Victoria Livengood | Opera's Dixie Diva
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A daughter of the South becomes a diva of the world

The Boston Globe
By Richard Dyer, Globe Staff
June 3, 2005

''I love being an opera singer," says Victoria Livengood, her honey-sweet Southern accent reinforcing her nickname as the ''Dixie Diva." ''I get to play dress-up and accessorize to the max."

The mezzo-soprano, 45, has come a long way since her student days at the Boston Conservatory 20 years ago. She made her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1991, with James Levine conducting, and has now sung more than 100 performances there.

Livengood hasn't performed an operatic role in Boston since she studied here, but conductor Jeffrey Rink and the Chorus pro Musica, sponsored by Concert Opera Boston, are bringing her back for a concert performance of Saint-Saens's ''Samson et Dalila" Sunday at Jordan Hall.

Dalila is one of opera's great femmes fatales.

''Let's face it," Livengood says, ''mezzos either sing boys in pants, or hags . . . or sluts." She is speaking over the telephone, but you can just imagine the smile spreading across her face.

''With my Miss North Carolina hair, I wasn't going to do the hags, at least not yet, so it was mostly the sluts. Some of my Southern Baptist friends and relatives ask me why I can't ever play a nice part," she says. ''Right now Dalila is about my favorite. I sang it first pretty early in my career, but now it's the perfect role for me."

Livengood's signature role has been Carmen, and she says she is ''pushing 200 performances" of it in opera houses around the world.

''Carmen is my best friend. She built my house in Florida. Now I'm going into heavier repertoire, so I don't know how many more Carmens I will sing," she says. ''My great dream was to sing Carmen with Placido Domingo at the Met, and I reached that goal a couple of years ago. I have a life-size photo on my wall to prove it."

Rink heard Livengood for the first time at a New York audition last summer, and he was impressed. ''She's got a really good voice, and pizzazz -- a big redhead with lots of sex appeal," Rink says. ''I wanted to do something with her right away."

Livengood has sung all her life, beginning in a gospel quartet with her parents and brother, but she had no idea that her voice had career potential until she left home in Thomasville , N.C. , for college after a high school stint as a cheerleader. ''Cheerleading is what gave me my chest voice, I like to say," she recalls with a laugh.

She went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill , with the idea of becoming a lawyer. ''I'm good at arguing," she says. ''I auditioned for the choir because I needed an extra hour of credit, and I sang 'The Sound of Music.' The director took her straight to the music faculty, which gave her a scholarship.

''I called my daddy and said, 'I ain't gonna be no lawyer,' " she says. ''And when I saw my first opera, 'La Boheme,' I was like Cher in 'Moonstruck.' I'd had 14 years of dance training and liked to act and was learning how to sing. I knew immediately this was an art form that combines everything I enjoyed doing."

Livengood came to Boston because John Moriarty, celebrated director of training programs for young opera singers at the New England Conservatory and the Boston Conservatory, had heard her in Chapel Hill and invited her on the spot to study with him and voice teacher Elizabeth Phinney.

''She was obviously a big talent even then. Her voice was lyrical, but with a gutsy promise in it," Moriarty recalls by phone. ''Already she was larger than life. We did Menotti's 'The Medium' with her, and instead of the usual old crone look, we did her up as Joan Crawford. She was really scary."

Livengood remembers loading up the family truck and heading for the Fenway. ''My roommate in that apartment was Lorraine Hunt Lieberson," she says. ''We laughed and carried on all the time, and we've been great friends ever since."

People still talk about the student production of Mozart's ''Cosi fan tutte" at the Boston Conservatory that featured Hunt Lieberson, Livengood, and Lisa Saffer; all three singers went on to significant international careers.

For Livengood, a job in the choir at Trinity Church in Copley Square and engagements with the Dedham Choral Society helped pay the bills. She won the regional Met auditions in 1984 and went on to win in New York, a victory that launched her career, beginning in American regional opera companies, to which she remains loyal, and spiraling out to South America, Canada, France, Germany, and Italy, where she has sung leading roles in Menotti's operas under the composer's supervision.

Along the way, she married her high school sweetheart, Scott Hester, now a lawyer. ''He can't carry a tune in a bucket, and that's for the best," she says. ''He's the right guy."

She thinks her voice is still finding its own niche. ''James Levine keeps telling me I need to focus on the Wagnerian repertory, so I'm working on that, and also trying on some more dramatic roles for size," she says. ''For years, people have described me as an up-and-coming singer, and that is how I still think of myself. I'm still headed somewhere, and can't wait to find out where it is. The beast in my throat is still developing."