On Feb. 16 and 18, Toledo Opera will bring to life the ultimate star-crossed lovers’ tale, Romeo and Juliet, with the titular characters played by Metropolitan Opera singers Kathryn Lewek and Zach Borichevsky – who also happen to be husband and wife.
Romeo and Juliet has stood the test of time for over 400 years in countless plays, musicals, movies and fine art. Lewek and Borichevsky are stepping into some big shoes, with characters who have so heavily influenced pop culture. What’s it like for a real-life couple not only working together, but performing a classic opera opposite each other?
They met in Italy, but fell in love in Toledo
The play was written by Shakespeare in 1597 — a tragic love story about two teens from warring families who fall in love, marry in secret and ultimately perish together. Set in present day Verona, Italy, and in the area surrounding Venice called the Veneto, lives a famous statue of Juliet — a pilgrimage site for romantics who leave notes to Juliet petitioning for her help in their love lives. It’s also home to the Verona Arena, an amphitheater built in 30 AD and still in use today for large-scale opera performances. This sets the stage for where Lewek and Borichevsky met.
“Zak and I met for the very first time in 2018 when we were singing a vocal competition in Verona,” Lewek said. “That was the first time we laid eyes on each other. It wasn’t love at first sight, though. We were both dating other people. It wasn’t until two years later when we were working on Lucia di Lammermoor with Opera Carolina and Toledo Opera that we fell in love, singing together on stage.”
Balancing work and marriage
How does a married couple balance life partnership with work, particularly work that both are passionate about? Lewek admits they are asked this a lot.
“We’re good colleagues, we both understand what we’re going through and the job that we’re supposed to be doing. There’s a great responsibility personally — for your own art and the technical side of singing to make sure you’re doing the very best you can. It’s also important to be a good colleague, which we learned to do long before we were in a relationship. It’s lovely working together, especially when you sing these romantic roles. If you’re singing with someone you don’t know, you have to build a ‘love language’ together.”
Lewek adds the most challenging part of this production is having to lose familiarity with each other because the story requires a reaction to seeing each other for the very first time. As a couple they need to believably recreate what it felt like the first time they knew they were in love.
Borichevsky says he looks back on the time they sang together in Toledo for inspiration. “It’s still very vivid in my memory — the sensation of touching the hand of someone that you are really into for the first time,” Borichevsky said.
Researching the role
This is the couple’s first time performing the opera in the title roles together, but it’s Borichevsky’s third time playing Romeo. “When I prepare for it, I go back to Shakespeare, but of course he didn’t invent the story. On the drive out, we listened to a podcast about the history of his composition. I double-majored in political science and music in college, so I have an interest in the political history surrounding the story because I like to place myself as the character in the world they’re in. Shakespeare was writing for a London audience, so it’s infused with London of the 1590s. At the time, Shakespeare was also writing the bulk of his sonnets and it’s been speculated the reason he specifically says she’s a few months shy of her thirteenth birthday is because there are fourteen lines in a sonnet — implying that Juliet is an incomplete sonnet and Romeo’s arrival and the events that follow, complete her.”
Lewek is known for her roles in Mozart operas, so her preparation is focused on the technical aspect of singing. “The singing style in Mozart’s operas is very different from the romantic style in this opera. My preparation was much more internally driven as opposed to gathering information, but if I need to know something historical, I can always ask my Romeo,” she laughs.
Borichevsky and Lewek drove from their home in Connecticut to Toledo, and they look at the time spent together working as a kind of vacation while doing something they love. “We have two children, ages two and five. They stay with their grandparents, so it’s nice to also take time to focus on each other and our work together which is a real treat,” Lewek smiles.
Toledo Opera’s Romeo and Juliet runs Feb. 16 at 7:30 pm and Feb. 18 at 2 pm, sung in French with English supertitles. Tickets start at $39 and can be purchased at toledoopera.org.