An encounter with soprano Alessandra Marc is not easily forgotten.
There's her voice: immensely powerful yet capable of producing the softest, most luminous of high Cs, still maturing but definitely Wagnerian in its intensity, an instrument of both passion and simple joy.
There's her physical presence: dramatic, very large, a mix of exquisite dark eyes, lustrous hair, abundant flesh.
And there's Marc herself: warm and outspoken, funny and angry, a 1983 Metropolitan Opera Audition winner who has been known to roar up to the Kennedy Center on a motorcycle. A woman who, after 20-odd years as Judith Borden, decided that Alessandra Marc was a far more distinctive name, and assumed a new identity.
"Singing at the Met would be great, but it's not my ultimate goal," says the diva-in-the-making. "I'd love to sing with the San Francisco Opera, in Vienna . . . I want to sing everywhere!" It is one week before her Terrace Theater recital debut, and Marc, 27, is in an ebullient if slightly frazzled state. Between alternate sips of cappuccino and ice water, she reels off a list of recent and upcoming performing opportunities -- her Canadian debut singing the "Missa Solemnis" with the Vancouver Symphony, her triumph at the Waterloo Festival in the title role of Gluck's "Iphige'nie en Aulide," a possible recording job in Seattle. She is proud, but also realistic.
"Being a singer takes a lot of patience and an incredible amount of money," Marc says, admitting she has more than enough of the former and far less than she'd like of the latter. "This kind of career is not easy. You deal with a lot of politics and game-playing, and sometimes it doesn't matter how talented you are. In fact, if you are talented it's that much harder, because many people find themselves threatened by you."
Born in West Berlin to a German linguist father and Polish mother ("they knew nothing about music, but being raised bilingually has come in handy"), Marc spent her childhood shuttling between the United States and Europe, her high school years singing and acting in Baltimore, and her none-too-inspiring college years at the University of Maryland.
"Fortunately, in 1980, I found my voice teacher, Marilyn Cotlow, in Northern Virginia. She gave me all the impetus and encouragement and positive feedback I needed, plus a wonderful technique, which is the foundation I absolutely had to have." Marc subsequently became a chorister, and occasional understudy and soloist, with the Washington Opera. She also came to the attention of Choral Arts Society conductor Norman Scribner -- a fellow known for ferreting out fine young singers -- who offered her a number of plum solos in various oratorios and other choral works.
And then there was the Met competition, an experience both thrilling and sobering. Although Marc won rave notices for her singing, she was not invited into the Young Artists Program, nor was she offered a contract. Could it have been her weight that affected those decisions?
"Yes, I've been told it's hindering me -- and what a shame it is -- by people who are in a position to hire me for operatic work," she admits. "I guess it was okay for them to hire me for secondary roles, but to put me in a leading role -- oh my God! -- nobody could love a fat person. And I think that's the message I really resent. For those who won't hire me because of the size of my waistline, I say it's their loss. They lack imagination. They lack courage. They are victims of a socially accepted prejudice.
"Back in the golden days, the maestri ran the show. If you served the music, it was perfectly fine to be heavyset. But these days, stage directors have more of a say. I see a future of Isoldes looking like Brigitte Bardot, with body microphones between their cleavage -- if they have any."
Marc cites the great Jessye Norman as a role model. "For so long, she was up against the same . . . as I am. It has taken her twice as long to be recognized as an operatic talent in this country, but she's made it as an original. And I say, 'Touche', honey!' "