It's high time that Ariel Bybee checked into Utah again, for she has a loyal following who remember her "when" - as a schoolteacher here in Salt Lake City and as a glowing young "Tosca,' opposite Glade Peterson back in 1969.
Her return as Dorabella in Utah Opera's "Cosi fan tutte" came about through a chance meeting with Peterson on the street in New York, she said. But clearing her schedule as a popular house soprano at the Metropolitan Opera so she can travel for guest engagements isn't easy. "I can only shake myself loose about twice year, and that's plenty," she said.She is excited about the current status of Utah Opera, "which I am sure competes with the absolute best regional companies," she said. "And this cast is phenomenal - each one seems made for his or her part."
The Los Angeles-born soprano who attended Brigham Young University remains consistent in the life-style she had set for herself when we last talked in 1980. She lives with her lawyer husband, John McBaine, and daughter Neylan in an apartment building only a stone's throw from the Metropolitan Opera and equally close to her Manhattan Ward of the LDS Church. Around these three poles, her life revolves.
"My stepdaughter is 24, and she often visits us and travels with us in the summer," said Bybee. "Neylan and my husband will be here during the opera, so we will celebrate her 14th birthday on January 25."
Bybee fondly recalled her days in Utah, teaching music at Churchill Junior High. "I loved it, I had always planned to teach. My sister is a teacher, and my father just retired as a teacher," she said. She remains close to her Los Angeles roots, and the family spends summer vacations in California, half the time visiting her family in Los Angeles, half with his family and friends in San Francisco.
This pretty much eliminates the possibility of summer festival appearances, but Bybee considers family solidarity more important. "My winter season is so all-engrossing that when Neylan is out of school, we spend time together," she said. "She has fine talent as a pianist, and I like to sit with her when she practices. She accompanies me when I sing, too - I call her my accompanist-in-residence!
"I like my career to be part of her life, and of my husband's. He is so appreciative of me. We came to New York for my husband's career as a lawyer as much as for mine as a singer."
Bybee left Utah to perform with the San Francisco Opera for several seasons, then was invited to New York City Opera for some performances, which led to her being offered a house contract at the Met. "I wanted more children, that has kept me close to New York, and that's the one disappointment in a life that's let me have my cake and eat it too," she said.
"My marriage is strong, I enjoy my family and church, and as the years go by, I have valued more and more being a sustaining part of a great organization like the Met. I have turned down some offers, others have not been made that might have if I had sought them more actively. But I don't regret not having gone full tilt into the top-flight singer's world of hectic international travel."
As a house artist, Bybee belongs to a select group of all-around performers who can be depended upon to sing secondary roles beautifully, look good and act credibly. She often covers (stands by) for mezzo sopranos who are singing the major roles and has sung a number of major roles herself, notably a critically acclaimed Jenny in Kurt Weill's "The Rise and Fall of Mahagonny," where she stepped in for Teresa Stratas.
Other high points have been Annio in "La Clemenza di Tito," Hansel, Nicklausse in "The Tales of Hoffmann" and Suzuki in "Madame Butterfly." Bybee learned Dorabella covering for Maria Ewing in a production at the Met that included Kiri Te Kanawa - a situation that offers top coaching and training in a role.
"I loved doing Melisande in Bulgaria in 1989, and I loved covering the Charlotte in `Werther.' Last year I debuted at the Washington Opera in a new production of Menotti's `The Consul.' I love a part that lets me act, a chance to be a real character. I even enjoy Flora in `Traviata.' It's small, but she's real, and so is Suzuki," she said. Roles she still hopes to do sometime are the Countess Geswitsch in "Lulu" and Blanche in "Dialogues of the Carmelites."
Bybee has been Relief Society president and Primary president in her Manhattan Ward and is now activities chairman. "The ward is so diverse, and the people so accepting of each other," she said. "There is so much talent - fashion, advertising, medicine, law, all kinds of working professionals; expert instrumentalists, pianists, a quartet of opera singers."
More than a decade at the Met has brought her in contact with the top singers of the world, and she ticked off her favorite colleagues.
"Joan Sutherland was my all-time favorite," she declared. "I made my San Francisco Opera debut with her in `Lucia' and sang with her many times afterward. I learned many lessons from her. She was always so pleasant backstage, so humble."
Among men, she cited Alfred Kraus, "a consummate artist and wonderful colleague. Placido Domingo is just as friendly and personable as you would expect. I have seen him work a crowd like nobody else - going across a stage, shaking hands, calling chorus members by their first names."
She also admires Pavarotti ("a flirt, but a charmer"), Kiri Te Kanawa ("a nice person, with a great sense of humor") and Fredericka "Flicka" von Stade, who lived in the same apartment building for a while. "Her new husband and my husband were friends in San Francisco," said Bybee. "And Carol Vaness is a great friend, very genuine."
She feels lucky to be a part of the James Levine era, and she stands in awe of Levine. "He eats, drinks and sleeps opera," she said. Among directors she favored the late John Dexter above all, and besides blockbuster directors such a Ponnelle and Zefirelli she gives credit to some wonderful resident directors.
"It's interesting to observe how the stars work. And the main thing I have learned is, at the top, no one puts on airs, they are all pretty humble. It's the ones on the way up that can claw at you." - Dorothy Stowe