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INTERVIEW: Gifted Mezzo-Soprano Opera Star Anna Tonna Talks "Rival Queens" And Its Jaw-Dropping Slap Scene

T.J. Clemente

Anna Tonna. (Photo: Courtesy Divaria Productions)

Anna Tonna, a gifted mezzo-soprano who has been described by critics as "a born star," was excited to talk about her role in Divaria Productions' Rival Queens, an original biopic opera making its virtual world premiere via Bay Street Theater's online programming starting Thursday, November 12, at 8:00 p.m. Tonna will star as Queen Elizabeth I. In the past, Tonna's performances have been depicted as "full of charm and magnetism with her dark, compact lyric mezzo-soprano." Within seconds of the interview, I understood why.

When asked what excited her most about this project, Tonna said, "Because of COVID we are having to make art and make music and in this case opera in new different creative ways. As performers we are so used to having the audience there, the whole perimeter that you go to a theater and sing for people, you get that energy from people that you sing on stage with collogues and COVID has forced a rethinking of how to sing opera for people, even in these times. So, what most excites me is this new frontier, this new type of opera and type of performing that we are doing in Rival Queens. Instead of us just doing the opera by Donizetti the way it would be done at the Met, they have done this opera Maria Stuarda, but we are doing it like a documentary. It's like a biopic in which we are taking the music, but we are also inserting this other view point of the real queens and who they were as people. I had to read the letters by Elizabeth I of England. We are weaving the music of the opera with the real people and what they felt, how they reacted, and the relationship between the two ladies who were actual cousins who never met. The fact that we are creating something new is exciting to me."

When discussing her favorite moment in the show, Tonna revealed, "Although this is the first time that I have sung this opera, this opera is usually done at really big opera houses. There are certain operas that I have done a lot, but this is the first time I call it my 'quarantine opera' - because I spent the whole summer studying it. I was home, all my jobs were canceled, so I stayed home just learning this one." Anna Tonna is from the Bronx. Actually, very near the beautiful Conservatory of the Botanical Gardens. However, as a child she lived on Long Island in Babylon.

So, her favorite moment in this performance? Tonna said, "This Maria Stuarda is all about the confrontation scene which never happened historically. They never met, but in the opera they do. In the scene, Mary Stuart stands up to Elizabeth and I always call it the slapping scene, but usually no one gets slapped. It's a confrontation scene between her and I alone, speaking and insulting each other. Elizabeth does a big insult towards Mary Stuart and Mary Stuart stands up for herself. Actually, in the filmed part, I do slap her. In our version, there is a slap. There is also a psychological component that goes on that people will see. But, my favorite scene is the confrontation for sure. Remember, our audience is going to see this as a film, we did it like a movie, we went into an audio studio first (in SoHo) and we sang the music. Then, in late September, we filmed it at the Church of the Heavenly Rest in Manhattan."

Just to give everyone a breath of the work of Anna Tonna, one must mention she starred in the North American premiere of L'Equivoco Stravagante, and the Rossini Gesellschaft described her as "a mezzo heroine who knows how to sing Rossini." New York Magazine wrote a complimentary review of Tonna lauding she was "showing off her warm, secure mezzo-soprano to maximum advantage."

She recently played the role of Laura Adorno with both the Brno State Opera in the Czech Republic and the New Jersey Association of Verismo Opera. Other performances include Clarina in Rossini's La Cambiale di Matrimonio for Little Opera Zamora; recitals in Madrid, Italy, Vienna, and Lisbon; and a Zarzuela concert at the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg.

In New York, she will be featured at the Hispanic Society Museum & Library and the Americas Society. Finally, as part of the Centennial Anniversary dedicated to Leonard Bernstein, she performed in the composer's Songfest for Maverick Concerts.

She is one talented woman, so make sure to catch her performance in Rival Queens. In addition to the Bay Street viewing, the Rites of Spring Festival will host a Rival Queens screening on Saturday, November 14 at 5:00 p.m.

For more information about the Bay Street screening, visit www.baystreet.org. For more information about Rival Queens, visit www.divariaproductions.com.

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