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Three Yale divas on bill with New Haven Symphony Orchestra

New Haven Register | By Joe Amarante

NEW HAVEN » Soprano trifecta. That could refer to three talented sopranos performing the week before Thanksgiving with the New Haven Symphony Orchestra. Or to Nicole Percifield’s fall plans.

Percifield, Canadian-raised and Northeast-educated in Boston and New York, has three major singing gigs this autumn — Nov. 21 in the title role of “Suor Angelica” with the New Haven Symphony Orchestra, her Carnegie Hall debut Dec. 7 with the Yale in New York series and teaming with the NHSO again just before Christmas as soprano soloist for three performances of “The Messiah.”

At 31, she’s working on an Artist Diploma at Yale, having spent time as a mezzo soprano — specifically at Minnesota Opera for two years.

“I’m equally excited about all three,” Percifield said after a voice lesson at Yale last week. “I’ve always dreamed of singing Suor Angelica; it’s an amazing role and I love Puccini’s music. And then, of course, one always dreams of singing at Carnegie Hall ... I’m very excited about that. ... And I’ve also never sung ‘The Messiah’ before, so I can’t wait to sink my teeth into that, as well.”

Yale’s Emily Workman (Soprano No. 2 if you’re keeping count) will share the Angelica role, performing the night before in the Nov. 20 show at St. Mary’s Church and the night after Percifield’s at the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Hartford. (For information on the 7:30 p.m. Saturday Hartford date, see

Adding intrigue in an otherwise-uplifting NHSO season is the health detour of Music Director William Boughton, who is having to step away from the November-December performances for heart surgery.

Maestro Boughton said his friend John Thomas Dodson will conduct the opera nights, called Puccini, Virtue and Redemption. Dodson has already conducted Christopher Theofanidis’ “Virtue,” which is on the program with “Suor Angelica” as “Virture” makes its New England debut with guest soloist Tony Arnold (Soprano No. 3), narrator Chris Dickerson and the Elm City Girls’ Choir. “Suor,” meanwhile, will feature Yale Opera voices, costumes by John Carver Sullivan and direction by Marc Verzatt.

“John knows Christopher’s music, and he knows this piece like the back of his hand,” Boughton said by phone after the NHSO announcement this week about guest conductors. The orchestra will do “Virtues” slightly different than the piece’s Michigan performance with Dodson, using the choir instead of three sopranos, and semi-staging it.

“The story is based on Hildegard von Bingen’s ‘Ordo Virtutum,’ which was the first morality play ever written ... in the 1100s. Hilegard was an abbess, she was a philosopher, she was a writer, she was a composer and a poet ... just an extraordinary woman. So when I asked Christopher three years ago if he’d write something for the orchestra, he jumped at the opportunity to write this piece based on Hildegard because he’s always admired her writing as a composer and as a poet.”

The story is about a soul going to heaven to meet the Virtues, and the Virtues send her away, said Boughton, because she hadn’t experienced enough of life yet. She goes away and meets the devil, who poses a “Sophie’s Choice” dilemma to the soul.


“This season is about innovation. It’s about bringing new things to audiences,” Boughton said. “It’s about exploring new repertoire.” Take these late-November shows, for example, which include a fully staged opera.

“It’s completely different than anything we’ve done before,” Boughton said. “We’ve never done any opera, and working in St. Mary’s with Yale Opera doing this staging of Puccini’s ‘Suor Angelica’ is a huge project for us.”

Having planned this collaboration with Yale Opera’s Doris Yarick Cross for two years, Boughton is disappointed he had just one rehearsal with its singers before his doctor “forbade me to do any more.” He said the young Yale singers are “wonderful, potentially great opera singers. It’s a program at Yale that attracts the very finest and then produces some of the best singers ... in the world.”

Soprano Percifield appreciates her busy time in New Haven.

“The opportunity to sing in full-length productions, and sing principal roles and work with guest conductors is a very special one,” she said. “And I feel like it gives all of us very valuable experience, which is kind of hard to come by for a young singer nowadays. It’s also very intense, which you might not enjoy while you’re in the thick of it, but it’s very valuable training as well.”

For the “Messiah” concerts (also featuring Percifield), Yale’s Jeffrey Douma will conduct the NHSO’s performances Dec. 18 at Woolsey Hall in New Haven, Dec. 19 at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, and Dec. 20 at First Congregational Church in Madison.

The companion concert to the Carnegie Hall show, by the way, will be performed here on Dec. 4 at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library.