A wide-ranging soprano

Within the opera world, one might imagine sopranos enjoying the most job satisfaction.

After all, basses typically rehash the roles of tyrants and villains. Tenors play starry-eyed lovers over and over. And mezzos traditionally take on shrewish mothers, witches and adolescent boys. Sopranos have a rich array of roles to sing and the greatest potential for diva eminence, but that doesn't always mean a lot to Kallen Esperian.

"Sometimes I wish I were a tenor," says Esperian, who will perform the title role this weekend in the Wichita Grand Opera's production of "The Merry Widow." "They really get the great arias and music."

Esperian speaks from experience; she's known for her collaborations with some of opera's greatest tenors.

That includes Placido Domingo. Esperian made her 1989 Metropolitan Opera debut with him in Puccini's "La Boheme." She and tenor Jose Carreras brought Verdi's "Stiffelio" to Milan's La Scala for the first time. She has also sung with the legendary Carlo Bergonzi and, here in Wichita, with Marcello Giordani.

But Luciano Pavarotti, as Esperian's late mentor and colleague, made the most significant impact on her career.

"There isn't a day that goes by that I don't hear his voice in my head," says the Chicago-area native. "I remember him as an incredible human being and someone who was totally dedicated to this art form."

Pavarotti taught her a good deal about vocal discipline, she says, including practical advice such as always wearing scarves in cold weather.

Yet, unlike Pavarotti, who seldom ventured into unfamiliar repertoire, Esperian has continually pushed herself into learning new roles, sometimes at the last minute. Last November, Esperian substituted for an ailing Denyce Graves in the Dallas Opera's production of Donizetti's "Anna Bolena."

"Of all the roles in 'Anna Bolena,' this (role of Jane Seymour) was the most demanding," says Dallas Opera artistic director Jonathan Pell. "Kallen stepped in with just a few days of rehearsal and sang a really memorable performance."

Since her 1985 win at the Luciano Pavarotti International Voice Competition, Esperian has performed a wide range of leading soprano roles, in flowery bel canto and high-powered Puccini and Verdi vehicles.

This weekend, she performs for the first time the part of Hanna Glawari in Franz Lehar's "The Merry Widow." She says that she feels naturally drawn to the personality of her character and the music's winsome melodies.

Pell predicts that Esperian will do well with the piece.

"Kallen radiates this physical charm and warmth which I think would be ideal for 'The Merry Widow,' " he says. "It will be a tremendous success for her."

Esperian lives in Germantown, Tenn., right outside of Memphis. In addition to performing and being a mother to a 17-year-old son, she teaches a couple of students, thereby continuing the operatic tradition that mentors such as Pavarotti instilled in her.

"Sometimes it seems these days that opera wants to get so Hollywood," Esperian says. "What it really comes down to is great singing and the style of the composer. I would love to pass on more of what I was taught. ...I feel so grateful."

If you go

'the merry widow'

What: Operetta by Franz Lehar, presented by Wichita Grand Opera

Where: Century II Concert Hall

When: 7 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

How much: Tickets $35-$85, available at www.wichitagrandopera.org or 316-262-8054.

Note: Opera aficionado Roger Whyte will talk about "The Merry Widow" at 15 minutes before each performance this weekend.