In Mozart’s comic opera Cosi fan tutte, the course of true love does not always run smoothly.
But two of the stars in the Fort Worth Opera Festival’s production of Cosi, which has the first of its three performances at Bass Hall on Saturday, apparently failed to get that message. Just three weeks after the final curtain falls, stage partners Kathryn Leemhuis and Paul Scholten will become life partners. The couple will wed May 31 in Chicago, the city they call home.
“We met at the Tanglewood Music Center while doing Cosi in 2007,” says Leemhuis, who sings the role of Dorabella, who is engaged to Scholten‘s character, Guglielmo.
But after becoming cozy during that summertime Cosi, the couple had to return to their developing careers.
“He was starting graduate school the following fall at Cincinnati, and I was already in graduate school at Indiana, so we started dating kind of long distance,” says Leemhuis.
In 2008, Leemhuis entered the Ryan Opera Center professional development program at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Then, after two more years of long-distance dating, Scholten was accepted to the same program in 2010.
“When they announced his name, I started sobbing,” Leemhuis says. “And it wasn’t about his career. It was like, ‘Oh, we’re going to live in the same city.’ ”
In the world of professional opera, it is extremely difficult for any two performers to steer themselves into the same cast. Scholten and Leemhuis have been part of the same production on only two previous occasions.
“It can make things easier sometimes,” Scholten says. “For example, we have a duet in Cosi, and it staged itself very easily. It would not have happened that quickly with singers who were strangers.”
The couple — he’s 29 and grew up in Michigan, and she’s 31 and from Columbus, Ohio — are making their Fort Worth Opera debuts in the production. But Leemhuis is not unfamiliar to local audiences; she earned a second-place finish in the McCammon Voice Competition in 2010.
According to their Fort Worth Opera biographies, their life at home is not especially filled with the drama and glamour that they bring to the stage. Scholten, a former nationally ranked junior tennis player, hits the court when he can in his off time. Leemhuis, meanwhile, helps professionally organize people’s homes and workspaces.
Other hobbies mentioned: cooking, relaxing in front of the TV, watching movies and walking their dogs — hers, a miniature pinscher-Chihuahua mix named Olivia, and his, a basset hound named Daphne.
In January, Leemhuis and Scholten traveled together on a whirlwhind audition tour of the major historic opera houses in Europe.
“[Sharing a profession] can be both a blessing and curse,” Leemhuis says. “We get feedback from one another. If I feel good or bad about something, he is the first person I go to. But, let’s be honest. You can also grate on one another’s nerves. So, we certainly don’t try to avoid working together, but nor are we out there trying to make it happen.”
Mozart’s comic romp
Cosi fan tutte dates from 1790, the next-to-last year of Mozart’s short life. It tells the story of sisters Dorabella and Fiordiligi, who are betrothed to a pair of soldiers, Ferrando and Guglielmo, respectively. But a cynical and meddlesome older character, Don Alfonso, tells the men that their fiancees are as faithless as all women (the title is translated variously as All Women Are Like That or All Women Are Fickle), and goes so far as to bet them that he can prove his point in a day’s time.
They accept the wager, setting off a series of comic misadventures that include the future husbands feigning a departure, only to return cleverly disguised as Albanians. Constantly stirring this silly soup is the sisters’ maid, Despina, who serves as Don Alfonso’s gleeful accomplice.
The opera typically has a happy ending. But in this production, directed by David Gately — one of the festival’s most frequent and beloved directors, known for his comedic touches — the stars hint at something unexpected.
“[Gately’s] best idea for the production is the ending,” Scholten says.
“Don’t give it away!” cautions Leemhuis. “It’s my favorite ending I’ve ever done. There are so many endings you can have. That’s what makes Cosi so interesting. Because the whole trajectory of the production has to go toward that chosen ending.”
In addition to a (perhaps) unexpected ending, this production also promises to have a different look. For this version, the action has been moved to the 1920s. And Gately’s respect for the period apparently goes beyond just the sets and the costumes.
“David has been showing us different 1920s poses that we always have to think about, in order to make sure we are not just standing there like 21st-century lumps,” Leemhuis says.
Where Mozart is nearly always a delight for the audience, Scholten and Leemhuis reveal that he is something of a stepping stone in their world.
“Mozart makes up a large portion of both of our repertoires. Being younger singers, Mozart is often what you start with before you end up singing some of the bigger Italian repertoire, like Puccini and Verdi,” Scholten says. “[Mozart operas] are just as demanding, but the demands are different. It doesn’t require the same weight of voice. In Mozart, it is often preferred that you have a lighter, cleaner sound.”
“I’m higher, lyric mezzo,” Leemhuis says. “So I actually prefer comedies.”