The mezzo sings like chocolate

  • Article by: GRAYDON ROYCE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 1, 2010 - 11:17 AM

Roxana Constantinescu makes her debut on the American opera stage in "Cinderella" at the Ordway.

Romanian-born Roxana Constantinescu says Cinderella is a young girl’s dream role.

Photo: Tom Wallace, Star Tribune

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Two years ago, Dale Johnson didn't know that she existed. The Minnesota Opera artistic director was in Europe and an agent ("a good friend of ours") asked if Johnson would mind listening "to this young Romanian mezzo" in the training program at the State Opera of Vienna.

Johnson took the bait because he was indeed looking for a mezzo to play an attractive and stylish match to tenor James Valenti if the Opera ever did "Werther."

However, Johnson's mind expanded with other ideas once he heard Roxana Constantinescu in the great hall in Vienna.

"There's something very special about her, and I was so taken with the sound of her voice," Johnson said. "It's so dark and chocolatey and sensuous."

Returning to Minneapolis, Johnson decided that he was intrigued enough by Constantinescu's voice that he wanted to use her. But it was not for "Werther." It was "Cinderella," Rossini's comic take on the story of a poor girl who ends up marrying the handsome prince.

Constantinescu makes her debut on the American opera stage Saturday in the title role, with tenor John Tessier singing Prince Ramiro.

"I live every little girl's dream," Constantinescu said during a break in her routine the other day -- noting how youngsters identify with Cinderella. She might have been referring to her own career.

Constantinescu tells a sweetly lyrical version of her meeting Johnson.

"Fate decided that Dale Johnson would be in Vienna two years ago," she said. "I sang two arias for him and afterward, he thanked me and said I would hear from him."

Constantinescu has been very busy in Vienna, doing 37 roles over three seasons. After "Cinderella" she returns in December for "Don Giovanni." Then it's back to America, at Dallas in February. Next September, she will sing with the Los Angeles Opera. Although Minnesota marks her opera debut, Constantinescu has sung recitals, notably with the Chicago Symphony. In July, she won critical praise for Queen Jezebel in the Oregon Bach Society's concert of Mendelssohn's "Elijah."

Concerts allow greater intimacy with the audience -- important for someone with Constantinescu's easy charisma. However, many an opera singer has been undone by the theatrical demands. Neither Constantinescu, nor Johnson sounds too worried.

"She is so elegant on stage," he said. "You can teach acting and movement and all that stuff, but she has a natural gracefulness on stage that's kind of like a princess."

The irony is, Constantinescu -- like most mezzos -- routinely plays trouser roles. Getting to put a dress on is a treat. So is singing Rossini.

"He is very precise technically, a rhythmic and musical adventure," she said. "My background enjoys that because I learned percussion as my main instrument."

The sound of chocolate

Constantinescu grew up in Bucharest, the daughter of atomic engineers. The only musician in the family, she studied percussion, then piano and began singing opera when she was 19. She tells the story that when she was nine (in 1989), the Communist government denied her permission to sing in a competition in Italy. It was perhaps as close to a "Cinderella" moment of disappointment that she experienced in her young life.

Singing has expanded her life considerably. She did post-graduate work in opera and oratorio in Munich, and lives in Vienna. She speaks Romanian, Italian, French, English and German. She loves to wander art museums and ski the Austrian Alps when the weather is right. She believes in exercise, but when asked if she worries about diet to protect her voice, she smiles and shakes her head.

"I like chocolate, ice cream, Coca-Cola," she said. "If one eats what one is happy with, you will hear this in the voice. I like the beautiful things in life."

Johnson, who was so smitten with Constantinescu's voice in Vienna two years ago, says he has no buyer's remorse.

"No, I'm actually thrilled," he said. "Sometimes, you look at something and two years later, you go 'Oh, maybe I didn't hear that in that big hall at the State Opera.' I have to say she's better. The coloratura is better than I expected. It sounds like chocolate."

So maybe Constantinescu knows what she's up to with her diet.

Undeniable, too, is her physical appearance.

"It's kind of funny to say," Johnson said, "but she looks like a princess."

Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299


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  • 'Cinderella' light and dark

    Monday November 1, 2010

    A wonderfully sung Minnesota Opera staging of "Cinderella" stars a Romanian mezzo in her American stage debut.


    What: By Gioachino Rossini. Conducted by Christopher Franklin. Staged by Doug Varone.

    When: 7:30 p.m. Sat., Tue.,Thu.

    Where: Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, 345 Washington St., St. Paul.

    Tickets: $20-$200. 612-333-6669 or

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