Blossoming at the Metropolitan Opera, with roots in Anoka

  • Article by: ANNA PRATT  , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 7, 2012 - 12:40 PM

On Saturday, Anoka native Ellie Dehn will be featured in a live broadcast as the Metropolitan Opera performs "Don Giovanni" in New York.

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James Valenti and Ellie Dehn in the Minnesota Opera production of La Bohéme by Giacomo Puccini in 2010.

Photo: Michal Daniel Rodolfo,

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When she was a teenager living in Anoka, Ellie Dehn listened over and over to a well-known aria from the opera "Don Giovanni."

This weekend, Dehn is performing that aria at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

On Saturday, she'll be featured in a live Minnesota Public Radio broadcast of the production, which she says is the next best thing to performing in person in her home state.

For Dehn, 32, who has graced the stages of many renowned opera houses around the globe, the experience is one of the highlights of her career. "The fact I get to sing it is incredible, and at the Met in New York City," she said. "It's surreal."

"Don Giovanni" centers on a womanizing nobleman by that name who gets dragged to hell when he refuses to admit the error of his ways. Dehn's character, Donna Elvira, who is one of Giovanni's old flames, is burdened by the state of affairs.

Elvira's memorable aria, "Mi Tradi," which translates to "betrayal," tells of "her journey to come find Giovanni, the heartbreak that he has left her for a myriad of other women, and the hope that she can give him one more chance," Dehn said.

Through the music, one can feel Elvira's ups and downs. "There are so many different emotions and chord progressions," Dehn said, adding, "It's a true masterpiece." 

Although Dehn has been preparing for the role for months, she only had two days between a previous role in Italy and "Don Giovanni" in New York.

The challenge of change

At times, it can be a challenge jumping from role to role, especially when jet lag is involved, but it's part of the job. "Wherever you go, you have to flip your brain," Dehn said, adding that it can mean switching languages. Whether on the street or in rehearsal, "You have to know enough to sound fluent. You have to try to think in a language."

Likewise, every production brings a new group of people. She likened it to a summer camp: "We have to bond quickly and then say goodbye and move on to the next one." 

It's intense but rewarding. "We get paid to make these incredible works of art," she said. "There are certain moments where there's an energy between the cast and audience and you create something special. We're always trying to have a night like that."

Doing so requires plenty of preparation. Dehn takes voice lessons on a regular basis and gets language help from a coach. Often, she watches performances on YouTube, and she reads as much as she can about her characters. She also tries to stay in shape physically.

Meanwhile, along the way, one's voice changes. "Things that were easy five years ago, you have to think about more," she said. "You have to get to know your strengths and weaknesses and always be improving."

'She makes you comfortable'

Eve Queler, the founder and conductor of the Opera Orchestra of New York, was impressed with Dehn when she heard her sing for the first time at a 2004 voice competition, which she judged. 

Dehn stood out for "her voice and the way she used it," and "the way she used her body when she sang, her eyes and especially the way she used her hands. Very relaxed," Queler said. "She makes you comfortable when you listen to her and watch her."

In 2005, Queler invited her to be the understudy for the role of Gulnara in Giuseppe Verdi's "Il Corsaro," which is complex, with lots of hard-to-reach notes. 

Since then, Dehn has worked with Queler numerous times. Dehn is always a welcome addition to a cast, Queler said, because "she is a warm human being and that great warmth comes out when she sings. She makes it sound easy and the voice is always there, always beautiful and seeming to do everything for her that she wants."  

Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer.

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