Stefania Dovhan: Small-Town Diva Breaks Out

Stefania Dovhan curled up on a bench inside New York City Opera. She leaned her head against the railing of the lobby balcony and gazed out over the Lincoln Center plaza toward the Metropolitan Opera House. She had been there a few days before to see the famous Zeffirelli production of La Bohème, and she’d started crying when the snow began to fall over the despairing lovers in Act III.

“Coming from Germany where there’s so much modern stuff happening,” she said in gently accented English, her dark, wavy hair framing her face and falling over a T-shirt emblazoned with a big pink flamingo, “and seeing something so realistic, it takes me back to when I was a little girl going to the opera and just totally mesmerized by it. I remember coming to Lincoln Center when I was in high school, and this was like a different planet for me. Like, ‘People sing here? They’re so lucky.’ And here I am.”

The 31-year-old soprano is at City Opera rehearsing the role of Adina in Donizetti’s classic comedy The Elixir of Love, which opens March 22. It’s her return to the company after her triumph in Christopher Alden’s production of Don Giovanni in 2009.

In that stylized production, the polar opposite of the lush Zeffirelli Bohème, Ms. Dovhan burned her way through the role of Donna Anna, singing and acting with passionate commitment. It didn’t hurt that she looked gorgeous, with sensuous features and curves. She’s part of a generation of singers well aware that their acting abilities and photogenic faces are almost as crucial as their voices. “Some people listen with their eyes,” as she put it. “It’s a fact of life.”

This is Ms. Dovhan’s breakout moment. For six years she’s been a member of the small opera company in out-of-the-way Hagen, Germany, where she’s gotten to do the big, varied parts she would have had to wait years for at larger houses or in a young-artists program. It’s the old-fashioned, increasingly rare way of starting a career: getting her sea legs and honing her performances in a stable, supportive environment.

Hagen was the first job she ever auditioned for, and she’s now leaving it behind for regular work at a bigger German company in Karlsruhe and the chance to try out the truly unmoored existence of a modern opera singer.

“I’m right now very eager to travel and see other countries and work with other people,” she said. “I don’t need to have a home right now. I’m ready to be freelance. The contract in Karlsruhe is very flexible, and they really want me to go out into the world and sing.”

Ms. Dovhan was born in 1979, in Kyiv, Ukraine, into a creative family, but one devoted more to the visual arts than to music: Her mother is an art conservator, her grandfather a sculptor and her father a ceramicist. Her parents divorced when she was young, and when her mother married an American, they moved to the United States. Stefania attended the Baltimore School for the Arts and the University of Maryland, graduating in 2002, and in 2005 got the job in Hagen, where she’s since spent almost all her time.

It won’t be easy for Ms. Dovhan to leave that familial environment, where everyone knows everyone and she can host post-premiere parties in her kitchen. She’s still learning to balance having stable relationships with the independence her schedule will soon demand. Things have been on-again, off-again with her boyfriend, a German engineering student she met at a dance party, but it’s going well at the moment, and he’ll be flying to New York for the Elixir premiere.

In Adina, she couldn’t have chosen a more different character than the despondent Donna Anna. “Adina is supposed to be bossy,” Ms. Dovhan said, “but inside of her, there is a true romantic and a woman who can love with a lot of passion. I’m enjoying doing the comedy because I’ve done a lot of tragedy. I get to be goofy and jump around a bit and laugh and move my body, so that’s a lot of fun. And at the end, she opens up and you see what she really is, this warm, beautiful person.”

Ms. Dovhan plays, in other words, the contemporary opera diva: a little imperious–she’s got to keep up appearances, after all–but ultimately friendly, a sweetheart.

“To be a diva has this negative aura around it right now,” she said. “I think when I’m onstage, I do need to be a diva, because that’s what people want to see. You stand in a certain way, there’s a certain confidence. It’s freedom also: For me, a diva is a person who is not afraid to be funny or tragic. And why do people go to the opera? To experience emotions, to be moved.”

She most admires fearlessly dramatic singers like Aprile Millo. “She’s so honest,” she said, “so true. There’s selflessness. I mean, Callas, she was a diva, but she was selfless in her singing. She was giving it, giving truth. With someone like Renée Fleming, it’s very beautiful but”–tapping her chest–“it sometimes doesn’t go inside.”

Ms. Dovhan is taking it slow, but with her rich voice and smoldering presence, she could follow in the footsteps of singers like Renata Scotto and gradually transition from lyric roles like Adina to the great roles of Puccini and Verdi. No matter what course it takes, hers is a career it will be a pleasure to watch grow.

“I love roles that have a lot of temperament in them,” she said. “I love dramatic things. I would love to go in that direction. I’m not in a rush, and I’m enjoying very much singing Mozart and Donizetti. I’m lucky because I’ve never been offered anything outside of my capability. You hear a lot of singers say, ‘Someone wants me to do Tosca.’ I’ve always had a very gradual, step-by-step program. I did Giulio Cesare, then I did Adina, then I did Rigoletto, then I did Traviata. Every year is a building block to something bigger, bigger, bigger.”

Stefania Dovhan: Small-Town Diva Breaks Out