NEW YORK -- With more than 100 appearances under her belt, soprano Lisette Oropesa wasn't exactly a stranger at the Metropolitan Opera. But until this season she hadn't truly arrived.
In fact, she had recently all but vanished, performing only once in the past five seasons — as the little girl in Humperdinck's fairy-tale opera "Hansel and Gretel." Now she's back in two very grown-up roles, headlining a revival of Massenet's "Manon" as the fortune-hunting heroine and also cast as the tubercular courtesan Violetta in Verdi's "La Traviata."
And critics are hailing her return. Joshua Barone said in The New York Times of her Manon that "with a voice by turns brightly crystalline and arrestingly powerful, she persuasively inhabits the role of this chameleon coquette." And Eric C. Simpson in the New York Classical Review blog wrote that Oropesa "confirmed she is fully ready for leading roles at the Met."
What's more, she's just won two of the biggest prizes in American opera: the Richard Tucker Award given by the music foundation that bears the late tenor's name and the Beverly Sills Award bestowed by the Met.
"People always think, 'Oh suddenly you became a big star,'" said Oropesa, who is about to turn 36, in an interview after a rehearsal for "Manon." ''Actually it takes 10 years of building relationships and one gig and then the next gig.
"If I had stayed only at the Met, as much as the Met is a beautiful enveloping hug, I don't think I ever would have achieved the worldwide recognition that I have."
The daughter of Cuban immigrants who grew up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Oropesa had won the Met's national competition in 2005 at age 21 and been accepted into the company's three-year training program.
With a voice well-suited to coloratura and light lyric roles, she was offered small- and medium-sized assignments at the house and a few bigger parts like Susanna in Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro" and Gilda in "Verdi's "Rigoletto."
"Which was lovely, but I wanted to be able to sing a lot of the other parts that companies overseas were offering me," she said.
"This is the Met, this is the big leagues," she added. "It's not a training house. It's an 'I've Arrived!' opera house."
So she started accepting engagements in European houses, work that led to a series of breakthroughs, including triumphs in Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor" at London's Royal Opera House and Madrid's Teatro Real; acclaim in a Rossini rarity, "Adina" at the annual festival in the composer's birthplace of Pesaro, Italy; and — especially — an emergency call in 2018 to replace Diana Damrau as Marguerite de Valois in Meyerbeer's "Les Huguenots" in Paris.
That last opportunity could not have been more high profile: a key role in a lavish new production in the city where the rarely performed grand opera had premiered nearly 200 years ago. Marguerite appears mainly in the second act, where she sings the dazzling coloratura aria, "O beau pays."
Oropesa was still performing in Pesaro when Damrau withdrew just a week before the start of rehearsals. "In my free time I went and locked myself in the rehearsal room and learned it," she said. "It gave me a really nice showcase."
That assessment is an understatement. Her performance drew unanimous raves from critics and solidified her place at the top of her profession. When the Met found itself in need of a Manon less than a year before the opening, Oropesa was a natural choice.
But it was another tough assignment. Oropesa had never sung Manon, which is one of the most demanding roles in the French repertory. "Long and heavy," as Oropesa puts it, "with a lot of coloratura but a lot of full-put lyric singing, too."
She also had her doubts about the character of the heroine, who abandons her first lover, the Chevalier des Grieux, to pursue riches and ultimately dies destitute.
"When I first read through it my thought was, 'Oh, what a jerk. Who cares if she dies,'" Oropesa said. But her view softened as she studied the part.
"She just doesn't love him as much as other things she wants a little more. She wants to have her cake and eat it, too, and there's nothing wrong with that. You have to make her, not sympathetic, but real."
"Manon," also starring tenor Michael Fabiano as des Grieux, runs for seven performances. The final one, on Saturday afternoon Oct. 26, will be broadcast live in HD to movie theaters worldwide.