"Well," says Ashley Putnam as she leans back, swirls her white wine around in its glass and grins a sly grin, "we did think about doing a number on everybody and pretending to be" -- her voice deepens dramatically -- "bitter rivals.
"But," she says with a shrug, "we'd never have been able to carry it off."
"No, we'd just laugh," says Gianna Rolandi.
And they both giggle. Like naughty little girls. Giggle.
Putnam and Rolandi will be singing Handel's "Alessandro" tomorrow at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall in a concert performance as part of the ninth annual Handel Festival. (It is being billed as a "premiere" because, despite its 259 years, it never has been performed in the United States.) They will repeat the performance at Carnegie Hall in New York the following Sunday.
Putnam, a lyric soprano, is singing the role George Frideric Handel created in 1726 for the Italian diva Faustina Bordoni, the upstart Italian newcomer who gave fits to the London favorite of the day, another Italian soprano, Francesca Cuzzoni. Cuzzoni's role is being sung by Rolandi, Italian by way of North Carolina, a coloratura.
The feud between the 18th-century sopranos is famous, probably more so than the opera they were singing in -- which is not altogether surprising, inasmuch as "Alessandro" has barely been performed since, and the famous hair-pulling fight between the divas was celebrated in John Gay's "The Beggar's Opera," only a year younger than the Handel but performed virtually continually in one house or another from that time to the present.
The parts are exactly equal: for every aria or recitative written for one singer, Handel made sure to write another for her rival. Note for note. And despite a valiant attempt on the part of publicists to stir up at least a semblance of a feud between Putnam and Rolandi, the two young women are fast friends. In fact, they are becoming suspicious even of the 18th-century Haymarket flacks who drove Londoners into a frenzy supporting one soprano or the other.
"It sounds like such a setup to me," suggests Putnam.
"We really did think about it, though," says Rolandi.
"You have to know they were a put-on," Putnam insists.
These are prima donnas? Divas? These bright young women who talk with intelligence and whimsy about their lives and careers?
"We don't even sing the same repertoire," says Putnam, who at 32 is singing "mostly Mozart and a little Strauss." No more "crazy girls" for her.
"I do all the crazy ladies," Rolandi says happily. "Lucia, Elvira, Sonnambula -- they're all crazy." She is also 32.
Although the singers have known each other more or less casually for perhaps a decade, they have only recently discovered how very similar their lives have been. Both were born in New York. Both of their mothers were singers. Both were pointed in musical directions other than voice -- Rolandi to the violin, Putnam to the flute.
Putnam was a flute major at the University of Michigan music school when she got serious about singing through a series of campus Gilbert and Sullivan productions. Rolandi, whose mother is a noted voice teacher, also did Gilbert and Sullivan.
They even, they discovered, bought their dogs at the same pet store in Santa Fe, N. Mex. Each, of course, was appearing in the city's famous outdoor opera house.
Both are talented, ambitious and successful, and have sung with both the Metropolitan and New York City operas. They did Richard Strauss' "Arabella" together last summer at the British Glyndebourne festival.
Their immediate ambitions, however, are quite disparate.
Rolandi, tattles her friend, "would give anything to be on a soap opera." Not just any soap opera, confirms Rolandi, but "All My Children." Indeed, she complains that her schedule for the next few weeks is so tight that "I'll never get to see who killed Zach."
She adds hopefully, "Maybe they killed him off to make room for me. I'd love to get in there and play off Erica . . ."
Putnam, she volunteers about herself, "has been trying desperately to get married," and thereby is involved in a little soap opera (or sitcom) of her own. She has a groom all picked out -- baritone Brent Ellis, her live-in companion for the last few years and sometime operatic costar. It isn't as though he isn't willing, says Putnam, it's just, she says, "that every time we go, we get stymied at city hall."
"What happens?" asks Rolandi.
"Stupid things," says Putnam. "Really stupid things. Like we get there and it's closed."
The two women laugh uproariously.
Putnam is warming to her subject. "Then three weeks ago we were on vacation in Vermont and we tried to get married." She pauses, takes a deep breath. "This is really stupid; that's why I haven't mentioned it. The day we went was a Friday, the end of the month, and everybody in Vermont was in a panic to get their dog licenses.
"We're talking Rutland, Vermont, here," she says, "and it's the last day you can do it, otherwise all the dogs are going to get rounded up. We saw a lot of people, but we just stood in line for about 15 minutes and walked up to the counter and grinned and said" -- she sighs -- " 'Oh, we want a marriage license.'
"Well, the woman exploded. 'Look at all those people behind you! I can't stop to give anybody a marriage license. We've got to give out the dog licenses!'
"And," Putnam concludes, "we haven't had time since then when we're both in town more than three days."
Putnam is off to do a Mozart opera in St. Louis and a Strauss work in Santa Fe. Will Ashley and Brent ever get married? Stay tuned . . .
Rolandi lives with a singer too, Joseph McKee, a bass. She refers to him as her "boyfriend." Putnam says, "I don't exactly know what to call Ellis , but not 'boyfriend.' " Both women agree it is a strain to perform with their companions.
Putnam played Gilda to Ellis' Rigoletto once, she says, and it was a disaster. "He kept singing in my ear in the quartet, and baritones have this resonance that can really throw me off, so I kept pushing him away, and he's supposed to be this loving father comforting his daughter . . . Partly it's because I'm so tall."
She is 5 feet 10, leggy and athletic looking. In fact, she had just arranged to work out at the Watergate while she was in town. Rolandi is considerably shorter, a shade over 5 feet 4. Putnam looks like a model. Rolandi looks more the Italianate diva.
Her father, who came from Milan, died when she was very small. Recently she sang in Milan and "met that side of the family. I'm really Italian. It's really there."
"Her Italian is really quite good," Putnam says with a touch of envy.
Handel's operas, 43 or 46 of them, depending on which authority is being cited, are all in Italian.
Rolandi has a plaque in her apartment with a huge gold safety pin mounted on it, a present from the New York City Opera costume department.
"I have this problem," she says. "It's always the same thing -- costumes tend to fall off of me. The costume department gave me the Pin to wish me luck for the season -- that I stay dressed.
"Once I was doing Lucia and, you see, it's the scene where her brother tells her she may not marry her lover and then she goes to confront the minister, who tells her the same thing. There is this mournful, desperate music as she walks from one side of the stage to the other, and right in the middle I just walked out of my slip. Here is this terribly dramatic moment, and my slip is lying in a big white heap on the stage . . .
"In 'Naughty Marietta' I had this quick change and we couldn't get the back of the dress closed, so I skipped on stage holding my costume together in the back and I just sang, 'Tra la, Marietta break her costume,' and danced out again."
And the two young women laugh.