Spaghetti Western 

A Texan takes charge in Puccini's 'Girl of the Golden West.'

MARY JANE JOHNSON breezes into a coffee shop out of Tucson's raging winter storm.

"This is nothing," she says cheerfully in her Texas accent. "In Amarillo we had 20 inches of snow."

Just like Texas, everything about Johnson is big. She's tall, her hair blazes copper, and on her silk blouse she wears a silver milagro brooch as big as a Texas map. Most of all her voice booms, whether she's praising her spicy Southwest eggs or when she sings opera on stage. The soprano has sung all over the world, at La Scala, the Metropolitan, San Francisco, in Argentina, in France, in Japan.

This weekend the Texan "born and bred" sings the title role of Minnie in La Fanciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West), a Puccini opera brought to the TCC Music Hall in a triple co-production by Arizona Opera, Austin Lyric Opera and Utah Opera. This operatic oddity is set in the California Gold Rush of 1850 and sung--incongruously to Americans--in Italian. First performed in 1910, La Fanciulla was Puccini's first opera after the 1904 debut of his better-known Madama Butterfly, and it's never quite matched the popularity of that piece or of Puccini's La Bohème or Tosca.

"In the last 20 years La Fanciulla has come into its own," Johnson explains between bites of chorizo and black beans. So much so that Johnson has been able to make Minnie her "signature role. -- I've been doing this role since 1985, for 15 years. It's a great part." (Johnson sings Minnie Friday night and Sunday afternoon; Pamela South takes the role Saturday night.)

Minnie has none of the shrinking qualities of poor Butterfly. She shoots guns, rides horses and even saves a certain someone from a hanging. Based on a play by David Belasco, which Puccini saw in 1907 when he was visiting the U.S. to hear Caruso sing in Butterfly, La Fanciulla features a saloonkeeper with a heart of gold (Minnie), the lawman who lusts after her (Sheriff Jack Rance) and the mysterious stranger, Dick Johnson, who lands in their midst.

"It is a love story," Johnson adds. "It's one of the only Puccini operas that's not a tragedy. It has a happy ending."

The new staging of the work, by Austin's Joseph McClain, is dramatic, Johnson says. The set is steeply raked to increase the feeling of danger, and its slant makes the parts even more demanding physically. "At first the role was extremely challenging. Now it's like falling off a log," the soprano jokes. Still, "there's a fine line between the emotion and the vocal cords in Puccini. You have to be careful."

Operagoers unfamiliar with La Fanciulla might recognize some of its music. Andrew Lloyd Webber borrowed a few of its melodies for his Phantom of the Opera, Johnson notes.

"The music grows on you. The more you hear it the more you love it."

Arizona Opera presents La Fanciulla del West at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, January 19 and 20, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, January 21, at the TCC Music Hall, 260 S. Church Ave. Willie Anthony Waters conducts the live orchestra. The opera in three acts is sung in Italian; an English translation is given in surtitles. Tickets are $19 to $67; they're available at Ticketmaster, at the box office and at Arizona Opera at 321-1000.

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