The Queen of the Night in Mozart's "The Magic Flute" is one of the most dramatically devilish roles in opera - and it features one of the most famous arias ever. Kathryn Lewek, who grew up in East Lyme, has sung the role to great acclaim in seven productions over the past two years but has just reached a new career peak.
She is poised to play the Queen of the Night at the most revered opera hall in the world: the Metropolitan Opera.
Lewek, whose maiden name is Blomshield, debuts at the Met in New York City on Saturday and is, understandably, thrilled at the prospect.
"I've been to the Met so many times to see performances and just absolutely dreamt as a child of singing there. But never in my wildest dreams - well, I guess the hopeful side of myself always thought, 'Oh, yeah, I'm going to sing at the Metropolitan Opera,' but reality sets in when you go to college and you see what the competition is like," she says.
The reality now, though, is that she will sing at the Met.
Maestro Jane Glover, who is conducting the Met's "Magic Flute," has great praise for Lewek. The Queen of the Night famously has to sing a lot of high Fs, which is exceedingly difficult, and Glover says, "If you've got those notes, you're going to have a great career displaying them, and she certainly has. But it's much more than that. Not only is she fantastically accurate, and in terms of not just the high Fs, but the very tricky coloratura just before them. She has the stamina for all that.
"All that would be enough, but you get more with Katie because she's such a fantastic musician. So there is line and shape and color. She's a very feisty Queen of the Night."
The role is double-cast at the Met, so Lewek shares the run with Albina Shagimuratova. The production, which has an English translation by J.D. McClatchy of Stonington, is a revival of Julie Taymor's 2004 production, aimed toward families and trimmed to 100 minutes.
Lewek's multiple "Magic Flute" productions include those at Opera Leipzig in Germany and Opera de Toulon in France.
"Over the course of the years, I really found my niche in the dramatic coloratura repertoire. It's somewhat of a rare voice type. The Queen of the Night is not something that's so easily come upon," she says.
"When I was discovered to be able to sing that really well, it just kind of immediately turned into this snowball effect. All these companies were calling up and saying, 'Heeeey, how about we sign you for three years from now?' It's just been a really, really exciting last two years."
Lewek sees the Queen of the Night as a bit like a Disney villainess. She compares her to Cruella de Vil in "101 Dalmations" or Ursula in "The Little Mermaid."
"Everybody always says, 'Katie, you're so friendly offstage, and bubbly and happy. Then, you go onstage and you turn into a heinous bitch,'" she says with a boisterous laugh.
In "The Magic Flute," which is a fairy-tale opera about the enlightenment of mankind, the Queen of the Night is not the lead but a deliciously fiendish character. She sings the renowned aria "Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen" ("Hell's vengeance boils in my heart"). It's one of the highest opera roles written, and it's regarded as the most difficult soprano role to sing, Lewek notes.
Lewek may possess a big voice, but she doesn't fit the physical stereotype of the larger-than-life female opera singer. She's all of 5 feet tall and 115 pounds.
"I'm a tiny little thing," she says. "That's kind of funny because people, in everyday conversation, say, 'What do you do for a living?' 'I'm an opera singer.' 'You're a what? But you don't look like an opera singer.' 'No, I'm not that cliche fat lady.'"
As for singing to reach every seat in a hall as big as the Met, Lewek says, "That's what we are designed to do. That's what makes opera singers the Olympians of the singing world. Without amplification, we are trained to fill a space that can seat 5,000 people."
Gives arias a try
Lewek's mother, Sue Blomshield, likes to say that little Katie was singing before she was speaking. As she grew up, she played piano and sang. She was involved in the New England Chamber Choir and such school competition choruses as Regionals, All-State - where she got the top score - and All-New Englands.
When she was in 11th grade, Lewek performed in Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Cinderella" at East Lyme High School. That same year, she had started taking voice lessons with Richard Donohue in Cromwell.
"I used to want to be a Broadway star. I wanted to sing and dance and be crazy. That just seemed like the right path for me," she says. "When I started working with (Donohue), he said, 'You can bring your Broadway showtunes, as long as you also bring this opera aria.' I was like (she affects a Valley Girlish voice), 'Opera? What, are you kidding? That's so lame.'"
