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Opera queen of New Orleans.

"I want to be the Ellen of opera," soprano Jeanne-Michele Charbonnet says with a grin.

In a business known for the spaciousness of its closets ("especially for lesbian," says Charbonnet; "Gay men are more accepted--complained about, but accepted"), she is a rising star who pries open doors in the opera world simply by doing things her way. Musically she's already regarded by some as one of the most exciting sopranos in the world: Her Madama Butterfly prompted the San Francisco Chronicle to rave that her "brawny powerhouse of a voice ... turned Puccini's teenaged ex-geisha into something approaching a red-hot mama."

And if you've heard that all opera divas are temperamental tyrants, Charbonnet, 37, comes as a shock. She's cheerful, unpretentious, and serenely open about her lesbian life. With the support of her longtime partner, Bobbie Falls, she even took time off at a critical stage of her career to have a baby via artificial insemination. And when she was ready to sing again, Charbonnet hit the road with Falls and their infant son, Savion--named after tap sensation Savion Glover--in tow. The trio have continent-hopped across Europe and North America as Charbonnet sang leads or prominent roles in Fidelio, Aida, Cavalleria Rusticana, The Flying Dutchman, and Die Walkure.

The touring has meant a career hiatus for Falls, a 49-year-old nurse-practitioner, but she insists that her sacrifice has been worth it. "I believe that Jeanne-Michele has a gift from God," she says, "and I fully support her in going out and sharing it with the world."

Two years after her maternal leave of absence, Charbonnet now feels poised to tackle the music she was born to sing: the heroic works of Richard Wagner. What's the difference between Wagnerian sopranos and the daintier breed? "Guts!" says Charbonnet, laughing. "When I was 14 my teacher said, `When you grow up, you're going to be a Wagnerian soprano. Don't forget it,'" she recalls of her days training in New Orleans's famed performing arts high school, where her classmates included Wynton Marsalis and Terrence Blanchard.

Charbonnet has always known that Wagner "is where my voice fits naturally--my look, everything about me fits that mold." But, she notes, "that's not how you start out in our business. Now it's time. I'm really ripe for that repertoire."

She will be returning to Europe in November to perform The Flying Dutchman in Bologna, Italy. And she'll be expanding her portfolio of big-gun roles in the next couple of years to include the title characters in Turandot in Denver and Ariadne in New Orleans. In January 2002 she will originate the title role of Medea in a new opera by Raft Leibermann at the Paris Bastille. "I'm so happy to be finding myself in the repertoire," says Charbonnet, "because I'm a hungry person for the real drama of opera."

Charbonnet's home life is less dramatic. She just moved with her family from New York to her native New Orleans, where she and Falls are renovating a house and soaking up the languid surroundings. "I wanted a slower pace," she says. And a wider choice of baby-sitters: "My family's in New Orleans, and we wanted Savion to have that support."

When she says "support," she means it. "I come from a very close, fairly hippie family," says the singer, who counts among her siblings one sister who's a sculptor, another who's a glass-blower, and a gay half brother who's an attorney in San Francisco. "I'm the most conservative one--the lesbian opera singer."

Charbonnet doesn't think she's ever lost a role because of homophobia, but "it's hard to say," she muses. "I've had suspicions, but nothing I could prove in any way. I've certainly seen other things happen [because of prejudice]. I've seen friends who are African-American not get work because they're black."

If there's a cloud on Charbonnet's professional horizon, it's more likely the unspoken bias against divas who choose to have children. "There are opera companies that have issues about performers becoming mothers," she says. "I certainly have felt like I've been fighting for my place again. It's been a real challenge--and I wouldn't trade it. I've done the thing that I needed to do for my life, which was to become a parent and become a whole person, not just a career-focused automaton. I'm in the best shape I've ever been in vocally, physically, heartwise. Everything is really lined up and waiting for me."

-- With reporting by Paul Harris

For more information about Jeanne-Michele Charbonnet and her career plus links to related Internet sites, go to www.advocate.com
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Title Annotation:Jeanne-Michele Charbonnet
Author:Stockwell, Anne
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Oct 10, 2000
Words:760
Previous Article:Gay King Richard.
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