Lee Bisset sings the role of Tosca in the inaugural production of the Oxford Opera Company on 3rd March, Tosca in Concert.

She writes: “Facing the audience makes us offer our story to you, face to face. With no set or costumes the audience has to use its imagination. When you use your imagination you become more involved, you become active participants, you make many of the choices that go into interpreting the opera.”

The problem for anyone approaching Tosca, be it as singer, director or audience member is that we come to it already loaded with preconceived ideas. Keen opera goers and those in the opera business will have seen Tosca before (perhaps many times) and have layers of pre-formed ideas about who Tosca is, what she sounds like, and why she behaves as she does. Anyone involved in a production of Tosca, either on stage or in the auditorium is seeing the piece through the lens of their own history with it.

My history goes back to Maria Callas. After graduating as a light mezzo I went to Italy to study. The first thing my new teacher told me was that I was a soprano, the next, that I should be singing Tosca. It was the first complete opera I had ever learned and Vissi d’arte was the second aria I ever sang as a soprano. The voice I had on repeat at the time was that of Maria Callas. Her choices seemed so perfectly wedded to Puccini’s music that for a long time I couldn’t see beyond them. I couldn’t see that anything else was possible.

As a postgraduate at the Royal Northern College of Music and then at the National Opera Studio I sang in staged scenes of the opera. At the NOS we were even directed by John Copley who at the beginning of his career had been the assistant director in a Callas production at the Royal Opera House. John too, was enthralled by the Callas legend and our work was punctuated by “Maria did this here”, down to what Maria had done with her shawl. It was like working with Callas at one remove, and wonderful information to pass on to a student. However, I seriously doubt if I did anything then that was other than giving a very, very pale imitation of La Divina.

Tosca is a brilliant piece of theatre. It is very hard to spoil it. The drama is tight, and the music fits it like a glove. Consequently, it is very easy to be sloppy, to slip into generalised arm-waving instead of giving a detailed, thought-through performance. Honestly, the piece is so strong that you would still have an entertaining show! But this way the characters become cardboard cut-outs and drama suffers. Tosca is firmly set in a Napoleonic Rome with reference to specific battles, and Puccini’s score is so precisely written to fit the stage action that it is very hard to make radical changes in a production, but all the micro choices made in production and the different chemistry between the three principals can make each production hugely different.

When I came to prepare my debut in the role I decided that I had to let Maria go. I stopped listening to her. My voice is not like hers. I was unconsciously trying to imitate her and I needed to free myself to make my own artistic choices. In my first production I was singing the second cast Tosca for Northern Ireland Opera. As the second cast I didn’t have a lot of rehearsal time, I just had to learn the moves of the first cast Tosca, the marvellous Giselle Allen. I was really stepping into Giselle’s shoes for the night, and not unearthing my own Tosca, but it allowed me to put Tosca onto my CV, and after years of trying to land a Tosca, suddenly I had three in one year.

The Northern Ireland Opera Tosca production by Oliver Mears was site specific and sung in English in Derry/Londonderry. The city had been at the heart of the troubles, which were only just coming to an end. Act I, which Puccini sets in a Catholic church, was staged in the Protestant Cathedral. As the audience came in there were audible gasps as they noticed a Catholic Madonna in the cathedral. Act II, where Scarpia interrogates first Cavaradossi and then Tosca, took part in the Guildhall, which had been the location for the Saville Inquiry into the Bloody Sunday Massacres. In Act III we witnessed the prisoner before Cavaradossi being executed with a single bullet in a room smeared with blood. In this context, Tosca became painfully resonant to its audience. They went wild for it. After opening night shops had signs in their front windows saying “Viva La Tosca!”, the taxi drivers waxed lyrical and there were standing ovations for every performance. I have never seen an entire city take an opera to its heart before.

The next production I really think of as my “first”. I loaded myself up with information, reading everything I could find, most particularly Susan Sandiver Nicasso’s Tosca’s Rome which has proved invaluable ever since. It provides a full historical context to the opera and the play, geographical details of Rome at the time, as well as biographical details of real life characters Sardou may have based the play on. It provides countless details that flesh out the character for me. These facts provided jumping points for my imagination. Tosca in the opera is such a poet: in both duets with Cavaradossi she woos him with words painting beautiful, tangible scenes for him. In order for me to use Tosca’s words and do the same for the audience I need to add layers of meaning for myself, as any of us does when we talk intensely. These layers of information dictate my choice of vocal colour and the physical choices I make on stage and each one of these choices makes Tosca more my own and less an imitation of Maria Callas.

I was privileged that this “first” production was with an ideal team. The conductor was Phillip Thomas, a man who understands music and voices as well as anyone I know. It was the directorial debut of Dame Josephine Barstow, who was a celebrated international Tosca. The wonderful thing about Jo was that, although she knew her Tosca inside out, she never tried to impose her interpretation on me. She helped me bring my Tosca out, whilst teaching me advanced stagecraft, the tricks that she had learned from singing the role at the highest level. I could not have been in better hands than Phillip’s and Jo’s for my first time. The rest of the cast were all making their debuts too, which meant that we all felt we were on a journey of discovery together. (Scarpia’s henchman Sciarrone was a certain Stuart Pendred.)