But she knew that she loved the classical repertoire she'd been playing on the piano, so she figured she'd give the arias a try.
"I just absolutely fell in love with it, and it fit my voice so well," she says.
The idea of opera wasn't totally foreign. Lewek made her first trip to the Met with her mother at age 10, taking her ailing grandmother's spot on a senior citizens bus trip. They saw Marilyn Horne in Debussy's "Pelléas et Mélisande," which was apparently a rather gray and somber production.
"I remember almost all of the little old ladies were snoring in our section," Lewek says with a laugh. "I was just riveted to my seat - like, breathing down the neck of the person in front of me. I was totally won over."
Lewek's grandmother, Joyce Sparrow Poetter, had been an opera singer. She sang many roles with the Paterson Opera Company in New Jersey. Lewek always had in the back of her mind that maybe she was supposed to follow in her grandmother's operatic footsteps.
Sue Blomshield is also musical; she was a piano teacher. Lewek's father, Dick Blomshield, was a nuclear submarine officer stationed at the Naval Submarine Base in Groton before Kathryn was born. They still live in East Lyme. Her brother, Chris Blomshield, attended the Coast Guard Academy and is a lieutenant commander stationed in Hawaii, where he pilots rescue helicopters.
A stormy audition
After graduating from East Lyme High School in 2002 - in just three years - Lewek had to decide between attending a liberal arts college to major in music or going to a conservatory.
"I'm a really hyper, A-type personality, really driven, really focused, and I always have been. ... So I said, 'You know what? Enough with all this science and math. I am really going to totally focus on music,'" Lewek recalls.
She earned her undergraduate and graduate degrees in vocal performance from the esteemed Eastman School of Music conservatory.
Since then, she has sung such roles as Dolcina in "Suor Angelica" with the Deutsches Symphonie Orchester in Berlin. But it was with her run of "Magic Flute" performances that she really found her greatest success. When the Met came calling, she was ecstatic.
Most people who perform at the Met "cover" - work as an understudy - for a few seasons before taking on a lead role. In Lewek's case, she was in the midst of a 10-week run of "The Magic Flute" with the English National Opera in London.
The Met had put her on hold, meaning they asked her to keep certain dates open for them and not to accept any other contracts for that time period - so that, if they chose to hire her, they would be assured of her availability.
"My agent called me and said, 'The reason you're on hold is they want to hear you in the hall,' which means they needed to hear me on the Met stage before they could comfortably offer me actual performances," she says.
The Met representatives said they'd wait the eight weeks for Lewek to get back to the U.S. and give her another week after her return to recover from any jet lag.
The day she did audition was memorable for another reason: It was when Superstorm Sandy hit the East Coast. Lewek and her husband, Tom Lewek, who is a graphic designer, have a home in Stratford about 800 feet from Long Island Sound, so they prepared the house before taking the train into the city.
"It was just kind of a blur," Lewek says.
She was hired and moved on to rehearsals inside the mammoth Met.
"I was just in awe, walking backstage and seeing the inner workings of this place," she says.
One person in the audience at the Met will be Lewek's former voice teacher, Richard Donohue. Back when Lewek performed in her high school's "Cinderella," Donohue didn't go because, he says, "I don't go to things." But he told her at the time, "Listen, when you make your Met debut, I'll come." When she found out she was making her Met debut, she sent Donohue a letter saying, essentially, "put up or shut up," he recalls with a laugh.
"So I'm going," he says.
Even when he first began working with Lewek, Donohue says, "The voice was already there. ... She's very musical, of course, very artistic. That's deepened over the years. She's become a more interior artist, which is, of course, what one hopes for for a young person. She was always very sensitive personally as well as musically."
Lewek has remained like family with Donohue, and he senses that she is honored to be asked to sing at the Met but isn't blinded by it.
"She's not (yet) 30 years old and has a maturity beyond her years, which I find quite wonderful," he says.