Being a dying diva is no dead-end job in the opera world.
In the blossoming career of Danielle Pastin, the American singer hardly ever gets to finish her performances on her feet. When the dark-haired 29-year-old makes her Winnipeg debut Saturday in Manitoba Opera's La Bohème, her frail Mimi will again meet an early end by that most dramatic of diseases, consumption.
"As a lyric soprano, I die a lot," says Pastin, who appears the picture of health during an interview at a downtown coffeeshop. "I think I've died in all of my shows except two, The Marriage of Figaro and The Rape of Lucretia, and that's because I didn't play Lucretia."
Her Manitoba Opera appearance is the third Mimi for the Pittsburgh-based singer this year and her sixth overall. She played the doomed seamstress for the Arizona Opera in January and then made her London debut at Royal Albert Hall last month. Pastin's Mimi will bite the dust again for the Nashville Opera next September.
"It's a lot of dying," she says. "It's mostly withering away to nothing from consumption."
La Bohème, the story of the young inhabitants of 19th-century Parisian garrets, contains some of Giacomo Puccini's most rapturous music. It boasts one of the great romantic hook-ups in all of opera, between a dashing poet named Rodolfo and his tubercular girlfriend Mimi.
The opera holds a special place in Pastin's heart because it gave her big break in 2011. When the Santa Fe Opera needed an emergency Mimi, Pastin stepped in on a few hours' notice, later winning the company's Judith Raskin Memorial Award for Singers. The same year, she made her Metropolitan Opera debut singing Masha and covering Chloe in The Queen of Spades and has returned several times.
"What's not to love?" asks Pastin, a graduate of the University of Maryland. "There's timeless music, a timeless story and it jump-started my career. It's special to me. I'm halfway through four productions this year and I love it even more."
A climactic death scene can bring an audience to its knees, emotionally. To give it maximum effect, Pastin says she has to depend on her director, as she has no idea what she looks like as Mimi approaches an early grave.
"You have to trust the director won't make you look silly," says Pastin, whose older sister entertains the family with impersonations of Danielle's dying. "The first time, you do feel silly. It's very melodramatic."
Her Manitoba Opera director, Brian Deedrick, says the conductor has the last word as to how long Mimi can take to succumb. In opera, they say the priority is first the music, then the words. So in this production he negotiates with maestro Daniel Lipton -- and not for an extra 30 seconds or a minute.
"With a conductor you are negotiating a fermata, a second or an extra breath," says Deedrick, who directed Aida last season for the MO.
You would think that spending so much time in the throes of death might envelope Pastin in a black cloud most days. Instead, seeing Mimi live every day to the fullest inspires her to do the same and celebrate the carefree artistic lifestyle.
"Mimi has encouraged me to look at all the beautiful things in life," she says. "All of us singers are living that bohemian life. We are doing what we love."
And that, for Pastin, is being the focus of one of the most hallowed scenes in opera.
"Mimi's last words are the most beautiful words one person can say to another human being," she says.
"Sempre con te (aways with you)," Mimi says with her dying breath.
The line can also refer to La Bohème, the eternally crowd-pleasing opera that, since its debut in Turin in 1896, is second on the world's list of the most produced operas. At last count, it's the most often staged at The Met. Its influence is long-reaching; the story was the inspiration for the award-winning stage musical Rent.
"It's the show people want to come back to," says Deedrick, former artistic director of Edmonton Opera. "I never tire of Bohème. It is like It's a Wonderful Life. I watch it every Christmas, come hell or high water."
Pastin is making her first visit to Winnipeg, and she had no idea of the city's location when she agreed to sing for Manitoba Opera. She presumed it was on the West Coast. It hasn't taken her long here to notice the similarities between the 'Peg and Pittsburgh. Both take pride in their cultural institutions and sports teams, as well as sharing a love of perogies.
"I'm a Steelers fan and my favourite player is Troy Polamalu," Pastin says of the Steelers' safety and Head & Shoulders shampoo pitchman. "I'm totally jealous of his hair. He's a rock star."
It is still too early to predict where her opera career will take her and if she will continue to be a dying diva. She could live with that, even if her Mimi count tops 30 someday -- although she wouldn't mind if there were a few more opportunities to play Nedda from Pagliacci.
"She gets stabbed, so it is one of the only times I get to struggle to my death. It's fun to have a break from all that withering away from consumption."