faith, charity and love. Of course, she is willful with a desperate need to control her circumstances (born out of the insecurities of her own upbringing) but I respect these flaws and try to highlight them in my characterization as coming from her sweet and misunderstood vulnerability.
Both you and Floria Tosca grew up in a rural setting, from a humble background, and had your musical talent discovered early. What kind of insight does this give you into the woman Floria became?
Although Floria’s talent takes her to the heights of society and personal fame, she never abandons her roots in her ascent. In her childhood, Floria Tosca grew up as an orphan in southern Italy, finding her subsistence in being a sheep/goat herder. She was found in the fields by a nunnery who took her in and raised her. While under their tutelage, Floria discovers her voice and musical talent which these Catholic sisters nurtured. Eventually, the Pope blessed her and told her to share her marvelous voice with the world.
Likewise, my upbringing was humble. I grew up in the very rural community of Tobaccoville, N.C., where we raised our own food and grew tobacco in the summers. I discovered my musical talent early and started taking piano lessons when I was five years old. Like Floria, these early years for me nurtured a spirit of “true grit” because my family taught me how to be self-sustaining. They taught me how to live off the land and how to respect nature, outwardly in the world and inwardly through my musical talent which was cultivated in the church as well.
To become a singer at any moment in human history takes a lot of discipline, awareness, hard work and personal tenacity. Thus, I respect and fully identify with Floria Tosca’s true grit, her beauty, her talent and her raw understanding of how to survive that fed her personality, artistic drive and soul to be a singer.
Some critics have written off “Tosca” as melodrama, citing its confused plot and diva-like leading lady. Yet you feel strongly about the love she shares with Mario Cavaradossi. For you, “Tosca” is not reality TV -- it’s reality. Why?
I feel strongly about everything Floria Tosca does!!! And melodrama gets a “bad rap” these days by critics and intellectual elitists because they interpret the real core of melodrama — highly charged dramatic situations in which the characters have very strong, almost exaggerated emotional responses — to be over-the-top, unbelievable and fake. And in the history of “Tosca” interpreters and productions, many bad choices have been made to give these critics reason for judgment. And thus, the opera “Tosca” can be aligned to what we know today as “bad reality TV.”
But in the plot of “Toscao we have an infamous triangle of conflict between Tosca, her lover Mario Cavaradossi and the Chief of Police, Baron Scarpia. And for it to work, you have to have 3 singing actors who truly commit to telling their side of this story in a real, dramatic way. It’s unfortunate that Floria Tosca is in love with a political rebel like Mario Cavaradossi, but I can also completely understand why she is attracted to this “bad” man of wonderful artistic talent, high political ideal and intrigue. She finds in him a soul mate and ultimately someone she wants to love as an equal, not just have an affair. And of course, Scarpia knows he has power over these two lovers and wields it happily and willingly... and thus, in this triangle of highly charged circumstances the story of “Tosca” is born.
Maybe a part of the reason I dearly love the woman of Floria Tosca is because she is so emotionally ready to react to her circumstances – she doesn’t think before she speaks and she certainly doesn’t do what could be called “the politically correct thing”. She will do anything for her lover and to save him from torture. She will even go so far as to murder a man who she feels is a bully and abusing her. Her strength lies not just in her mental acuity but more importantly in her ability to stand up to her adversities and fight. She will not go down easily, she will fight, wrestle and question everything and anyone around her, even God. I, Jill Gardner, have had to face similar tough situations in my personal life and respect the emotional strength and fortitude to follow your own heart and go your own way which is also the path of Floria Tosca. Some may call this melodrama .... I call it life.