It was perfect preparation for my US debut, for Opera Memphis. This was the most traditional I have done. The set and costumes were exactly as you would imagine a Tosca set would be. The conductor, Willie Waters, an old hand from the Met, who had conducted all the greats, and the director Matthew Lata, allowed the drama to evolve naturally out of the chemistry between their three principals. It was a perfect end to my year of Toscas.

I don’t think we ever arrive at a complete understanding of a character. It is always changing, with each performance and each production bringing new insight. I had always considered the Tosca/Scarpia relationship to be key, and more interesting than the Tosca/ Cavaradossi one. It was only when I came to the opera again, this time for Longborough Festival Opera, that I changed my ideas on this. Of course the Tosca/ Scarpia scene is at the centre of the drama, but I came to place much more importance on Tosca’s love for Cavaradossi as being the driving force of the piece.

Why this shift in perception? Perhaps, because I had worked with my tenor, Adriano Graziani before, in the Dorset Opera production. The first time you work with someone, especially a love interest, you are both a little reserved: you are strangers, but from day one you are pretending to be lovers. You act, of course, hold nothing back, but there is no real chemistry, and by the time you have become friends the scenes have already been rehearsed and mapped out. The second time you work together, even if it is years later, you are already weeks ahead of where you were the first time. You start on day one with the same ease with the other person’s body that the two lovers should have. Moreover, this time round we had both sung the opera many times and I had worked often with the conductor and director team of Jonathan Lyness and Richard Studer. It was a safe rehearsal room to experiment in.

I was also battling in my mind with a comment a veteran Tosca had made to me years before: “Oh, Tosca is so stupid, I have no time for her!”. I didn’t have an answer for her. Cavaradossi makes it clear to Tosca that if she reveals Angelotti’s hiding place both he and Angelotti will be killed, but listening to Cavaradossi being tortured she cannot help herself! She is volatile, we have seen that; but she is also practical and resourceful. She is emotionally manipulated and tortured, causes a stranger to commit suicide and endangers her lover, but when she finally agrees to have sex with Scarpia to save Cavaradossi she makes sure he signs the paperwork she needs to take Cavardossi to safety. She kills Scarpia, condemning her soul to eternal damnation; but within minutes she goes home to pick up all the money and jewels she can carry and sets up a carriage to take them to the nearest port. Tosca is not stupid but in her love for Cavaradosi she has an Achilles’ heel that Scarpia manipulates from Act I.

I believe that it is incredibly important to establish how strong the love is between Tosca and Cavaradossi from their first duet. Cavaradossi describes her as jealous, and her jealous reactions are extreme. For me, she is both deeply insecure and deeply in love with Cavardossi. He is the love of her life, her whole world. It is tempting to play a cross, over-the-top, dictatorial ‘diva’ Tosca in the Act I duet, but he knows how to charm her out of her jealous strops. She is volatile but quickly calmed, and teases and flirts with him until he agrees to meet her that night. If Tosca is played as a harridan, I believe we don’t care as much about her story or understand how such a good guy as Cavaradossi could love her, and we don’t understand that he is her whole life; when she finds he is dead there is nothing more for her to do but to end her own life too. Despite my lifelong adoration of Maria Callas, I finally found what I regard as a flaw in her performance. For me her Tosca lacks warmth and sexiness and, most of all, humour. Finding that flaw allowed me to prise myself away from her interpretation completely.

My most recent fully-staged performance was for Opera Omaha last year in a production by Crystal Manich. We started rehearsing a week after the New York Times published the Harvey Weinstein allegations. Sexual assault was at the forefront of everyone’s minds, just as we were rehearsing the Scarpia/Tosca scenes in great detail.

The opera could not have been more relevant. It became easier than ever to step into Tosca’s shoes in Act II. Her experience was so modern, and the use of sex and a stronger physical presence to bully a woman just for the pleasure of having power over her has not changed. In the past it has been suggested to me that there has to be some sexual chemistry between Scarpia and Tosca. No one would dare to say that today. Sexual assault is not titillating; it is assault. It was as if Scarpia, always outwardly charming, had had his mask pulled off for the audience. I felt as though we were in a dialogue between art and reality: at times modern day life was shedding new light onto my understanding of the opera, and at times the opera was helping me to understand what had happened and continues to happen in modern life. The audience erupted into cheers and applause each night when I stabbed him, and I stabbed him not once, as usual, but six times, as if everyone, men and women, found some catharsis in the killing of Scarpia. After the dress rehearsal all the talk on Twitter was of #ScarpiaWeinstein.

I loved many things about this production. For me it was the one in which Tosca herself went on the biggest journey: her experiences in Act II fundamentally changed her, and her relationship with Cavaradossi. The wonderful thing about creating a character is that some of this came from me, some from the director and some from my colleagues. What I learned this time round will go into the pot next time, some kept and some discarded, but different again with a different director and colleagues and when I am at a different time in my life. So it happened with Maria Callas’ influence: I stepped back and made Tosca my own, but I don’t think her influence will ever completely leave me.